We had 18 miles to go before we could sleep on Saturday so our start time was 7:30 AM. I was hoping for an average of 2 miles per hour hiking. Danny was concerned that we would be coming back to camp in the dark. Neither of us was correct. The 6:30 AM wakeup call came ridiculously early (well, I guess it was 6:30) and Jim and I worked to get water purified, some form of a breakfast made (instant oatmeal) and daypacks ready. Everyone waited patiently and we were ready by 7:45 AM.
The rain had continued off and on during the early morning and we all started off in full rain assault gear, rain jackets, rain pants, pack covers, etc., but in reality we did not see any more rain that day. The day began to lighten and as we climbed the sky began to turn blue and we had a sparkling day. Danny said she would never again cancel a trip because of a weather forecast.
Word had it that Cold Spring Gap was not in good shape, seriously eroded in parts, and that going up it was preferable to sliding down it. We can verify that report! It was 3.5 miles of wet rocks and cascading small creeks that were gushing because of the rain the night before. I eyeballed every rock on that trail as I chose footing very carefully. Again, my hiking sticks were essential. At times we had to assume that the creek was the trail. (There are no painted trail markers within the Smokies except for the white blazes of the AT; you just stay on the trail until you run into another one where there is a sign posted and hopefully you are where you meant to be.) We zig-zagged up the mountain and only near the top did we get a little distance away from the flowing water. Our reward was that the trail grew steeper.
We then turned left onto the Welch Ridge Trail, which was absolutely a relief. Ridge walking is what every hiker dreams of: small ups and downs over the tops of mountains! We were on the lookout for a side trail up to High Rocks, the site of a fire tower. We found the trail, admired the bear poop in several places along it it, and made our way up to High Rocks to stop for lunch. This is a big rock (surprise!) on the top of the mountain with a tremendous view down to Fontana Lake and miles beyond. The fire tower has been removed but the caretaker's cabin remains, though it is in such decay that it is not safe to go inside. It has a little front porch looking out over the miles, and if you like peace and quiet and solitude, this would have been a great home and occupation.
Jim had hurriedly set off for the day with a lunch that required a spoon and he had forgotten to grab one (some sort of heat-and-eat thing that he was going to eat cold). Laying on the boulders at High Rocks was: a plastic spoon! I believe he wiped it on his pants leg and dug in. He also spotted three beer cans and went to pick them up, thinking about the type of person that would lug beer all the way up to this place and then not carry out the empties. And...they were not empty! Jim put them in his daypack with plans for later. The Lord was providing for him that day and he wasn't asking any questions. An idyllic place for lunch, some conversation, some photo taking that we knew would not truly convey the sights, and it was time to press on.
We set off on Welch Ridge and thoroughly enjoyed it. Since the leaves were not yet out on the trees, the views were great, and often we were on a ridge maybe 10 yards wide with more mountains rising up in all directions. "Wow" and "Look at that" were repeated many times as we walked the ridges. This is a remote part of the Smokies and we did not meet any other hikers. (In fact, we saw not one other hiker the entire weekend, although we saw a couple of campsites occupied closer to the lake.) This was the most relaxing part of the day's adventures, because Hazel Creek awaited us...
After 5.5 miles on Welch Ridge, we turned left onto the northern terminus of Hazel Creek Trail and began our last third of the hike, 6 miles back down to Campsite 82. The guidebooks said that there were "numerous" water crossings on this part of the trail, something else I had been worried about for weeks. But now I knew how to do water crossings, right? There were many switchbacks that zig-zagged down the mountain and soon we could hear water. Some of us were anxious to refill water bottles and we were happy to arrive at the first crossing. It was a rock hop across and I felt better. Ignorance is bliss!
The summary of this leg of our hike: 6 miles, 3.5 hours, 23 water crossings, most of which required wading, sometimes up to our knees. We quickly disbanded and it was every hiker for himself/herself to get back to camp, and we leapfrogged each other a few times. Jim and I stayed together. After a while we walked in our water shoes looking for the next crossing. We had no idea how many there were, and with each one we were hopeful that we were done. Several times we would cross the creek, walk 50 feet around a curve and cross it again! I'd like to say that it was fun, but after a while the novelty was worn off and we zoned out and just looked for the end. I had somehow gotten a bruise on my left leg above the ankle where my boot would hit and each step was becoming painful. Can I just click my heels three times and go home now??
Camp finally appeared at 6:30, nearly 11 hours after we had started our day. Sitting and resting was helpful and everyone went about the camp chores of resupplying water from the ever-present Hazel Creek, cooking dinner, winding down. Jim put his 3 beers in the creek to get cold while I went for the hot chocolate. A campfire was built but we soon grew tired, and the fire was doused as we headed to our tents before 9:00 PM. There was organizing to be done for an early start tomorrow (7:30 AM again!) for our hike back out to meet the boat shuttle. As I lay in my sleeping bag I thought about the past two days and wondered....what in the world have I signed myself up for????