Sleeps With Skunks and I decided to begin our honeymoon with a mild walk on the Appalachian Trail on the southern half of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, specifically from Clingman's Dome to Fontana Dam.
We headed out from Nashville early Sunday morning, May 25, in two vehicles. After driving the twists and turns of the "Dragon's Tail on highway 129, we staged her car at Fontana Dam. We then headed through Bryson City and Cherokee and into the park, stepping off from Clingman's Dome parking lot at 4:30.
The day was sunny and the Memorial Day crowds at the observation tower were intense, so SWS and I headed down the AT without climbing up to the deck.
From here, we enjoyed the occasional view from over 6000 feet, a real novelty east of the Mississippi.
We made good time over the 5 miles to Siler’s Bald, and enjoyed what little view remains there, all the way back to Clingman’s Dome.
When we arrived at Double Spring Shelter, the place looked like a tent city. There were at least 20 hikers there, and the place was so congested, I was thankful we had gotten our reservations for Siler’s Bald, a couple of miles further on.
As we arrived at Siler’s Bald Shelter, we were quite happy with the sunroofs and “front porches” added in recent years.
I was quite surprised at how many NOBO thru-hikers were still in the park, and we curled up to sleep with a couple playing a backpacking guitar and harmonica outside by a fire.
The next day, we slept in, enjoying the mere 5.4 mile day planned to Derrick Knob Shelter. Eventually, we were packed and ready to go, including our ever-present trail buddies, Dewey and Topper.
En route, we spooked a mess of feral pigs, the cute cuddly kind, rather than the intimidating sharp-tusked Russian boar also found in the Smokies.
After a relatively easy walk, we found Derrick Knob to be another porched, sun-roofed shelter.
While many may dislike the crowded condition of shelters, this night provided excellent sleep as a storm blew in and pounded away on the tin and plexiglass roof.
The next morning, I arose early and began cooking breakfast and packing up while Dewey, Topper, and SWS slept in.
Despite the extra slumber, we were all on the trail under an overcast sky by about 8:40. We moved solidly despite the decent climbs up Briar Knob and later Thunderhead.
SWS torqued her ankle somewhat and moved a bit more slowly. Still we were all quite happy once we arrived at the east peak of Thunderhead Mountain.
Even King Dewey and his minister of itinerant affairs (Topper) made themselves at home atop a throne cairn.
We then continued on and enjoyed the view from the western peak of Thunderhead, AKA Rockytop.
SWS’s ankle was really beginning to trouble her after the descent from Rocky Top, so I wrapped her ankle, settled her in, gathered water. and cooked an extra dinner for her lunch. Then I let her take an hour’s nap while she propped up her foot and let some pain killers kick in. When she awoke, she felt much better and we stepped off around 4:30 for the remaining 3 miles to Russell Field Shelter.
Along the way, in Spence Field, we ran into the boldest turkey I’ve ever seen in the backcountry. He never made any real effort to run from us.
At Russell Field, we seemed to have escaped the NOBO thru-hikers, and instead enjoyed the company of several SOBO section hikers. That night, we slept safe away from another significant round of storms.
SWS and I had already discussed doing a 13.5 mile day to Fontana Dam instead of the 8 miler originally planned to Birch Spring Gap and Campsite 113. When the rain was still coming down in the morning, we agreed to push for the “big day”. At 7:40, we stepped off into the misty morning.
SWS relished the short food break at Mollie’s Ridge Shelter, the last for over 11 miles.
We made excellent time, arriving at Birch Spring just after noon. We ate, packed and prepared to walk the last 6 miles to the car (and showers as SWS often reminded me) at Fontana Dam. After the grunt up Shuckstack Mountain, we were disappointed that the fog and mist would prevent any views from the firetower, so we began the 2000 foot descent over the next 3 miles. Along the way, SWS’s feet got steadily sorer, while her ankle flared a bit as well. Even my left ankle, the victim of a stress fracture the previous summer, was a bit cranky. Still, we moved on down the way.
At one point, I heard SWS’s sternum strap whistle twitter. I turned back and heard her mumbling in the distance. As she rounded the bend and saw me, she broke into a full shuffling run. As she passed me, she only responded to my queries with “Bear! Bear!”
I finally got her to stop and calm down. She said she had not even seen the bear until it stood up on its hind legs and “honked” at her. She kept walking quickly while blowing the whistle for me, until she could no longer see the bear and then she flat-out ran. I told her the whistle alone probably scared off the bear. But for a while, I agreed to let her walk in front of me until her nerves settled.
Finally we hit the pavement for the last mile to Fontana Dam and SWS settled her weary feet while relaxing on a lakeside bench and trying to enjoy the view.
At last, we crossed the dam…..
Once at the visitors’ center, we showered and prepared to head out to retrieve my truck. Our AT adventure was at an end for the moment.