Pictures from this expedition are at the Grauvogel Family website, www.grauvogelfamily.com
DAY 1 – Saturday, September 1:
Drove from Comfort Inn in Newport TN to the Allen Gap Trailhead on US-321 to Greenville TN and TN-70/NC-208. Got on the trail by 1010. The intention was to get to the first shelter and spring at 3.7 miles and then see how much time was left. Got to Spring Mountain shelter at 1230 and met 4 gals from Florida. Very personable, friendly and going our way. They left before us and we watered up and ate our first trail lunch. Found out that I can out-hike Anna, which was surprising. So we let her lead. No spider webs because of the foursome in front of us. So with the earlier start we had plenty of time to cut distance off to Hot Springs. The uphill to Spring Mountain shelter took a lot out of us but we had enough to make it down to Hurricane Gap, across USFS 3514 and most of the way up Rich Mountain to a campsite on trail’s edge. A perfect spot. It was above the USFS road, which had traffic up and down from the old FS tower at the peak. Some young men on foot going up and sometime later coming back down were a bit of a concern but we were too high up above and mostly back off the slope to be seen. They went their way.
We were in camp by about 1530 so we had plenty of time to set up and for Anna to learn the ropes. We chose the Italian Pepper Steak with green beans for dinner. Ate a bit early and then got a fire going for ambiance and to burn the trash. Soon after dinner the thunder to the northwest started and the wind came up, but we had partly cloudy skies and no rain. So that passed and a bit later the thunder started to the southwest and some clouds started rolling in. We got spit on a bit but again no rain. The storm split around Rich Mountain apparently. Pretty amazing. As the thunder was coming on a threesome of guys was coming down Rich Mountain. They asked how far to the next shelter and we told them 2.2 miles. After discussing the situation they turned around to camp up on Rich Mountain. Another hiker came by near sunset on his way to the tower at the summit for the sunset. He said hiking in the evening was his favorite time. We saw 15 people today counting all these folks.
We had an owl in the area overnight – an Eastern Screech Owl that moved around from south to north as the night progressed. A bit unnerving since it was loud. Both of us had difficulty sleeping anyway. Turns out Anna’s thermarest was leaky (an oversight by me). Will try to take a look at it and get a repair kit in Hot Springs tomorrow. Hung the coon bag on the first try.
5.7 miles today, 2 more than planned. 9.3 for tomorrow.
DAY 2 – Sunday, September 2:
Up a little after daybreak started breaking camp. Worked steadily and were on the trail by 0810. Kinda slow but early enough. Picked up water from the spring 2/10ths up the trail and headed for the Rich Mountain crest. Hit the intersection with the side trail to the summit and decided not to take the time. The campfire across from the intersection was still smoking a bit – not good camping. Headed down toward US-25 and Tanyard Gap. The 3 amigos passed us along the way. Word from the 4 gals was that the water from US-25 into Hot Springs was sparse, so we took a full load from the spring above camp before that to make sure we had enough to make it down the obvious steep approach into town. Temps were in the mid-60’s overnight and up in the mid-80’s by day with plenty of humidity. Crossed US-25 at Tanyard Gap on concrete bridge and ascended log steps to Mill Ridge. Descended through field and past pond. Passed the 3 amigos eating their lunch under a big tree at one of the turns as we entered the Mill Ridge field. Trail was well blazed through here. Ate lunch in trailside campsite at a sharp turn at Pump Gap, about 5.7 miles. The 3 amigos passed us once again. Didn’t take another water stop knowing we would be at the hostel tonight. It was pretty hot.
The last section into town ended with a pretty grueling downhill. Switchbacks cut into the rock face, some more traditional switchbacks and then a stroll for a mile or so along the French Broad River to the bridge. Saw rafters on the river, which had broad rapids all the way across. A big KOA campground on the opposite bank. Walking into town was cool but sunny, humid and hot. Passed all the restaurants. Stopped in Chamber of Commerce for my first passport stamp and got advice on the restaurants. Continued on through town and after some confusion and directions from a local teen found our way to the Laughing Heart Hostel. Met Jeff and paid up. Got settled in – we were the first ones there so took the twin beds. Passed the 3 amigos headed to town on our way. The 4 sisters arrived after stopping to eat on their way in. One big happy family we are.
Showered, changed clothes and got the laundry going and into the dryer before heading to dinner. I forgot to take in a towel with me so had to pull on my shorts to get one from the hall shelf and of course the cooks preparing dinner for the other guests were there. Oh well. Were intending to go to the Iron Horse Station but the hour wait to be seated was not good so wandered into the Spring Creek Tavern. Everything was packed it being Sunday evening before Labor Day. We decided to stake out an unbussed table on the deck overlooking the creek. When we finally got the attention of a waitress we were well attended to. Had her stamp and sign my passport – Phoenix. Beer was cheap (Yuengling at $2.75) and the burgers were good, especially the fries. It was a 45 minute wait for the food anyway but we had nothing else to do. It was very pleasant once the sun dropped below the ridge. Walked back to the Laughing Heart. Settled in for the night. Met through hiker “Edison”. He was doing the second half from Shenandoah to Springer GA.
9.3 miles today, 15 total. Passed 15 people.
DAY 3 – Monday, September 3 (Labor Day):
Since the Smoky Mountain Diner didn’t open til 0800 we planned around that. Took a second shower. Waited for the diner to open and talked with Edison for a while. Food was as advertised. We both had bacon stuffed omelets and a pint of orange juice. Anna had a fresh cinnamon roll. I had coffee with refills. There was a lot of the local history on display on the walls and the locals outnumbered the visitors. We were fueled up and packed up and on the trail by about 0900. Today is the big ascent day, over Bluff Mountain.
The trail was very crowded today, it being the end of the 3-day holiday. The first hiker we met said there were maybe 50 people up at Deer Park Shelter last night. We counted 23 coming down before we passed it and a total of 28 for the day.
We climbed on up to Deer Park Mountain Shelter and watered up again. Took it from a small trickle at the base of the hill up to the shelter. On exit noticed that the water was back up at the trail on the opposite side of the trail. Darn. Also met “Bandit”, who told us that he had dropped a bandana a ½ mile up the trail and it was ours to have. Of course we found it. Ate lunch at Garenflo Gap after passing a trail maintainer loping of low limbs. Watered up for the ascent at a spring at trailside about 2 miles from Garenflo. While there a couple came down headed for Hot Springs and the Iron Horse Station for her birthday. Learned that their Sawyer Squeeze water filter was clogged and they had no backflusher. But we did. Fixing them up was very satisfying. Now for the highest point – Bluff Mountain. The climb was strenuous and we were soaked with sweat by the summit. We misread some of the trail guide and thought we were further along than we were a couple of times. This is typical for a long stenuous uphill, wishful thinking. Bypassed the Big Rock Spring on the side trail. And there were switchbacks near the top. Anna ran out of mental energy and gas at one point and I pressed on. She stopped for a snack and water break. The telltale boulder outcrop at the summit was maybe 2/10ths from where she stopped. But that was a relief. There were two stream crossings just below the summit, so we hadn’t taken any extra water to save weight. We hit the first crossing and I ended up 30’ down a ravine filling bottles. No problem. But the second crossing had a perfect water spout right next to the trail. Rats. Elated finally with the downhill we pressed on to Kale Gap, past Catpen Gap. We found ourselves in a campsite in a white oak stand with a bit of poison ivy and nettles just for fun. But there was seating and a fire ring. Burning the trash became a real challenge since everything we had was wet with sweat or humidity. After using a bunch of matches I finally got some squaw wood from the pines, shaved them down and got it going. We then had a pleasant time around the fire. We had gotten into camp at about 1815 with sunset at 2000, but we did an efficient job and were done setting up and eating the chicken and rice before sunset. Another night, another owl, another Screech Owl but not as close or persistent. Another night of difficult sleep. Maybe it’s the evening coffee.
12 miles today, 27 total. Passed 28 people.
DAY 4 – Tuesday, September 4:
I noticed as morning approached that the cicada and other night bugs shutdown at nearly the same exact time. Strange. Up at 0630 for an earlier start. This was scrambled eggs day and they were yummy. On the trail at 0825. Passed Walnut Mountain Shelter at 0850 and off to Max Patch at a steady slow climb. Watered up at a stream crossing right before Lemon Gap and pushed on. Stopped at Roaring Fork Shelter to water up bagain but couldn’t find it so continued on and came to the stream crossing 2/10ths up the trail and stopped for water. Came to a split in the trail, either up over Max Patch or bypass on Buckeye Ridge trail. Of course went up and over and the slope was not too bad. What beautiful vistas. Took panorama and 360° videos. After a nice break we descended to Cherry Creek and replenished water for the climb up Harmon Den. Down, down and then down to Brown Gap. Man what a poorly laid trail. Finally got to the bottom all pooped out from the downhill. Then back up another half mile to the Hawks Roost side trail on Harmon Den Mountain. Intended to camp at Hawks Roost but trail guide had the unmarked trail going off to the west instead of east so I told Anna to keep going. Reached the crest in another tenth mile and then mistook the Rube Rock trail as the Hawks Roost trail. Tracked this until it disappeared in the nettles at an overgrown although very elaborate fire ring. Ended up setting up camp back at the trail’s edge campsite. Set up our own sitting logs and added some stones to the fire ring. After getting situated I explored ahead ½ mile and saw nothing, then finally figured out that Hawks Roost was indeed at the end of that east side trail back down the trail and confirmed it with a short hike after dinner.
Had trouble starting the fire again until I fell upon the oxygen absorber packets from the freeze dried meals – the best tinder of all our stuff and with that really got it going. Burned all the trash and settled down for the night. No owl tonight. Still not sleeping the best. Got up partway into the night to put my very smelly socks in the pack and take some ibuprofen. Had an emergency bowel movement and in the process the button from my pants fell off, ran down my leg and into the detritus. Left it for morning.
11.5 miles today, 38.5 total. Passed 12 people today, so a few are on the trail beyond the holiday weekend.
DAY 5 – Wednesday, September 5:
Up in the dark at 0600. Got my morning prayer done. Anna got the coon bag and we got the tent and hammock down. Today was oatmeal day, so we boiled up the water and chowed down. Just before we broke camp went to look for my lost pants button. Said a prayer and asked Jesus for some help. Bingo – found it. Another small miracle.
Broke camp by 0745. Snowbird Mountain day. Down to Deep Gap (not nearly as deep as Brown Gap) and then a steep climb up Snowbird. Watered up for the climb at Groundhog Creek Shelter at a very nice little cascade. 2/10ths down and 2/10ths back to the trail.
As compared to other days I actually took us to be not as far up the trail as we were and when we hit the clearing on the western peak of Snowbird and saw the FAA tower I was really relieved. The last uphill was behind us. After a few pictures we were down toward Davenport Gap at a quick pace. Stopped for lunch at 1130 at a trailside campsite above Painter Creek, where Edison caught up to us. He had done the same distance from Hot Springs in 2 days. Whew. Passed the turn at Spanish Oak Gap and ever downward. Hit the Green Corner Road and made the mistake of following the trail right on the road, then across the road and stream, then back down parrallel to the road, then around the next ridge on a very poor section of trail to the steps and final descended to Green Corner Road, under I-40 and across the bridge at the Pigeon River to where Mom was waiting. Should have turned left and just followed Green Corner Road around the ridge. But did get to climb down the final rock stairway after 6 years of dreaming about it. Edison must have gone to the hostel 300 yards up the road or else left on the road to I-40 because the spider webs were thick on that last portion.
Anna and I had a bet on arrival times. I said 1330, she 1400. We gave each other a 10 minute window. An alcoholic drink was at stake. The stinking last trail section did me in. We got to Mom precisely at 1400. Tried to find a Ranger to stamp my passport at Big Creek but were too late.
After getting showered and a bit of rest at the Newport Comfort Inn we headed to Hot Springs for dinner and to get my passport stamped. Got the stamp at the Laughing Heart no sweat, then had a very, very good meal at the Iron Horse Station. Checked out the gift shop and neighboring Bluff Mountain Outfitters but they had already closed. Back at the motel afterward we fell fast asleep with a bit more ibuprofen.
10.5 miles today, 49 total. Passed only 5 people today, probably because we were beyond Max Patch.
My next section will be to close the gap between Spivey Gap, near Erwin TN, and Allen Gap. Spivey Gap north was my very first AT experience, with Dave Niswonger, Will, Johnny, Peter Zwerneman and young Bob Winding back in 2002. The gap is 43.2 miles. When that will be is yet to be determined.
Longer range I would like to complete all of the AT in North Carolina. So Fontana Dam south to the border is in my mind.