DF: We were up and packed and having breakfast at the hotel around 7:15. We were the only ones there–the hotel was not busy and it was pretty early. We checked out and headed up the road to Betty’s, a small grocery store where we hoped to find a ride back up to the trail. We were walking through through the main commercial area of Helen, full of German-themed t-shirt stores and jerky stores (alpaca? seriously?), when an old Toyota SR5 pulled up and asked if we needed a ride.
We threw our packs in back, climbed in, and met Clem. He had just dropped off his 10 year old daughter at school. They moved to the area several years ago. He’s a musician and a glass blower and a genuinely nice guy. He dropped us off and we were on the trail by 8:40.
Our day on the trail started with a 1000 foot long climb in a little over a mile. It was tough, but not as hard as yesterday. It took an hour and a half to make the 2.5 miles from the gap to Blue Mountain Shelter, where we stopped for a break and a snack. A little further along, we stopped for water. The trail was less steep, rolling up and down along the ridgeline, with some really nice campsites along the way.
We stopped at Chattahoochee Gap for lunch and were immediately swarmed by flies. Ick. While we were eating, we met TP, a retired cop from Erie, who was slack-packing for a few days while he figures out if he wanted to buy lighter gear or give up and go home. Shortly after lunch, we met two men sitting on a log. One of them had passed out on the trail (after taking a zero day at the previous shelter). He thought he was dehydrated, and he really wasn’t looking too good. We made him some Gatorade and wished him well. The guy who was with him and another friend were taking care of him, so we pressed on.
Right after that the trail joined an old road for the next several miles. It was glorious–gently graded, winding around the mountain, rather than climbing steeply up and over and down. Along the way were many places where they’d built the roadbed out of stone along an inside curve, and other places where you could see the holes on the solid rock where they’d blasted it away. Most of the time the trail here was wide and open, but sometimes it went through stands of rhododendrons and mountain laurel, providing some much-appreciated cool shade.
It was in one of these stretches that we met a turkey hunter. He was older than we are, and dressed in camouflage. We talked for a minute about spring gobbler season and went our separate ways. We have not seen many hunters while hiking, so that was pretty cool.
Also along the road were several small streams coming out of the rocks on the uphill side of the trail. At the first big one to cross the trail, we stopped for a break and I soaked my feet for a while. This was a life-changing experience. The water was cold and my feet were hot and sore. It was wonderfully reenergizing.
About a quarter mile before we got to Low Gap Shelter, we stopped
at another stream to refill water. This one was lined with yellow flowers. We met a young woman there who was also getting water. She said it was so beautiful that she almost cried when she saw it.
We had originally planned to stay at the shelter, but decided that it was early enough to go a little further. That next stretch, however, was another big climb, so we stopped first for a break and a snack. While we were there, a man and his Australian shepherd came up the side trail on the other side of the gap. He’s a local guy and he had walked up from the road, just out for a walk. He told us that there were campsites at the top of the next mountain and we headed off.
We hadn’t gotten far when we met a young woman (Cam) who stopped us and asked us to look out for her aunt on the trail ahead. Cam is attempting a thru-hike and her aunt had joined her for a section. Her aunt was having a bad day and wanted to hike alone, and Cam was worried that she’d gotten too far ahead of her aunt. We said we’d look out for her.
We didn’t get much further when we passed a hiker who was wearing the same gaiters as I have. I commented and he immediately stopped, and we talked for at least ten minutes. Stick in the Woods is a retired special ed teacher, chasing a 40-year dream. He’d done a lot of research on lightweight equipment, so we chatted about that for awhile.
A little further up the climb, we met Cam’s aunt. She was looking pretty tired, but she seemed glad to hear that she was less than 30 minutes from the shelter.
And then we were at the top, by about 4:30, making it 10.7 miles in an eight hour day (with lots of stops). It was not a bad climb–it took less than an hour even with the stops. We found a gorgeous campsite right at the top, with views east and west.
We had plenty of time to set up camp, relax, get organized, and make dinner, and we’re looking forward to another beautiful sunset.
BC: We were up early and enjoyed the usual HIE breakfast. Not bad. Dragonfly had some anxiety about how we were going to get back up to the trail from town, given that we hadn’t tried to line up a ride the night before. We’d been told to go to the local small grocery store, Betty’s, and someone would give us a ride, so we left the hotel around 8am to walk the half mile or so downtown. Did we mention that Helen is a “German” village? All the architecture is faux-German Alpine style, and it feels like a cross between Busch Gardens and Gatlinburg. Lots of restaurants, t-shirt shops, jerky stores, etc. Early on a spring weekday morning, downtown Helen was empty and made for some cool photos.
As we were walking through downtown, a small SUV stopped and the guy inside asked if we needed a ride to the trail. Well, yes sir, we do! Clem had just dropped his daughter off at school and was heading back to his glassblowing studio, and was happy to take us back to Unicoi Gap. Clem and his family had moved to the area a few years ago. We had a great conversation about music and family along the way. At the gap I called the Blood Mountain Cabins to make a reservation for the following night, having heard that the Neels Gap hostel was closed and knowing that camping in that area was scarce. The proprietor told me he was selling out every cabin every night, so I was glad to have the reservation.
I expected today to be fairly easy on the trail — a long but well-graded thousand foot climb out of Unicoi southbound on the trail, but then a mostly level ridgeline walk the rest of the day. And so we stopped for a break at the Blue Mountain shelter after the climb, then spent the rest of the day ambling down the beautifully graded trail. Water started getting scarce, so I was glad we topped up at the spring about a mile past the shelter. We stopped for lunch at Chattahoochee Gap, where we met several northbound thru-hikers. One, T.P., stopped to chat for fifteen minutes. T.P. was a retired cop from Erie, with a longtime dream of hiking the AT, but he quickly realized his pack was far too heavy and he needed to make some changes. So he was “slackpacking” a couple of sections (hiking with a daypack and car support) until he could get his regular gear in order. We suggested he spend a day at the outfitter at Neels Gap, as they specialize in helping hikers lighten up.
After lunch the trail started following an old woods road, gently rolling up and down along a contour line around the high mountains. There were several small waterfalls coming out of the mountain over the road. We met more northbounders, and Dragonfly stopped and soaked her feet at one of the waterfalls. We arrived at Low Gap Shelter early, thinking about pushing on, and after a conversation with a local out for a day hike, we kept going. He mentioned a good campsite at the top of the next climb, so off we went. The campsite turned out to be as good as advertised, with great views in both directions and no one around. We got camp set up, and for once we had a couple of hours of down time — this turned out to be something of a rest day, albeit just shy of 11 miles total. We made dinner out of three cups of Velveeta Instant mac and cheese — pro tip, three cups will feed one hiker, not two — and more bacon. Needed some dried tomatoes, but those weren’t available at Dollar General. Made up for it with some of our snacks, and we were in the tent just after dark.