Low and behold, on day three of the Smokies, our morning was misty and wet. At this point though, we knew how the Smokies worked, so we just waited for noon to bring out the cameras. It was 12:10pm when the sun finally burned away the silver blanket, and by a stroke of luck, we found ourselves at Eagle Rocks.
There is nothing like an earned vista, to gorge oneself at, with whatever one can shove into ones mouth. Having resupplied in Gatlinburg, our packs were flush with goodies. I was alternating between scoops of peanut butter, pistachios, beef jerky, and of course, full size twixs. I’d tell you what Legs was eating, but that would mean I had enough time to see what was going into her mouth.
Over 200 miles in now, our baseline for daily mileage really began to pick up. Where 8 miles was a fine day once, we’d hike no less than 12 now. Today, we were going for a clean 16 to Tricorner Knob Shelter. In Smokies fashion the latter half of the day was spectacular, with sunbeams poling through gaps in the canopy, dappling the trail ahead. Every now and then, a blown out vista would pop up as if out of nowhere. The trail itself was hardly tortuous, with average climbs throughout the day.
We reached Tricorner with plenty of daylight, and snagged two spots on the lower shelf. Tricorner is a decent shelter, with two springs directly in front. To the right, a precipitous cliff, to the left, a steep, overgrown hill. Not much space for a tent, though it did have a privy and bear cables.
There were some new faces at the shelter. Most notably was Scoutmaster and his dog…Scout (aka Bear Butt). We would hike with Scoutmaster for several days, and not just because he has the best pooch in the world! Another character, Wet Wipes, set up his sweet hammock on the steep hill. As I write this, Wet Wipes still resides in the tramily!
The forth and last day of the Smokies would be our biggest day thus far. We left Tricorner in the morning, and could you guess it, it was wet and misty!? The trail was a river, or lake, depending on it’s grade, and also part of an equestrian track. We had the privilege of avoiding puddles and giant piles of horse crap for many miles! Through the mist we climbed, patiently waiting for the time to come when it would just go away. At 12:12pm, there was barely a cloud in the sky.
If we weren’t already convinced, the final descent out of the Smokies is stellar. For once, the AT throws you a bone and goes relatively gently down for 8 ish miles. Dotted along the way, vistas look back at the crumpled spine of the US’s most visited national park.
It was bittersweet to come to the end of the park. The Smokies are one of the most talked about places on the trail. To be finished with them was a milestone, but at the moment, felt like it had all just zoomed by. All part of the GA-ME, I guess.
To add insult to injury, once you leave the smokies, you have to walk an off ramp of I-40, going under an overpass and then hike a pointless uphill next to a gravel road. When we inevitably hit the same gravel road a mile later, a hand painted sign said, “Standing Bear Hostel” and pointed west.
Standing Bear Hostel is an interesting joint. A small brooke runs through it, like the resident pack of dogs that live there. Small, wooden structures house a small general store, a small kitchen, the bunkhouse, and a solitary treehouse. We ate a pizza, grabbed a few supplies and went on our way. We didn’t want to dish out $40 for two bunk beds, and our legs felt decent. This 18 mile day, turned into our first 20 miler. 21 to be exact!
There’s a great feeling to hiking your first twenty. You’ve hit a mileage that is consistent with finishing, not to mention all the 16s and 18s of the world couldn’t hold a candle to the prefix 2. If hiking was our job, and believe me sometimes it feels that way, than hitting the 20 bar is a really productive day. It is a morale booster. Our legs on the other hand, felt simultaneously like jelly and concrete by the end of dinner. We retired to bed, after a fireside chat with two new faces, Monkey and Boots. Monkey was hiking ahead of his brother because he, “had found a trail wife” and was, “so fucking doe eyed over this girl.” Apparently, it can be a lot to handle. Boots was by herself, and as it happens on the trail, they ended up hiking together that day.
The next day, we had Max Patch in our sights and bluebird weather. Besides the tail end of the climb from Standing Bear, the trail felt gentle and in our favor. Legs loved the warmth. Just like that, the trail that had been ice covered in the Smokies, had become hot and dry. It’s amazing what a few thousand feet can do.
After a long drink from a creek under a green drapery of Rhododendron leaves, we pushed for the Max Patch Summit.
Max Patch is one of those trail places people rightfully hype up on the AT. The climb up makes you earn the views, with two steep uphill sections separated by a flat respite. Suddenly, the trees fade, and you begin up a set of wood stairs dug into the bald. Flanked by golden, knee high grass, you ascend to the shoulder of the summit, which already offers blown out views of the surrounding blue ridge. To the right, gently rising, the AT finds the summit, and 360 degree views abound.
Unsurprisingly, a troop of Thru Hikers lay sprawled on the summit in perfect hiker fashion. They laid with their backs against their packs, and were eating. We stayed for over an hour watching fluffy, cumulus clouds roll over the ridgelines.
Our day was not over on the Patch, as we wanted to hit Hot Springs by the next day. We pushed on another 7 miles to Walnut Mountain Shelter.
The shelter is right after the bald summit of Walnut Mountain, and looks like a bomb went off inside of it. Sizable gaps between the wooden planks, both on the walls and floor, acted as portals for the few dozen mice that also called it home. To wrap it all up, the door faced directly into the wind. We decided to tent in The Greenhouse, where we stayed warm and unpeturbed by the mountain gusts.
The next morning, Legs let me loose. Unlike everyone else at the shelter, we couldn’t call the hostel the night before to reserve anything. I always love a challenge. I wanted to beat everyone there, and do the 13 miles in under 4 hours.
I stood in front of the Laughing Heart Hostel 3 hours and 10 minutes later, alone, and sweating profusely. I’d like to say I got a private room for Legs and I, and everyone congratulated my hiking prowess. In reality, all I could snag was a bumpy patch of lawn space for our tent, and literally no one cares how fast you hike. In the end, like most things on trail, all was well. The tent site was no bed in a private room, but it was much cheaper, and we didn’t have to contend with any snorers.
Laughing Heart Hostel is as close to the trail as you can get. When you leave the woods, all you need to do is slightly turn your head left. Surprise, you’re there. If you keep walking, you’re in Hot Springs.
Hot Springs is a trail town because the trail literally goes through the town proper. It’s a charming little hamlet, complete with winding river, natural hot springs, and the occasional bumber sticker which reads, “Stop, Drop, and Roll, doesn’t work in hell.” The trail is marked by AT symbols embedded on sidewalk slabs, and brings you passed all the pertinent places.
First, a stop at the Smoky Mountain Diner for a $3.99 chicken sandwhich and cinnamon roll. Next, it’s the Dollar General, and Hillbilly Market, for your resupply. After that, its the Town Creek Tavern for some recreation.
If you can gather 6 people, and let me assure you, you can. Go to the actual hot springs for $10 each. It’s just a secluded hot tub, on the shore of the French Broad River, where you can soak your aching bones in warm mineral water. Once you eave the tubs, turn left over the French Broad, and up you go. Next stop, Erwin, TN.