It's exciting when you are spending your nights above 5000 feet in early April in the Appalachian Mountains. Wind, Rain, Sleet, Snow, you never know!
Except... You kind of do. Because we all have Smart Phones you get service at least once a day, and then you can check the weather. (If you're in the know, you're using atweather.org to get your shelter specific forecast)
What we saw in the forecast was more and worse than what we'd been experiencing. Since it was easy enough to get off the trail and head into Gatlinberg (I'm told it's 'the Reno of Tennessee' if that tells you anything) we did just that. And avoided the half foot of snow that fell on our fellow hikers.
So far, the Smokies have been a constant wind tunnel, and a simple hustle to get to the next shelter in hopes of getting warm for 5 minutes. It's crazy how the wind can wear on you.
Added to that is the fact that we pulled a 17.5 mile day our second day in the Smokies and it left my left Achilles tighter than a well tuned guitar string.
So here we are, planning on spending not one but two zero days to rest, and avoid the cold. I can't complain (though, I will say, Gatlinberg... I don't get it. Can someone explain this town to me?)
Our first night in the Smokies we stayed at Birch Spring Campsite. It's was probably my favorite place we have stayed in the Smokies so far. (Well, we've only spent two nights in the Smokies soooo)
Since we had to wait for a package at Fontana Dam we got a late start, so the 6 mile hike in to the campsite was plenty. We thought it would be packed after hearing rumors and horror stories of the Smokies but.... There was only one other hiker at the campsite that night. Plus it wasn't ON a ridge, so we were somewhat protected from the wind.
But the next day we thought about the forecast and decided we wanted to push through to Gatlinberg as quickly as possible. We hiked 17.5 miles (our longest day) over some of the toughest terrain we've faced, in winds of sustained 25-30 mph with gusts up to 44mph. It was more gnarly than I would have liked, but it was probably worth it in the end. Plus we got to feel badass since we hiked at least 6 miles further than anyone else in the shelter. (Or maybe we felt dumb)
it was also awesome because we caught up with a bunch of the people we've been seeing every night. Including Miss T! Who we hadn't seen since Hiawassee.
Shelters in the Smokies are interesting. There are more rules than anywhere else on the trail yet, and oddly enough, privies at shelters are the exception and not the rule here. Since all hikers are required to stay at shelters (only thru hikers can camp, and only if there is no space in the shelter) there is a huge concentration of people staying in the same spot night after night all season long. The disposal of human waste is... Sloppy to say the least. Just finding a spot to dig you cat hike that doesn't already have a flower of toilet paper is nearly impossible, not to mention that some people do NOT properly bury their waste. It's nasty. I know that the purpose is to avoid too much human impact, but at a certain point the impact of no privy becomes greater than the impact of having a privy.
That said, the shelters in the Smokies have fireplaces! And tarps over the open side of the shelters to help dissipate the wind. I somehow forgot to take any pictures of, in, or around the shelters. I'll try to remember later. Until then, you can always Google...
At Derrick's Knob Shelter Lil Santa and I were lucky enough to get a spot in the shelter and stayed warm and dry even though it poured rain outside all night, and many of our fellow hikers ended up with puddles in their tents. (Due to wind blown rain, or condensation, we don't know)
We thought about doing another 17+ miles day to get to New Found Gap but we're so beat by the time we got to Clingmans Done that we decided to pull off the trail there. So we did about 10 miles and hit the 199.5 mile mark. That's right, we are only 0.5 miles away from 200 miles and we pulled off the trail for not one but two zero days. I bet the anticipation is killing you!
So there you have it. So far, between the two of us, have eaten a salad, a small pizza, a medium pizza, two cheese burgers, two hot dogs, four scoops of ice cream, and four donuts. And it's been less than 24 hours in town.
Happy Trails! We have a shuttle reservation back to Clingman's Dome on 4/10 assuming the road reopens! (It was closed due to snow this morning, and more snow is expected tonight)