Surviving the infamous and daunting Smoky Mountains has been the talk of the trail since pretty much the start.
Questions like: “How many base layers are you bringing? What are you going to do when you see a bear? Are you ready for the snow? How many down jackets do you have? How bomb proof is your tent/hammock/rain gear? Are you scared you are going to go crazy on top of one of the mountains, get hypothermia and die?” get tossed around on the reg. I got the impression that everyone’s goal was to get out of the Smokies stat. I just knew it was going to be gorgeous and was pretty jazzed. I was really only nervous about being cold at night in my hammock and figured the smokies would be just like any other day.
Before I go into the day to day play by play, here is what you need to know about the Smoky Mountains. Visit the GSMNP website for even more info!
The Smoky Mountains are known for it’s beauty- when you can see it- and it’s intensity. With the high elevation, rainy and foggy weather, views often do not exist. The GSMNP is also known for their structured rules and regulations. Quick note about thru hikers: we do not like structure, rules, or regulations, hence why we opted to live in the woods for 6 months.
In order to go through the Smoky Mountains you need to buy a permit. A thru hiker permit is different than a section or weekender (anyone who is out for a couple days) permit. A section/weekend hiker must buy the permit and must also specify which shelters they are staying at each night. This is their reservation. A thru hiker estimates their time of entry and the permit is good for 38 days. However, once you enter the Smokys, your permit only lasts for 8 days. Ridge runners ‘patrol’ the trails making sure hikers have their permits and are following all rules. Before we entered the Smokys we were told we would see a ridge runner at least once a day.
There are only shelters in the GSMNP, you cannot stealth camp anywhere. It is also required that you must stay IN the shelters. The only exception to that is that if a shelter has reached full capacity, you can camp outside of the shelter. However, if you are a thru hiker with a spot in a shelter and a section/weekend hiker shows up after you that has a reservation, you must leave and set up outside no matter the weather or time. You are not allowed to sleep in the same shelter more than one night (essentially you cannot zero in the smokies). You might be thinking, “Well whoopty doop, so sad you can only stay at shelters” however, we are all used to being able to camp where ever we want. So previously if you wanted to do a 10 mile day, you can stop essentially anywhere near that 10 mile mark be it a shelter, campsite, or stealth camp. However, the shelters are spaced oddly in the smokies, so one day you might have to choose to either go 7 miles to the closest shelter or 14 miles to the one after that. There is no happy medium, which can make staying in the Smokies frustrating.
Overall the Smokies were awesome and a whole new world!
(4/23) After waiting in Fontana Dam to see if my underquilt arrived (which it didn’t) Sasquatch and I left for the trail at about 12:30. It was another hot and sunny day and a great day to be hiking.
The view of the Smokies from Fontana Dam.
The AT going over Fontana Dam.
It was a steep climb up to the ridgeline of the Smokies but it was exciting to finally be there! It was a 12 mile hike to Mollies Ridge Shelter and the shelter was booming! There were over 18 tents and hammocks set up and a shelter full at 12. Everyone was excited to be in the Smokies and preparing for a cold night ahead. There was supposed to be a meteor shower that night, but it was too cold to be sitting outside for very long once the stars were out. The wind was super strong and it was another freezing night in my hammock. I really wished my underquilt had come in on time. I slept in all my layers including my rain gear to try to keep warm.
(4/24) Had another nice 12 mile hike to Derrick Knob Shelter. Got to go over the famous Rocky Top Mountain in Tennessee!
That night as I was going to bed I had my headlamp on it’s red light. I looked up past my hammock and saw these / glowing red eyes looking at me. At first I got nervous because I thought it was a bear due to it’s red eyes. Then I remembered I had my red light on. I turned it to the spotlight to see these huge glowing greenish eyes. I bought maybe it was a dear so I walked closer to it to get a better loon and to spook it away. As I got closer the animal never flinched. Finally it turned away slowly and as it turned I could see powerful shoulders and a long, skinny brown tail flow behind it. It was a mountain lion!! I watched as it slowly slinked away and a tiny bit of terror sank in. I had just walked closer and closer to a mountain lion that had been staring at me. And could actually eat me if it had wanted to. Super casual. It was so crazy but also super cool! My heart was racing when I went to bed but I woke up alive the next morning. Yay!
4/25 It started raining early that morning and I was able to pack up my hammock and gear before anything got too wet. It rained pretty hard off and on throughout the hike. It even started hailing at one point!
There were no views that day and everything around you was white. It was so peaceful and really cool! We hit Clingmans Dome, the highest point on the AT at about 6,644 feet and couldn’t see anything. We were just surrounded by white and wind, but it was still awesome.
That night we stopped in one of the most loved and hated towns on the AT – Gatlinburg, TN. Described as an amusement park town and tourist trap it certainly would overwhelm any hiker with it’s drive thru wedding chapel, ripelys believe it or not museum, and moonshine tasting. It was overwhelming and a little bit annoying being around so many people spending so much money on an excessive amount of unnecessary souvenirs. It’s crazy to think that we are always trying to lose pack weight and get by with as few things as possible when sometimes in society our success and worth based upon the amount of goods we have. But that being said we did partake in the free moonshine tasting:
And after that it just seemed practical to get mountain lion henna tattoos haha
Despite taking a zero (again!) it was so great to get back on the trail.
4/26 It worked out great that the day we left Clingmans had thick clouds and the day we got back on it was clear and sunny!
That day we hit the 200 mark!
And beauty all around us:
4/27. Woke up to another foggy morning but an awesome hike! It’s so cool to see the different environments of the mountains. All you can see is white. It’s hard to picture how high up you are and the views behind the clouds.
Hiked to Charlie’s Bunion, a famous spot in the Smokies. Even though it wasn’t clear, it was still an awesome sight! The clouds and fog would roll in and out of the huge valley and you could see giant mountains looming in the distance. I was there alone and it was silent, peaceful, and powerful (especially when you would get dizzy looking down off of Charlie’s Bunion seeing how high up you were).
The weather eventually cleared up and I got another day full of beautiful views.
Part of the Cuddle Puddle (the name of our hiker family) Gulliver, me, Sweeps, and Sasquatch.
That night at the shelter we had a ridge runner staying with us who never asked to see our permits but enjoyed questioning us and our skill level. That night severe thunderstorms were forecasted so we fit 27 people in the 12 person shelter that night.
4/28 The shelters in the smokies were pretty bomb. They had 2 levels of bunks, a fireplace, huge tarps to block the wind, and an overhang with some benches and tables. That night it poured and there was a storm. We woke up in the morning to it still raining really hard. It was about 7am when the ridge runner started telling us to leave, and questioning those of us that were still laying down trying to sleep making sure we weren’t taking a zero at the shelter and that we needed to leave soon and start hiking because there were tornado warnings. Real cool.
The weather ended up not getting that bad. It just rained on and off and was really windy depending on what side of the ridgeline you were on.
Parts of a plane crash:
4/29 Our last day in the Smokies! It felt bitter sweet. I was bummed to leave the views and scenery, but it will be nice to camp wherever we want and escape the ‘privy areas’ at each shelter (no privys, just landmines and tp everywhere). I was really bummed I never got to see a bear though- but hopefully sometime soon!
The last shelter in the Smoky Mountains. Caged in with a fence to prevent bears from entering the shelter. We found out from the shelter log that last night a mama bear and her cubs hung out for several hours and put some rips in someone’s tent that was drying. Pretty crazy!
Last awesome views in the GSMNP!
Crossing a river and following the AT along a highway to Standing Bear Hostel.
Standing Bear Hostel was a quaint place with a trampoline, treehouse, chickens, and a beer cave run by Rocket and Lumpy. We did not stay there but I’m glad we checked it out. That day the Cuddle Puddle got picked up by Odysseuss’ Aunt and Uncle who took is to their home in Knoxville.l for 2 days. They spoiled us to southern cooking, showers, laundry, pizza, movies, clean sheets, candy, and a day in downtown Knoxville. It was fantastic generosity from an awesome family!