On Sunday, we woke up to an overcast morning. No big deal, maybe it will burn off.
We headed to breakfast at Peter’s Pancakes and Waffles in downtown Cherokee, as recommended by the Backpacker.com article. We filled our bellies with pancakes, eggs, and coffee; our last “real” meal for five days. On our way out the door, I grabbed a few of the jelly packets from our table; they would be great for the bagels we’d be having over the next few days.
When we got to the visitor center, the friendly ranger asked if I had called the backcountry office to get my permits. I recalled reading something about permits in the Backpacker.com article, but I had assumed that the backcountry office = the Oconaluftee visitor center. Not so much. Thankfully, I could just call the backcountry office right then and get the permits. As I dialed, I was slightly embarrassed about not having planned ahead and nervous that our itinerary would need to be switched around if campsites were full.
I told the ranger on the phone our planned campsites, which I had carefully marked on our map. He took note of them, asking the standard, “You’re experienced backpackers, right?” for hikes indicated as “moderate to advanced.” Why yes, of course we are! (We hiked the Chilkoot 2 years ago but other than that we have relatively limited hiking experience).
Once I had confirmed our last campsite, he told me that the stream crossings near campsite 69 were thigh high right now and dangerous. I told him we’d be careful and reiterated that I knew the alternate route if things got hairy. Thirty two dollars ($4/person/night) and a fax later, we had our permit in hand and were ready to hit the trail. Well, after a 30 minute drive to the top of Clingman’s dome in rain and fog.
Clingman’s Dome is the highest point on the Appalachian Trail, at 6,643 feet. Up here, it was chilly and the rain had started to come down steadily. Bill and I sat in the car and stalled the start of the hike, fiddling with our packs, making sure every last thing was perfect. Finally, we decided that we might as well just get out there and start, because it wasn’t going to get any better. Let’s do this.
But where exactly do we start? We came to a trailhead, just to the right of the parking lot, but based on the trails listed on the sign there, it seemed like it was not the one we wanted. So, we started up the paved road towards the top of Clingman’s.
Maybe a half mile in, there was a sign that said “Appalachian Trail”. This was where we needed to go. Because we were starting at the highest point, all of our miles on the first half of the trip would be downhill. Because of the rain, the trail was muddy. Mud + decline = slippery trail. Thankfully, my Lunas were performing just great. I had opted to wear the sandals on the first day because I knew that we would have upwards of 20 stream crossings before we made camp that night. While on the AT, we passed a handful of hikers, all of them traveling north on the trail. We came across a group of 4 guys, who told us about a dead baby bobcat a mile or so behind them, which was a little startling, because what predator leaves his prey after killing it? When we passed the “bobcat” we realized it was actually a rabbit, but we didn’t spend any more time investigating. If there was a bear coming back for his prey, we didn’t want to be there for it!
We kept moving ahead, stopping at the Double Springs AT shelter for a quick snack, where we met an AT thru-hiker who was actually from St. Petersburg, FL! The man was 18 days in, hoping to make it all the way to Maine. We wished him well and kept moving, since we had a big (for us) mileage day ahead, and we hadn’t started until after 11am.
Shortly after we turned off the AT and onto the Welch Ridge trail (to Hazel creek) we realized that the article wasn’t kidding when it said “the real solitude starts” there. The trail became very narrow and slightly overgrown. I started to wonder if we should have invested in a GPS unit for this trip…
By mid afternoon, we were getting hungry and wanted a reprieve from the on again off again rain that had been pestering us all day. So, we pitched Bill’s Jacks R Better Poncho and Shelter and pulled out the Solo stove for its first real test. We had done a mini trial run of the stove before leaving, but it was not in the middle of a rainstorm. This should be interesting. Finding dry tinder and fuel in the middle of a rainy forest actually wasn’t as difficult as I had thought. There were a number of downed trees and logs, which had enough dry material under them for our small fire. Win! The little break was nice: fire, food, and a little reprieve from the rain gave us a morale boost and energy to continue our journey. I looked at the time when we left- it was already 4, and we hadn’t yet gotten to the Hazel Creek trail, which was less than 2 miles from when we got off the AT. Once we were on Hazel creek, we still had 6-7 miles until camp. I wasn’t worried yet, but I knew we needed to pick up the pace.
We made it to the Hazel Creek trail, and spent the first part of it going back and forth, back and forth, switchbacking down the mountain on a narrow trail. I kept yelling “Snail!” every few steps, because I kept seeing them, and tried to keep our voices in the air to alert bears that we were there. Once we had made it down a bit, we started crossing creeks. One creek, two creek, three…We were somewhere in the low teens when we came across this little waterfall and what appeared to be our biggest crossing yet.
After stopping for these photos, Bill scouted out the area to see where the best place to cross was and where the trail continued. Something was wrong. Every path Bill tried was a) challenging/scary and b) didn’t have a clearly marked trail on the other side. He tried for a good 45 minutes, to no avail. We went into problem solving mode, and backtracked a few hundred feet to a tiny open area, where charred wood indicated that someone had spent the night recently. It wasn’t the best camping spot, but we sat down and contemplated spending the night there and then reevaluating in the morning, since it was 6 or so at this point. Before making that decision, Bill looked for crossings near this “campsite” and I backtracked a little more in search of the trail. Less than 50 feet later, I found it! Where we had gone straight and crossed over what looked like a tiny creek – that was actually our trail! The rain had flooded it some, and it was a sharp right turn, which we completely bypassed. I was SO thankful we had found the trail, but I was definitely nervous about how much time we had lost and how much further we had.
Back on track, we picked up the pace. We only had a little over 2 hours of sunlight left and I was guessing 4+ miles left until camp site 82. We kept counting the streams we crossed, knowing that our total would be somewhere in the 20s, thanks to a YouTube video of some others doing this hike. When we hit 20, we started getting the “We must be close to camp”-itis. It has to be just ahead! The sun was getting lower, and I was getting nervous. Would we make it to camp before dark?
Finally, we crossed a bridge and came to a little clearing. There was an old horse corral, and it looked like it was at the end of an old service road. Was this camp? If it was or wasn’t didn’t matter. This is where we were sleeping tonight.
We had limited sunlight left, so we got our headlamps out and got to work setting up camp and getting our dinner together. After our nice hot dinner of Mountain House Mac N Cheese and a hot chocolate, we packed up our food and put it into our bear bag. The dead giveaway for this NOT being camp was that there were no bear-bag rigs set up, so we needed to set up one ourselves. It was quite comical actually, since it was night 1 and our bag was the heaviest, and the only branch that we could string a rope from wasn’t very thick. We worked together to jerry-rig our line. I pulled down, lifting the bag as much as I could as the branch bent like a willow, trying not to let it snap, while Bill pushed up on the bag with his trekking pole. We finally got the bag up high enough, and tied the rope off on the horse corral. Hopefully no bears would get our food!
We curled up into our tent, beat from a long day. I couldn’t believe we didn’t make it to camp. I fell asleep wondering if we had bit off more than we could chew on this hike…