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An Appalachian Trail Thru-Hike: Part 7 - Smoky Mountain High Country

Updated on February 5, 2013

The mountain is covered at the very top by tree species such as red spruce and balsam fir, more commonly seen in the northern parts of the Appalchian Trail

Highest Point

From Fontana Dam we had hiked ourselves up into the high country of the Smoky Mountains over the course of 2 days. Once we gained the elevation, the hiking became easier. The day after we stayed at Siler Bald shelter, the weather was great for hiking, but the wind was cold when we stopped. Fortunately, we didn't need to stop too often. Our big break was lunch at the top of Clingman's Dome – the highest point on the Appalachian Trail at 6,344 feet and also the highest point in Tennessee. The mountain is covered at the very top by tree species such as red spruce and balsam fir, more commonly seen in the northern parts of the Appalachian Trail – Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine. The view from the top is provided by a concrete tower with a spiraling ramp that leads to the observation deck. There is also a road that leads to a parking lot at the top. Dave reached the top before I did. I must've taken a wrong turn because I ended up on the road. The road had only been open for a few days so far that spring, so not many people were around. I just hiked up the road the rest the way and I ran into Dave at the parking lot. He had already been up the ramp to the observation tower. I was hungry by that time and decided to get right into lunch rather than go up the tower. After lunch we just went on our way and I didn't ever go up for the view.

An Overlook in the Great Smoky Mountain National Park
An Overlook in the Great Smoky Mountain National Park | Source

The fact that we were running out of food so fast was a concern. It meant that we were eating more each meal then we were planning to when we were buying the food.

We Revise Our Plan

It was a short day – only 8 miles to Mt. Collins Shelter. We stayed there with five other people. Dave and I wanted to make good distance the next day, because once again, we were running out of food. It had only been eight days since we had resupplied in Wesser, NC and probably four of our meals had been during our side trip to Robbinsville, NC. The fact that we were running out of food so fast was a concern. It meant that we were eating more each meal then we were planning to when we were buying the food. We found ourselves more and more often scouring the guidebooks for opportunities to hit a store and buy supplies. Our next big stop was going to be Hot Springs North Carolina, but we knew we would need something before then. The schedule we had established with the Ranger wasn't working for us. We were supposed to stay Peck’s Corner shelter, but we couldn't see any harm in going further. Since it was so early in the season, the campsites weren’t that crowded. We figured we had to get some food so we would go beyond the sites we had reserved and hope that the further campsites weren’t full. If everything worked out right, we would be able to exit the Park at Davenport Gap in two days and go down the road a mile or two to reach a general store at a place called Mount Sterling Village where we would be able to partially resupply.

A view from Charlie's Bunion
A view from Charlie's Bunion | Source

A Sheltered Spot

The next day we executed our plan, and it turned into our favorite day on the trail to that point. We hiked 20 miles. A good portion of the day was spent hiking along the narrow crest of a ridge. There were steep drop-offs on either side, creating plenty of views. The day was clear and the wind on the ridge was cold and invigorating. The lunch spot we found that day was probably the most memorable lunch spot of the trip. We were hiking along the edge of a steep drop-off with a beautiful view of mountain upon mountain fading into the distance. To our left was the side of the mountain called Charlie's Bunion. We came across a spot protected from the wind where there were some clumps of long dry grass with the sun beating down on them. We sat in the clumps of grass and as soon as we sat down we were totally shielded from the wind, although we could still hear it whipping above us. We both found some hollows among the grasses that made perfect seats. We sat and ate our peanut butter and jelly, enjoying the view, and listening to the whipping wind while the sun warmed our bare legs. We sat there for over an hour. We left reluctantly, but once we started hiking again we got back into the rhythm quickly. We went past Peck’s Corner Shelter and on to Tri Corner Knob Shelter. We stayed there with seven other guys. That evening we took stock of our supplies and found that we were down to four packets of oatmeal, a half a loaf of bread, a half jar each of peanut butter and jelly, an egg, and some Squeeze Parkay margarine. We knew everything except the margarine would be eaten the next day before we exited the Park.

Our last day in the Great Smoky Mountain National Park we went 15 miles in five hours including a 20 min. break for peanut butter and jelly. We made it to Mt. Sterling Village general store and bought supplies to last us until Hot Springs North Carolina, two days away. I remember the last shelter in the Great Smoky Mountain National Park. It was in a wooded area, much lower elevation than we had been the past couple days. There was a weathered sign warning about bears and hanging food. The shelter was of stone with the usual chain-link fence across the open front. It was dank, dark, and dirty inside. We ate lunch on a picnic table outside. It was our typical fare of peanut butter and jelly. The day was overcast and chilly. Dave and I decided that peanut butter and jelly was just about the perfect food. We talked about how much we looked forward to each lunch time. We thought about peanut butter and jelly the same way we might think about a juicy steak back home. When the last bite was devoured, we shouldered our packs again and headed on down the trail. The Smoky Mountains were in our rear view mirror. Hiking through the high country had been great, but we weren't going to miss the shelters.

We came to think of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches the same way we would think of a juicy steak.
We came to think of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches the same way we would think of a juicy steak. | Source

We quickly decided that the only place we would hike would be back down to the store for some more frosted flakes and milk.

Day Off

We found a spot to camp a little ways up from Davenport Gap. It was at the top of a wooded knoll off the trail a few yards. There we set up the tent, and cooked up some of the food we had bought at the general store. We had spent a lot of time at the store earlier in the day. We must have remembered how good the cereal was at Fontana Village, because one of the things we made sure to get at the general store was a box of frosted flakes and some milk.

When we awoke the next morning we found the weather to be quite cold and windy. We quickly decided that the only place we would hike would be back down to the store for some more frosted flakes and milk. Other than that we mostly spent the day lounging in our sleeping bags reading or napping.

It was about this time of the trip that we started to identify a pattern that was emerging. When we planned the trip we figured it would be about a five-month journey. We calculated that we would need to hike about 13.5 miles per day. Now a little less than a month into it we could see that we were averaging that mileage but not consistently. We had days where we hiked the average, but we also had days where we made little or no mileage at all. Those days were often followed up by days where we ate up large chunks of mileage. Most of our good hiking days were 15 or more miles in a day – often around 20. On bad hiking days we went nowhere or less than 10 miles. Regardless of how it was broken out, our average was putting us on schedule for a five-month trip. We felt pretty good about it, and it confirmed our earlier instincts about hiking when we wanted to and taking it easy when we wanted to. Following that approach was not putting us behind at all. It seemed to be a natural result that after a few days of little or no hiking, our legs grew restless, and we would rip off a 20 mile day. Accordingly, Dave announced that since we had taken the day off, tomorrow would be one of those big mileage days. He had in his mind to go all the way to Hot Springs North Carolina, 34 miles up the trail. I agreed and so we made plans to get up early the next morning and make the attempt.


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