I had really been wanting to hike the AT through Great Smokey Mountain National Park for quite a while. Finally I was able to take two days off of work earlier this month to give me 4 days to complete the hike from 8/12 - 8/15. I started at Fontana Lake with a base weight of 7 lbs (excluding DSLR camera gear carried around my neck in a holster) and a total pack weight of 12 lbs with 1.5 liters of water and 2 days of food (I would resupply at Newfound Gap where I met up with my wife).
Some quick AT stats for the hike:
Distance: 71 miles
Total Elevation Gain: 18,660' (12,800' in first 40 miles and 5860' in last 30 miles)
Day 1: Fontana Dam to Spence Field Shelter - 16.4 miles
My day started early as I had to drive from Atlanta to Big Creek Ranger Station and then catch a 2 hour shuttle down to the start of the AT in the park at Fontana Lake. I received my shuttle ride from Ronnie McGaha (865-322-2752). Ronnie is part of the 900 mile club meaning he's hiked all 900+ miles of trails through GSMNP. I picked his brain for advice on the park for most of my 2 hour ride and would highly recommend him for shuttle services if you are in the area.
I hit the trail right at 11:00 AM and began the 2000' ascent from the Fontana Lake up to Shuckstack with the hopes that I'd get some great views. About 2 miles into the hike, I saw my first of three bears for the day as he bounded off the trail about 20 yards in front of me.
I reached Shuckstack drenched with sweat and climbed the fire tower in hopes of great views. My stay at the top of the fire tower was cut short as I hustled down off the old rickety fire tower after noticing an impending rain storm coming straight at me from off of Gregory's Bald.
View from Shuckstack:
After leaving Shuckstack, I continued up the trail in light rain and saw two more bears before I reached Birch Spring Gap about mile 6. I wasn't able to get a clear picture of any of them unfortunately. I filled up my water here since I had heard the next water sources were dry until I was to reach my destination at Spence Field Shelter.
I reached Spence Field without incident and found a very crowded shelter to my dismay. I was hoping on a random Thursday night it might be pretty open but those wishes were not granted. There were 10 in the shelter and another 4 camping there illegally in their tents.
Disaster struck when I went to grab my spoon and realized I forgot one. I was able to eat my chicken and rice dinner with my fingers that night by rehydrating it with a little less water than usual and stirring in the hot water with a beef jerky package. Thankfully, I encountered some trail magic and someone at the shelter had packed an extra plastic spoon to stir coffee with and gave me that spoon so I could use it for dinner that night!
Day 2: Spence Field Shelter to Mount Collins Shelter - 20.3 miles
I woke up in time to take a few pictures of sunrise and get off to an early start.
Sunrise from side trail to shelter:
Little did I know there are some great views from Rocky Top just a mile north from Spence Field Shelter. I reached this area just after the sun had crested above the mountains and I had a beautiful Smokies morning mountain view:
I stopped in at Derrick Knob Shelter four miles later to fill up with water, air out my feet, and tape up my heels (still a bit tender from blisters worn on my Roan Highlands trip the month before). From Derrick Knob Shelter the trail gains almost 2,000' as it climbs up Siler's Bald and then on to Clingman's Dome. I waited out a hard thundershower in the Siler's Bald Shelter while I ate lunch and then headed north to Clingman's Dome. I had never been to this AT high point at 6,643' so I was hoping to have some nice views from the top.
Although it lightly rained almost my entire time at on top Clingman's Dome, I actually lucked out with some pretty great views:
Looking North with Mt. Leconte in view:
After taking in the view and relaxing on top of the Clingman's Dome observation deck, I began to descend off of Clingman's Dome in the rain and I saw a beautiful double rainbow (you can unfortunately only make out one in this picture):
Because of the rain, the trail became a small creek and my feet and shoes got soaked. My feet would not be dry again while I hiked during the rest of the trip.
I saw my fourth bear of the trip right off the AT before I turned down the Mt. Collin's Shelter side trail. I arrived in to the shelter about 8:00 PM after a long day of hiking, cooked dinner, and passed out.
Day 3: Mount Collins Shelter to Tricorner Knob Shelter - 20.6 miles
I woke up early to make sure I was at Newfound Gap in time to meet Brad Rogers and Megan (my wife) for the second half of my hike. I had enjoyed my two days of solo hiking but was looking forward to the good company for the remainder of the trip.
Brad and Megan were right on time and we were back on the trail by 11:00. We headed north with aims to stop at Charlie's Bunion for great views and lunch. We stopped for lunch but it was a pretty cloudy day. These were unfortunately the best views of the day as we didn't have any visibility from the Sawteeth or or Bradley's View.
Picture from Charlie's Bunion:
After Charlie's Bunion we headed north in intermittent rain. We never ended up in a thunderstorm but it rained throughout much of the afternoon and the trail was a flowing, rocky stream much of the way north to Peck's Corner Shelter. We arrived to find a very crowded shelter full of hikers and an AT trail crew that had been drenched in thunderstorms. I always enjoy talking with the trail crews. There was also an ATC Trail Runner staying at the shelter who had a way of interjecting in every conversation going on. Brad and I had doubts about his authenticity - he didn't wear a uniform or have a communication device and was quite overweight which didn't seem to indicate someone who hikes over 20 days a month covering many miles each day across the AT. In the end we concluded he was most likely legit but it was definitely suspect.
Day 4: Tricorner Knob Shelter to Big Creek Ranger Station - 17 miles (including side trip to Mt. Cammerer)
Luckily the weather for my 4th and final day turned out quite nice and there was a lot of sunshine after the morning clouds were burnt off by the afternoon sun. As in Jamie Short's well written BPL article, we came across remnants of the F-4 Phantom fighter that had crashed in 1984 just past the Snake Den Ridge Trail:
We ate a snack and filled up with some ice cold water at Cosby Knob Shelter. From there we continued on to Mt. Cammerer to enjoy some of the best views the Smokies have to offer:
Mt. Cammerer Fire Tower
From there it was about 5 miles and a 3,000' descent to Big Creek Ranger Station.
My biggest lessons learned and take aways from the hike were:
1. I really enjoy hiking all day long and taking in as much of the trail as possible. I much prefer this to rolling into camp early and sitting around at a shelter for a few hours before bedtime.
2. Don't forget an eating utensil - eating really hot and watery food with fingers is not as fun.
3. Trench foot is painful. I'm going to try Hydropel as Brad recommended on my next Summer hike or hike where significant rain is expected.
4. Umbrella's are awesome rain gear in the hot and muggy Southeast Summers.
Overall it was a great trip and I was happy to have the opportunity to hike the AT through the park. It would have been great to have better weather on Day 3 as the Section from Icewater Spring Shelter through the Sawteeth is an awesome section of trail. My legs felt much better on this this hike than my comparable hike in the Roan Highlands the month before. That hike along with my runs the previous month definitely increased my stamina and leg strength to help make this a more enjoyable hike.
Edited for spelling and punctuation.