Well friends, the cake walk is officially over. Section 3 of the AT is the place where mountain boys and girls become mountain men and women. This section is not for the weak, traversing a hefty 300+ miles throughout NC and TN, encompassing the entirety of the Great Smoky Mountains … including all 6,625 feet of Clingman’s Dome, the highest point of the whole trail … and ending at the Virginia border town of Damascus. Home to the infamous Trail Days, the Appalachian Trail’s largest community festival, Damascus is a major milestone for any hiker Unfortunately, I’ll be there too early to enjoy the event, but such is the trade-off for a tranquil early start. Hello Neiman!
- Start of Section: Fontana Dam (mile 164.7)
- End of Section: Damascus, VA (mile 468.8)
- Total Miles: 304.1
- Total Days: 19
- Avg Daily Miles: 16.0
- Town Stops: 5
General Strategy for Section 3
- After a refreshing stay in a warm bed at Fontana Dam, it’s back up the trail … literally. Straight up. Within 1 mile of the Dam is the start of the Great Smoky Mountains, the highest range along the Appalachian Mountains.
- Some key Smoky Mountain along the way are (in order): Devil’s Tater Patch, Thunderhead Mountain, the aforementioned Clingman’s Dome, Sugarland Mountain, Mt. Kephart, Mt. Chapman, and Mt. Guyot. All of which are far above 5,000′ elevation. Being primarily a mountain backpacker prior to this trip, I’m eager to see how these peaks hold up to the majesty of Glacier, Yosemite, Denali, and other mountain ranges of my past.
- Most people go through the Smokies in 7 days, I plan to skip through in 5. If I choose to linger an extra day for the (hopefully) gorgeous vistas and views, so be it. Otherwise, the plan is 15.1 miles to Russel Field Shelter, 15.0 to Silers Bald Shelter, 15.5 to Icewater Shelter, 20.3 to Cosby Knob Shelter, and finally 17.6 to Groundhog Creek Shelter.
- Around mile 225, the trail finally starts it’s downward descent again, exiting the Great Smokey Mountain National Park 13 miles later at Davenport Gap. I’ll stop near here for an expensive resupply at Standing Bear Farm, en route to Groundhog Creek Shelter.
- After the Smokies, I’ll stay on the trail one more night at Walnut Mountain Shelter, then wander into Hot Springs, NC for a warm bed at Laughing Heart Lodge, an old Jesuit Retreat Center. Nearby Hot Springs also has a big event I’ll miss by a month called Trailfest, but I’ll still take a Nero day to enjoy the town and nurse my wounds of the Smokies.
- The next 5 days cover 100 miles through Tennessee, going continuously up and down over Allen Gap, Hemlock Hollow, Devil Fork Gap, and Sam’s Gap. Staying in mostly shelters until finally meandering to Greasy Creek Friendly Shelter. Most books I’ve read talk lovingly of this Hostel and it’s infamous feud with their hiker hating neighbors, so I’m looking forward to checking it out for myself.
- This section is long, as is this post, so hopefully I haven’t lost you yet.
- After crossing the border between NC and TN for the umpteenth time, staying in a few more shelters, resupplying in the city of Hampton, and soaking my soar toes in the supposedly nice sandy peach of Shook Branch Recreation Area, Virginia will finally be within grasp.
- Mile 468.8 marks the end of Section 3 and the entrance to Damascus, Virginia. A hiker town this big and popular is bound to be overflowing with smelly hikers like myself, but hey … Virginia is for lovers, right? With a name like Crazy Larry’s Hiker Hostel, I can’t help but try to grab a bed at this hostel, whose proprietor has been a fan favorite since 2012.
Damascus marks approximately 1/4 of the trail done, and a major milestone in the thru-hiker’s journey. It’s where I’ll take my first official (planned) Zero Day to resupply, reorganize, rejuvenate, and restrategize the next challenge. A welcome challenge of course, as Section 4 brings on the entire state of Virginia, Shenandoah National Park, Harper’s Ferry and some of the nicest groomed trails on the AT. Hello Neiman!
As you’re likely aware, Mike, you could encounter significant cold weather and/or snow on the south end… up to and including Clingman’s Dome. Be prepared, then ship the warm clothes ahead to the folks you’ll later meet in the Whites. Then, if needed you’ll have them. If not needed, leave them, ship them, whatever. Just plan for the contingency.
Yep, great advice! I plan to do it that way with my heavier quilts, jacket, and hat/gloves. I am starting when it’s very cold, but as soon as I feel comfortable switching out, I will. Most likely at Damascus.
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