Day 18. Last night, there was a big hiker party at the outdoor fire pit of the Lodge. It was really nice getting to meet and hang out with 20-30 other hikers all at once, but you can tell that the early starters are beginning to create a bottleneck on the trail. Supposedly over 1,000 hikers have registered at Amicalola Falls already this year, and the Smoky Mountains are obviously popular for section and weekend hikers as well. In summary, it’s getting crowded fast.
On the bright side, though, today’s weather was amazing. Clear blue skies and temps in the high 60’s all day. What a treat! We set out from Fontana Dam with a dozen or so hikers, all with one of two shelters in mind. The first was my original destination, at just 12 miles to Mollies Ridge. But those miles are 3,000 feet straight up … so definitely not an easy day’s walk.
For those with a little extra juice in the tank, Russel Field Shelter is an extra 3.1 miles of easy hiking. No big elevation changes, and no major milestones. Just a quick jaunt around a mountain or two. Since I arrived at Mollies around 4pm, i took a short break and decided to go the extra distance.
Here’s where today’s story takes a sad turn. The Tramily is a bit split up. Our lovable Huevos was having knee issues and decided to stay at Fontana Village for a Zero Day, and the rest of the crew chose to stop at Mollies Ridge. So for now, I’m hanging out with some newer friends, and will start slow tomorrow to let the others possibly catch up. I hope we see Huevos soon, but probably won’t for at least a few days. Hike safe Huevos!
We also said goodbye to Lillian, Fun Facts’ cousin. She was such an amazing help these past 24 hours – shuttling us back and forth around the village to the laundry, gas station, visitor’s center and marina. She was a
short great addition to the group, and even hiked with us for a couple miles before heading home today. There was talk of maybe meeting back up with us in Hot Springs, where we might take a Zero Day. After the cold/wet Smokies, spending a day in a hotel hot tub sounds divine to all of us. Plus, then maybe Huevos will catch up…
For most of the morning, I hiked with and got to know a young girl named Happy Feet. Happy Feet is taking a gap year before college to travel the world and hike this trail. We talked a lot about this shift in culture for people her age, as Julia, Tarzan, and Jack are doing the same thing. She explained (and I agreed) that the growing pressure and stress high school puts on teens these days is creating a need for more young adults to take a break in life before going on to college. Personally, I think the world has much to teach us before we pick a career path anyways, so applaud her and others’ decision to go experience it first hand at this stage in life. Plus, having a younger generation of hikers on the trail now means there will be more people in the community supporting it in the future. Win win.
We climbed Shuckstack Mountain at midday, opting to add an additional climb up to the fire tower. This was easily the tallest, scariest, and ricketiest lookout tower I’ve ever climbed … but I swallowed any fears to take in the amazing 360 degree view. Hard to capture it all with one photo, but here’s what I saw. Wow.
And here’s what I climbed to see it…
I spent the rest of the day hiking alone. With such beautiful weather, I walked happily through the Smoky Mountains taking in the wonder of this amazing park. I have always wanted to visit here, so today was literally a dream come true.
Towards the end of the day, I sat on a log and looked out at the horizon. Blue Ridge mountains as far as the eye could see. I took off my pack and gave myself a few moments to enjoy the silence and breath it all in. It was a peaceful meditative moment that helped me come to a realization: One of the reasons I am out here is the simplest of all. I just love hiking. I love walking for hours in the mountains, taking in the sights, sounds, and smells. I love being in nature and experiencing the world the way it was built to be seen. And here I am in the middle of it all. It was a great moment of zen.
When I arrived at Russel Field, I surveyed the area. The shelters in GSMNP are next level. They hold 15-20 people, the walls are made of stone, there is a large covered eating area, and even an indoor fireplace with chimney. If I had a sleeping pad, I would have happily tried it out, as it looks really warm. Rangers also put big plastic tarps over the open wall temporarily to help protect from early season wind/cold. The shelter was full though, so I was allowed to set up my hammock outside instead. Even with rain coming tomorrow, I’m happy for the warmth of my hammock tent tonight. Tomorrow brings hiking in the rain, but fortunately a few less miles than originally thought.
- Start Mile: 165.9
- Start Time: 10:15
- End Mile: 180.4
- End Time: 18:15
- Miles Hiked: 14.5
- Miles to Go: 2010.5
- Lodging: Russel Field Shelter