Within the first few miles after crossing into the park, we were met by a very friendly ridge runner who was making sure that we had permits and that we had filed them properly in the box at the south entrance to the park. We were good to go!
I was nervous about the Smokies for a couple of reasons. The park regulations say that you have to camp in shelters if there is space available, however, if day hikers/section hikers with reservations arrive, thru-hikers have to give up their spaces. We don't do shelters. Our tent is our haven. It's clean, dry, and sealed off from bugs and mice. I spent enough nights in Girl Scout platform tents and glen shelters to know that I don't sleep when I share space with bugs and mice. I had also heard rumors of rangers and ridge runners enforcing the rules with $500 fines. I hoped that the shelters would be full.
We hiked up to a fire tower and ate lunch... At the bottom, because I don't do heights when they're rickety and shaky and have no railings!! Muskrat tried climbing up, but bailed on the idea after the second platform.
The views in the Smokies aren't just the broad landscapes over ridgelines, rivers and towns. We hiked up over one rise, and the late afternoon light glowed through the trees lighting up thousands of tiny pink and white flowers carpeting every inch of the mountain. Everyone we talked to had the same reaction when they saw the field of flowers. They stopped and silently stared. Everyone at the shelter that night was talking about the "enchanted forest."
We hiked to Mollies Ridge Shelter, a stone building with a tarp across the front and a fireplace inside. We saw six tents already pitched, and I assumed that the shelter was full, but a hiker named Shewee called out that there was plenty more room in the shelter.
We had a muffled conversation about whether we should wait to pitch the tent, suck it up and sleep with the mice, or just go for it and hope we didn't get a ticket. We decided to go for it and feign ignorance if anyone came along. It was the first time I had wished for my badge on the trail.
The wind up on the ridge was fierce that night, so we snuggled and slept in lots of layers inside our double sleeping bag. We didn't sit long at the campfire, but we enjoyed being sung to sleep by hikers singing Billy Joel songs. We slept well and woke to another gorgeous day!
We had some steep climbs to slay that day, and some amazing views as the reward. We ate lunch on top of Rocky Top and were soon joined by several other hikers with the same idea!
A day hiker came upon us southbound over the summit. We all chatted for awhile. He was a local guy who frequently hiked the Smokies. He had tips on what our best upcoming views would be and, more importantly, tips on the weather forecast for the week. He told us to enjoy sitting in the sunshine while we could, because "weather like this never happens three days in a row in these parts." We were looking at 10 days of solid rain coming.
The odd thing about rain and the challenges it brings is that it's abstract. I knew going into the hike that there would be times of extreme wet and cold and it would go on for indefinite periods of time. I can tell you now that it's true, but even having experienced it, there is no way to convey with words what that's like. I can't even, right now from a dry hotel room feel the experience in my mind.
What I can tell you is that we hiked down from Rocky Top and pitched the tent among others at Derrick Knob Shelter, despite the shelter having space. We rescued another hiker's blowing stuff sack as it tumbled across the grass, tucking it outside his tent and letting him know it was there.
It was another windy night, ruffling the rain fly and the shelter tarp in a way that lulled me to sleep all snuggled with my warm Muskrat. I hoped that none of the Smokies' notorious snow would result from the chill in the air.
A familiar tapping sound woke us in the still dark of the next morning. It was raining. A peek outside of the tent confirmed that the shelter area, clear and crisp in the stiff winds the pervious night was wrapped in the thick damp clouds of the fog for which the Smokies are named.
The hiker whose stuff sack we rescued was lamenting the fact that he hadn't brought it inside and was trying to figure a way to keep his down bag dry without a dry stuff sack. He kept saying, "I'm so screwed!"
Rain was nothing new to us. We started in rain. No big deal. It passes.
We packed up and cooked on the ground under the narrow overhang of roof on the side the shelter to stay out of the wind. We ate as little birds and chipmunks hopped and scurried around the wet woods nearby. Then we bundled in our rain gear and hiked out for a short day to Double Spring Gap shelter.
We hiked over Silers bald, not to be confused with Siler bald which was just outside of Franklin, NC and wasn't fogged in beyond recognition. We could see nothing all day except the inside of the cloud that continuously drizzled on us.
The weather tempted us to stop at Silers Bald Shelter. We stopped in to get out of the wind and rain for a bit, but the shelter was packed well beyond capacity. People were crammed in every available space and several were making camp on the dirt floor. Dripping clothes and gear hung everywhere, and the smell... Well, it was strong!
We stuck with the plan to continue to Double Spring Gap, less than two more soggy miles away.
At Double Spring Gap, there was one spot left in the shelter, so we legitimately pitched our wet tent behind the shelter, close enough to cook under the roof out front. I thought of all of the people stuffing themselves into Silers with a more spacious option just a short hike north to here. Rain makes hikers crazy and desperate.
Muskrat went down the side of the ridge to get water from the better of the two springs. He came back with the entire back side of his pants soaked through. It was raining, but not downpouring! It turns out that the wind comes up the ridge and blows the water from the spring right up your backside as you face the pipe to fill your filter bags. To everyone's amusement, I dubbed the spring "the Appalachian Bidet!"
We met some section hikers and some really fast thru-hikers, one woman who was doing her THIRD thru! They built a fire in the fireplace that night, and I almost wished we were in the shelter. It was hard to get warm with the dampness combined with the chill.
When we woke, it was still raining, and the entire inside of our rain fly was coated in condensation from both of us breathing all night in the already over saturated air. The condensation had dripped into the tent, making the sleeping bag damp and creating a river down the edge of the tent floor. Uuuuuuugh. I wanted to go home. Not really actually go home, but I did feel majorly frustrated.
We took forever to get up and packed and eat. We were silently hoping that the sun might come out or at least that the rain would stop, but no. We hiked out in our rain gear, sweating ourselves wet on the inside and rain soaking us outside.
Today we would hike over Clingmans Dome! It's the highest point on the entire Appalachian Trail at 6655 feet above sea level. The common joke is that it's "all downhill after this!" Ha.
It was a long, but not particularly steep uphill. It was slick and muddy though, so we picked our steps carefully. Hiking like that is so tedious.
We kept venting our jackets and putting our hoods down when the rain let up to a fine mist and zipped and hooded ourselves when the big drops started again. At least there would be a visitors center at Clingmans! It was a half mile down a paved walkway, but there were potentially snacks and definitely a trash can! I had my mind set on a hot beverage, but sometimes a place to unload trash is all a hiker needs to make their day.
We finally made it to Clingmans. There is a huge tower at the summit that allows visitors to get the views over the tops of the trees. Despite there being absolutely no view, we climbed to the top of the tower to say that we had done it.
On top, we met a dad and his son who asked us lots of questions about our hike and took photos of us. I felt like a bit of a badass saying that we walked here from Georgia... A soggy, freezing, smelly, badass.
The wind was whipping up on the tower, so after the photo op, we practically ran down the path to the visitors center hoping for something hot and delicious! We saw a soaked tourist woman wearing shorts and a thin jacket walking up towards the tower, and I couldn't muster any sympathy, because she was not going to be wet and cold at the end of the day. She was going to get in a car and get warm and dry somewhere.
My mood wasn't the best, and it was even worse when we discovered that the visitors center had nothing but bottled water and overpriced chocolate bars with black bears on the wrappers. At least we stood in a dry room for a few minutes.
We ran into a girl, Rainbow, who we had met at Springer Shelter back on day one. Here we were back in the same weather. She was waiting to slackpack to Gatlinburg with another hiker. We were planning to run into Gatlinburg the next day and get back out as quickly as possible without an overnight in town. I jealously wondered when I'd next be clean and dry.
After emptying our trash into the bear proof trash cans at the parking lot, the rain picked back up again and the wind grabbed at our waterlogged pack covers. We hiked back up the hill to the trail to find that it had become indistinguishable from a stream. Water ran swiftly over rocks and mud, making the descent slick and precarious.
We came upon the Gentleman, Moonbow, and Lightning Bug taking a break. They asked if we were heading to Gatlinburg, and Muskrat explained that we planned to go tomorrow morning for a "smash and grab" resupply. Moonbow especially (I love her), tried to convince us to hike to Newfound Gap to get to town tonight.
Muskrat was stressing and really didn't want to go that far and didn't want to abandon our plan to skip the hotel stay in the tourist hell of Gatlinburg. I just wanted to be dry even if it was a fleeting night of comfort under a roof with climate control. I got pushy. My mom knows how that goes... Muskrat caved. It really wasn't fair of me, but the five of us started hiking down the slick hill at a speed we weren't accustomed to. I felt guilty for pressuring Muskrat, but we pushed on... Until he stepped on a wet log step across the trail, and I watched from behind as his foot slid along the log out from under him and he fell on his side in the mud, like an upside down turtle with his pack holding him to the ground.
I cried, apologizing for rushing us and for being pushy as I freed him from his pack and helped him up. The girls came upon us, and we let them know that we wouldn't be racing to the road to town tonight. It wasn't worth the risk of slipping again and having a less forgiving landing.
We slowed our pace, hiking through ankle deep water towards the side trail to Mount Collins Shelter, a half mile west of the AT. I thought I might have felt water leaking into my new waterproof boots at the toe, but I couldn't be sure if it was wet or just chilly.
We discussed possibly trying out shelter sleeping tonight, because the idea of pitching our wet tent in the rain again was almost as painful as the thought of mice running over us in our sleep. We decided to do it if there was room, just so we could pack up easily and early to hike to Newfound Gap for our smash and grab resupply at Gatlinburg. We had a Hiker Box order and a gift of homemade granola from Emily Colman at the NOC outfitter. Then we would hit the grocery store and the brewpub for lunch and get back to the trail in time to make it to Icewater Spring Shelter for the night.
The side trail to Mount Collins was beautiful. It traveled through old growth forest made even more beautiful by the way the water had made the colors of the trees deeper and darker. The rain let up a bit as we arrived at the shelter.
Surprisingly enough, there were two spots left in the shelter right in the center of the lower level. We decided to go for it and set up our sleeping system. A 16 year old girl and her mom were set up next to us and the girl marveled at our bed setup commenting, "it's like a HOTEL!! You have PILLOWS?!" She offered us some chocolate and I cringed at the thought of mice coming in the night for the bits that fell to the shelter floor as she broke pieces off.
The rain stopped completely just before we cooked dinner, and I took the opportunity to duck into the woods to bathe with baby wipes and change into my camp clothes. I started to feel okay, like maybe we would get some sun again.
We hung our rainfly, our wet gear and my wet socks (yep, my boots were leaking after less than 100 miles), on the lines strung under the shelter roof. Muskrat got water and I cooked dinner. As we cleaned up, I asked Muskrat not to forget our knife, but we ended up leaving it and never saw it again.
We were down out of the wind and fog, but it was still extremely humid, so nothing dried. We gathered stuff up and packed it away for the night.
Just then, Shane, Akela, Mike and Jade rolled into camp! We hadn't seen them since Fontana, and it was a nice reunion!
They gave us wary glances when we said we were trying out the shelter for the night. They're as committed to tenting as we are, and we admitted to being nervous about the shelter experience. They pitched tents behind the shelter in the only patches of ground not totally waterlogged.
We all chatted and caught up as they cooked and ate. A hiker named Two Sticks gave us the lowdown on Gatlinburg, because he had already been there the previous day from Clingmans. He said that meant he was now "in the future," which has now become the common way for us to refer to people ahead of us. People behind are in the past.
We were the last hikers in bed in the shelter, and I hoped that meant that everyone would be up early and ready to rock, so we wouldn't be THOSE people who go to bed last and get up first. We whispered nervously to each other as we cinched every cord on the sleeping bag around us both for warmth and to give mice as little space to come in as possible.
A little after we started to doze, there was a gust of wind and a loud clatter on the tin roof! The rain had returned with an epic downpour! Muskrat and I peeked at each other under the hood of the bag and smiled at our shelter decision! Then he whispered that we should get a hotel in Gatlinburg. When I asked him why, we said he couldn't figure out how to appropriately change back into hiking clothes in the morning while the shelter was occupied by a 16 year old girl. Good point. Ew. One more reason we like the tent best! Privacy!
We slept well! There were no mice, no snoring hikers and no wet tent to pack up... Because our went tent was already packed! Our silent Fitbit alarms went off at 6, and nobody moved but us. We whispered deep inside of our bag about how long we should wait before we just got up and got going. We hoped people weren't going to sleep in just because the rain continued to tap on the roof.
After about 15 minutes, a guy from the top platform finally got up. We considered that our cue. We packed up as quickly and quietly as possible, ate a snack and started trekking as fast as we could towards Newfound Gap! I was excited to get to town and experience dry!
Like I said before, it's really hard to convey the experience of hiking in these conditions. If you want to try to get a feel for it, take a super sweaty workout shirt and pants; cram it down into the bottom of the laundry hamper, and leave it there for a week. Pull it out; wet it down with cold water and wear it, wetting it periodically throughout the day and keeping the thermostat at a balmy 50 degrees. Make sure to exercise vigorously while wearing a "breathable" rain jacket and rain pants. Part of the exercise should include walking up a wet sliding board or other slick inclined surface... Then back down... Several times. At the end of the day, wet your outfit thoroughly, and place it in the refrigerator. Repeat for a week or until you pass out from the fumes.
It was slow going from Mount Collins to Newfound, but we finally made it out of the woods. The trail was clearly having an identity crisis, because it couldn't decide if it was a trail or a water source. It was literally a stream.
At Newfound Gap, there was a church van handing out sodas, snack cakes, bananas and cookies. We each grabbed a soda and some snacks to eat and headed over to the road to call for a shuttle. There were tons of shuttles listed in the guidebook.
We tried number after number. One was booked up. Another was just voicemail. Another didn't actually have a shuttle. Another didn't know where their driver was, but they weren't answering the phone.
We all took turns sticking our thumbs out and hoping someone wouldn't mind soggy muddy hikers in their vehicle for 15 miles. The first few pairs got picked up easily, but we stood there in the frigid wind and rain for another 40 minutes on top of the time we had already been out there making futile shuttle calls.
When another group of hikers walked out of the woods and were immediately picked up by a car in the parking lot, I lost it. I was so angry and cold. I picked up my pack, fully intending to walk down the middle of the road towards Gatlinburg until someone either ran me over or gave me a ride. I was shivering, soaked through and had absolutely zero dry clothes left.
Muskrat kept his head. He begged me not to walk in the road, but I wasn't going to listen. Again, my mother is probably nodding along right now.
Muskrat asked me to wait while he talked to the driver of a pickup pulling a fifth wheel RV trailer that had pulled in. Moments after he approached the man, he waved me over. We had a ride!!
The couple were retirees from Minnesota who had no clue what craziness we were up to with this thru-hiking thing. They actually thought Muskrat had said we were "through" hiking and needed a ride. We explained, though I was totally thinking of how tempting it would be to rent a car like Bill Bryson and GTFO of the Smokies!
They made us hot chocolate in their RV kitchen and returned with huge steaming mugs and homemade oatmeal chocolate chip bars! Then they offered to let us change in the back, but we didn't have any dry clothes. They offered to let us borrow dry clothes. As sweet as the offer was, we declined.
They drove us down the mountain, out of the park and into the Vegas of Tennessee, where they dropped us off at the outfitter and handed us a card with their email address for updates from the trail.