Appalachian Trail Thru Hike: Hot Springs, NC to Erwin, TN

Some times the AT looks like a heart beat. It rises and falls in a smooth rhythm. Other days, it trends simply up or simply down. It is never flat.

After crossing the French Broad River, the trail takes a sharp right, and walks along the river’s flat banks. Before you can think how pleasant it is, you’re already climbing.

We were leaving Hot Springs in a group. Legs and myself, Strider, Honey Badger, Lumber Jill, Wet Wipes, Oz, and Glim Glom. We all had the itus, a hiker term which here describes the inflamed, tired, and overall grumpy sensation a hiker gets after taking a zero and gorging on food. Basically, no one was feeling it that morning, and who could blame us.

Don’t get me wrong, we love to hike, we wouldn’t be out here if we didn’t, but it is a struggle to get back into rhythm after taking a day off and not burning the thousands of calories we had eaten. It’s like our legs forgot their purpose.

But as Honey Badger would say, “We’re out here to walk.”

And walk we did, gaining altitude in an initial climb that shocked our glutes back into working order. We just wanted out of that first climb, so we blew past Lover’s Leap, slogging away. Eventually, the trail tapered out, but still gained ground. We passed a still pond, the sky reflecting off it’s mirrored surface, and our spirits lifted ever so slightly. Then it was back up. When your not feeling your best, every climb is a screamer, but the dominiative beauty of the pond had begun to bring us back into the fold.

A small pond north of Hot Springs

At the end of nine miles, the climb finally crests, skirting the summit of Rich Mountain. A .1 mile side trail led to the summit and fire tower. Like most thru hikers, a fire tower is not just something we can ignore.

That .1 felt like at least .2, but it was worth the extra junk mileage. As Legs and I approached the tower, Winter was already at its zenith, looking out on the multicolored ridges.

Winter is an odd one. She’s tall, and wirey at 6′, with a mound of frizzy hair that seems to grow as she tackles miles. She’s the type of person who can hike a 20+ mile day, and show up looking like she didn’t even realize it. Her nonchalant and sometimes aloof facade belies a sharp wit, and care free attitude that is rare these days. Legs and I did catch her taking a snack break, in the rain, in an open field.

We climbed to the catwalk of the tower, and took a look around. It looked like shit. Graffiti covered every surface, a patchwork of ignorance, while the floor had gaping holes in it, whether from a plank just missing, or a rotting hole in the plywood. Nevertheless, we stayed for a long enough time for the whole tramily to be up there at once.

Hikers are to vistas, like moths are to flame. We can’t resist them. Throw in a one gallon ziplock bag filled with Oreos, which was in my hand, and you’ve got yourself a good time.

As always, one cannot stay on the summit forever, and because we are masochists, we continued hiking.

The plan was to hike 16 miles out of Hot Springs, where the trail crosses Allen Gap, and where Honey Badger and Wet Wipes promised there was a store that sold food and beer. Beer being the proverbial carrot to a hiker’s mule brain, we decided 16 miles was a totally great amount to hike.

Allen Gap would turn out to be the most bizarre camp yet. Just before reaching the road which traverses it, a hand painted sign reads, “Mom’s Store. 100 yards.” An arrow points down a closed fire road toward the street.

This was it, beer and food, the reason we were stopping here, despite the lackluster location next to the road, and iffy water source. We walked down the path to Mom’s Store. It was closed.

Even if it was open, I didn’t want to go in. Later on I would remark that the “store” looked like a place you would enter if you didn’t want skin anymore.

It is a dilapidated, concrete building, with boarded up or fogged windows, like ones you’d see in a condemned house that was built over a pet cemetery. Looking through the glazed glass only brought more nightmares to the forefront. Moms store looked more like a hoarder’s den, with multiple couches, chairs, and refrigerators crammed into the rectangular space.

We camped like, feet away from that nightmare, and it didn’t get any better from there. Cars zoomed close by, pinging us with the sounds we are trying to escape. Eventually, when the cars stopped coming, what can only be described as a dog massacre, occurred at around 4am. It sounded like dogs were both killing and being killed, which doesn’t make for a good lullaby.

We were happy to leave Allen Gap the next morning, but just as we were about to leave, Moms opens. Turns out they did sell beer, and it’s not run by a skin collector. It’s just shabby and, frankly, gross.

From Allen Gap the trail climbs steadily upwards, passing Little Laurel Shelter, then begins to flatten out above 4700 feet. In the guidebook, the terrain looks flat and lovely from here. In reality, it is a several mile long rock scramble over what Legs named, Dwayne the Rock Mountain. It’s real name is Firescald Knob, and it’s not the elevation changes that get you. Rather it’s the boulder hopping and scrambling, that beat the body down. Not all is lost, as views open up to the left and right. The right shows a tugley wood and wilderness, the left, civilization dotting the rolling hills.

Big Butt Mountain is a real Mountain. It can be found after Jerry Cabin Shelter, it’s summit the home to a giant boulder split vertically down the middle, that might resemble a butt if you were 12 years old. The approach and subsequent descent are marked by open meadows with dramatic Oak Trees. Scraggly vines colored the dark red of deoxygenated blood covered every inch of open ground next to the trail.

Our home for the night was Flint Mountain Shelter. Flint was unique due to it’s double platform, and unreasonably small privy. The privy had about enough leg room for an amputee, so using it meant resting the open door against your knees and hoping no one was extra curious.

In some kind of a miracle, NO ONE SNORED at the shelter that night, though we were blasted by a viscous thunderstorm sometime in the early hours of the morning.

We awoke at Flint and made our way North. Leaving the protection of the shelter, we ventured out into the melancholy day. Everything hung low and wet, from the clouds to the rhododendron leaves. It wasn’t raining, yet, but we gave it a minute and weren’t shocked when the skies opened.

The rain, some leg pain, and a hand drawn sign pointing .2 off trail to “pizza” convinced us to head to the Laurel Rector Hostel.

The Hostel turned out to be a small wooden shack with beds that may have fit a field mouse. Pizza turned out to be $3 slices of frozen, Ellios pizza, but we still bought two and wolfed them down. Like many times before, the trail would provide, and the rainiest part of the day would pass as we took refuge in the shack.

We had to leave, so we donned our rain gear and made for the trail. Let me explain something to you future hikers. When you put your rain gear on, it will either stop raining, or the trail will immediately go uphill. The latter makes you as wet as you would be without rain gear, and a whole lot smellier. Of course, we went straight up, and in a matter of minutes, were out of our rain gear.

Again after the summit, more open fields and dark red grass. We reached Hogback Ridge Shelter for a snack, but stayed for over an hour. Here, we would meet 1st Sergeant, a 30 year military man and all around badass. If you wanted to know anything, from knot tying to scuba diving, chances are he knew it.

7 miles later, we all convened at a campsite in Low Gap (yet another one). The normal tramily was all there, Oz, Strider, Glim Glom, Wet Wipes, Lumber Jill, and us. We built a fire between two fallen trees, overlapped like chopsticks. Only one “site” was actually flat, so we all spent the night slipping and sliding on nylon. It’s hard science to us hikers, that any surface that is not refectory flat, will result with you bunched up st the end of your sleeping bag.

From Low Gap, we would hike a shorter day (15 miles), to No Business Knob Shelter. The plan was to get close to Erwin, but not enter, so as to save money and leave town for once. We would hike in the next morning, eat at a restaurant, resupply, then get out.  It was a smart idea, I forget who came up with it. I remember it was someone who was devilishly handsome, tall, and named Darwin.

The day would start with a stiff climb, and a comment from Legs saying she wanted to hike along this morning. I set off, heart broken and sobbing profusely.

The trail rises 1200 feet to Big Bald, a big…bald. Forget Max Patch, where you fight day hikers for space. Big Bald is taller, harder to get to, and has better views than Max Patch, making it a hiker only summit.

It was another 11ish miles to No Business Knob, and it was my turn to spurn Legs, so I set off alone. The miles were fast, but monotonous. I passed creek after creek at a good clip, thinking about the water at the shelter. It was only after I put my pack down on the wooden floor of the shelter, that I realized I had passed the source .3 miles ago. I DARE YOU TO TELL ME .6 ROUND TRIP ISN’T THAT BAD. I DARE YOU.

No Business is named after old timey bootleggers and moonshiners who had no business being up there. For us, it was the myriad of pin head sized spiders that we wanted no business with, so we slept outside, cowboy camping.

Sleeping under the stars is vastly different from sleeping in a tent or shelter. For one, you don’t have the millimeter thin nylon to protect you from murderers and bears. For another, you can see the night sky above you, and feel the earth breath below you. I had cowboy camped many times on the PCT, but this was Legs first real time. The sky didn’t disappoint, and we could see countless stars through the naked branches of the surrounding Oak Trees.

The following morning was an easy 6.3 downhill to the Nolichucky River and Erwin, where we would, for the first time ever. Hike into town, get all our stuff done, and get out of town. All in one day. Boom.

Appalachian Trail Thru Hike: Newfound Gap, NC to Hot Springs, NC

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.

Legs enjoying the Smokies
Hiking thru the verdant Smokies

Continue reading “Appalachian Trail Thru Hike: Newfound Gap, NC to Hot Springs, NC”

Appalachian Trail Thru Hike: Introducing Some Hikers

Let’s start with a brief introduction of some selected hikers and a photo reference, if I’ve managed to capture their essence, in order of appearance:

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Panoramic view of Watauga Lake Dam
1. Oz: Her real name is Dorothy so coming up with the trail name “Oz” was easy. She originally started the trail with one of her best friends, Truck but unfortunately she quit for personal reasons. But Oz carried on with admirable stoicism. Now she rolls with us. She shaved her head before the trail and has big, green eyes resembling a fairy or a pixy of some kind. She’s 19 years old and petite but manages to hike efficiently even with a 40+ pound pack. From behind you can only see her legs because her pack is so large on her small frame. We first met Oz all the way back in Georgia at Low Gap Shelter (the first of many Low Gaps). We hiked together on and off but more recently she’s hiked consistently with the Ruff Necks to the point where we just expect her to stay in the group. She’s one of those efficient hikers who gets up early and is out hiking before I get out of my bag. With only positive things to say about everything, her humor and good attitude are thoroughly appreciated.

2. Winter: We also first met Winter at Low Gap Shelter in Georgia. She’s a woman of few words and hikes her own hike in every sense of the term. Sometimes we will come upon her mid day taking a nap in a patch of grass, even in the pouring rain. She loves jumping in rivers and waterfalls, being one of the most free spirits I’ve ever met in my life. Before she got a trail name, she refused to share her real name either so for the first week or so we didn’t know what to call her. When she finally told us her trail name is Winter she said it’s because her real name is Somer (sounds like summer) therefore, it made sense. Winter gets up earlier than most hikers and heads out of camp by around 7am or earlier but will not come to the following campsite sometimes until 9pm or later. This is because she takes all the time she wants hiking, doing her own thing and rolling into camp with a big smile on her face.

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Winter at Watauga Lake
3. Lumber Jill: What a gem, this one. We first met Lumber Jill in Georgia but didn’t start hiking together until Franklin, NC. She got her name from her recent lumbering experiences with videos of her cutting down trees to prove it. Lumber Jill is an environmentalist and a powerful hiker. Her pack is on the heavier side but she rarely complains unless a blister pops up on her feet. I’ve talked a lot with her and was happy to have another female hiking amongst this group of men until the other ladies started hiking with us more consistently. Every night she writes and doodles in her journal before bed and each morning she is one of the first to leave camp. Like me, she carries an Appalachian Trail Passport (a fake passport where you can get stamps along the trail at various locations) and we try our best to help each other get as many as we can.

4. Fish & Radio: I’m putting these two gentlemen together because they are a team – probably the most efficient and economically sound out of all the hikers we’ve met so far. Fish and Radio are high school best friends from Syracuse, NY whom we met at Cold Springs Shelter just before the NOC. It was the coldest day we’ve spent outside with frozen mists that ran through the night, covering everything in a blanket of white. We bonded immediately but their efficiency pushed them on past the NOC while Darwin and I took a zero. We caught up to them days later in Elk Park. Their idea is to spend $1 a mile to save as much money as possible. We decided to try and be more like them and when we got to Erwin, TN we actually managed to hike in and hike out in the same day, thus saving on lodging and excess luxury. Darwin and I were so proud of ourselves. They are a great team with a wonderful sense of humor, happy to be out in the woods challenging the mind and body.

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Fish (right) & Radio (left) eating breakfast
5. The Machine: Fuckin Joey. That’s his real name. He walked past Cold Springs Shelter after Darwin and I settled in to our bags and said “I think I’m going to keep hiking on”. Hence why he’s called the Machine. He hikes and rejoices in the outdoors. The weirdest part about the Machine, among other things, is that he eats without a stove so usually his meals consist of dry ramen and tortillas filled with numerous spreads. Apparently his level of laziness trumps any effort to cook a hot meal in the outback. However, when we get into town he goes hard and eats as much hot food as he can fit in his body to make up for the lack of such on trail. He keeps to himself but will randomly appear with a booming voice that always needs to be toned down. Sometimes I think all his solitude during the day comes out at camp when he finally sees human beings again – a ball of energy lights up and he can’t help himself but speak loudly.

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The Machine going to town on some Mickey D’s
6. Glim-Glom: Darwin and I first met Glim-Glom in the kitchen of the Nantahala Outdoor Center (NOC). We were sitting, eating some snacks with a few other hikers such as Royal Scarecrow and Good Life when all of a sudden a fair man of average height, long golden tresses, wig glasses from a Civil War reenactment website and colorful short-shorts (2 inch inseam to be exact) came in the room and asked us a few questions about the facility and the trail. We had literally never seen him before so it was shocking, to say the least, when we saw such a radiant creature. We talked casually and immediately found that his charm and sweet demeanor were impressionable in a warm way. He left the kitchen and we didn’t see him until the end of the following day after we left the NOC. He came in about 30-45 minutes after his hiking partner, Honey Badger made an entrance at Brown Fork Shelter. After about a week he put his culinary skills to the test and coined the hashtag “back country gastronomy”. He’s already blanched some almonds and flambé-d something else, even adding what wine pairings would go best with pepperoni bits and peanut butter. #backcountrygastronomy

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A happily robed Glim-Glom
7. Honey Badger: Honey, Badge, Badger, HB you name it. We first met him at Brown Fork Shelter, about 16 miles north of the NOC. It was a cold day and he showed up a little after us with mud caked on his legs wearing shorts and a t shirt. He said little but seemed genuinely interested in our gear, names, and what we were eating for dinner but kept relatively quiet as he naturally does. He’s a large, barrel chested man of few words and a dry sense of humor that takes no time to come to appreciate. To anyone looking on you would think he’s a big bully, but to us he’s a bearded man who appreciates cold beer, hot dogs, making fires and being a part of a wolf pack. He barks at us occasionally, thus coining the name Ruff Necks, referring to me, Darwin, Glim-Glom, Wet Wipes and Strider. This group is, for the most part, the first to arrive at camp and the last to leave the following morning. I think we just genuinely enjoy each other’s company, at least that’s what Honey Badger says.

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Honey Badger warming up a dog
8. Strider: The first time I saw Strider was the same day we met Glim-Glom and Honey Badger. We walked passed him on the way out of the NOC but he stayed at a lovely bed and breakfast with a hot tub that night with a few other hikers instead of Brown Fork Shelter. Strider is the second tallest hiker I’ve seen after Darwin. His long legs and strides gave him his trail name and with good reason. Sometimes when I see him walking he skips along the path to various songs, focused and having a good time. He’s a vegetarian, which is admirable considering most of the towns we go to advertise their burgers and BBQ, but manages to get crafty on the go by making dishes such as tomato and chickpea curry with quinoa or a pesto mac and cheese. His favorite lunch is a tortilla with almond butter, honey and a handful of trail mix. When we got to Erwin, TN his main goal was to get a brightly colored bandana (he chose neon pink at the Dollar General, seen below). Strider is a classy man who recently shared that he spends too much on hair cuts back home because it includes wine and neck rubs.

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Strider is in the bright pink bandana
9. Wet Wipes: Wet Wipes is a quiet character. His trail name comes from the fact that he carries ample amounts of wet wipes on a daily basis. We started hiking with him in the Smokies after Russel Field Shelter, our first campsite in the Smokies. He’s a carpenter from Massachusetts who likes to give Badger a run for his money in terms of friendly insults and jokes. When we went into Gatlinburg he offered to help out with laundry and came with Darwin and I to resupply, barely talking, joking occasionally. We didn’t see the true Wet Wipes until Hot Springs, NC when he randomly screamed “these FISH AND CHIPS are delicious!” Since then he’s come out of his shell and hikes with us everyday, sporting the Wet Wipes Wrap consisting of marshmallow fluff, peanut butter, Nutella, honey and chocolate chips (for texture) wrapped in a tortilla.

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Wet Wipes enjoying a rinse at Jones Falls
I guess you can say we have an eclectic bunch. We travel together at our own speeds with our own rhythms and at the end of each day we come together and share our unique perspectives about the trail. We smell gross together, eat together, and mostly sleep in the same shelters or campsites together, forming a rare bond that can only be found in the woods. In this short yet seemingly infinite month I’ve learned so much about myself and these wonderful people. Knowing that we all suffer the same pain and discomfort on this journey somehow makes it less miserable and more humorously enduring. I’ve learned to appreciate the comfort in the discomfort and let go of a materialistic mindset that I’m used to when indulging in societal luxuries. All I need is food, a water source, good company and warm enough clothing and I can maintain a positive disposition. Somehow as we continue onward the trail is simultaneously more challenging while also becoming routinely comforting.
Cheers to making it 470 miles into Damascus, Virginia! I’m proud of every one of these beautiful nerds and all the other hikers who’ve come this far and beyond. Here’s to another 1,720 miles left to explore!

 

Appalachian Trail Thru Hike: N.O.C., NC to Newfound Gap, NC

The temperatures dipped to -3, the winds rose to 100 mph. Sheets of stinging ice pelted down from the dark, merciless skies. We decided taking a zero was probably a good idea. We bummed some floor space with the tramily, Legs with Lumber Jill and Sherpa, myself with Scarecrow and Wheels. We beat the freakish weather with heeping portions of food, trail stories, and a particularly gruesome half hour, where Scarecrow finally lanced the large blood blisters on his heels.

Legs hiking out of the NOC in shorts. Temps were around 20

The following morning would be bittersweet, as Scarecrow would need to zero again so his feet could heel up. Scarecrow, wise as ever, asked why we were leaving, seeing as it would be only marginally warmer and less windy than the day before. Alas, the trail was calling. We hiked out with Wheels, Lumber  Jill, and Sherpa.

The climb out of the NOC is long and arduous, though punctuated with some flat respites. It’s like a long staircase, not necessarily super steep, but long enough to turn the legs to jelly by the end. We started hiking around 9am. Despite it being 20 degrees, Legs left in shorts.

Hiking up thru snow and cold

We climbed and climbed, through piles of snow, some drifts topping off at a foot and a half. The cold was somewhat bearable, as we were hot from the climb. It was the wind that really tore at the morale. Exposed ridges turned into firing ranges, where frozen projectiles were cruelly blown into the eyes and face, seeking out any exposed skin. Legs’ legs looked sunburned and swollen, her blood making a valiant effort to fight the freezing, cold wind.

Beautiful views looking down to the Nantahala Gorge
Views like this cost a burning sensation in the facial region.

After about 7 miles going up, we saw the outline of a shelter to the west, and quickly made for it’s refuge. Legs finally put pants on, we ate a frozen snack, and then we just left. We just went back out into it.  It took a lot of mental discipline to not just take our sleeping bags out and curl up in little wimpering balls. But there we were, heading back into the icy maelstrom. Turns out, it’d be worth it.

The wind died down, and the exposed ridges turned from firing ranges, to smorgasbords of views. The mountains were salted with white as far as the eye could see, cutting down into the Nantahala Gorge and beyond. The climb finally ended after 8 miles, topping off at Cheoah Bald. If you are reading this, and looking for special camp spots on the AT, this bald is one of them. Unfortunately, it felt only a little warmer than the surface of Pluto, so we chose to keep going.

Down, finally. We had done it. In the 16 mile day we’ve planned, we had bested the hardest part of the day. All that lay before us were easy ups and downs.  We would saunter into camp like heros. Yea, no.

The ice can be more than just annoying and painful

For a time, the trail was what we thought. Some puds (pointless ups and downs), but that was expected. We would suffer for our hubris.

Jacob’s Ladder is fucked up. With a name like Jacob’s Ladder, I assume this climb’s namesake is connected to some sky wizard mythology, so it made sense when Legs and I held our fists to the sky and cursed the trail gods.

Straight up. Those two words describe the JL with exactitude. No switchbacks, no dips, no flattened off traverses. Just up the vertical shoulder of a nameless peak. Maybe a mile long, it felt like the previous 14 miles condensed down into one climb. All thoughts of conquered land were forgotten, the saunter left our gait. We slogged, puffing away and dripping, looking less like heros and more like two clowns on the verge of cardiac arrest.

Finally, it was over, but like a sick joke, we immediately began to lose the height we had just roasted over. I remember thinking, “Not cool AT. Not cool.”

Brown Fork Shelter was home for the night, not only because we wanted the added warmth you can only get by spooning with strangers in a shanty in the woods, but also because there weren’t any tent sites. Luckily someone had lashed a large, heavy, tarp along the open side to cut wind and trap heat. It did the former only so well, the latter not at all. Inside, shoulder to shoulder, lay Legs, myself, Wheels, Lumber Jill, Glim Glom, and Honey Badger, the last two, new additions to the tramily. With our combined heat, it was a toasty 35 degrees. At least it was better than the outside 23.

Brown Fork Shelter

Low and behold, the next morning was frigid. Again, it took more than I’m willing to admit to get out of my sleeping bag (Nemo Nocturne 15), and deflate my sleeping pad (Nemo Tensor 25L). Legs and I coerced each other out, with heady promises of town food only 12 miles away in Fontana.

I’m pretty quick. I usually cruise at 3 mph, and can hit 4 mph if I am really motivated, and the terrain suites it. Put the possibility of town food in front of me, and I’ll rotate the Earth underneath me. Perhaps that’s why I did those 12 miles in 3.5 hours.

Hiking from Brown Fork was considerably easier than the previous day. Much of the snow had melted, and the climbs weren’t generally significant. The only problem now, was the ice.

Parts of the trail had frozen completely for meters with no shoulder to skirt around. It was slow going on these parts, except when you slipped. Then, you very quickly made yourself look like an idiot, arms flailing to get trekking poles down, usually as one leg swept up like that of an inept ballerina. I went down fully twice that day, and slipped more times than I can remember.

Descending to Fontana Dam is somewhat infuriating. Along side the momentum halting ice, you can see the dam from miles away, making you think you’re closer than you are. There’s almost nothing worse out here, than thinking you’re closer than you are. You keep thinking, “Ok, THIS has to be it.” It never is, and you lose your mind, tacking on a few more mental miles.

We stayed at the Fontana Hilton, picking up our mail dropped resupply, and a few other surprises. Legs would now be packing out purple Crocs curtesy of my mom. She had chosen purple because of Legs’ NYU roots. Stylish, sentimental, and practical. Thanks mom.

The Lodge is nice, but a little pricey. However, thanks to Legs’ parents (again our parents coming through with some trail magic) we had a private room to shower, do laundrey, and avoid the impending rain.

Entering the Smoky Mountains was definitely an occasion for us. Guarding the entrance to this myatical land, lay a concrete behemoth, the Fontana Dam. As you traverse it’s quite magnitude, you can’t help but revel. To our right, a steep shoreline and surrounding coniferous forest were reflected perfectly in the still  lake. To our left, dropped away the dam, down to some electrical equipment, and a lazy river, curling away through the gorge. Before us, clouds tearing on their jagged peaks, loomed the Smokies.

Legs excited to get into the Smokies
Packs make it to the Smokies. Mine is an Osprey Atmos 50 AG. Hers a Dueter ACT 45

We entered the Park, putting our permits in the box, and starting the approach. The climb into the Smokies isn’t easy, but next to the climb out of the NOC and Jacob’s Ladder, it was bearable. The weather was stunningly perfect, a stark contrast to the grey, rainy morning. Little did we know how the Smokies worked.

Looking down the dam

Looking at the lake of the dam

Once the initial climb was bested, the trail levels out to cruising grades, with many a vista popping up in your peripherals.

Stunning Smoky Views

We hit Mollies Ridge Shelter to snack down, and listened to a Ridgerunner about the trail between here and the next shelter. Apparently, it was an easy 3.1 to the next shelter, so we pushed on.

We shared the shelter (Russell Field) with a boyscout troup. For some reason, the scouts were much more keen on speaking to Legs than me, though I did get a few questions. Like, “How long have you been together?” Or, “Do you think you’ll get engaged?” I made it clear, Legs was with me, and not into 12 year olds. Sorry boys.

Russell Field Shelter

The shelters in the Smokies are massive, and all come equipped with a fireplace. Normally wood, Smokies shelters are three sides of piled stone, and rangers have strung up tarps to act as the fourth wall. We squeezed 15 into the two bunk levels, and the scouts kept the fire going well into the night. It was lovely and warm, despite the symphonic snoring.

Packs hanging in the shelter
The fire in the shelter. Barn Owl looks up at me.

Where the previous day was bright, sunny, and relatively warm, the next day could not have been more different. Poking my head out through the tarp, a freezing wind slapped me hard in the face. We were socked in a sharp, and cold mist, which had coated every surface, organic or otherwise, with horfrost. A billion tiny ice stilletos poked out of every twig, needle, and rock. The trail itself was a frozen river, adding to the dangerous visage. We plodded along slowly, every other step, slipping backward on the ice. Views that should have been stunning, were relegated to curtains of silver, though we were unperturbed. The new terrain and conifers, coated in the horfrost spikes was it’s own treat. We could have done with less ice on the trail, but such is life.

More great views from the Smokies
Could have my camera out during the bad part of the day. But you can see the ice here.

At high noon, as if a switch had been flipped, the sun burned away the mist, and the skies opened. Suddenly, we were hiking in a different season, the sun out, and the biting wind subdued. The trail began to melt, creating a muddy rut to walk through. The ice stilletos fell off all but the conifers. It was a strange sight, coming into our next shelter, to see winter and spring jostling for purchase in the foliage.

Our shelter for the night was Double Spring Gap Shelter. So named because of the two springs flanking it, one in North Carolina, one in Tennessee. We opted for the NC spring as it was just a little closer. We may be hiking 2200 miles, but that doesn’t me we walk for no reason!

Double Spring Gap Shelter. Two Springs in two states!

No scouts tonight. Instead an 8 person group on Spring Break. Still, we had space in the shelter to hunker down for the next. Other hikers included Glimglom, Strider, Honey Badger, Wheels, and Lumber Jill, our adopted tramily.

Strider, Glim Glom and others watch hiker TV
Inside Double Spring Gap Shelter

It rained hard overnight, and by morning, like clockwork, the freezing mist rolled in. All that rain had frozen, again turning the trail into a rink to be flopped over. At least today, the cloud and mist layer would be just high enough to get some awesome views from Clingman’s Dome.

Views approaching Clingman’s Dome

Clingman’s Dome is the highest point on the AT at just over 6600 feet. Unlike other national parks, which tend to blend their buildings with the natural landscape, the Smokies decided to build the Jetsons home at the end of a curving, concrete walkway. Unsurprisingly, it was built sometime in the ’60s, an architectural dark age if there ever was one. 

We stayed on the tower for some time, relishing the 360 degree views. A low cloud ceiling, mixed with heavy winds, formed undulating waves in the sky. 

Descending from Clingmans was beautiful, but as frustrating as trying to kill someone with a feather. Solid, and sometimes sheer ice for miles. It was very slow going. Luckily, as we got lower in elevation the ice began to disperse. 

Before we hit Newfound Gap, the trail became a graveyard of torn trees. Gnarled roots had ripped giant stones from the earth in a fruitless effort to save themselves.  It was incredible to walk past a 12 foot high root system. 

As the cloud ceiling lowered, stifling the views and threatening rain, we hit Newfound Gap. We decided to go into Gatlinburg to resupply and crush some town food. Like everytime thus far, we’d spend the night there. 

Appalachian Trail Thru Hike: Unicoi Gap, GA to N.O.C., NC

Magic does exist. Today’s Magic would consist of a three course breakfast of sweet pancakes, fluffy eggs, and crackling bacon conjured seemingly out of thin air, in the rain, on a highway pull off in Georgia.

The previous night we had slept in what may have been, the most bizarre motel room ever. Upon entering, one could not mistake the pungeant mixture of bleach and, for lack of the words, the dank smell one usually finds in a cave. Past the threshold, one stepped up to a raised carpeted floor, it’s once white threads now covered in stains of various hue and density. The bed was relatively plain, even with the wreath hanging above it. What was strange about the bed, was it’s proximity to the tub. About three feet away, up yet another raised carpeted floor, and taking up the whole corner of the room, glowed a pink, mirrored tub. The worst part, it was out of order! If you wanted to bathe, you needed the bathroom. Down from the carpet to the tile we go. The floor of the bathroom was pleasant and squishy, like a marsh, and the shower head only shot a single jet of water. A mini fridge lay open and broken, with fresh spider webs inside. For $40 We. Loved. It. All. 
It was magic we arrived back at Unicoi Gap the same time as 8Track and Kathy, and by mistake, the rain. Under the awning of his camper, the usual tramily (trail family) of Goodwitch, Dream Liner, Sunshine, Thread, Tailgate, Pop Pop, Goodlife and us, ate the delicious breakfast prepared by Kathy. I stood near the door passing full plates to wide eyed hikers, the heat steaming away into the cold morning air.

We started up Rocky Mountain with full stomachs and rain gear. The rain gear didn’t last long, as we were soon sweating. Rocky proved to be tougher than anticipated, but also stunning. As we hiked higher, thin tendrils of mist wrapped around the white trunks of Birch trees. The clouds hung low and lethargic, drapped like a silver curtain over the peaks.  The sound was dampened, and nothing seemed to be moving, but us.

It was on the descent of Rocky when I started to feel my knee hurting. I could hike, but something seemed off. The side of my knee felt wrong, but we kept hiking. Back up again we went, this time up Tray Mountain, which was a longer, but less steep climb than Rocky. Uphill, my knee still hurt, but considerably less so we continued churning away the miles. We reached the top of Tray Mountain and looked out at what was very probably beautiful views. At the time, all we could see was a thick wall of grey. “Man I love the AT” I thought to myself. It was scenes just like this, that made me fall in love with long distance hiking. Only when you’re out here this long, would you hike up a mountain shrowded in clouds. Big views are always great, but there’s a certain magic about the misty days too.

We stopped in at Tray Mountain Shelter for water and met some new faces. One, The Royal Scarecrow (always has a little Crown Royal, but no “brain” on his backpack) would hike with us for the coming days.

Despite the warnings of rain, we pushed on, wanting to make it to Dicks Creek Gap by the next day. On the descent of Trey, my knee really deteriorated. I cursed my way through the last 5 miles, trying in vain to wrap my knee so it didn’t hurt. We made it to our camp, a gap named Sassafras, about the same time the sky decided to open up.

Our tent is small. It’s technically a two person rig, but at a light 2 pounds, it lacks any bells and whistles, like extra space. We fit perfectly side by side but there is no space to spare. We stayed warm and dry, but our packs took a beating under the vestibules, getting splashed by mud all night.

It was the first time we slept totally alone on the trail. Unsurprisingly, the lack of noise from other hikers made for a good nights sleep. Heavy droplets pinged against the green nylon of our tent, an anarchic metronome guiding us to sleep.

We woke to brisk temperatures, but clear skies. After a lot of stretching, and Legs mercilessly rubbing the knots out of my quad and IT band, my knee was feeling slightly better. I told Legs, “It’s fine. It only hurts when I step.”The day was crisp and clear, and thankfully relatively easy, despite a prolonged downhill to Dicks Creek Gap. We hitched back into Hiawassee to supplement our food, decided to watch a movie, and, like something out of a old Twilight Zone, we ended the day back in the Pink Tub Room.The next morning, we shuttled back to the trail, and again, were met with more trail magic. Greeter had all the healthy food groups, hotdogs, oreos, and chips, to name a few.  We loaded up, and started north.

Out of Dicks Creek Gap, the trail moved steadily and unwavering upward. From the gap, it’s less than 8 miles to the North Carolina border.

The Border lacks any and all pomp or ceremony. Rather, it’s a small weathered sign, nailed to a tree which reads, “NC/GA.” You could easily miss it, cranking away at yet another steady climb. We took our obligatory border photo and continued to Bly Gap. After Bly, the trail blasts upward, almost comically. A harder climb than any so far in Georgia, the welcome to NC is a fucking doosy. Like meeting your girlfriend’s ex marine father for the first time; it tests you. “North Carolina must hate hikers!” Exclaimed Scarecrow from a vista. He had a huge grin plastered on his face. Moments like this are why we are out here. We hiked around 12 miles to reach Muscrat Shelter, arriving before the massive bubble. I probed the hikers there with the usual pre shelter questions, most importantly, “Do you snore?” “Of course” some exclaimed! So we set up our tent.

The bubble arrived not long after us, starting as a dribble of individuals, then moving to a full on stream of groups. There were probably 30 or so people camping in the area that night.

During the night a massive, and powerful thunderstorm slammed into our camp. At it’s fiercest, no time passed between the white spot inducing crack of lightning, and the literal earth shaking roar of thunder. We huddled in The Greenhouse (our tent, a Nemo Hornet 2P), and listened to the symphony unfold. Laying directly on the ground allowed us to feel the earth breath.

The following day we left early, leaving behind the bubble. The first “big climb” was up Standing Indian Mountain, a 5k+ foot peak just north of Deep Gap. It’s an easier climb, switchbacking up a wide trail to the summit, then gently descending over 4 miles through a tunnel of Rhododendron. Legs, who had slept poorly the night before (due to thunder, and of course, snoring from a nearby tent) was in no mood for my jokes and quickly got tired of me. There may be no better incentive to hike faster, than being pissed off at your hiking partner. She was flying! We eventually made up at a small cascade a few miles later. (Remember, smiles not miles.) We made it to Carter Gap Shelter about 12 miles up trail with a lot of daylight to spare. Knowing the huge bubble was behind us and they would be coming here, we filled up our waters, had a snack, and kept going. In another 4 miles we stopped, and pitched The Greenhouse near Betty Creek under a thick latice of Rhododendron. The creek water was clean and brutally cold, but made for better white noise than the previous night. We shared this spot with just Scarecrow. By simply hiking a few more miles past the shelter, we had successfully hiked out of the bubble. We awoke to another cold morning and started hiking. This morning was different though, as we would reach Franklin, NC by days end. Where we could sleep in a warm bed and take our first zero of the trail. (A zero is a day where zero hiking takes place.)

The hike was a simple one that day, except for a crushing scramble to the summit of Albert Mountain. We had the summit to ourselves, with sweeping views of the blue/green patchwork of watersheds below. Down, and down again, to Rock Gap, where we just missed a ride into town. We’d need to hike another 4 miles to Winding Stair Gap, and just like that, we’d need to do it through hail. It was a gentle hail however, and we caught the shuttle into Franklin. We shared a room with Scarecrow at Haven’s Budget Inn, hunkering down before the worse of the snow hit. At 4pm, a bus took 10 of us to a Chinese buffet and a Walmart, which satisfied literally everyone’s needs in one fell swoop. We slept soundly and clean at the Inn, and awoke to a land covered in snow. We sank back into our warm beds and patted ourselves on the back for hiking fast enough to miss the bad weather. I dont think I stoodup until 3pm. After our first zero, we hit the trail, north from Winding Stair Gap. We would be leaving behind hikers who would not be coming back, their hikes over. It is all part of the game, Georgia to Maine, as they say. 

The trail today would test the mind far more than the body. As we wound in and out of the mountains, we’d also jump from snow and ice covered trail to uncovered, melted trail. When you need to think about every step, the mental hike feels like forever. We dodged overflowing puddles and ice patches, and slogged up ice covered ascents. Legs drove herself into a rage slipping backwords with every other step. We finished the hike as the snow really started to come down. Through a curtain of silvery mist, the dark silhouette of a shelter began to take form. Cold Spring Shelter is ON the trail, and has been since 1930. You can touch it as you pass by. Closer still is Cold Spring itself, flowing smoothly out of the side of the mountain a few feet in front of the shelter. Technically, it should sleep 6, but with Me (6’6″), Legs, Wonder Woman, Fish, and Radio (6′ 4″), there wasn’t any space left.

As darkness fell, the snow really began to pick up. We slept shoulder to shoulder, our breath crystallizing in small puffs of white. Silhouetted in the doorway, hung our food bags on mice strings, looking like butterfly cacoons. The temperatures froze at a balmy 18 degrees. We were warm all night, even when Wonder   Woman screamed loudly. A mouse was trying to get in her sleeping bag. All part of the GA-ME. The next day would prove to be my  favorite thus far. We woke to a world smothered in white. Everything felt dampened, from the outer shells of our sleeping bags, to the acoustics of the forest. Muffled, everything muffled.

I slipped on all my layers, tore my boots from the frozen shelter floor and headed to the privy for a morning constitutional. Having sampled the sensation of sitting on a snow covered toilet seat (hole in wood), in below freezing temps, I do not highly recommend it. Next to me, in a empty bucket meant to hold leaves, two mice huddled together for warmth. They must have climbed in to escape the cold, but the sheer inner walls held no purchase for them to escape.

(Before I continue, let me say that after recounting this story to hikers, most advocated for me leaving them in there or straight killing the mice. You better fucking believe I let those little critters out to survive another day. Hang your food and mice won’t be a problem. The end.)

We left the shelter at 9:45am and began the 12.5 mile trudge into the NOC (Nantahala Outdoor Center).

Legs, pragmatic as ever, told me to hike ahead and secure a room at the NOC. We knew a lot of hikers would be coming in today, pushing hard to sleep indoors and avoid the  upcoming single digit forecast. Legs might as well have unleashed the Dogs of War, because I was flying. The previous day, I had seen Fish and Radio cruising down the trail faster than anyone else I’d seen so far. They had left earlier than us from the shelter and I wanted to see if I could catch them. I did.

I hiked those 12 miles in 3 hours and 15 minutes. All the while, a goofy grin split my face ear to ear. I was having a blast. Constant falling snow, low visibility, and wind gusts that scorched your face, all while going up and down the southern Appalachians- pinch me. ​​

​At Jump Off Point, the trail seemed to walk off a cliff into a thick, grey, abyss. Treacherously steep, covered in ice and snow, and exposed, all while cutting back violently down the mountain, made it my favorite place on trail so far.  In these dicier parts, I opted for sense and slowed down. The final 5 miles is all downhill, bringing us from 4k+ to 1700 feet. It served as a reminder of the climb to come, out of the NOC, and to the North.

Until next time, Darwin out.

Appalachian Trail Thru Hike: Unicoi Gap to Winding Stair Gap

Unicoi Gap to Franklin, NC

In the morning we left Hiawassee and drove back to Unicoi Gap. I felt better since I started taking medication for my bronchitis and was eager to get back on trail. As we pulled up, 8Track and his lovely wife Kathy arrived in their RV, “promptly” pulling down the awning, and handing out a three course serving of Trail Magic. Pancakes, sausage, eggs and bacon, washed down with cider and maybe something a little stonger, it was truly magical. Our stomachs full, we started up Rocky Mountain.

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Darwin and 8Track helping HopScotch pull down the awning

Rocky Mountain is a steep climb, and due to the low clouds, we hiked through a dense mist, sweeping in and out of the trees. We took our time on the tough climb down due to our knees begging for mercy. But, as is the way of the AT we soon started back up, now on Tray Mountain. Down again, and 5 miles later, we found ourselves at Sassafras Gap. We’d share this camp with no one but the rain. We managed to set up our tent and rain fly with minimal rain inside of our tent but by the time we were all settled into our tent early in the afternoon, our packs were soaked. Fortunately, everything that needed to stay dry did and we listened to an audiobook for a few hours before the rain lulled us to sleep.Continue reading “Appalachian Trail Thru Hike: Unicoi Gap to Winding Stair Gap”

Appalachian Trail Thru Hike: Amicalola Falls State Park, GA to Unicoi Gap, GA

The rock arch designating the start of the Approach Trail at Amicalola Falls State Park
Max Epperson Shelter on the Approach Trail.

If you like boxing for 8 rounds, and not having it count, by all means do the Approach Trail. Sure, the falls are the tallest east of the Mississippi, and sure the steadily uphill 8.8 mile trail isn’t too hard,  but it resulted in us hiking 11.6 miles where only 2.8 counted on the actual AT. There are some benefits of the Approach. Firstly, it’s cheaper to get a shuttle there from the North Springs MARTA station. We used Survivor Dave’s shittle, a bombastic thru hiker alumni who charged us $95 for the two of us. Second, the falls are rather stunning, and you can see the whole cascade as you climb 403 steps to the top. Finally, you don’t have to start your hike backtracking one mile south to Springer Mountain. As we all know, one can never truly trust a southbounder.

The dreaded stairs of the Approach Trail
Amicalola is the tallest falls east of the Mississippi

On March 1st, we started walking north, and stood on top of Springer Mountain, the southern terminus of the Appalachian Trail. Rain was on the horizon, so we didnt linger. Our first steps were more like leaps, as we both wanted to jump into this new adventure with both feet. This was a little tradition of mine, as I did the same for the PCT. Continue reading “Appalachian Trail Thru Hike: Amicalola Falls State Park, GA to Unicoi Gap, GA”

The Alabama Hills & Other Adventures on Cali’s 395.

The contrast between the Alabama Hills, and the eastern escarpment of California’s Sierra Nevada mountains is something to behold. Below; smooth, earth tones abound, as stacks of monzogranite boulders lay scattered in all directions. Above; a sharp, blue wall of glowing granite, with Mt. Whitney serving as the highest spear tip. Tucked into the labyrinth, hide natural arches. dsc_0640

It was in the Alabama Hills where you can enter a world of hiking, mountain biking, and horse travel. Where famous movies like Gladiator, Django Unchained, and The Lone Ranger were filmed.  While there, enjoy limited crowds, free camping, and some of the best night skies you can imagine! Throw in a compass of adventure (I’ll explain later), and this small, but sweet area can be connected with a plethora of awesome adventures. To name a few- Mt. Whitney, Kearsarge Pass, Death Valley, hidden hot springs, and Yosemite National Park!

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THE ADVENTURE & TRAIL:

At a very short .7 of a mile, The Mobius Arch Trail may not seem like it has a lot to offer. I would agree with you, IF we were just talking about the trail by itself. Instead, let’s consider the Mobius Trailhead as a staging platform for a larger scale adventure!

The Mobius Arch is one of the more famous natural arches found within the area, due to it’s size and the way it frames Mount Whitney, the highest peak in the lower 48. It’s dramatic curve, view, and easy location to reach make it a spot for photography enthusiasts from all over the world. In mid March we didn’t have to battle against crowds, as we bumped into less than 20 people, and most of those people were either day visitors, or sleeping in tucked away RV’s. We were the only campers around, which made for a very private, and incredible spot near the Mobius Arch. LIKE THIS!

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A sweet campsite near the Mobius Arch!

After parking in the dusty lot (roads are generally unpaved in the area), we began to hike on the trail. The trailhead isn’t necessarily marked, but it’s very intuitive, and the beginning of the Mobius Trail is lined with stones.

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Boom. Stones.

The trail is short, but it doesn’t matter as you will be snapping photos left and right. If you come at the later part of the day, you can catch the last rays of light spilling over the Sierra, and bathing the White Mountains to the east in a golden light. There are also a near infinite amount of side passages, ravines, gullies, and boulder heaps to keep you entertained as you make your way past all the arches. The two ones directly on the trail are Lathe Arch, and obviously, the Mobius Arch, and they are right near each other. Once you’ve done the whole trail, take one of the side passageways and see where you can get to. We explored past sunset, scampering up to boulder tops, and slithering into skinny ravines, all while the stars began popping out.

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HOW TO GET THERE: 

The closest town is Lone Pine, a small, but full service town on highway 395. There is food, gas, and even a small outfitter/hostel. You can get some gear and stove fuel, at the outfitter, but it is limited. Alabama Hills is west of Lone Pine, via Whitney Portal Road. After 2.7 miles on Whitney Portal Road, turn right onto Movie Flat Road. In 1.5 miles, you will come to a parking lot area. Be aware, Movie Flat Road turns into dirt, and can be a little bumpy. Also, there isn’t any real signage, so it’s more intuitive, getting to the parking area.alabama-hills-map

A LADDER OF ADVENTURE: 

Ok so the Alabama Hills are sweet and all, but it’s not one of those, stay multiple day kinda places, unless you’re content on mountain biking. Rather, the Alabama Hills is just one rung, in a ladder of adventure. Placed almost perfectly between several national parks,  the Pacific Crest Trail, and some hidden gems (think hot springs), the Alabama Hills can be paired with some of the worlds most unique locations. To name a few, Death Valley National Park, Sequoia/Kings Canyon National Parks, and of course Yosemite National Park. I recommend spending half a day and a morning at the Alabama Hills, on your way to do something cool at one of these other spots. For example, Legs and I connected a Tahoe and Death Valley Trip, with a stop at the Alabama Hills.

NORTH! SOUTH! EAST! WEST! ANY DIRECTION IS A GOOD ONE!

WEST!
Looking for a long hike with a big finish? Head directly west to the Mount Whitney Portal, where you can hike up to the Summit of Whitney (weather permitting), and sit at the highest point in the contiguous United States, 14,508 feet! *Pro Tip!* Add to the experience, by starting at Horseshoe Meadows, south of Whitney Portal, and taking one of several trails a few miles to the Pacific Crest Trail. Hike the PCT 22.5 miles north to Crabtree Meadows, and then another 8.4 miles east, to the summit of Whitney. The cherry on the cake is a sunrise summit of Whitney, after sleeping at Guitar Lake (4 miles below the summit). If camping there, it’s a 4 mile slog up steep switchbacks, where you can leave your pack at Trail Crest (a junction), and continue up to the summit in the last 1.8 miles. Enjoy unbroken views to the east, as the sun explodes over the White Mountains. Generally, the summit wont be too crowded at this time, though in thru hiker season, expect more than you think. When you come down, pick up your pack at Trail Crest, and instead of hiking back down to Guitar Lake, head east, and down to Whitney Portal. (PLEASE NOTE YOU WILL NEED A PERMIT TO DO THIS!) Remember to give yourself enough time to get to the summit before the sun starts rising, as it is only 4 miles from guitar lake, but a very steep, and at a high altitude. (Mt. Whitney, of course, can be day hiked from the Whitney Portal and back (very strenuous hike), but make sure you have a permit.)

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NORTH!
Looking for a sweet day hike, or quick overnighter? Head north on 395 from Lone Pine to the town of Independence. Turn west, towards the Onion Valley Trailhead/campground. Park there, and take the Kearsarge Pass Trail/Bubbs Creek Trail up and over Kearsarge Pass to Kearsarge Lakes, and Bullfrog Lake (and eventually the John Muir Trail/Pacific Crest Trail). The hike to the top of Kearsarge Pass is around 5 miles, and though continuously upward, it is pretty well graded. Another 2-ish miles gets you to Bullfrog Lake, which makes for an incredible camping spot. Take the same trail back up Kearsarge, and down to the Onion Valley Trailhead (14 miles RT). (OR!!! Walk south to Mexico, or North to Canada on the Pacific Crest Trail.)

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Looking to try your hand in Yosemite? Head north on 395 until Lee Vining, where you turn west on HW120. This is Tioga Road/Tioga Pass and is subject to closure if there is snow. I recommend getting gas at the station right after you turn onto 120. This route will take you up and over Tioga Pass, through Tuolumne Meadows, and past Tenaya Lake (in that order). Your first view of Yosemite Valley will be from Olmstead Point, after Tenaya Lake,  which isn’t the greatest view of the Valley, but still pretty amazing.  If you are looking for hikes, there are many different trailheads beginning on 120. From east to west, some hikes include Lembert Dome, Lyell Canyon, the John Muir Trail down to Yosemite Valley, and Clouds Rest. If you want to see some Giant Sequoias, your best shot in the park for the next year is Tuolumne Grove near Crane Flat. Mariposa grove will be closed until 2017. Tuolumne Grove is only a micro grove with less than ten Giant Sequoias, but is a great 2.5 mile lollipop loop, passing some amazing trees, and some fallen sequoias via an old Logging Road. The rest of Yosemite, and Yosemite Valley can be reached from that point onward.

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(Little Secret Spot to know about – The run off of Keough Hot Springs (a fee based establishment) has a couple of pools tucked into the landscape outside of the companies property. The pools are comfortably hot, but under some power lines, so the ambience isn’t perfect. But, with the right people, it can be super cool. Buy a bunch of glow sticks and throw them in at night for a cool look. Head west off of 395 just outside the southern limits of Bishop towards the signed Keough Hot Springs. The LAST RIGHT before you actually enter the real property, is where you get off. It’s up to you to figure it out from there!)

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SOUTH/EAST!
Want to test yourself in extreme climates and landscapes?
Head southeast to Death Valley! From Lone Pine, head south on 136, which eventually heads east via 190 towards Panamint Springs and Stovepipe Wells. Hit the Mesquite Sand Dunes, Golden Canyon, and Badwater Basin while you’re there. Just beware of freakish temperatures, and blaring sunlight. Death Valley holds the record for the highest ever recorded air temperature at 56.7 C (134 F). I’ve been there in March and May. March temperatures hovered around 95+ degrees, and in May, the thermometer hit 116 degrees down at Badwater Basin! Badwater Basin also holds the distinction of being the lowest altitude in North America. In high summer, expect temperatures over 120 degrees.

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SOUTH!
Beaches, cities, or climbing? You can’t go wrong! Head on down to southern California. Santa Barbara, Los Angeles, and best yet, San Diego are all great cities to explore. If you’re still looking for some outdoor skullduggery, maybe head over to Joshua Tree, or the Imperial  for a little climbing, hiking, and some of the best star gazing in the United States.

GEAR REVIEW: THRU HIKE TESTED – Ultralight Adventure Equipment Circuit Backpack

READ THIS MORE TECHNICAL, PRE THRU HIKE REVIEW FIRST!!!

For 150 days, I hiked from Mexico to Canada on the Pacific Crest Trail. From April 17th to September 13th, the ULA Circuit sat “comfortably” on my back, in a plethora of conditions and terrain. Despite having to carry extra water in the desert, a bear can in the Sierra, and extra rain protection in Washington. The pack lasted the entire hike with some wear and tear associated with extreme, and continuous use. It is ready for another long hike, after some needed, but easy repairs.

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Thru Hikes Completed with Pack:

Pacific Crest Trail: 2688+ miles from Mexico to Canada
John Muir Trail (as part of PCT hike): 216 miles from Mt. Whitney to Yosemite

Base Weight during hike: 10.3 – 12.9 pounds

Scores

Weight: 7/10
Durability: 9/10
Comfort: 7.5/10
Adjustability: 8/10
Efficiency: 7/10

Notes From the Thru Hike  

1. Weight: XL Size Weight: 40oz stripped down. (Smaller sizes are up to 8oz lighter) The Circuit is by no means the lightest, ultralight pack. That honor probably goes to a pack from zPacks or Mountain Laurel Designs. However, the Circuit balances a mixture of durability and ultralight technology, to make for an amazing long distance backpack. Compared to certain Cuben Fiber packs, which are much lighter, but also more expensive, my Circuit is ready for another thru hike. I know of a few hikers who ‘retired’ their Cuben Fiber packs after they finished.

There were times when I wanted less weight on my back, but for the most part, the extra suspension padding, the space for a bear can, extra water, and/or extra rain gear, was much more practical and needed. Though I kept a base weight no heavier than 12 lbs, there were still many times when my pack weighed over 30 lbs. The Circuit was more than capable of carrying over 30 lbs, without any problem. Check out this Gear List, to see how I kept a 10 lb. base weight using my Circuit.

Thru hike Tip ——-> REMOVE the Removable Features:

• Hydration Sleeve (1.4 oz) Get rid of it!
•Internal Mesh Pocket (1.1 oz) Burn it.
•Water Bottle Holsters (0.8 oz) Have them kidnapped.
•Hand Loops (0.8 oz) Strangle them.
•Single Aluminum Stay (2.0 oz) —> ACTUALLY KEEP THIS ONE!

Note:

Another tester at Trail Lives owns the Circuit in size medium and it weighs 34oz (2 lb. 2oz) on our scales (stripped down)

2. Durability: This pack had been on hikes before the Pacific Crest trail, and after it. It is still in great, functional shape. I can’t say much to it’s cosmetic appearance, but it still functions perfectly. The fabric just seems to be almost bulletproof, minus one spot on the roll top closure, where the top strap rubbed the fabric down significantly in a small spot. Also, from constant bending for pack adjustments, getting thrown around, and crammed with different stuff, the aluminum stay bent and snapped, rendering it useless (I mention below how that affect the comfort of the pack). The only other slight damage are some small holes in the netting, but nothing big. I can replace the stay with ULA.

3. Comfort*: This one is tricky, because having a super comfortable, ultralight pack is like having your cake and eating it too. Packs like the Osprey Atmos AG, or the Gregory Baltoro, or really any “multi-day backpack” at major retailers like REI, are going to outstrip the Circuit when it comes to padding, and suspension. The reason ultralight packs are so light, is because they sacrifice on padding and suspension, thus their carrying capacity suffers. You can combat this with a low base weight, and being smart about how much food and water you should pack. On a thru hike, you have the luxury of time to tinker with your gear list, your diet, and how much water you need to carry in a day. By the end of my thru hike, I was such a good hiker, and was so good at hydrating during breaks, that I did not need to carry more than a half liter of water in case my mouth got dry.

There were times when I hated my backpack. Sometimes, you are going to have to carry more than you want, so if you have an ultralight pack, you are going to be relatively uncomfortable. Also, in the hot month of July, the lack of back panel ventilation would cause me to overheat quicker. Still, for 80% of my time using the Circuit, it rode like a champ, and was super comfortable. In the cooler temperatures, I could get my speed up to 4 mph and not worry about breaking a sweat. The hip belt’s vertical adjustments where perfect in letting me dial in the length of the pack. As each mile, and day passed, the Circuit became more and more comfortable. By Oregon, my pack was a tried and true piece of gear, and I would trust it with any long hike. By Canada, the Circuit was an extension of my body, molded to me so perfectly, I didn’t realize the aluminum stay had snapped from repeated bending. Even with the main support gone with the broken stay, I still threw on my pack and kept hiking, comfortable with my Circuit.

4. Adjustability: For an ultralight pack, the Circuit has a few different ways to adjust the fit of the pack. I found that through out the day, I would be constantly adjusting the shoulder straps, load lifters and hip belt. The Circuit will not stay in one position, so you need to tweak the straps every now and then while hiking.

5. Efficiency: There were a significant amount of times when I wished I could access the Circuit through the bottom. Yes, it would add a little weight, but more times than not, I just wanted to grab my quilt from the bottom without having to take everything out first. As for the roll top closure, the jury is still out. Does it allow me to roll the pack down when not completely full, yes, but it’s also just annoying to do it over and over again (remember 5 months living out of it). I wonder if a simple top like the Gossamer Gear Gorilla would have the same compression abilities, without the roll top closure.

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