#3 Thru-Hiking the AT: Nantahala Outdoor Center to just north of GSMNP

ABOVE: Fontana Lake viewed from AT’s famous Fontana Hilton shelter. Perhaps the nicest shelter on the AT.

2015 Appalachian Trail Log – #3
Originally posted on April 27, 2015
Posted by Great Miami Outfitters

#3. Nantahala Outdoor Center to just north of Great Smoky Mountain National Park

I’m 240.5 miles in (11% complete).

My hiker family really started to form during this leg. I also have a trail name–“Pacer.” Corky proposed the name because I set the pace for our hiker family. We’re routinely up and on the trail by 7:00; hiking 15-16 mile days; and done hiking between 4:00-5:00. We’re on track to hiking 20-25 mile days once we get out of the steep climbing/descending days. Feet, knees, etc all seem to be okay; when it’s wet, we still need to pay close attention to our feet. My hiker family is Pom Pom, Corky, Red Pepper, Big Sky, and Low-n-Slow. Ages range from 43 to 65, and we’re out distancing most of the young 20-somethings.

The night before I left NOC, about 20 of us got together for dinner at the River’s Edge Diner. Real good food. 20 thru-hikers the night before heading back to the trail can get a little rambunctious. A couple of the more rowdy led an awful, yet very loud rendition of Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody–lots of laughing.

Left NOC on 20 April and headed for Fontana Village, a 2 day, 27 mile hike. Long 3,000 climb from the Nantahala River took most of the day. Got into Fontana early on day 2 and stayed at the lodge–a real bed, steak dinner, shower–awesome. Weather was great all the way to Fontana.

Left Fontana and hiked over the dam to enter the Great Smoky Mountain National Park–best weather day of the 70 mile hike through the GSMNP. Day 1 was a long climbing day away from the lake and up to 5,000 ft. Incredible views from Shuckstack fire tower. Fire towers aren’t used anymore for their intended purpose and aren’t maintained very well. For hikers that don’t mind a little shaky climb in 40+ mph winds, the views can be incredible.

ABOVE: Fontana Lake viewed from Shuckstack Tower at 3800 ft.

While in the Park, hikers are required to stay in the shelters unless they’re full; then, thru hikers have to use their tents. Because we are early risers, we easily got the pick of the shelter bunks, and we took them because of the quick changing weather conditions in the mountains.

Smoky Mountain shelters are great–12 to 14 slots, fireplaces, wide overhangs to help stay dry, and they still had the winter tarps up to block the high winds. Temperatures got into the high 20s the night of day 2; low temperatures meant we got great views from Rocky Top and Clingman’s Dome. Clingman’s Dome is the highest point on the AT, reaching 6,655 ft. I’ve been up there several times, and a clear view is very rare.

Day 3 took us over the half way point at Newfound Gap. US 441 is the only road that cuts through the GSMNP and is about half way through the Park; it’s also famous for trail magic. We weren’t disappointed–root beer, fruit, rice crispy treats, candy bars…we sat on the grass and grazed on high calorie junk food; then, we power climbed out of the Gap to our shelter. Oh, trash cans. Hikers love trash cans so we can off load bulk out of our packs.

Stayed dry the first 35 miles of the Smoky’s, not so much the last 35 miles. We knew for over a week that we had bad weather ahead. We even planned our hiking days around it. We out hiked the bad weather to our 4th night shelter in the Smoky’s.

I counted 8 tents outside the shelter that night and a huge thunderstorm rolled in just after midnight. High winds, hail, sheets of rain until 5:00. Tents were definitely a tough night–especially the ultralight tents and hammocks. The trail was a stream until the afternoon, then thick mud with a lot of leaf litter to make grip even tougher.

ABOVE: Icewater Spring Shelter in GSMNP–12 person

Jamie picked me up for a zero day at the exit of the GSMNP at the crossing of Interstate 40. She brought trail magic for all the passing hikers. The rest of my trail family pressed on to Hot Springs for a zero day. I’ll hike a couple long days and catch them in about 3 days and we’ll press for Damascus, VA.

Trail Tale: 
Corky is a mid-50s female and clearly a great athlete. She section hiked the AT in 2013 and 2014 and is a hiking animal. She’s now doing a thru hike. Particularly distinctive is that she hikes in Crocs…that’s right Crocs. I haven’t seen a hiker that can keep her pace up a mountain in any footwear.

The first time I met Corky was when she blew by me climbing out of NOC while I was hunched over my hiking poles trying to breath. I watched her climb out of sight and couldn’t believe how hard she climbed.

Day 1 in the Smoky’s was a beautiful day. Corky stopped for lunch on a log as usual–peanut butter and crackers. About 2 feet away she heard a rattle and quickly identified the source, a Timber Rattler coming straight at her–not normal. She sprang to the side and watched the rattler cross right over the spot on the log she was sitting on and slowly slithered right up into the woods. She said it never slowed down.

The rattler appeared to want Corky to know it was passing through–didn’t seem to have any intention to harm her. Corky stood there and finished her crackers watching the snake pass by; then, carefully looked around, grabbed her backpack, and hiked on…

Until next time,
Chris “Pacer”

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