Appalachian Trail in NC – Allen Gap to Hot Springs – 4/13/18 – 14.7 miles
Jim and I dusted off our hiking/biking formula to help me complete the AT in North Carolina. He mapped out a 50-mile bike route to challenge himself while I knocked out 14.7 miles on the trail. The hard part was leaving home at 6:00 a.m. Hot Springs, here we come!
I started southbound from Allen Gap at 9:30 a.m., 14.7 miles and 3,000 feet of elevation gain on the menu, hoping I could go faster than my usual 2 mph pace. Today’s miles would be up and down roller coaster style.
Almost immediately I hit the steady flow of northbound thru-hikers, meeting them one at a time. Like my overnight earlier in the week, I was the only hiker going south, and the only dayhiker until I got past Tanyard Gap. Everyone remarked on the temperature warm-up, got what we wished for, but is it too hot now? Everyone’s got an internal thermometer and a personal optimum zone.
Forty-eight degrees is chilly standing still but means nothing when climbing a mountain; within 30 minutes I was warmed up, took off my fleece jacket, my long-sleeved shirt, and zipped off the legs of my hiking pants (yes, I am one of the dinosaurs that still wears cargo-type hiking pants, not leggings). My daypack was now full of clothing. That’s when I realized I’d forgotten the container for collecting water to filter with my new mini Sawyer. I had only 1.5 liters of water, so I’d have to be mindful of stretching it out.
Boy Scouts have been here
Nobody was hanging around at Spring Mountain Shelter, a tiny place that sleeps only 5 people, built in 1938 by the Civilian Conservation Corps. Lots of tent space, though, and a water source down the hill, and bear cables to hang your pack (a big plus in my book). Half a mile past there I met an older man, heavy-laden, who asked me how far to the shelter because he planned to stop there overnight. It was only about noon, but he was done for the day.
Signs of spring green on the ground and small spring flowers when I looked hard enough, yellow and purple violets and pure white bloodroots, and at lower elevations I saw bluets, toothwort and crested dwarf iris in profusion.
Shagbark hickory (I think)
No green on the trees yet, long distance views even in wooded areas as the trail roamed up and down, in and out of hardwood coves. Perfect day.
At Hurricane Gap, the trail crosses gravel USFS roads, winds through the woods for a short spell, then crosses the same gravel roads. Those white blazes are pretty important there. In the in-between I stopped for lunch - cheese cubes, pepperoni, an apple – feeling very strong today (it won’t last).
The climb from Hurricane Gap up to the Rich Mountain lookout tower side trail was quite steep, not switchbacked one bit. At the signpost I stopped to read what people had written – tower closed, tower open, stairs missing, don’t skip it, etc. Two young guys from West Virginia came up, full of enthusiasm and immortality, having a great hike, and they decided to go for it. I continued on my way (just as I skipped the side hike to Camp Creek Bald on Wednesday, only 2 days ago!) but I had regrets later. It might have been fun to go to the tower with the thru-hikers…[Note: Rich Mountain tower has been restored by the Forest Fire Lookout Association and reopened in Nov. 2018]
From there the trail begins its 2,200 descent to the French Broad River, one big drop to Tanyard Gap, then another big drop after Pump Gap. My speed was holding at its default 2 mph; maybe now I would accelerate (I didn’t). For one thing, more thru-hikers stopped for a chat (they were going uphill).
I met a couple from Florida, 50’s, the woman was a bit heavy. They had started in February but had to get off for a short period of time because of the cold. I always ask how the Smokies were, and for them it was crowded and cold and they complained about the mixture of thrus, section hikers and dayhikers. True, section hikers tend not to realize they are disrupting the thru-hiker flow, often arriving at shelters late when thru-hikers are settling down, celebrating their successful day without regard for thrus who just want to sleep (hiker midnight is 9:00 p.m.). Tensions of sharing the AT.
At Tanyard Gap the AT crosses over US Highway 25/70. Forest roads and backwoods blacktops are reminders that the world exists out there. Encountering a highway is rare (thank you to trail routers and builders) but it sure can disrupt the vibe. From here it was a very long 5.8 miles to my end point in Hot Springs. I felt civilization just an arm’s length away and the necessity to pay closer attention to white blazes. My biggest ups of the day were done but feeling tired (rationing water?) slowed me down and I was weary of the smaller ups and downs that now felt big.
Right after crossing the bridge I met a young woman who noticed my VT shirt. She was a Hollins College grad herself, but her mom was a VT alum and her sister was currently a student. She was doing a two-month section hike, date driven rather than mileage driven, and she hoped to make it to Grayson Highlands, VA by May 11 (Mother’s Day) to meet her mom. I’ll bet that was a joyful reunion!
The open meadows along Mill Ridge were a pleasant surprise, but not so much the next couple I encountered going north (dayhikers this time). They stopped to ask me how far it was back to Tanyard Gap. I replied that I wasn’t sure, started to pull out my map, and the man said, “We carry a map but we are too lazy to look at it.” Hmmm. I blinked. “You should probably use your map.” Says he, “We track everything on our GPS.” I just turned around and walked away without comment. Some folks don’t seem to realize how dumb they sound.
At last, the reward for this section of the trail, Lover’s Leap and high cliffs overlooking the French Broad River and the town of Hot Springs. It’s only a 1,000-foot descent from here! Cell service once again, I texted Jim that I had run out of water and wanted him to bring a cold Orange Crush to the finish line (he did).
The final descent into town was not carefree, but rather slow going over boulders and slippery scree. I could see the French Broad and hear US 25/70 - how could I possibly still have two miles to go? I met yet another old fellow, shirtless, pot belly, who planted himself in the center of the trail to talk. He detailed for me every one of his nights in the Smokies (no more asking that question), temperature, amount of snow, what he ate. He retired in March 2018 after many years at his job, now pursuing his AT dream. I tamped down my impatience to be on my way out of respect for his enthusiasm in telling his story. I sincerely hope he completed his journey.
Just 1 in 4 starters complete an AT thru-hike. Of the hundred or so I passed during the last two weeks, I wonder who made it?
At least half of the last mile down from the cliffs is actually walking away from town on one long switchback before the trail takes a final u-turn and drops down to river level. It goes past a handful of campsites (little patches among the rocks just large enough for individual tents) that were nearly all occupied, backpackers enjoying one night beside the river before they begin climbing again. Two guys were sprawled out with their resupply boxes retrieved from the post office; one offered me Easter chocolate candy kisses and beamed an enormous smile when I accepted.
Final steps up to the road, cross the bridge over the French Broad into Hot Springs – a little underwhelming ending because Jim was on the phone helping our son solve a problem (as he handed me my Orange Crush). Ah, real life. It was a hard finish but a triumph nonetheless. I have walked the Appalachian Trail through North Carolina!
I got cleaned up at the Hot Springs branch library on Main Street (which, BTW, is awesome, as are all Madison County library branches. They were named “Best Small Library in America 2018!”)
The town was chock full of thru-hikers celebrating a day in town, so Jim and I drove on over to Marshall in search of dinner. We heard that Sweet Monkey Bakery made good pizza: confirmed, the best pizza I think I have ever had, crust made to order, a flavored olive oil, basil, tomato and four local cheeses, including incredibly rich and creamy goat cheese. As hungry as we were, this was just too good to eat all in one sitting.
Highlight of the day: A cowboy, complete with spurs, hat, ponytail, came in to pick up pizzas to deliver to the local brewery. As he waited for his order, I surreptitiously snapped a photo over Jim’s shoulder. Great stories are written from images like this.
Last stop at Mad Cob Brewery, and I was so stuffed with pizza and Orange Crush and multiple jars of sweet tea, I had no room for anything else. (The cowboy came in to deliver pizzas!) A guitarist was strumming on the streetside front porch. Out back was a balcony overlooking the French Broad River and the train tracks run alongside the riverbank between the water and the building. In conversation with a local, we learned that there was bluegrass music a couple of miles down the road.
Low point of the day: We had to get on home and couldn’t stay overnight in Marshall. Next time.