Mile 1936.9 (NC): May 13, Hot Springs, NC to Max Patch

It was a nice night by the river. I didn’t even see anybody else camped there. So it was quiet, except for the fast, swollen river flowing just a few feet away from my hammock. 

I was packed up and in town by 8:30. I checked on a package, which seemingly hadn’t arrived. I left forwarding instructions with the post office then went to the town diner for breakfast. Finally I stopped into Dollar General to get a few more food items for the short trip to my next stop, Standing Bear Farm. 

On the way out of town I came across a small box and handwritten note. The box was full of silk flowers and the note asked hikers to wear a flower in condolence for the tragic death of a hiker, and injuring of another, by a mentally unstable person who had come onto the trail threatening people several times in the past few weeks. He had been arrested but was released before this incident. I picked an orange flower and put it onto my shoulder strap. 

I hiked by a guy who noticed my orange tag (2018 AT Thru Hiker) and commented that he had last year’s tag, too. And he said, actually he had four different color tags. I asked whether he had done the whole trail four times or was coming back in a new attempt to finish each year. He said he was still trying to finish and this was his fourth year in a row. I wished him luck and away he went. 

Although it might be cool and windy tonight I decided to try and camp up near Max Patch, one of the best mountain top views in the southern Appalachians. I figured I would risk being a little cold for the chance to see an amazing sunset and, possibly, sunrise. I found a place to set up camp, ate dinner, then headed to the top of the peak to watch the sunset. Sure enough it was very windy and cold up there. It was an amazing sunset and worth the chill. 

I went down to my hammock spot before dark, crawled in, and hoped the night wouldn’t be too windy up here…

Mile 1916.4 (NC): May 12, Tentsite to Hot Springs, NC

The morning was rainy again, as expected. I usually take down my tarp first when it’s not raining, which is usually the case. But today I got more practice packing everything up while under my tarp. It went pretty well and it was nice to have a protected place to pack.

I hiked along in the rain for a few hours. There are a couple positives about hiking in the rain: first, you don’t need to drink as much water, which saves time stopping and filtering. Second, with everything wet, your mind accepts your feet being wet, so you can just splash away through all the puddles, which also saves you time trying to avoid muddy and wet places. But you do have to be more careful with potentially slippery areas, which slows you down a bit. All in all, I think I go a little faster in the rain than on warm days.

Eventually the rain slowed, then stopped. The rain held off most of the afternoon with only a few showers here and there. I passed more hikers than I expected, both today and yesterday. There were fewer than on good weather days, but still about 15-20 per day. 

And finally I passed some familiar places. I had hiked out and back from Hot Springs last May for a test run. I was surprised how much more quickly and easily these miles passed now, even late in the day. 

Right before town there is a nice river area with many little campsites. The river was running wide and fast due to the recent rains.

I set up close to town then walked in to grab a bite to eat before returning to the river to sleep. I planned to pack up in the morning, finish errands in town, and continue hiking before noon. The trail goes right through the center of this little town which makes things easy. Hot Springs is one of a handful of true “Trail Towns” on the AT.

Mile 1895 (TN/NC): May 11, Tentsite to Tentsite near Spring

I got on trail today about 7:15 and it was already raining. The forecast calls for at least the next two days of rain. Thankfully the temperatures should stay in a comfortable range, day and night. 

During the morning I came across a sign for a trail crew working ahead. There was no one working this weekend, probably because of the weather. But their work area was in progress. They were putting in some terraced steps in an eroded part of the trail. 

Then, in the afternoon I saw a sign for “Shelton Graves” and decided to take the side trail over to see what was there. 

My maternal grandmother told me years ago that we were related to some Sheltons in North Carolina. I only saw two Shelton gravestones. They weren’t dated but looked like perhaps World War I era. 

And It was raining so it was hard to see or hear things moving around. So I surprised a big tom turkey up there. I usually only see the females when they fly away from me, having seen me first. 

I climbed the unusually named “Big Butt Mountain.” It wasn’t nearly as interesting as its name, especially in the rain.

Then, on the other side of the mountain was Jerry’s Cabin Shelter. It was still raining so I just stopped in to check my phone out of the rain. It was 3pm and the shelter was full of northbound hikers with a fire going and a guitarist playing away. 

I continued on from there and the rain stopped for the rest of the afternoon. I arrived my goal for the afternoon: a tentsite with water source in a nice wind-protected spot. Three more hikers eventually showed up at this spot and set up as well. But it was late and I was already settled down so I didn’t get a chance to say hi. 

Mile 1868.8 (TN/NC): May 10, Uncle Johnny’s Hostel to Tentsite near Spring

Tony and Cathy introduced me to a traditional German breakfast called “knipp.” Cathy is of German heritage on both sides of her family and grew up with this. She told me it’s made from pork and whole oats and sort of has the consistency of breakfast sausage. So, both mornings I departed their place, I went out fueled up with knipp. Today we had coffee and knipp in their sunroom and it made me want to stay a little longer. Oh, and I’m sold on the knipp thing and may try playing around with the idea once I get home…

Cathy returned me to Uncle Johnny’s Hostel and I dropped of some of my excess food in the hiker box. I had taken some snacks from there yesterday and today I left a bunch of oatmeal packets and a couple protein bars I didn’t need. 

I headed uphill and almost immediately was treated to several beautiful views of the river valley below. 

I also started passing people right away heading to town. It was like salmon spawning and I hadn’t gotten the memo. I must have passed 30 people by 3pm, most trying to hurry toward town before the rain this weekend. The forecast calls for heavy rain and possible thunderstorms both tomorrow, Saturday, and Sunday with rain tapering off Monday morning. 

Mid afternoon the trail emerged onto another grassy pasture below Big Bald Mountain. True to its name, Big Bald was completely that. The trail went up the mountain and straight to the top with 360 degree views of mountains in every direction. 

Then, back down into the woods with blooming flowers. 

Then the trail turned steeply downhill and I went a few more miles to a tent site with little spring for water. I stopped around 5pm, already tired. There was still a lot of daylight but I thought it better to save my energy for the next two rain days. And I was all set up and sleeping before the light had completely disappeared for the day… 

Mile 1847.8 (TN): May 9, North of Unaka Mountain to Uncle Johnny’s Hostel

Yesterday I wondered how many more perfect days we could get. With all-night gusting wind and occasional rain I believed my question had been answered.

It had sprinkled a bit in the evening, but with no wind. It seemed as though the weather would pass. But at night the wind picked up and the fog was so thick that each gust of wind brought down droplets of condensation from the trees above. My tarp, hung rather high, didn’t keep the spray out very well. So one side of my hammock, and quilt, was slightly damp by morning. I made a minor adjustment to the tarp from inside my hammock one I realized what was happening, which helped. 

With the windy and misty conditions I didn’t sleep much so I packed up early for my half-day hike to Erwin. The trail was mostly covered in rocks and roots, but it was an easy downhill walk otherwise. The fog cleared as I headed downhill as well. 

Once I reached the lower ground the trail again followed and crossed several creeks.

The mountain laurel was just starting to bloom here. This was the first time I had seen these blooms so I enjoyed a few short breaks to appreciate them.

On the way down I got phone signal and texted an update to our friends, Tony and Cathy. Cathy has offered to pick me up for resupply and return me to the trail tomorrow morning. 

As I reached the edge of town the trail joined a bridge across the Nolichucky River. This was a fast moving, wide river, but didn’t look too deep. It looked like a good river for tubing or river rafting on a warm day. 

Directly across the river was Uncle Johnny’s Hostel. It was a relaxed place where I was welcome to sit out front and hang out while I waited for Cathy to pick me up. I bought a few things from the little outfitter / camp store on site while I waited.

Within a few minutes Cathy arrived and she took me by Walmart for resupply then back to their little mountain paradise for one more night. I planned to be at my next stop, Hot Springs, North Carolina in 3.5 days. However, the forecast calls for rain to move in with some heavy thunderstorms over the next several days. So I’m not sure how my progress will be affected by the weather over this time…

Mile 1835.2 (TN): May 8, Ash Gap to North of Unaka Mountain

It was another perfect hiking day and I wondered when the other shoe would drop. How many of these in a row could we have?

The hike today was mostly downhill and would be shorter mileage. I planned to reach Erwin, Tennessee tomorrow afternoon and didn’t need to push very hard today or tomorrow to do so. I took my time and enjoyed the day, talking to a few of the many hikers I passed along the way.

Juggernaut from Massachusetts had an orange 2018 thru-hike tag, like mine, and was back out this year

Well into the afternoon a group told me there was a guy “giving out snacks” at the road below, about a mile away. Sure enough, I saw a van and a small group of NOBOs hanging around. 

I had seen this van before somewhere online—“The AT Friendly Van” with an image of Casper. The owner, Rob Bird, is a long time provider of trail magic in this area. I took some snacks and sat in the van with him for a while. He mentioned he moved from Dalton, Massachusetts to Unicoi, Tennessee in 2012. He had operated a hiker hostel from his home in Massachusetts for many years. Now he shuttles hikers around in Tennessee and comes out for trail magic in the area. 

The snacks were a good high-energy way to finish the final climb of the day. Like yesterday, rain clouds moved in late in the day and sprinkled a bit as I walked the last couple hours.

But I got everything set up and had dinner finished before 6pm. The extra time in camp was welcome and I was glad that this high tentsite had phone service for me. I took care of my trail notes for the past two days and got them, including this post, uploaded from the comfort of my hammock. Four lady hikers arrived after me and set up tents nearby. We said hello but were all tired and busy with our own tasks for the night. 

Mile 1815.0 (TN): May 7, Near Mountaineer Falls to Ash Gap

I was hopeful to reach Roan High Knob Shelter tonight. It’s the highest shelter on the AT and reportedly has space for about fifteen inside. Given the elevation profile, it was a bit far but with an early start I had a good shot. 

Thankfully it was another cool clear day. Partway through the morning I passed 400 mile artwork some northbounders had put together. I like these markers because they are a countdown for my trip. 

On my way I would climb quite high and cross a series of grassy balds, or bare mountain tops. On the way up to the balds, the trail passed through a series of lush pastures. There were no cows to be seen down here today.

Then I passed a sign facing northbound hikers saying they were leaving North Carolina. I think the trail meanders back and forth between Tennessee and North Carolina for a long way—maybe over the next 100 miles?

Sign for northbound hikers

As I climbed higher the trees disappeared and the grassy mountain top pastures started. I was happy for the weather. Often potential views are missed due to fog, rain, or clouds. Today I had the perfect combination of weather and clouds for an amazing show. 

As the afternoon progressed some heavier clouds appeared and darkened. We got some light rain, off and on, for the rest of the day. I didn’t mind the cooling off. There was no lightning and the weather made for some dramatic scenery as I walked. 

As the trail descended a bit into the trees there were a few more miles of flowering plants below the trees. 

Then the trail went back up to a couple of the final balds of the day. 

The rain clouds multiplied and, as I started the climb toward Roan High Knob, a light but steady rain came down. 

After all the elevation gain and the long miles I was tired and glad to be in the final approach. I reached the shelter. At 6,270 feet it is the highest on the trail. But, given the rain, the shelter was already pretty crowded. I stood there numbly for a minute. The bottom floor was full. Someone said there might still be room in the loft. Do I pack into the loft with all these wet hikers? Look for a place to set up around here? Or what?

The weather forecast called for lows in the high 40s—but in the valley below. It could be 10-15 degrees colder at this elevation. And, if windy, it would feel even colder. I opted to continue down the mountain a couple more miles to a tentsite ar Ash Gap at lower elevation which would be a little warmer and, hopefully, less crowded. 

It turns out there were only two of us at this enormous tentsite tonight. It was a nice place and quiet. I quickly set up camp and ate dinner before retiring to the hammock exhausted. 

And here are a few of the other interesting things I saw on my way today. 

Mile 1789.8 (TN): May 6, Near Boots Off Hostel to Near Mountaineer Falls

Ryan and I spent the night with our long-time friends who live in Unicoi, Tennessee. After I picked up Ryan with his car, we made our way there. We spent the evening and next day catching up, relaxing, and enjoying our best “hostel” stay ever 🙂

Tony & Cathy

Ryan headed home the next day and I spent another night as well. Cathy drove me the 15 miles back to the trail near Boots Off Hostel. Although it was about 80 miles by trail to the next town, Erwin, Cathy reminded me that Erwin was even closer to their house…and that I could stay with them again when I reached Erwin in a few days. I said I would love to stay again and would try to update them on my progress as I went. 

The day was clear and perfect temperature from beginning to end. Right off I started with a fairly long climb followed by an immediate downhill of the same size, then another tall climb. It would be a total of 11,000 feet elevation change, mostly elevation gain, over the whole day—in more than 20 miles. So I expected, and got, a good workout of my “climbing legs” today. 

I also passed numerous streams as well as several cascades and falls. The streams made some of the trail muddy but they kept things interesting and the sound of water was a nice accompaniment to the day’s hike. 

I was originally going to stop near Mountaineer Shelter but still had some daylight and a little energy left when I reached there. So I went on a couple miles further downhill to a nice little tent site near, yes, another stream. 

And here are a few other interesting things I noticed on my way today. 

Azaleas growing in a rock wall

Mile 1763.6 (TN): May 4, Iron Mountain Shelter to Boots Off Hostel

There were five people who slept in the shelter and I camped out nearby. After packing up I went back to the shelter to have breakfast and talk to the others. I hoped to get to the hostel and pick Ryan up before heavy rain started in late afternoon; so I was the first to head out after my quick breakfast. 

It had rained heavily for a few hours last night and everything was wet this morning. The sky was overcast and foggy. 

The trail was mostly downhill today. I traveled for a couple hours on a high ridge above Watauga Lake, which I could occasionally see through the trees and fog. And I could hear motorboats moving around the lake all morning.

Over the past several days we have passed long stretches of what look like May Apple forests.

And finally the trail descended steeply down through a series of switchbacks as the skies started to clear.

I passed dozens of hikers heading uphill as I went down. “You’re going the wrong way!” is a common NOBO joke as we pass. I think it’s been rare for them to see people traveling south, but it will be more common for them further north when the new crop of southbound hikers starts this summer. 

At the bottom of the hill the trail circled the lake for several miles.

And, just before I was about to head away from the lake toward the hostel, I ran into a father and son providing trail magic in the parking lot. They live nearby and the son had thru hiked in 2015. Now they come out to do this each year. I couldn’t stay long. They kindly offered to let me take some food along for Ryan as well.

It was a short walk to Boots Off. I picked up Ryan’s car and headed back to get him. The rain started as we drove. But by 5pm we had arrived to our friends’ house in nearby Unicoi, Tennessee. We planned to stay with them a night or two before Ryan headed home and I returned to the trail. 

Mile 1747.6 (TN): May 3, Virginia-Tennessee Border to Iron Mountain Shelter

We got started this morning at 7:15 and both felt good. We cruised along in nice weather—partly cloudy and cool. But by mid morning Ryan’s heel was hurting again. So we slowed down a bit and took a few extra breaks to rest. 

On the way we met Nav and her adorable Shelty dog called Arrow.

Despite slowing down we still made good time and reached Double Spring Shelter by 4pm. But we would still need to go a few more miles tonight in order to make it to Boots Off Hostel tomorrow evening. And, complicating matters, I had misread the miles so there were a few more than we planned to the hostel. It would normally been a minor problem except that Ryan’s foot needed more rest—and we only had a certain amount of food.

In the end we decided it best for me to continue on tonight for a few more miles; then go all the way to the hostel tomorrow. Ryan would hike down a few miles to the next road crossing tomorrow. Then I would drive Ryan’s car back to pick him up. 

I left Ryan at the shelter and continued on. I had enough daylight and energy to reach the next shelter. It was supposed to rain tonight. I considered staying inside the shelter if it wasn’t crowded. But when I arrived it was already pretty full. So I set the hammock up and grabbed a bite to eat with the others at the shelter. The rain started as we were eating dinner. Once it slowed down I left the shelter, hung up my food bag on a high tree limb, and crawled into the hammock for the night. I had 16 miles to the hostel tomorrow and hoped for a good night’s rest…

And here are some of the other interesting things we saw on the trail today.