Mike and Cindy Hike the Appalachian Trail

This year, Cindy and I decided to take on the challenge of hiking approximately 72 miles of the Appalachian Trail through the Smokey Mountains. We are breaking our hike into two separate trips. Here is our account from the first trip we took in May.

Approximately 1,600 people attempt to hike the Appalachian Trail (AT) starting from Springer Mountain in Georgia, but only about 330 make the entire 2,147 mile trip to Maine. The 72-mile section of the trail in the Smokies is the most difficult mileage on the whole trail. Cindy and I began our first leg of the hike along the southern route of the AT in the Smoky Mountains from Clingmans Dome to Fontana Dam (32-miles). We began our hike at 0644 in the clouds with 36°F temperature and ice on the trees. Elevation was 6,643 feet above the National Geodetic Vertical Datum of 1929 (ft NGVD). There was bear scat on the way up to the Dome. Once we took our first steps onto the trail, we knew that we were committed and turning around was really not an option.

We hiked with our heads in the clouds the entire first day as shown in the photo leaving from the Dome. It’s too bad the cloud ceiling was so low because this hike has some fantastic views all the way to Knoxville, according to Mike Crawford, who was a pledge mate and brother in my fraternity, ΠĶĄ. Mike has hiked all 800 miles of trails in the Smokies including the 72 miles of the Appalachian Trail that we are in the process of conquering. We met our first thru hiker at Silers Bald Shelter. He was an environmental engineer that had just graduated from Colorado State and was hiking the AT to Maine. He is starting a new job in October with an oil and gas firm when he finishes the hike. Like all the thru hikers, he was ambitious, dedicated and in extremely good shape.

Day 1 was our hardest day with grueling ups and downs. We reached Derrick Knob Shelter around 1605 as shown here. It took 9 hr 21 min to hike 10.1 miles that day. This was a great deal slower than our 2 mi/hr average at lower elevations. The shelter had 3 sides with one side open. There were hikers who had made it before us and built a fire which was most welcome. Both Cindy and I were drenched in sweat and physically exhausted. We packed steaks and baked potatoes for dinner, which made us the envy of our 13 new best friends at the shelter. We ate very well that night. We were in our sleeping bags by 2100 alongside our shelter mates. Several of them were smokers who soon filled the room with such wonderful smells – NOT.

We arose the next morning around 0630 with warmer temperatures and clearing skies. We fixed oatmeal and boiled water for the coming hike. We left the shelter at 0748 heading south (we think) towards Mollies Ridge Shelter, about 11.7 miles distance. Cindy and I had typically hiked 8 to 14.5 mi at lower elevations, but at 5,000 to 6,000 ft, this was a new adventure. Our pace was much slower at these elevations due to inclines, plus the weight of our backpacks. On the 2nd day, we hiked up to two mounts, Thunderhead Mountain at 5,527 ft NGVD and then a short down and then up hike to the Mecca of Tennessee fans, Rocky Top at 5,440 ft NGVD, as shown in this photo. We could see Fontana Lake from this view, as shown in this photo. There were 3 kids (one in high school) at Rocky Top who said they had sung several rounds of Rocky Top.

We reached Mollies Ridge Shelter at 1818 that afternoon, taking about 10 hr and 30 min to hike the 11.27 mi. I immediately began boiling water for our trip the next day and for our yummy dinner, a freeze-dried soup. Cindy began drying out clothes and getting the bedding ready. There were only 8 people at this shelter and they were a little less rowdy than the crowd at Derricks Knob Shelter. The Ridge Runner, Carl Goodman, a spry 70-yr old who works for the AT looking over the shelters, was at the shelter. I discovered he had worked at the Naval Ordnance Station in Louisville, where I had done work several years ago. Cindy and I were in our sleeping bags by 2100.

We arose the next morning at 0540 and left the shelter around 0653 to hike the final 9.9 mi to the edge of the AT in the Smokies on the south side. Although mainly downhill, about 2,700 vertical feet, there were still some challenging hills with tree roots, rock, and 500 ft of elevation change (up) along the way. I visited the old Shuckstack Firetower on Twenty Mile Ridge where the 360° views were stunning. We made it to the edge of the Park at 1355 in about 7 hrs and 2 minutes. Carl had passed us several times down the ridge and was waiting to take us to our car parked at the Fontana Dam Visitors Center, which was about another 1.5 mi. He is a truly dedicated employee who represents the best of the Parks employees. He was coming down to meet his wife for his 70th birthday and then hiking back to Spence Field Shelter, about 16 mi, the next day.

Cindy and I concluded our adventure by visiting The Swag near Waynesville, North Carolina. A steam shower, our first shower in several days, a warm fire in The Cabin, clean clothes, and a bottle of champagne certainly put some of our aches and pains to rest. We had dinner with Deener Matthews, the delightful owner of The Swag, listened to a motivational speaker and turned in for the night. We were back at Beech Grove by early afternoon working in the garden and flower beds. After a good night’s rest, we concluded that we would be ready to finish the remaining 40 mi this fall. All in all, it was a challenging three days filled with a lot of strenuous hiking, beautiful views, interesting people and a hike that we will never forget! Stay tuned for our next hike in the Fall.