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!
Where the goal of Section 1 was to ease-in-and-find-my-bearings, the focus of Section 2 is to fine-tune-and-find-my-trail-legs. This portion of the trail knocks out most of North Carolina and gives thru-hikers a chance to get comfortable and confident with their hiking style before things get really tough. After all, Section 3 brings on the hugely majestic yet highly elevated Great Smoky Mountains. So before we hit the highest peaks of the trail, first let’s enjoy what NC has to offer:
- Start of Section: GA/NC Border (mile 78.5)
- End of Section: Fontana Dam (mile 164.7)
- Total Miles: 86.2
- Total Days: 6
- Avg daily miles: 14.5
- Town Stops: 2
General Strategy for Section 2
- Prior to Section 2, and coming fully refreshed from my first resupply at Dick’s Creek Gap, a scheduled Nero Day takes me only 4.5 miles to Plumochard Shelter. This half-day is scheduled to take care of any gear issues (repair, replace, etc.) and re-align on expectations. The Nero day will be welcome, but starting tomorrow the mileage really ramps up.
- Crossing the GA-NC border, the trail continues uphill consistently for 12.2 miles to the day’s break at Standing Indian Shelter. Then over Standing Indian Mountain’s 5,500 elevation before finishing the next day’s 16.2 miles at Long Branch Shelter. Finally 18.3 miles of up-and-down (may as well get used to it now) through Rock Gap, Winding Stair Gap, and Wayah Gap before climbing up again to Wayah Bald and Wayah Bald Shelter. Note to future self, “gap” is code for steep-down-and-up.
- Whew! I really hope my trail legs have kicked in by now because those 3 days are going to surely test my endurance and stamina for long grueling days!
- The next 16.5 miles are supposed to be a beautiful trek along the spine of the Appalachian Mountains between 4,000 and 5,000 feet high, before heading down to the next gap. And along this downward trek is The Jumpoff, a notable 1,000-foot cliff face on the side of Mount Kephart with spectacular views of Charlie’s Bunion and Mount Guyot from atop a very steep precipice. I’m eager to see this.
- That majestic day ends down below 2,000 feet at the Nantahala Outdoor Center, or the NOC. The NOC is a popular trail stop with food, gear, lodging, showers and more. There is a trail festival here in late April that I’ll miss, but a warm bed is still planned at the Base Camp hostel. The next morning I’ll resupply and move along.
- As is the case with most town stops, we exit the NOC with a 5-mile uphill climb to the top of Swim and Cheoah Balds. The rest of the day looks relatively calm before ending at Brown Fork Gap Shelter … except for the infamous Jacob’s Ladder. A 0.6-mile hike ascending 600 feet straight up without switchbacks.
- Section 2 ends with a descent to Fontana Dam. Fontana Dam is the highest dam East of the Rocky Mountains, and a definite stop for another nice warm bed, a maildrop resupply box, and a chance for some very expensive hot food. I plan to stay at the nicer Fontana Village Resort, but there are many lodging options here as it is a major destination for all kinds of Appalachian adventurers.
Section 2 looks to continue the excitement from Section 1, which is hopefully enough motivation for this 2nd week in the woods. But if the scenery alone doesn’t do it, a good plan and a determined spirit will keep those legs moving regardless. Hello Neiman!
In my opinion, planning out Section 1 of the AT is a big big big big big deal. Why? Historically speaking, approximately 25% of all NOBO thru-hikers quit the trail during this 75-mile stretch. I don’t have any formal statistics to back this up (since all data collection is voluntary), but the theory certainly sounds reasonable – unprepared, unconditioned, and unsettled hikers will fondly look at Neels Gap as an easy escape clause to their plans. Even David AWOL Miller, whose guidebook is gospel on the AT, had a backup plan to save his old job if things didn’t feel right in Georgia. As for me, short of a major injury early on, I have every intention of happily and eagerly finishing Section 1 like this:
- Start of Section: Amicalola Falls State Park
- End of Section: GA/NC Border
- Total Miles: 75.6
- Total Days: 8.5
- Average daily miles: 10.6
- Town Stops: 2
General Strategy for Section 1
- Amicalola Falls is 80 miles from Atlanta. Through a combination of planes, trains, and automobiles, the adventure begins at the State Park Lodge.
- Although I hope to average 20 miles a day on my journey, that’s not the plan yet. With only partially conditioned legs, partially tested gear, and partially convinced mindset to get out of a warm hammock during freezing March temps … I plan to ease in with just 10 miles average per day.
- This is both for my benefit, but also for that of my expected hiking partner. Not to question his ability, if he is able to join, the guy is in much better physical shape than me – doesn’t eat meat, runs every day, can lift a small Volkswagen over his head, etc. But, he has never been on a long backpacking trip that I know of, and our only other travels together took place in a Winnebago. It will be smart to give us time to acclimate to the trail, and to our partnership.
- I’m not going to be a purist, insistent on putting feet on every inch of the trail, but I’m also not going to start my hike skipping miles – I plan to hike the controversial 8.8-mile approach trail from Amicalola Falls State Park to Springer Mountain. Even though the trail doesn’t technically start until you reach the summit, most thru-hikers include the approach trail and I will too. I want to earn that emotional first day’s end on the AT’s southern terminus!
- From there, we’ll do casual days on the trail and nights at the shelters, leading up to the first major peak – Blood Mountain. At 4,500 feet tall, it is a steep beast to summit before making your way to the first anticipated town crossing.
- Enter Neel’s Gap. Here, hiker’s can get the infamous gear shake-down, a warm bed for the night, and an expensive resupply. I will do all 3 and then keep moving.
- A couple more days on the trail, then we’ll try to find a warm bed at Dick Greek Gap’s famous Top of GA Hostel. I’ll pick up a mail drop here and take my first Nero Day to evaluate Section 1 and consider changes for what comes next.
- After that, it’s a quick 1.5 days to the GA/NC border.
Will it all happen as simply as this? Most definitely not. Am I excited for this plan regardless? Oh ya, you betcha. Hello Neiman!
On the Hike Plan page of this blog, you can find a detailed breakdown of my preliminary strategy to hike 2189.2 miles in under 5 months. As explained in the introduction, I know pre-planning can seem taboo, as things will certainly change once on the trail. But, I feel one of the best ways to prepare oneself for this trip – mentally, strategically, financially, logistically, not to mention for the sanity of friends and family – is to have a detailed plan in advance that I can best hold my myself accountable to.
Over the next few months, I will walk through each “section” of this hike, as broken out by the by Map Man and labeled in Column A of the Hike Plan spreadsheet. The purpose of each of these preliminary posts will be to provide 3 valuable assets to me and my followers before hitting the trail:
- Expectations. By doing a descriptive walkthrough of the trail section, I can try to understand (and share) what to anticipate during that section: Difficulty of terrain, towns to pass through, sights to see, festivals to participate in, trail milestones to look forward to, budget to account for, etc.
- Timing. This baseline will act as the barometer for all logistics planning to my support network: When to send mail drops, when to expect me off-trail (for pre-planned events such as a wedding in June), and when to join (if interested) for section hiking alongside me. Many friends and family have shown interest and (if they can keep up) would be a great addition to the adventure.
- Safety. If for some reason I am unable to post daily updates from the trail, you will know where to expect me next. If (god forbid) I don’t show up, you’ll know where to go look for me. This is unlikely to happen – but better safe than sorry.
Future AT Hike Plan posts will break down each section of the Hike Plan (1-11).