Southern Appalachian Loop Trail: Part 3
Leaving Brevard, Leah and I hiked local mountain trails until we arrived to the Mountains to Sea Trail. The MST was our link to the Great Smoky Mountains. After a series of adventures, we climbed toward Clingmans Dome and our reunion with the Appalachian Trail. On familiar ground, we followed white blazes back to the Nantahala Outdoor Center. Finishing where we began, we completed our attempt of the Southern Appalachian Loop Trail.
From a staring contest with a bull elk to a stand-off with a wild boar - It’s all included in my journal entries below. Thanks for reading!
June 6th_10:04PM_10 miles
Sleeping in for the first time on the trip, we lounged as long as we could before the need to feast surfaced. We hopped in Julie’s (Joe’s wife) CRV and rolled into town for breakfast and errands. We wouldn’t get going until late in the afternoon because we had to wait for the UPS guy to arrive with Leah’s new pack.
With a family sized spread on the table, we enjoyed hot coffee and flavorful food at the Sunrise Cafe. Three cups of coffee later, we felt digested enough to carry on with the plan for the day. We would go on to find a replacement washer for Leah’s water filter and stop at the post office to ship a few things back home. Back at Joe’s, all we had left to do was finish packing our food and to wait for the new pack to come.
As Joe predicted, the UPS man came at 4:00PM with pack in hand. It didn’t take long for us to load our gear, lock the door, and begin walking the three miles to downtown - where we would continue along the SALT.
We stopped at Roxy’s Dinner for one last town meal before walking to the Bracken Mountain Trail, which eventually connected us to the Art Loeb trail. With a handful of miles under our belts, we decided to setup camp at Sandy Gap along the Art Loeb.
Feels good to be back in the Pisgah!
June 7th_9:00PM_25 miles
Woke up, ate breakfast and descended to Butternut Gap. With our bottles full of water, we walked the ridge until the trail began meandering up Pilot Mountain. We continued along the Art Loeb until it intersected with the Mountains-to-Sea Trail. Right, would take us to the Outer Banks of North Carolina - Left, would take us to the Great Smoky Mountains. We decided to save the Outer Banks for another time.
The views from the MST were incredible. Eventually, we were led deep into the woods where we zigged zagged through the Middle Prong Wilderness. This section of trail left us tired and confused about the passing of time. We hiked until evening creeped in. Following tracks off trail, we settled in for the night in a cleared area that was previously used as a horse camp.
June 8th_8:17PM_26 miles
We woke knowing what had to be done. We would have to cover the 22 miles to the post office before they closed for the weekend. Originally, we were set up to be at the post office on Wednesday, but managing tropical storms and an unfit pack left us out of time. So it goes.
Having left the horse camp, we were less than impressed by the MST. It was essentially an old forest service road, knee high with stinging nettles. We hiked for threes hours, took a seven minute break and continued on. The miles were rolling by. The trail eventually climbed back up above the Blue Ridge Parkway where it remained until just before Balsam Gap.
We kept our breaks short and hiked steady toward our destination. With less than an hour to go, an afternoon deluge found its way to us. Drenched to the bone - we hiked up the hill to the post office and retrieved our resupply packages. Following our 5-day resupply was a monotonous climb on gravel road. The moment the MST turned back into single-track trail, we setup camp. It didn’t take long before we were diving into dinner. Each bite melted away the stress of the day. It’s the little things in life.
Today was a whirlwind. The morning started with gorgeous trail - smooth and scenic. We made it up to Waterrock Knob before lunch and soaked in the view. I will definitely go back there. The next four miles to Soco Gap were also amazing. We came to a gravel road walk just before lunch. The road ended at a 4-way intersection. We took a left and sat along the Blue Ridge Parkway for lunch. Looking around we saw no additional blazes for the Mountains-to-Sea Trail.
After lunch we walked back to the intersection; and again, we saw no blazes indicating the direction of the MST. We decided to continue through the intersection because the last blaze didn’t indicate a turn. That blaze was the last we would see for the rest of the journey.
I later learned that the route we took was the original proposed route for the Mountains-to-Sea trail. The intersection where the blazes stopped was where we entered Cherokee lands. The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians do not recognize the MST within the Qualla (federal land trust, not a reservation). As a result, no blazes or trails would be present. I didn’t learn all of this until much later in the day.
Where were we…
Going up the gravel road, we scanned continuously for white blazes. We continued up the road until we saw glimpses of what looked to be a house. The dreadful feeling of having gone the wrong direction crept in.
Coming closer, we noticed that it was in fact the “Mile High Campground” tucked away at the top of the road. We’d been referencing the PDF and there was no mention of this campground anywhere on it. We began to trust the pdf’s guidance less and less.
Walking up to the the forest green building, we met one of the campground managers.
“Is this the Mountains-to-Sea trail we’re on?” I asked
“Yes, I’m pretty sure it is.” she replied, with less confidence than I’d hoped.
We chatted for a minute or so longer before she walked to her trailer and returned with Mountain Dew, Ritz crackers and two bananas. She smiled right along with us.
“Here, you’ns have a seat.”
Included with the provisions were two full cups of ice for the warm Mountain Dew. I’m not generally a fan of Mountain Dew, but when in Rome.
With our snacks finished up, we continued down the un-marked gravel road, trusting that our host didn’t lead us astray. We climbed along the gravel road for another couple miles before it eventually reached an apex. Looking up, we both froze.
Not 50 feet from us was a large bull elk. The elk stared back at us with a similar curiosity. We continued slowly along the road and the elk continued his meal with a watchful eye. He had the high ground and realized that we were little threat to him. Continuing down the road, I wondered if he was as excited to see us as we were to see him. The road descended down, down, down - eventually arriving back at the Blue Ridge Parkway. We began walking the road toward Cherokee, North Carolina.
We stopped at the nearest scenic overlook to figure out where we were and if were still on the MST. Like I mentioned above, we were on the original route for the MST. Some belated researched showed that the there are multiple alternates to the original proposed route through Cherokee lands. Since we were on the original route, it would be a road walk along the Blue Ridge Parkway - all the way to the entrance to Smokies.
Deep Creek - campsite 53
The morning light made for some great photography opportunities. Coming into the park, we decided to skip the breakfast places calling towards us like sirens out at sea. We walked Highway 441 to the Mingus Mill parking area. We cooked fancy ramen noodles and snacked like it was our last meal. Topped off, we began climbing up, up, up - into the Great Smoky Mountains.
It was a stout hike up the Mingus Creek Trail but once we were up at elevation, the hiking was stellar! We eventually descended down to the Deep Creek Trail - following the creek north to our campsite. Looking at the map, this campsite was nestled deep in the park.
Fellow campers, Ted & Joseph made good conversation and mentioned that we might be able to see synchronized fireflies in this campsite opening. They were right. With belly’s full of spaghetti and clean feet from the creek, we watched the firefly’s dance to their own synchronous beat.
Today was one that I will not forget anytime soon. Lessons to be learned.
We started from camp by 7:00AM. The world class firefly show from last night was fresh on my mind as we left camp. We started the day with a knee-deep river crossing. The climb that followed finished the job of waking us up. After we made it up the Forks Ridge and connected back to the Appalachian Trail, we continued southbound on the AT to Clingmans Dome.
We added a little mileage to the day with a visit down to the Dome’s Visitor Center. Our bar of white chocolate and yogurt covered trail-mix didn’t even make it back to the AT. We inhaled mouthfuls of the snacks between each breath. We were soon back on the trail, heading south.
We took a break at Double Spring Shelter right when the rain started. After a nice long break, we continued on to Derrik Knob Shelter. After another short break and water resupply, I rediscovered how mean the mountains were south of this shelter. Up - down - up - down. Rocky Top and Thunderhead came and went - each sharing a gorgeous view. This section of trail really did a number on Leah’s ankle. We taped it and continued on. It was beginning to get late - we realized that we wouldn’t make camp until right before dark. We continued on as fast as Leah’s leg would allow.
Cruising along, we suddenly walked up on an man in his mid-sixties who had gotten turned around and had already walked 16 miles with limited water - he was in rough shape. I slowed down and walked with him - keeping steady conversation so I could learn more about his situation and keep him motivated enough to make it to the shelter and water.
Just before arriving to the Spence Field trail junction, we encountered three huge wild boar. I don’t know what it was but these animals unnerved me. Maybe it was because we were outnumbered - maybe it was their size. The gentleman with us would be useless against these animals. The boar kept their distance, rummaging through the woods next to us.
At the Spence Field Shelter, I hiked off to fill all of our water bottles, including the distressed hikers. Hands full, I took off down the spur trail. The sun had already set and the world around me was fading into a colorless grey. I soon realized that the path I was on wasn’t taking me down toward water but was merely following the ridge down to another field.
“This must be an animal trail.” I thought.
Then I heard the grunting sound. Twenty feet away, staring at me in the darkness was a black boar with white tusk. We both froze and stared at each other.
After what seemed like forever, but was really only a few seconds, I began moving slowly back up the trail. The board grunted again and ran off into the woods to my right. That was the last I heard of the animal. I soon found the right path to water. I deviated from it one last time to go fetch my headlamp - night had settled in.
Back at the shelter, I allocated the fresh water. The man we’d help get to the shelter stood to leave once he had his water. I recommended that he drink water and eat something - better yet, stay put and wait until morning to hike down, it was a warm night.
He didn’t have a vehicle at the trail-head and the guy he started the day with split with him early in the afternoon - they didn’t exchange contact information. In other words, It was dark, he was exhausted, and no one was waiting for him 7 miles down the trail.
I reiterated my case, but he resisted saying that he felt better. Again - I asked that he rest here at the shelter. He refused. With his little handheld flashlight, that was turned off - he wandered back up toward the junction. I couldn’t physically restrain him.
He disappeared into the darkness…
June 12th_7:29AM on 6/13_17 miles
We got going a bit later than planned. Leah’s ankle/shin was really flaring up, but we were in the middle of the woods now. Continuing southbound, the hike went well. We stopped at Russel Field Shelter but didn’t stay long because the shelter was technically closed due to high bear activity. Moving on we enjoyed nice trail on our way to Mollies Ridge Shelter, where we propped up our feet and took a siesta.
We continued our descent toward Fontana Dam - taking a lunch break at a trail junction. A little further down the trail, we took a brief detour up to the Shuckstack Firetower. Worth it! We met a a hiker up there who intended on staying the night. Not legal but what a sunrise he would get!
The final descent was extra challenging for Leah and her leg - boy was it a descent down to the dam. Things got much better once we arrived at the Fontana Hilton - a 20 person shelter maintained by the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA). We met two other hikers who planned to stay the night. We didn’t talk long before dropping our bags and grabbing a shuttle to the Fontana Village. This wasn’t my first rodeo at this shelter.
Leah and I were soon eating burgers with sweet potato fries and drinking lemonade along with a cold beer. How quickly things change! Only an hour ago, we were trudging down the mountain with burgers only being a myth.
After eight days in the woods, suddenly it all changed.
We didn’t stop with our first meal - ice cream had to be investigated down at the general store. With my 5th cup of lemonade in hand, we ordered ice-cream and gathered more snacks. I made sure to pick up some extra snacks for our thru-hiker friends back at the Fontana Hilton. A little trail magic is always a must!
All finished up - we called the shuttle. Sleep soon followed.
Only thirty miles from the finish!
June 13th_8:55AM on 6/14 - 30 miles
Today was our last day to hike because, tomorrow, we had to leave for a wedding. I woke early and checked in with Leah. She wouldn’t be attempting the 30 miles we had to cover. Her ankle was in too much pain and it wasn’t worth irritating it further. With a big race only a month or so out - she needed to be healed and strong. In other words - there were bigger fish to fry than the SALT. I agreed.
I decided to walk nonstop from Fontana Dam to the NOC . The trail was tried and true Appalachian Trail - rugged climbs, rocky tops and steep descents. I walked for seven hours to the top of Cheoh Bald, where I sat and had my first food for the day - a York Peppermint Patty.
Feeling good, I continued on down the mountain to the Nantahala Outdoor Center. I completed the 30 miles in 9:50:00”. My legs felt tired from the 360 mile effort as a whole, but overall everything was solid. This was a great training hike after 16 days of backpacking. I’m feeling more and more confident for an ultramarathon (Pinhoti 100) this fall.
Walking into the Nantahala Outdoor Center 17 days, 360ish miles and a whole tray of growth provoking experiences later, I had officially finished the unofficial SALT.