Day 19 (April 25): Our morning out of Sassafras Gap Shelter (mile 144.0) started with a quick 1 mile hike up to Cheoah Bald. At the top we found a true bald with a campsite and great views of the surrounding valleys.
We decided to take a quick break to rest and stretch before heading down the other side. Ended up helping a fellow hiker remove a few ticks from his dog. The ticks are out. With the bubble of hikers still behind us, packing up camp, we headed back down the other side of the mountain quickly to beat the herd. Found some apples and bananas waiting for us at Stecoah Gap.
Resupplied water at the gap and headed towards Jacob’s Ladder. The ladder had me huffing and puffing quickly and I was soon just looking forward to the next tree up the hill to lean against. And the next, and the next. Nadine powered through the climb without breaking stride or looking back to see me and Sam struggling. Made it to Cody Gap with some energy in the tank and the group decided to push on to Cable Gap Shelter (mile 159.2), which would make it our longest day on the trail so far. Tented with Sam, Johnny, Charlie Dog, Derek, Luke, and Dead Weight. Pyro was a no show. Played some more rummy around the fire ring before heading to bed.
Day 20 (April 26): Still trying to beat the bubble of hikers behind us, we woke early to hit the trail running. We finished the short 6 mile trail down to Fontana Dam before 11:00 am but it seemed to go on forever. When we first spotted the lake and dam, we thought the trail would soon descend toward it, but oh how wrong we were. The trail had other plans, and soon the lake and dam fell behind us as we hiked what seemed to be the wrong direction. Dodging poison ivy and climbing boulders, the trail eventually turned and we made it to the marina below, but still had 1.5 miles if bumpy terrain before arriving at our destination. Did I mention that even the easy days on the AT are hard?
All the pain seemed to melt away, however, as we explored our luxurious accommodations at the aptly named Fontana Hilton Shelter (mile 165.9). We were blessed with a great view, flat tent pads, hot showers, running water, and power outlites. Not too shabby for an AT shelter. After setting up camp, the boys and I caught a shuttle to to Fontana Village to resupply. I had a package of goodies waiting for me at the post office and grabbed a pint of ice cream and milk for Nadine. Oh and, of course, enjoyed a 6-pack of beer before heading back to camp. Deadweight, Luke, and Pyro ended up getting a room at the lodge while Johnny, Sam, Charlie Dog, Derek, Nadine, and I spent the night in our tents by the shelter.
Day 21 (April 27): The next morning we took our time packing up camp and eating breakfast. Charlie Dog was getting picked up at 9:30am to spend some time at the doggy spa while we hiked through the Smoky Mountains. Unfortunately dogs are not aloud in the backcountry of the park.
After saying our goodbyes we head down to Fontana Dam to take some pictures and head across into Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
The entrance sign to the park was smaller than we thought it should be. After feeling very tired from the first uphill mile into the park, I stuffed my face with all my day’s snacks (cliff bar and trail mix) and was able power myself the rest of the way up the ridge line. While passing a great cliff overlook, one of the hikers in front of our group doubled back to inform us that there was a rattlesnake on the trail nearby.
As we approached we could hear the rattle of the snake before seeing that our path was blocked with a cliff and steep inline on each side. After everyone got their photo with the snake, we kindly asked him to move by hurling rocks and sticks to help him on his way. Well, as you may have guessed, this just made him madder and nobody in our group was willing to tempt fate and pass him for a good 30 minutes. Eventually we all ran past the snake which was just a few feet off the trail. Dead weight might have squealed like a girl as he jumped past.
Soon after we reached Shuckstack fire tower, which was the tallest and coolest fire tower I’ve ever seen.
From the top we were able to see Standing Indian Mountain, Fontana Dam, and Clingman’s Dome. The rest of the day was was a fairly easy hike to Mollies Ridge Shelter (mile 177.3) and upon arriving we quickly decided to push to the next shelter, three miles down the trail. Along the way we spotted a park ranger in head to toe camouflage with a rifle in hand out hunting boar as well as a large turkey that made us all hungry for some turkey legs.
When we arrived at Russell Field Shelter (mile 183.2) we snagged some space in the shelter while most of the other guys (Johnny, Sam, Derek) setup tents outside. After our long day we headed to bed early to rest up for some more miles the next day.