Deep Woods and I finished the AT section hike a day early, adding a few miles to each of the last three days to beat a storm system moving in. Additionally, Deep Woods got a text that a close friend had just passed away so he needed to get back home ASAP. To make things worse, Deep Woods’ brother-in-law, David, had to drop off the trail on day two due to serious knee issues. It was especially unfortunate to see him go because of all of the anticipation, preparation and long trip down from Maine to meet us but his left knee prohibited him from going any further than Iron Mountain Gap, roughly 20 miles in. We were able to get a hold of Lumpy at Mt Rogers Outfitters in Damascus, our shuttle driver to Erwin on the first day, to get him back to his vehicle. Deep Woods and I continued on, wishing that there were more we could have done to help.
After reading all of that, you’re probably thinking that this was the worst trip yet. Nothing could be further from the truth. For Deep Woods and I, it turned out to be the most spectacular section of the AT to date! It nearly killed me (Dead Woods did just fine) but this was my favorite section of the AT so far. With the exception of very light rain early on the first day, the third and last nights and the hike into Damascus, we had dry skies the entire time. It never rained hard enough to even put the rain gear on while hiking. We had particularly nice weather over the highlights of the trip: Beauty Spot, Roan Highlands, Little Hump and Hump Mountains, and more. The last several days were hot and humid, particularly hard on myself, but any physical discomfort over the course of the trip paled in comparison to the beauty we encountered. We both ran out of words to describe how amazing this section is.
Loonie and her sister met us in Damascus, at which point Deep Woods headed for home. The girls and I spent an afternoon at Grayson Highlands, over which Deep Woods and I will pass next year, one day at Trail Days to checkout the gear vendors and then made our own way home.
I’m SLOWLY making my way through all of the pics from the trip, but I’ll put some up and a few details from each day over the course of the next few posts. I will add that I was generally very disappointed in my own pics, primarily due to my inability to get the majority of them in focus. The Essential Tremor is making that a daunting task. So, I’m really hoping that Deep Woods came through with his own and bails me out here!
Day One: Uncle Johnny’s Hostel in Erwin, TN to campsite at Beauty Spot Gap. 12.3 mi
We left Uncle Johnny’s Hostel, immediately crossing the Nolichucky, briefly entered the forest, crossed the railroad tracks and started the climb up to the day’s destination, Beauty Spot Gap. The climb is long but gentle, with several foot bridges over small streams early on. A light rain fell morning through mid-afternoon but the canopy and warm temps negated the need for rain gear. Flowers were blooming all along the trail, particularly White and Painted Trillium. I spotted a lone Pink Lady Slipper early on in the hike.
After crossing TN 395 at Indian Grave Gap, we crossed a power line cut and began the final ascent to Beauty Spot. As if on cue, the rain stopped and out came the sun. The dry skies stayed with us nearly every remaining day of the trip, though it was often overcast. Once on top, we soaked in the view with other hikers, looking out at the surrounding mountains and down on the town of Erwin where we had started the day.
Many of the thru hikers there elected to stay put for the night hoping to catch a good sunset and sunrise. Needing water and wanting to get out of the wind, we moved on another half mile or so to a site in the woods with a piped spring. With camp setup, water collected and dinner out of the way, Deep Woods and I hiked back up to the top to catch the sunset while David stayed behind to rest his sore left knee. He didn’t miss too much though, as a bit of clouds obscured the best part of the show.
Day Two: Iron Mountain Gap campsite. 9.2 mi
Day two began with the climb to the top of Unaka Mountain. This climb wasn’t too taxing either but David’s knee issue was worsening, so we took it slow. Patches of Bluets and Trout Lilies lined the trail as we made our way along. A thick stand of Spruce covers the top of Unaka, which offers a refreshing change of scenery to the dense rhododendron thickets you typically encounter.
The descent to Low Gap was particularly rough on David’s knee and we started discussing what the options were going forward. There were Violets, Larkspur and more Trillium along the trail to Cherry Gap Shelter where we took a long break. We then made the short climb up Little Bald Knob. The descent on the other side to TN 107/NC 226 at Iron Mountain Gap sealed the deal. David’s knee simply wasn’t going to hold up. Lumpy met us at the gap after he got off work, we said our good byes and Deep Woods and I moved on up the trail.
We had just 1.2 miles to go to our intended destination for the day, the Apple Orchard campsite, and made quick work of it. We found a spot under a tree, setup camp, had dinner and listened to owls screech back and forth as we settled in for the night.
Day Three: Ash Gap campsite. 11.0 mi
Our gradual ascent to Roan Highlands continued this day but dead legs would plague me over the course of the next three. My training regimen of no exercise and massive quantities of soda and junk food failed me once again. Cursing myself for not being so disciplined as Deep Woods, I trudged on. He was patient as always, not saying a word as I blamed my slow progress on the need to stop and photograph every flower along the trail. We passed some interesting rock formations early on and made our way to Clyde Smith Shelter, where we stopped for a break. Once back on the trail, the climb continued to Little Rock Knob at just under 5,000 ft. From here we had a nice view to the west.
We gave up about 1,000 feet of elevation on the descent to Hughes Gap, crossed the road and walked on 3 miles more to Ash Gap, re-taking the lost elevation and tacking on about 300 feet more. We called it a day at this point. A number of other hikers had chosen to do the same but we found a nice spot to pitch tarp and tent, accomplishing the task just before a light rain began to fall.
We were now positioned less than 1,000 feet below and two miles distant from Roan High Knob Shelter and should reach the balds of the Highlands by late-morning the following day. I’ll pick up from here in the next post.
More to come…