Views of Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Brent’s breathtaking photography. Check out that wingspan!
Alexis hiking through the fog and wet terrain of GSMNP.
Views from Clingmans Dome, the highest point on the Appalachian Trail.
Views from Clingmans Dome.
Views from Clingmans Dome.
The two of us without our canine companions at Clingmans Dome.
Breakfast and camp breakdown one foggy morning at Icewater Spring Shelter. The views from here were spectacular the evening before, the site of where we were reunited with our hiking stick, Nobo.
Views of GSMNP.
Fellow thru-hiker, ‘Ace’ snapped our picture during our climb up to Clingmans Dome on a clear day.
Clingmans Dome lookout.
Surprises along the trail, keeping us moving.
Our one stay in a shelter at Silers Bald Shelter. That’s our packs and sleeping bags in the bottom right of the photo.
If we were southbounders this would likely be an important white blaze, signifying 2000 miles hiked on the Appalachian Trail. For us northbounders it meant we had the “and some” of the “two thousand and some miles” completed. It’s the little things, if you consider 185.9 miles a small feat.
Brent directing fellow hikers just outside GSMNP, minutes away from reuniting with our boys.
Most thru-hikers attempting to cover the entire length of the Appalachian Trail become more efficient as the miles build. The nomadic lifestyle we have adopted has more rhythm and structure to it than an outsider would assume. Our visits into town (the few we’ve had thus far) seem to be where we struggle to keep ourselves on schedule. Between satisfying cravings, running errands, and tending to personal hygiene we need a strict schedule to get everything done and back to the trail in a timely fashion.
Knowing this, we planned accordingly before reaching our next town stop: Hot Springs, North Carolina. The official trail runs right through it’s downtown, the concrete sidewalk stamped with the AT symbol the whole way. I say the whole way but the truth is that the entire town runs only 0.7 mile long. On any given day it’s rare that a thru-hiker would just pass through town without stopping, likely unable to resist the ice cream shop and hiker friendly businesses. The weekend we planned on reaching Hot Springs happened to be Trailfest, the towns festival inspired by their close relationship with the AT, something we didn’t want to pass up. We called a week ahead and booked ourselves a room for two nights at the Hostel at Laughing Heart Lodge. Dog friendly, the right price, and a bonus was our welcoming hosts ‘Tigger’ & ‘Chuck Norris’ – former thru-hikers of course.
Thankful for our reservations, we got into town as the rain started to come down. We dropped our stuff and sorted our belongings for the laundromat – everything totaling one medium sized load. In the interest of staying on schedule, we ventured out in the rain to pick up resupply boxes and wash the clothes that were already smelling up our room.
The responsibility of having dogs along seemed to weigh heavier on us when wet. We were faced with signs everyone reading “No Dogs Allowed Inside” – apparently weren’t the first to consider bringing our pups into the unattended building while we waited for clean laundry. With other little options for shelter from the rain we settled for the benches under a less than sufficient awning at the laundromat. The frustration with the rain and our list of things to do was immediately forgotten when we laid eyes on the contents of our resupply boxes. For the first time what was inside was a surprise, and better yet, assembled by our Moms. Never has candy, goodies, hand written notes, and dog treats brought us so much joy! Jack & Lewis perked up at the scent of dehydrated chicken liver despite the persistent drizzle and the two of us devoured Tootsie Rolls like we’ve never had one before.
The remainder of the weekend was spent resting, recovering, and taking in all the Trailfest activities. It seems the entire town is a big bubble of trail magic, Trailfest intensifying the feeling of course. Brent was one of three hikers that ran the 5K race and actually tied with another hiker for 1st place! He spent the rest of the weekend being congratulated wherever we went, and I teased that he was probably Mayor of Hot Springs and he didn’t even know it. We celebrated with ice cream, attended a potluck dinner at our hostel, and exchanged stories from the trail with fellow hikers. The town remained filled with hikers through the weekend and was obviously well stocked with residents who shared the same appreciation for what we’re all out there pursuing.
We were back on the AT by mid-day on Sunday, after cashing in Brent’s winnings (a $15 gift certificate) at the local mini dinner located in a convenience store. It tasted more amazing than most of those reading could possibly imagine. The hike felt good and a true sense of accomplishment set in as we distanced ourselves from the town of Hot Springs we had heard so much about. It is one of those towns that define the trail, a Trail Town in the truest sense, and they are lucky to catch thru-hikers a couple miles in while they’re still optimistic and eager.
After reaching Erwin, TN we received the unfortunate news from home that Brent’s Aunt Ruth passed away on Thursday night. She will be remembered as so much more than a wonderful Aunt; a loving sister, wife, mother, grandmother, and friend. Deeply missed by all, but we trust she is at peace and will be an extra pair of eyes watching over us on our thru-hike journey. Brent is flying home to be with family during this time, and we have friends Craig & Lori to thank for all their help and generosity amid these unfortunate circumstances. Alexis and the pups will be staying in Southern Virginia at Craig & Lori’s and when Brent returns the four of us will resume the hike from where we left off in Erwin. This is a time to reflect, hold your loved ones close, and celebrate a life lived with laughter, kindness, and sincerity.
We have to admit we crossed into Great Smoky Mountain National Park (GSMNP) with a grudge. Without our dogs for the first time on the trail, and paying $40 for our “backcountry permits” that required we stay in poorly dispersed shelters along the trail was not exactly a winning combination. In turn, we cranked out the mileage – covering roughly 75 miles in five days*!
*Correction, it was more like four days – three full and two halves! Brent wanted to make sure I was clear on that – haha!
The toughest moment on the trail thus far came when Curtis, the boys sitter for the week, rolled up to the Fontana Marina trail crossing. The four of us piled into his Subaru and traveled the two miles up to Fontana Village Resort, where final goodbyes were exchanged, tears were fought, and Lewis wailed and whined as they drove away without us. The good news was we were at a resort that doesn’t allow dogs but is kind enough to offer a significantly discounted rate to thru-hikers. So, we took advantage of the situation, showered multiple times, and ate from an extravagant breakfast buffet before hitting the trail.
Leaving Fontana Dam and entering GSMNP was a whole lot of what we had already seen, and we joked often that we “expected the Smoky’s to be a little smokier than this!” Down the trail we would soon encounter just that, but beforehand the weather had to change to wind and rain; ultimately driving us into a shelter for the night. It was our first experience staying in a shelter, nearly 200 miles in the trail, and we weren’t exactly looking forward to it. Luckily, a familiar face, ‘Ace’ was there, and quickly made room for us on the bottom bunk next to her. We survived it and were happy the next morning when we weren’t packing up a wet tent. Between the snoring strangers and visiting rodents we’re not eager to do it again anytime soon.
The further we hiked into the park the more beautiful the terrain and views became. Towards the center is Clingmans Dome, which is the highest point we’ll cross on the Appalachian Trail at 6,655 feet above sea level. The weather was ideal when we reached it and we were able to take in grand views in every direction, especially of the smoke billowing in from the east. The northern end of the park was even more impressive. The trail would weave into dark, dense, lush forest one mile, to an exposed rocky face complete with incredible views the next. Not only the views, but the intense scent from the spruce trees was so refreshing and memorable. We recently learned that GSMNP has more varieties of trees than all of Europe. With the inspiration of reuniting with our boys we achieved our first 20+ mile day while in GSMNP. Afterwards, at camp that night, we consumed three separate dinners and an Aleve for dessert!
Overall the Smoky’s were enjoyable but disaster did strike at one point. While taking a rest at Newfound Gap our hiking stick (which we have named NoBo, short for Northbound) went missing. We were both devastated by the discovery, and thought the worst as dozens of tourists came and went in their cars. After frantically searching for it we had to move on, hiking three miles uphill in silence and with great distance from one another. Sure, it was just a hiking stick not something we relied on heavily like our water purifier but it is what it symbolized that was so upsetting. We were randomly gifted it, by someone who only knew us a few brief moments and had entrusted us to take it the length of the entire trail. By the time we reached camp for the night both of our spirits seemed beyond repair until we spotted NoBo, laying there amongst a pile of trekking poles. Luck was on our side, that a hiker instead of a tourist picked it up, certain he’d find it’s rightful owner heading north somewhere down the trail. We both agree, that was probably the best trail magic we’ve received yet.
Additionally, it was impossible not to notice there was a general sense of urgency amongst Thru-Hikers to put this leg of the AT behind them. We thought we would be alone in our desire to move through GSMNP quickly, knowing we could be with our dogs on the other end as soon as our feet would allow. Some blamed the regulations that came with the park, others feared bad weather, but most, as well as ourselves, felt the weight of what finishing the GSMNP leg of the AT signified: we northbound thru-hikers were now over 10% done with the trail.
We descended out of the park to a pile of trail magic: sodas and assorted packages of treats. Pausing only briefly to consume what we’d been anonymously gifted, we speed hiked the three additional miles past the park to where our boys had been staying. The reunion made all the soreness and long days put in worth it, even if peeing all over us is the boys idea of showing how much we were missed. We both are relieved knowing they won’t be leaving our sides again until the final day of hiking the trail, when we enter Baxter State Park in Maine and climb up Mount Katahdin.
Below is all the pictures we are able to share for now – watch for a follow up post of more GSMNP photos to come.
Yesterday we started the day with the pups but unfortunately didn’t end it with them. They got picked up by their babysitter for the next 5 or 6 days while we’re in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. We already miss them and it has just been less than 24 hours! It will be so weird on the trail and at night without them- now I will be forced to talk to Alexis! Haha. We did just buy a deck of cards though, so that will help provide some entertainment when not hiking.
But here’s a little rundown from the last week or so while we air out all our stuff…
•Still eating well. Our food dehydrator was a wise purchase! Breakfast is the only meal we’re struggling with- oatmeal gets old. We both miss breakfast burritos. But I must say my good, strong coffee is a good way to start the day (Alexis agrees- she turned down coffee at the NOC because it wasn’t as good as mine).
•Meeting all kinds of unique people and enjoy hearing about all their stories. Age groups go from fresh out of high school to retired men and women (personally I enjoy hearing from the older crowd).
•My body is finally coming around to being close to 100%! Alexis is close behind too I think (her knee and shin still bother her from time to time.)
•We both like hiking uphill rather than downhill which all other hikers probably think we’re crazy. I feel it’s easier on our bodies going uphill… Although many times I’ll look back and Alexis face won’t exactly show “I’m enjoying this!”
•Had a little weather the other night but nothing major. Just some heavy rain, thunder, and lightning. I did all the necessary precautions- told Alexis to run to the top of the open part of the mountain and hold the tent poles. Haha I’m kidding of course! Overall we’ve had pretty good weather so far besides the ice storm that we were welcomed into North Carolina with and the good old fashioned thunder storm.
•I am proud to report that I have used a finger nail clipper twice in the last week or so. I’ve had the bad habit of chewing my finger nails my whole life and told both my mom and dad that was something I was going to try and break because both suggested I bust the habit now. My finger nails aren’t the cleanest on the trail as you can imagine!
•Foods we both crave on the trail are Snickers (Alexis), Skittles (Me), salad, any greens/veggies, apples/oranges, biscuits (Alexis), and spicy foods!
•Things we’ve concluded about Jack and Lewis after more than two weeks on the trail together:
Jack is not done growing – we think he’s gaining more on Lewis each day. Both boys are getting better on the trail and learning new commands – one we’re impressed by is simply saying “I lead” and the two reposition themselves on the trail like soldiers behind us in a matter of moments. Jack has more puppy in him than Lewis. Lewis has his sights on Mt Katahdin (we call him MVP because he’s leading the way all the time). Finally, as much more work as they may be on the trail, it’s totally worth every curse word and penny to have them along.
•We both took 2 showers yesterday and never cleaned ourselves so thoroughly. Guess some dirt builds up when not showering in 9 days. It felt amazing.
So here we are ready to hit the Smoky’s! Both of us are excited for them but even more excited to get through them and back to the dogs. We’re both a little frustrated they can’t be with us for them as I’m sure you can tell! But we’ll enjoy the scenery and hike regardless (just might do it quicker than usual). We will cross the highest peak of the entire AT, so thats something to look forward to along the GSMNP stretch. I might go take another shower now just because I can! Happy trails as usual!
Hiked through fog and drizzle today after a stormy night. We were grateful that the rain, lightening, and thunder lasted only for the duration of the hours spent in our tent. The time to say goodbye to the boys came at the end of the trail today. Brent & I are already talking about sprinting through the Great Smokies to get back to them! See Lewis’ face in the picture? He’s either annoyed Mama is taking another picture or sad he has to leave us today.
Today we covered 10 miles and climbed over 3,000 feet of elevation. After hiking into the Nantahala Outdoor Center (NOC) yesterday & indulging in dinner and breakfast cooked by someone other than ourselves it was time to face the climb.
We had resupply boxes to pick up at the NOC, which was incredibly convenient because the AT passes right through the complex by bridge. We used our afternoon to do a load of laundry, reorganize our packs, and rest our feet/paws in the river while watching kayakers pass. We opted against the $2 shower that was available to us (see photo of Alexis below for proof that was a bad idea). Dinner was the famous “Hiker Burger” which totaled one pound of meat plus all the toppings. We must be eating too well on the trail cause the two of us split one and could barely finish the entire thing.
They serve up that much protein for a reason we soon found out. We started our ascent in the heat of midday – temps reaching the 80’s combined with trees that haven’t even begun to bud their summer canopy was a brutal combination. Additionally, a controlled burn was happening in the area, filling all our senses with smoke. Lewis and Jack came back to life at every water source we reached. Brent carried their packs from time to time, already sweating and shirtless himself (and he says I’m the softie when it comes to them!) This we know is only the beginning of hot and sticky days to come, although we can rest assured there will be more leaf coverage down the trail to provide some relief.
Tonight we made it to our goal for the day and were welcomed by some fellow hikers already settling in for the night. Some familiar faces we seem to have been playing leap frog with on the trail, and some new faces yet. The boys were welcomed by all, and they enjoyed getting their good share of attention around the fire before bed. We’re truly sleeping under the stars- a full clear sky of them – without our tent’s rain cover tonight. Unfortunately, the forecast for our final stretch before we reach Great Smokies National Park looks wet and stormy. Here’s to hoping it holds off til later tomorrow!
We were blessed with some trail magic twice today! One section-hikers finish was our gain. He restocked our food supply & Lex got the hot chocolate she was craving! Second came at the end of the day when a former southbound thru-hiker had two beers waiting for us at the top of our final climb of the day, Wayah Bald. Pure bliss after our longest (distance speaking) day of hiking yet. If that didn’t explain what trail magic is, it is basically when something unexpected but wonderful happens to a hiker. More often than not, it’s food related!
As we move through the 14 states that the Appalachian Trail passes through we thought it best to reflect on the highlights of each as best we can. No particular order, and highlight doesn’t necessarily mean positive, just memorable.
Thank you for making the walking stick we carry with us and entrusting us to take it all the way to Katahdin!
2. Mole skin, Bengay, and Aleve
You’ve kept parts of our bodies moving long after they were ready to quit.
3. Long Creek Falls
Thanks for being one of the prettiest pit stops we made in our first miles, it just sparked the curiosity of the beauty that lay ahead.
4. Blood Mountain
You were way worse going down than coming up, but your views sure made up for it.
5. Mr. Know-It-All & The Annoying Girl
Thank you for pairing up at Neels Gap so when we pass you we know we’re putting both of you behind us.
You made our rainy Easter so much better by welcoming us with beer, peeps, and chocolate at Unicoi Gap. Thank you for supporting your fellow Thru-Hikers, we hope to do the same once we’re alumni!
7. Old Tent/New Tent
The first time I used my old tent was when Brent & I drove up to Northern Minnesota the summer before I left for college. So, when our first night of rain on the AT hit, both of us were disappointed to wake up damp. It was time to retire it, or perhaps just repair, but the AT keeps calling so replaced for now it is! We miss it, our new digs are even cozier than before…
8. Hiawassee Budget Inn
You guys have it all figured out and are a thru-hikers best bet. Free shuttle, laundry, pharmacy, restaurants nearby, and a gear store on site. All at the right price too!
9. $7.95 All-You-Can-Eat in Hiawassee
Fried chicken, mashed potatoes, biscuits, chocolate pudding, and a salad bar with FRESH vegetables. Need I say more? Believe it or not, the salad bar is equally as satisfying as everything else. They have yet to pack lettuce into a hiker-friendly meal.
10. Actually Hiking the AT
After weeks of planning and talking about hiking the Appalachian Trail, we’re doing it. We’ve set a goal and chosen a way of life for the next couple months and we’re reminded everyday. Happily reminded.