DF: I was very pleasantly surprised last night when the group got quiet by 9 PM. Again we watched the moon all night (it was full last night, not quite the day before). It set just at sunrise, so again it was light all night. Right after things got quiet, we heard a barred owl and then a pack of coyotes.
This morning we were up at 6 and getting packed. We sat outside and ate breakfast, watching an amazing sunrise to the east and the moon setting in the west. We were on the trail by 7:15, a lot earlier than yesterday. We made really good time to start, even with many stops to look at the wildflowers and to listen to grouse drumming and pileated woodpeckers calling. We even saw a barred owl fly across the trail in front of us.
So far the trail spends a lot of time on top of narrow ridgelines, dropping off steeply on both sides. This time of year, with no leaves on the trees, we have gorgeous mountain views in both directions. It’s quite spectacular.
We made good time on our morning climbs and descents. My knee was not bothering me at all. We stopped for lunch in a gap that is supposed to be the site of a nineteenth century dairy operation and cheese factory. I have my doubts–it’s awfully high up the mountain and far away from, well, everything. We were almost finished with lunch when a young woman–a northbound hiker–arrived and sat down to have lunch with us. She was delightful. She’d grown up in New Hampshire and had done a lot of hiking. I have no doubts about her completing the trail.
Our first climb after lunch was also pretty good. We ended up on the rocky, rhododendron-covered summit of Tray Mountain. The trail was steep, but well-graded. We stopped at the shelter near the top on the way up to get water. The downhill slope was also pleasant, and, most important, pain-free.
And then we started our last climb, up Rocky Mountain, only 2.7 miles to our final destination for the day. It about killed me. The climb was really hot and sunny, exceptionally steep, and wickedly long. It took forever. The downhill side was just as bad, but there were signs that a trail crew had been there, cutting away downed trees and preparing to build steps and water bars along steep and eroded sections of trail.
We arrived at the Unicoi Gap parking lot at 2:30, completely exhausted, but still with no knee pain. Our next challenge was getting a ride into Helen, where we had a hotel reservation–a Jacuzzi room!–waiting.
BC: We were up and on the trail at first light again, after a cold breakfast of tortillas with Justin’s Hazelnut Chocolate Spread (sooooo much better than Nutella) and dried apples, along with Iced Via for our morning caffeine intake. Pleasant conditions on the trail, warm sunshine, cool breezes, and light packs made for a great hike all morning as we walked the Swag of the Blue Ridge and started the climb of Tray Mountain.
We stopped at Tray Mountain Shelter for water and a break. The water source is a boxed spring down a short and mostly level side trail. This shelter is in a lovely spot, with great views of sunset and sunrise, and many good tent sites. The privy is also amusing, as it has no roof. Walls, but no roof.
Back on the trail we continued the last four or five hundred foot climb of Tray, followed by a long but well graded descent to Indian Grave Gap. Along the way we stopped at the “Cheese Factory” site for lunch. While we were eating, a northbound thru hiker stopped to join us for lunch, eating her dry cold ramen noodles — actually a fairly common hiker meal (I suggested next time she spread the bare ramen with peanut butter). She is from Boston and is hiking home, and we talked about her experiences so far on the trail. We thoroughly enjoyed spending the time with her.
The last climb of the day, the steep, thousand foot ascent of Rocky Mountain, was brutal. The sun had been beating on that side of the mountain all day, so it was hot and the breeze was gone. We made it to the top, then had an eleven hundred foot descent to Unicoi Gap. We arrived at 2:15pm, making the 10.5 mile hike in about seven hours. (We’re not fast hikers, more like half-fast hikers.) At Unicoi Gap we were planning to hitch a ride into Helen, where we had a hotel reservation. As we were hiking down to the parking area I saw a van at the far end, covered in decals — of course it was Miss Janet, whom I’ve known for more than fifteen years. She ran the best hostel on the trail in Erwin, TN, and we stayed there several times. Miss Janet was just getting ready to drive to Helen to pick up a pair of hikers, and was happy to give us a ride. Great to see her and catch up on her exploits since she closed the hostel in 2009.
We got to the brand new Holiday Inn Express in Helen by 2:30pm, where we had an Executive Suite with a jacuzzi tub and a nice little balcony. Man, I felt bad totally trashing that room — kidding, of course, we kept all the gear out in the tile hallway and opened the tent bag on the balcony to shake out all the leaves and trail dirt. We got showered and changed, then dropped our hiking clothes into the washing machine in the hotel and went to the local Alpine Beer store for some great local craft beer. Er, except it turns out there’s not really any such thing — the beer store had a very scant selection of beer, so we ended up with a sixpack of a pale ale from New Belgium. We took that back to the room and put it in the fridge, then went to Dollar General for resupply, as it was right next door to the hotel.
Now, in theory a hiker can easily resupply at a Dollar General. In reality, it’s not easy, though it can be done eventually. Luckily we needed only two days of food for two people, and we had a fair amount of snacks left over from the previous section. After looking everywhere, we managed to get a decent dinner, some pop tarts for breakfast, some Nutrigrain bars, a block of cheese and some surprisingly good “entertainment crackers” along with more peanut M&Ms and the like. It would do.
Back at the room we enjoyed a cold beer while we reorganized our clean clothing, gear, and food. Dragonfly checked Google for local restaurants — not everything was open on a Monday night in April, but nearby was Bigg Daddy’s, a sports bar with good reviews. It turned out to be quite good, with a couple of Georgia beers on the draft list, a great burger, and a very good Philly cheesesteak sandwich — they use the right roll, and they sort of use the right cheese. Instead of Cheeze Whiz (which is the traditional cheese in Philly – seriously), they had “homemade cheeze whiz”, which turned out to be a fine bechamel sauce with cheese, mild and tasty, but really not the same. The cheesesteak was huge, and I demolished it. Dragonfly’s burger was also huge, and she ate half. We started with spicy deep fried crawfish tails, also very tasty. Overall this place had good food, decent service, and an okay beer selection in what can be a craft beer desert.
We spent an hour soaking our aching muscles in the tub before an early bedtime. The only thing I would change about the hotel would be to have the windows open for the cool spring night air.