Day 15: Sassafras Gap

Day 15. After what was a surprisingly nice night of sleep in the tiny box of a room at the NOC, we had what can only be described as a very lazy morning. The facility is still mainly closed for the year, but they have a nice outfitter (new spoon!), general store of snacks, and a restaurant that opened at 11am.

So as you can imagine, we visited all 3 and therefore did not get on trail until 12:30pm. Side note, GREAT french fries at the restaurant. We had brunch with the whole gang: Jack, Tarzan, Happy Feet, Culligan, Ground Score, The Flying Dutchman, Shirt-pants, pack-Pants, Life Aquatic, Mana Bear, Julia, Nubs, Huevos, Fun Facts, and more. Aren’t trail names great?

Today’s hike was ALL uphill. It was a short 7 miles, but steep as all hell. What happened to the North Carolina switchbacks we loved so much? About a mile in, we ran into a future trail angel, Miss Betty. Miss Betty was day-hiking the trail and told us that she hopes to retire soon and will move near the trail where she will give out trail magic every year. I hope she does, as she was such a wonderfully sweet lady and would make any future hiker’s day to meet her. After another mile, she headed back down to the NOC, but it was some great conversation for that short time. Thanks for walking with us Miss Betty!

After climbing for hours, we finally reached our destination of Sassafras Gap Shelter. Most of the same crew is here, as going further means 4 more miles of upward climb. No thanks.

I learned my lesson and won’t be sleeping in a shelter again, though this one is nice. It is a double decker loft with room for 12+. Ground Score even had enough room to set up his hammock inside without bothering others. Not a bad idea, but I prefer to give that space to others and hang my hammock in the trees.

After the usual ramen dinner, we built a fire and had a nice night chatting among the stars. Fun Facts impressed all (as usual) with her astronomy and star navigation knowledge, then we called it a night.

It’s only 2 days to Fontana Dam, but rain is expected tomorrow. If all goes well, we’ll get a late rain and only have to deal with one wet day before a dry bed.

But then the real fun starts. The current situation in the Smokey Mountains (immediately following Fontana Dam) is very bleak. Rumors have the winds at 25 mph, the snow at 18”, and temps in the minus double digits at night. That is simply not going to end well. Especially for me, since you are required to sleep in the shelters in that 90 mile stretch. I’m going to have Dr. D send some winter gear to me at Fontana tomorrow: mummy bag, quilt liner, crampons, and heavier gloves.

Hopefully the weather subsides before we arrive, but it not, we may need to wait out the cold for a day or two. Worst case scenario, we skip it for now, then come back and do it later. That isn’t ideal, but it is an option since we are thinking of driving back down to a trail festival in Damascus (the end of the Smokeys) in April anyways.

Tomorrow should be another easy day of 10ish miles, fingers crossed the rain holds off until after camp is made.

  • Start Mile: 136.7
  • Start Time: 12:30
  • End Mile: 143.6
  • End Time: 16:35
  • Miles Hiked: 6.9
  • Miles to Go: 2047.3
  • Lodging: Sassafras Gap Shelter

Day 14: Nantahala Outdoor Center

Day 14. Another week in the books! Looking back at the montage video, the common theme is definitely COLD. That and (mostly) incredible summit views, once again. As I say somewhere in this video, Georgia and North Carolina do not disappoint!

Besides today’s Week 2 Video (coming soon, need WiFi), here’s a quick recap of today and it’s difficult 16.7 mile hike to The NOC.

First of all, this was BY FAR the coldest night and day on the trail. For those with hammock quilts, do not ever attempt to sleep in a shelter in this weather. I did, against my better judgement, and spent the entire night awake. The problem with a hammock top quilt like I have, is that it does not fully zip you in like a mummy bag. That is great in warm nights but dreadful on cold ones. Every toss and turn opens up an air hole for bitter cold to sneak in. Jolting you awake. Also, my very small/flimsy Z-Lite pad, the ground is forever cold as well. It dropped to the teens last night, and I simply couldn’t do anything to stay warm and asleep.

But great news! It stayed cold all morning! Usually it warms up around 10am, but today it stayed freezing as we walked through snow and wind until at least 3pm. I had to keep my thermals on almost all day, which are my sleeping clothes, but had no other choice.

Side note, the best piece of gear I own is by far my Patagonia M1 Hoodie fleece. This sweater has a 3/4 zip so it breathes really well when you get hot, but the hoodie secures tight around your head like a balaclava when it’s cold. It’s super versatile, very warm, and fast drying. I was originally going to send it home in Damascus, but not anymore! This baby is going to Maine.

During today’s hike, we had some fantastic views today from Wesser Bald and a place called “The Jumpoff”. In addition, we ran in to some great trail magic at Tellico Gap – Brooklyn and Bisquick, thruhikers from the class of 2017, were helping out on their drive to NY and had some great goodies for hikers: coffee, beer, donuts, water, fruit, chips, and more. By this point my frozen water bottles had turned to more of a slush, so I forced out the ice and refilled with their water which was thankfully in liquid form. A beer, a banana and some fruit also hit the spot. Thank you trail angels!

The climb down to the NOC was crazy steep, rocky, and dangerous. I almost kissed the hike goodbye when a misstep caused me to roll an ankle and jettison off the narrow ledge. Thankfully a tree 3 feet down the embankment saved me … but it was almost a very bad situation. Fun Facts and Heuvos witnessed and would have been forced to carry a very broken Sharkbait down the mountains, if not for that perfectly placed tree. The next few miles were taken veeeeery slowly and eventually our destination was reached.

What to say about The NOC? It’s the sole oasis at the US 19&74 road crossing, and resembles a poorly designed theme park at Wisconsin Dells or Dollywood. It is an outdoor recreation center, with a couple restaurants, white water rafting and kayaking area, ropes course, general store, and lodging and more. The cabins, though, are way up the hill and basically just wooden boxes with shelves built in as bunk beds. Each will sleep 4, but we squeezed in 5 anyways. The shower is 100 ft below us, making for a frustrating climb once clean. It’s hardly worth the $100 price tag, but it’s also the only option. It does have a heater, however, so we are all content.

We had a nice dinner with fellow hikers, about 12 total are here. Including Culligan, who has been leapfrogging with us all week, and Ground Score … a guy who was staff at Gooder Grove Hostel when we first arrived a few days ago. Apparently that place and it’s owner were even crazier than we thought, as he had to sneak out in the middle of the night for fear Zen would steal his gear and force him to work the whole season!

Side note, finally met up with Jack and Arnon (Tarzan) here as well. I know his parents were following my blog and asking if I met up with them yet, well I finally have! Great guys hiking with a young girl named Happy Feet. Looks like we may al be headed to Sassafras Gap Shelter tonight. A brisk 7 miles straight up 3,000 ft.

Culligan made his way to our cabin later at night with beer, and we enjoyed a recap of stories from the day. Everyone is doing well, though a bit beat up from the 15 mile day, so we will have a delayed start tomorrow. Besides, the general store opens at 10am and I need a spoon!

  • Start Mile: 120.2
  • Start Time: 09:40
  • End Mile: 136.7
  • End Time: 17:40
  • Miles Hiked: 16.7
  • Miles to Go: 2054.2
  • Lodging: Nantahala Outdoor Center