Day 8 – Cable Gap Shelter to Russell Field Shelter – 21.6mi
Today was one of my shortest days. I got up at my normal time, after not sleeping too well as I accidentally set my tent up on a hill and was sliding all over. At one point the poles collapsed and the sidewalls just caved in on each other. But, there was a privy there so it was nice to use that.
I passed Fontana Dam after about 3 hours and was hoping that the visitor center would be open so I could grab a snack. It wasn’t. It wasn’t even open for the season yet!
After crossing the dam you’re immediately in Great Smoky Mountain National Park, and after about a mile of walking in the road you move back to the trail. There’s a box to deposit half of the permit we had to buy, and then we’re off. There were lots of climbs to get up into the Smokies, and the weather was actually quite warm.
Just before I got to the shelter, I had my first (and second) bear sighting. A black bear, not too big, right in the middle of the trail. He got scared and ran off, but once I got to the shelter he came around again and basically circled the shelter for about 2 hours. It was pretty wild.
The shelter here is huge – double-decker with room for 14 smelly hikers. There’s only about 7 of us here, which is a nice change from the overflowing shelters I’m used to seeing. There’s a couple of groups here that have been hiking together for a while now, so I’m the only outsider, but they’re all very nice. The one and only girl, whose name I can’t remember, recognized me from Instagram. Hilarious.
Day 9: Russell Field Shelter to Mt. Collins Shelter – 22.3mi
Sleeping in the shelter was nice for a change last night. Not having to put up or take down a tent made for a little less work, which I appreciated. However, even though there were only 7 of us you can bet your ass there was a snorer. Luckily I had my earplugs, so once I popped those in I was good to go.
The hike today kicked my ass. There were several tough climbs, most significantly the one to Clingman’s Dome, and the trail was incredibly technical. Lots of big steps, loose rocks, and so many roots. I messed up my planning a bit and ended up, actually, right on schedule. My plan was to stay at the Mt. Collins Shelter but I had been doing extra miles to avoid a 27mi day tomorrow.
Because you’re required to stay in or near a shelter in the Smokies (no stealth camping allowed – not that I’d want to with this level of bear activity!), I have limited options for distances. The next shelter after Mt. Collins was 8 additional miles, which would have meant a 30mi day. I’m not quite ready for that yet. In fact, I struggled enough getting these 22mi in today. By the time I arrived, at about 6:15pm, I was sputtering with frustration. Not only is the shelter a half mile off the trail (and water an extra tenth), but I was so over the technical terrain. My feet were cut up, my knee was aching, and I couldn’t seem to make any good steps. It was infuriating.
So the following day I was scheduled to do 27mi and then have an easy 10mi day into Standing Bear Farm the day after. Instead of that, because I don’t think there’s any way I can manage that mileage on this trail and in my condition, I’ll probably plan to stay at Tri-Corner Knob Shelter, which has is 20mi, and then have an 18mi day to Standing Bear. Not too bad, I don’t think. Should work out.
Day 10: Mt. Collins Shelter to Cosby Knob Shelter – 28.8mi
This was my longest day yet! Yesterday I was completely spent from that 22mi section and I had decided that there was no way I’d be able to pull off 28mi on similar terrain. The shelter at Mt. Collins was a half mile off trail, which I hated, and of course was packed full. I pitched my tent just outside, as did about a dozen others, and after having dinner I was out like a light.
I woke up a little late at about 6:20am (I was wearing my ear plugs so I think that drowned out the alarm) and packed my stuff. I was on the trail at 7:20am.
To my surprise, the section from the shelter to Newfound Gap, 4.8mi, was super easy. Soft, well-maintained, and with barely a rock to step on. I breezed through and got to the gap in just under 2 hrs. At the gap, which has a large parking lot and lots of tourists, there was a group from a local church doing trail magic, i.e. handing out treats to hikers. Their spread was so good I actually asked if the items were for sale, not believing they would give this much away! They had oatmeal cream pies, Oreos, honey buns, Cadbury eggs, and more plus a whole cooler of drinks. It was heaven! I chatted with them for about 15 minutes while stuffing my face, and it was so great. It’s just what I needed.
I continued across the parking lot to where the AT picked up and an older guy started asking me about the hike, gear, etc. I’m always happy to have these conversations with people and hope they get inspired to do it themselves one day. For the next few miles on this stretch, there were lots of day hikers as you’d expect. After that though, I barely saw anyone.
Out of the gap, the trail climbs up to the mountain ridgeline and essentially just follows it, offering some great views of the surrounding mountains. The trail stayed pretty consistent without too much incline (sloping more downward) throughout the day. At about 3:00pm I stopped at the Tri-Corner Shelter, where I had considered stopping, but only grabbed water. I had already decided to push on, but the shelter was full anyway.
The last 8mi to Cosby Knob was rough, mostly because my feet were trashed. They had held up quite well thus far, but the trail deteriorated here and included a lot more rocks and roots, like the prior day, which slowed me down.
Despite that, I did eventually make it to the shelter just after 7:00pm. Of course it was completely full and I was greeted by a Ridgerunner (a volunteer trail maintainer), which I hadn’t seen at a shelter before. She asked to see my park permit and then showed me one tiny tent site available, otherwise I’d have to backtrack about a half mile to another sanctioned tent site. I happily took the place available to avoid having to walk any more. Unfortunately it’s at a slight angle, so I’d be fighting the slope all night.
Day 11: Cosby Knob Shelter to Standing Bear Farm – 10.5mi
Last night was the most miserable experience on the trail for me so far. I was awoken at about 1am to the sound of rain on my tent. No big deal, I knew it was coming. What I didn’t expect was to be violently stirred at 3am when a big gust of wind took out the trekking pole at the front of my tent, making it collapse inward and exposing the open screen to the heavens and pouring rain. I hurriedly tried to reposition the pole and the vestibule, but it was hopeless. The wind and rain were blowing so fiercely that it took all I had to keep the pole upright but water continued to spray inside.
When I finally got the pole positioned I still couldn’t manage to affix the vestibule so I grabbed my poncho and draped it over the entrance. In my sleep-deprived state, I thought this would be sufficient. Wrong. I tried to shield my face from the swells, but it didn’t seem to make much of a difference. Slowly, water pooled in the appropriately-named “bathtub” floor of my tent and also began to fill the crevasses of my sleeping bag, pad, and pillow. Every few minutes, I would feel a cool sensation where I had rolled into a puddle and it was seeping through my down jacket or through my pants. I would try to move away from it, but it only seemed to make it worse. I resorted to wrapping myself as tightly as I could in my quilt and pulling it up over my head to cultivate warmth and provide protection from the elements. It did the trick insofar as I didn’t get hypothermia, but I wasn’t getting any sleep either. I laid there for hours, trying to manipulate the weather with my thoughts and willing it away, to no avail. I wrapped myself tighter, experiencing an uncontrollable shiver whenever I shifted. If I changed position, so would my pillow and I’d be exposed to the icy wetness of its surface on my cheek.
Eventually, I think I just ran out of steam and was able to doze off for a few minutes at a time. I checked my watch often and it ever seemed that more than 15 minutes had passed since the previous glance. My alarm sounded at 6:00am, but it was barely audible over the whipping wind and pattering raindrops. I decided to try and wait it out, knowing that the forecast said it should die off. By 7:30am, it had done so about as much as it would, I thought, so I made a break for it.
I hopped out of the tent and began furiously pulling out my sopping items – t-shirt, socks, jacket, quilt, gloves, etc., wringing them out, and stuffing them into my bag. The items were so bloated with extra water that I couldn’t fit everything in my pack as I usually can, so I had to strap my tent to the outside. I poured out my shoes, flung on my pack, and bee-lined for the trail. I was so uncomfortable and upset that I didn’t say a word to any of the fresh-faced folks emerging from the bone-dry shelter.
Once I got going, it began to sleet instead of just rain. Since my gloves were soiled, I had to stick my hands in my jacket pockets while cradling my trekking poles in order to keep them somewhat warm. I was cursing the fact that I didn’t get to stay in the nice shelter and that I didn’t set my tent up well enough to withstand the weather, but I quickly snapped out of that attitude by coming to grips with the fact that there was nothing to do about it now. “The only way out is through”, as they say, and so through I went.
Not long after starting, I passed an old gentleman on the trail and exchanged courtesies. Later on, after meeting a guy named Timeless and hiking with him for a while, I realized that the first guy I passed was Pappy, the oldest Triple Crowner. He is 87 years old and is thru-hiking the AT for the second time. He only started hiking after he turned 65 – pretty incredible!
Timeless has been hiking with him for a couple of weeks and says that while his achievements are amazing, he isn’t quite as sharp as he maybe used to be. For example, he didn’t bring any rain gear, a tent, or trekking poles when he started. He says it’s hard to tell if he’s going senile or actually thought those were good ideas. He helped Pappy acquire these items and has been hiking with him and planning their mileage accordingly. They only manage to do 7-10mi per day.
Timeless was a nice and interesting guy – retired Navy, loves sailboats, and lives in South Carolina. I really enjoyed chatting with him until he split off at Davenport Shelter, their destination for the day, as it helped take my mind off my soggy situation. It wasn’t even 11:00am by the time we reached the shelter – a nice short day for him! I, however, had another 4mi or so to go in order to reach Standing Bear Farm.
The remainder of the hike was fairly easy. Swooping switchbacks, a couple of short climbs, and even some walking on the road.
I got to Standing Bear Farm a bit after noon and was thankful that they had space – which I’m now discovering is not always the case – and I opted to stay in their “tree house”, which is exactly as it sounds. It’s small and simple, but private.
All afternoon I relaxed, checked email (signal is weak) and did my chores. It was really nice. Everything dried, my electronics are charged, and I’m fat and happy.
One of the best parts was that I got to chatting with another guest, Crunch Time, and later on when he saw me digging through the hiker box looking for a left-hand glove to replace the one I lost, he told me to ‘hold that thought’. He left, reappearing a minute later with a brand new pair of the exact gloves that I have (OR Versaliner). He said that he had done the same thing (lost one), ordered a new pair, and then found his original. He gave me the new pair, saying he’s just glad someone can use them. The trail provides!
Tomorrow I’m preparing for a big climb out of this valley but should be relatively smooth after that. I’m planning for 20mi to set me up for another short day into Hot Springs on Friday.
Day 12: Standing Bear Farm to Catpen Gap – 21.5mi
Staying at the hostel last night was very nice. Unfortunately the tree house didn’t have any heat, but the blankets provided some nice warmth. The temperature dropped drastically overnight and was below freezing for much of the morning.
I slept in a little late, packed my stuff, and made my way to the common area to make breakfast and top off the charge on my electronics. I had gotten some pretzels from the hiker box, so I tossed them in with my oatmeal. It didn’t taste as great as I thought it would.
I was on the trail by 8:00am, heading up a long and sloping hill out of the valley. This hill was several miles long and it took me over two hours to reach the top. The temperature was still below freezing, but I had worked up a good sweat.
There were not many remarkable things to see today except for Max Patch, which is a big clearing on the top of a hill which gives fantastic panoramic views of the surrounding mountains. It was quite a sight. There were lots of thru-hikers taking breaks up there and also a lot of families and day hikers drinking in the scenery. The wind chill up there was substantial, so I just snapped few photos and continued on my way.
Because it was to be a relatively short day, I only had about 7mi left to go after reaching Max Patch. The rest was uneventful, but the trail was nice and smooth.
I finished at a random place called Catpen Gap, which has space for a couple of tents and not much more. I passed on the shelter that’s about a mile back, as it was way too crowded already. Not long after I arrived and had a little fire going, another hiker joined me. His name is Sheffy and he’s a retired CIO for an international chemical company. He’s a section hiker, but has done over 1700 miles of the trail already. He lives in PA and comes out every spring to do a couple hundred miles. Really nice guy. We’re both heading into Hot Springs tomorrow (11.5mi), so I’ll definitely catch up with him again.
Overall I’m still holding up. I’ve been having some pain in my right knee and also the outside of both feet (near my pinky toes) that is nagging me a bit. However, there is no swelling and it isn’t getting worse – just comes back every day – so I’m not too concerned about it yet. Hopefully the additional rest tomorrow will help.
Day 13: Catpen Gap to Hot Springs – 11.5mi
I left my tent site this morning just after 7:00am having woken up at 630am. I’ve been getting tired of the long wait to cook my breakfast and the extra time it takes to eat, so this morning I tried just putting my oatmeal, protein, and coffee into my pot, adding water, letting it sit for a few minutes while I broke down camp, and then just drinking it. It actually worked very well and didn’t taste too bad while saving me about half an hour of time. I think I’ll be doing it that way from now on!
The route started with a long climb that took me about an hour to finish. From there, it was mostly downhill and easy.
Pretty quickly, my knee began to hurt. I mentioned it has been bothering me a little, but usually not until later in the day. This time with all the downhill, it started early and didn’t subside. I eventually made it to the Laughing Heart Hostel, right off the trail, and could barely walk. Everything else on my body feels fine.
I checked in, got a bunk, and then I headed down to town to buy some lunch and supplies. I hobbled down there, upset at my situation, and stopped by the Hillbilly Market, where they have made-to-order sandwiches and other goodies. I ordered a 12″ meatball sub, bought some candy, and headed to Bluff Mountain Outfitters.
There, I bought a pair of Injinji socks, as my Darn Tough ones are already getting holes. I also picked up a knee brace, and am hoping that helps with the pain. Finally, some more hand sanitizer and postcards. I then went to the Library, where they have computers that are free to use (although they request a donation) and I uploaded some pictures and published my first weekly trail update blog.
I walked back to the hostel from there, and my knee felt fine. Not sure what’s going on, but hopefully with the brace I’ll be able to put in some good mileage.
I’m scheduled to do 27mi tomorrow, and the forecast is calling for rain throughout the day day and temperatures in the low 30s. Ugh. I’m going to stop by the Smoky Mountain Diner for breakfast at 6:30am to get the day started right.
Day 14: Hot Springs to Jerry’s Cabin Shelter – 27.2mi
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Brandon Chase is a writer, endurance athlete, and guide based in Maine. He is a former Foreign Service Officer with the U.S. Department of State and spent nearly a decade overseas serving at embassies in Egypt, Cyprus, and Pakistan.
Along with a 98-day thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail, he has summited Mt. Kilimanjaro, hiked the West Highland Way, fastpacked in the Himalayas, and trekked around New Zealand and South Africa. He also regularly competes in ultramarathons at the 50k, 50-mile, and 100-mile distances. He is a Lead Guide for Andrew Skurka Adventures and the New England Outdoor Center.