Going Solo

Thursday, June 20. I’ve been backpacking for forty years. But I’ve never gone on a solo trip. That changes tomorrow. I am packed and ready to head out in the morning to the Mount Rogers National Recreation Area.

During the last forty years I’ve hiked hundreds (thousands?) of miles, mostly with my husband. I’ve always said that I wasn’t interested in hiking alone, that it wouldn’t be any fun without someone to share it with.

Last weekend I looked at the calendar and realized three things: next Friday is the summer solstice, I have a three-day weekend, and I have a weekend alone. Four things–and I want to go to Mount Rogers for an overnight hike. All by myself.

My planned route is a loop, about 10-12 miles total. I’ll take the main trail up from the parking lot, head south on the AT to Rhododendron Gap, take the Pine Mountain Trail back to the AT, continue southbound to Scales, over Stone Mountain, down to the bottom, then camp somewhere along one of the creeks for the night. The next morning I’ll walk past the Wise Shelter, and then up and over to head back to the car, taking the trail back down to the backpacker parking lot.

Friday, June 21. When I drove up to the entrance station at Grayson Highlands State Park, the ranger had two questions: you know about the bear warnings, right? And, you know about the weather forecast? Yes to both. This could be an interesting hike.

Since last summer the Mount Rogers area has had intermittent bear problems at the shelters and along Wilburn Ridge. They’ve installed bear boxes at these locations. Hikers are encouraged to use them or bear canisters for food storage.

There had been severe thunderstorms Thursday night and the forecast was the same for Friday night. The weather up there is always volatile and can change from warm sunshine to cold, windy rain in minutes. You’ve got to be prepared for all of it.

I left the car at 9:30 AM with a 22.5 pound pack. We’ve done this hike so many times that it felt completely familiar, but also completely new and exciting, all at the same time. As I crossed the parking lot, I saw my first bird of the hike, an indigo bunting singing in the top of a small shadbush tree. An excellent omen.

It was really windy as I climbed, sometimes sunny, sometimes ominously cloudy. A bit chilly in the wind without sun. Absolutely gorgeous. Summer meadow grasses and wildflowers, blackberries and mountain laurel in bloom, the Christmas tree fragrance of the Fraser firs. It was so much fun to be out there! Life’s been a bit busy lately and I haven’t had enough trail time in the last year or so. Just breathing the air up there was good for my soul in a way I’d almost forgotten.

I stopped for lunch on Pine Mountain in a little grove of evergreen trees, trying to get out of the wind. There was a jumble of rocks inside, so it seemed like an ideal spot. I was clearly not the first to think it so–there was also a lot of evidence that the horses had spent a lot of time there…

The trade-off for being out of the wind was also being out of the sun, so I didn’t stop for long. By the time I got to Scales the wind had died down a bit and the sun was out for good. I took a break just to sit and be there. And watch the cows.

On the way down Stone Mountain I stopped at a spring along the trail for water. While I was there I met a northbound thru hiker from Germany. For the second time that day. She stopped to talk because she recognized that we’d passed each other earlier in the day as well and found that a bit puzzling, until I explained that I was hiking a loop.

As I continued down the trail, I started thinking about my camping spot for the night. We’ve camped before at a spot that we call the old homesite. There’s a small clearing, a spring, and some overgrown household junk on the other side of trail. When I got there I decided that it was too early in the day to stop and that would leave me a longer hike in the morning than I wanted (since I had to hike out, drive home, then pick up my husband at the airport the next afternoon).

My next two stops were along the creeks at the bottom. At the first spot there’s a nice campsite under a tree. Unfortunately the only flat spot to pitch a tent had a gigantic pile of horse manure. Sigh. I looked around a bit in the more open grassy areas, but every flattish spot was either soggy or full of blackberry brambles. The next spot a little further down the trail was just too soggy. So on I went.

Finally, like Goldilocks, I found a spot that was just right. Out of sight of the trail, close–but not too close–to the creek, flat enough to pitch a tent, and high enough to be dry.

I had everything set up by 5 PM, so I had the rest of the afternoon and evening to just enjoy being out. I had brought my knitting, of course, so I worked on knitting a hat and just watched the world go by. There were lots of birds, a few deer, but no hikers anywhere nearby. I walked around a bit, exploring the area and looking for a place to secure my food bag overnight. I made dinner and just relaxed, enjoying being out on the longest day of the year.

Saturday, June 21. I was up early, as soon as it began to get light. I retrieved my food, made coffee and breakfast, and watched the morning. My company was a chestnut-sided warbler in the maple nearby. I sat for a few minutes meditating, and realized that this entire trip is an exercise in mindfulness and presence.

It had been an interesting evening. I first heard thunder at about 10:30. When I looked outside, the sky was full of stars to the east. Not so much in the west. I had a few showers at about 11:30, then things were quiet until about 3:30, when the thunder and lightning woke me up. The rain started coming down hard after the first thunderclap. All was dry inside–so far so good.

I started counting the time between lightning and thunder. Ten seconds. Then eight. Four. Two. Then four again and I resumed breathing. The storm moved off and the rest of the night was quiet.

I took my time breaking camp and I was on the trail before 8 AM. Within ten minutes I had crossed the last creek and passed the Wise Shelter and the 20 or more tents and hammocks pitched nearby. I guess the bear warnings have concentrated the hikers near the bear box locations.

It took about an hour to get to the top of the ridgeline and the trail back to the backpacker parking area. I stopped fairly frequently, mostly because I wanted to prolong my time out and enjoy the glorious morning. I saw deer and turkeys, and heard a hermit thrush, a wood thrush, and plenty of chestnut-sided warblers.

Would I do this again? Absolutely. I discovered that hiking alone allows me to focus entirely on the experience, on the world around me, on how I feel and what I need–when to stop, eat, or drink. I also saw and heard more birds and other animals, perhaps because I was quieter alone or maybe because I was paying more attention. I returned home restored and energized, ready to check my calendar for another opportunity to spend some time in the backcountry.

Chilly Spring Weekend at Mt Rogers


I can’t believe it’s been a year since our last overnight hike together, but 2017 sort of got away from us. Between helping get the kiddo moved to Tuscaloosa, visiting family far away, and plenty of regular old work, we never got another chance.

So we rectified that with a two night backpacking trip to our favorite local destination, the Mt Rogers National Recreation Area in Virginia. It’s an easy two hour drive to Grayson Highlands State Park, where we parked the car in the backpacker lot at Massey Gap, and we were hiking before 6:30 Friday evening.

Spring has been late this year, and even with warming temperatures back home, it was still late winter in the high country. Trees were bare, and early flowers like the spring beauties were only blooming down low. It was under 50F when we left the car, and in the 40s while we sat and watched the sun set at our campsite on Wilburn Ridge. The brisk wind  made it feel much colder, of course, so we were in the tent before 9pm, trying to get warm. Had something of a chilly night (well, one of us did), and woke to semi-frozen water bottles and a glorious sunrise. I made coffee while Dragonfly packed things up in the tent, but we left the quilt out for her to stay warm while we ate hot oatmeal for breakfast. The forecast for the day was for clear blue skies and warming in the afternoon, so we packed up and started climbing Wilburn Ridge toward Rhododendron Gap. We still weren’t too sure of our route – just that we wanted to be camped somewhere near Wise Shelter later that evening. At Rhodo Gap, Dragonfly looked at the map and thought that the clockwise route all the way around Mt Rogers looked doable, so we saddled back up and headed south on the Appalachian Trail toward the Thomas Knob Shelter. There we got some water from the spring, used the very nice privy (this area gets a lot of use), and kept heading south on the AT. We passed a lot of backpackers on the way.

We stopped for lunch in a large clearing overlooking Briar Ridge and the Virginia Highland Horse Trail. Had little packets of almond butter and chocolate/hazelnut spread, dried bananas, and tortillas. Kind of dry and hard to eat — maybe fresh apples would be better in this. Then we hiked down to Deep Gap, where we took the right turn onto the Mt Rogers National Scenic Trail. It’s not remotely scenic — it’s a connector trail that runs four miles up from Grindstone Campground to the AT at Deep Gap. Halfway down, there is a connection with the Lewis Fork Trail, which offers a choice of upward toward Pine Mountain, or down towards the Old Orchard Shelter on the AT. We chose upward. Most of the trail is an old road bed, so it’s wide and well graded, and there was plenty of water coming out of the mountain. The last half mile or so gets off the road and so it gets a lot steeper climbing up toward the saddle in the middle of Pine Mountain, where the LFT intersects the Pine Mountain Trail and the Crest Trail.

Walking up the old road we went through some open woods. Dragonfly heard some vireos calling, so we stopped and looked for them. We had terrific views of a male blue headed vireo, then she saw a male yellow-rumped warbler in full breeding plumage. While I was looking for that with the binoculars, I spotted a male hooded warbler — a spectacular wood warbler, who then spent ten minutes showing off his bright colors as we watched. (The photos at the link do not do him justice. He was stunning.)

We had planned to spend the night at that saddle. It’s a popular spot, with good water at a couple of springs, nice views, and plenty of tent sites. But we arrived at 3:00, too early to stop for the day. So we got some water and took the Crest Trail, toward Scales, where it intersects the AT and a couple of other horse trails. The Crest Trail is mostly in the open, and it has terrific views of the area. Lots of hikers here, too, mostly large groups of kids. After we stopped at Scales, we headed on yet another horse trail, the Scales Trail, back toward the state park and the Little Wilson Creek area. On a previous trip, we had noticed a terrific little campsite well off the AT down near Little Wilson Creek. Even with all the hikers in the area, the site was far enough off the trail that no one was there when we arrived around 5:30. Got the tent up, changed clothes, and made dinner, then we sat around in the cool air as the sun set over the ridge above us. Had some chocolates and a wee nip of Scotch before heading off to the tent. Temps overnight were warmer, though we still had a hard frost on the tent in the morning – but no ice in the water bottles.

Dinner was one of my personal favorites: a Knorr “Broccoli Alfredo” noodles and sauce meal, to which we added dried tomatoes, freeze-dried peas, and half a bag of real bacon pieces. Sort of a backcountry fettuccini carbonara. We shared it, but on a longer hike I could have eaten the whole thing in about five minutes.

Got up early Sunday morning to a cool, bright morning. With no breeze, it was warm enough to sit out with our coffee and some granola for a bit before packing up. Headed back to the car, and we were home before noon. Ended up with about 15 miles for the weekend, more than 12 of them on Saturday. Came back down the mountain refreshed and ready to do it again.


Gear Notes: As usual, the first trip of the year always presents some gear issues. I like to putter around and check all the gear before a trip, make sure everything is working, etc., and I mostly did that. Of course, the one thing I didn’t check was our water filter, which did not work at all (it’s the regular Sawyer filter, so I’m sending it back for a replacement. It shouldn’t ever fail.) I do carry chlorine dioxide tablets for a backup, and we used them all weekend.

The Zpacks Triplex tent is still working very well, easy to set up and spacious. Zpacks stuff is expensive, but if you have the money I think this tent is worth it. A couple of years ago we switched from individual sleeping bags and pads to a shared quilt and a double sleeping pad (the Exped Ultralight.) This saves at least two pounds in total weight, but it’s not without some challenges, especially as the lows get down below freezing at night. Just like at home, when one person moves, it can suck cold air inside any gaps, or pull the covers off the other person — which is mildly annoying at home with the thermostat at 64, but far more so when it’s 30 degrees out. On the upside, the sleeping pad did very well in the cold. It has some insulation built-in, and we never had any cold spots under us.


An Easy Day

Sunday, May 28. Lost Mountain Shelter to the Straight Branch parking area, about 10.5 miles.

It wasn’t raining when the alarm went off at 6am, so we packed our gear and got breakfast started. By 7am it was raining off and on, so we retreated under the tarp I had set up for just this occasion. We can eat and hang out in a dry space, finish packing, then pull down the tarp and start walking.

Got on the trail right at 7:30 and we were at Creek Junction at 8:30. We decided after the long day Saturday that we’d take the Virginia Creeper Trail to the car, so we started down the Creeper at a moderate pace. I’d mentioned to Ben that we could stop at 11am for lunch at the Creeper Trail Cafe, and if we were a little early we’d just wait. Well, we were an hour early – we were making 3mph on the level trail, an old railroad bed. So we kept going and hit the car by 1045, and drive to Damascus for lunch.

Forgot to add that we saw a bear!  On the Creeper Trail, just before it leaves the USFS property near Taylor’s Valley, a young bear ran across the trail a hundred yards ahead of us, then ran straight up the side of the gorge. It’s looks like a 60 degree slope, and he ran. I’d find it difficult to climb.

The truck was fine, btw, and the sign said the area was closed from 10pm to 6am, so no overnight parking. Sorry!

After a pizza,  calzone, and some fried shrimp we are now headed out to walk around town and do some shopping before the drive home.

All in all a nice little hike.

An Epic Day

Saturday, May 27. Starting point: Massey Gap. Ending point: Lost Mountain Shelter. 15.8 miles.

Through a complicated series of events, my easy three day 32 mile hike with my friend Ben turned into a two day 26 mile hike. Still not too bad, but further complicating matters, we had to be back Sunday for dinner – after hiking all day and driving three hours. That meant that day one became a 16 mile hike from Massey Gap in Grayson Highlands State Park to the Lost Mountain Shelter, setting us up for an easy 10 mile day to get back to the car.

We drove up Friday night and stayed at a hotel in Abingdon. Got up at 5am and walked across the parking lot to the Huddle House for breakfast. It was good: friendly service and decent food. We drove to Damascus to meet Lone Wolf for the shuttle to the park, and met him at the public library, which has long term parking for hikers.

We had planned to leave the truck there, but I thought we’d have a good shorter hike parking at Straight Branch, a trailhead for the Creeper Trail and AT. We got there and I drove in to the empty parking area. LW followed us in and asked if I’d seen the “area closed” sign. Er, nope. I was putting all my effort into not missing the turn. Huh. Too late to go back – LW had to be at work early. Not sure what to do, so we left the truck with the hope that the Forest Service would leave a ticket rather than tow it. (Or chain the driveway out.) So I’ve been moderately concerned about the truck every once in a while. The odd thing is that the big “Trailhead Parking” sign is still on the main road, and the closed sign is really not noticeable. Also, no gate. Oh well, we’ll see when we get there.

Had a nice ride with LW. We’ve known each other for years both online and in person. We got to GHSP and were on the trail right at 7:30. The forecast was for rain and thunderstorms,  and as we climbed we moved into the clouds as the wind whistled past at 20 mph.

We climbed up Wilburn Ridge, with me chasing after Ben as fast as I could – he’s got 40 years on me, so I never could keep up. Had a short break at the big rock with a view, then at Thomas Knob Shelter. Headed out around Mt Rogers and got to Elk Garden at 11:30 for lunch. Had a short but pleasant break, then climbed Whitetop in an hour. Got some water in the big spring, then took a nice break at Buzzard Rocks. The next few miles were a 2000 foot descent, which killed my knees and wiped us both out. But at the bottom we were only 2.3 miles from the shelter, so we sucked it up and hiked. Got here by 4:30 and found a nice campsite across the trail from the shelter, which is crowded with thru hikers.

We set up tents, and I went to get water. When I got back we could hear thunder in the distance, so I set up a tarp in case we need it for dinner or breakfast or just hanging out. I’ll leave it up all night – I can still hear thunder and it’s gotten quite dark and chilly.

Ben made dinner. He brought gnocchi and some dried tomatoes, olive oil, and garlic. We looked at the directions and the gnocchi need to be boiled – oops, we only have a frying pan. But we added water in the pan to cover them, let them simmer for ten minutes, and the water thickened into a delicious sauce. It was one of the best backcountry dinners I’ve ever had.

(Later) I thought we’d get away with some sprinkles overnight as I heard the storms passing to the north. Alas. Around 8:30pm we could hear thunder moving in from the southwest. The storms got underway slowly, but soon we had very heavy rain and lightning all around us. It rained heavily for about 4 hours – plenty long enough to keep me from getting enough sleep. My ZPacks tent did okay, though it was raining hard enough that water was splashing up under the fly and getting inside. I blocked it with my sit pad to keep my head dry and just got what sleep I could.

2017 Georgia AT Section Hike, Day 6

20170413GAhike0435_webDF: Today we started and ended in the same place–our cabin at Blood Mountain Cabins–but we left on foot and returned by car. We slackpacked from Neel Gap, over the infamous Blood Mountain, and on to Woody Gap (10.8 miles) where we got a shuttle to the Hiker Hostel, picked up our car, drove to Dahlonega for beer and sandwiches, then drove back to the cabin. Pretty slick.

We had breakfast and coffee on the porch, walked up to Neel Gap to buy cheese for lunch, and hit the trail at 8:40. We were carrying some rain gear, lunch, and lots of water (because we didn’t want to have to get water in that stretch of trail where people were sick), but we’d left the rest of our gear in the cabin so our packs were really light.

20170413GAhike0357_webWe stopped after about an hour–we were pretty close to the top— for a drink and snack. There we met Nemo, an ultralight hiker, tuning up for a CDT hike by doing 35-50 miles a day on the AT. Nemo was a small, flamboyant young man with a ridiculously tiny pack. We very much enjoyed talking with him. As we walked on, talking about how to reduce our pack weight, we met another young man, who said that Nemo had passed him like he was standing still earlier this morning. He was wearing a Reagan-Bush 1984 trucker hat, in what I hope was an ironic statement–hiking a National Scenic Trail wearing a hat supporting the last president to gut the Interior Department. Somehow I doubt that he was aware of the irony…


The view from the top was spectacular. Long expanses of rock outcrop, mountain laurel, and an old stone hut at the very top. Lots of hikers stopped there, too, enjoying the views after a long climb. The descent began steeply, but was well-graded and pleasant after that. We passed Slaughter Creek on the way down, with a lot of hikers getting water, and then the loop of tent sites nearby. There were lots of side trails along the way–this is clearly a popular area for hiking. We stopped at Jarrard Gap for lunch. There were lots of campsites here and the intersection with a logging road. There was also someone shooting–target practice?–in the distance below us. We continued on, rolling up and down (but trending down) for a while, until we got to Lance Creek.

Lance Creek has been trashed by overuse and is now heavily managed for restoration. Access to the creek is limited–roped off–and camping is permitted only in designated sites. This is rumored to be the site of the virus going around, so it was completely deserted.

After Lance Creek we started our last climb, 800 feet up Big Cedar Mountain. We were rewarded by another gorgeous view from a rock outcrop. We sat, enjoying the view and talking to other hikers for 45 minutes, before beginning our final descent to Woody Gap.

We arrived at the parking lot at 4:15 (for a 5 PM shuttle) and just relaxed. There were trash cans, picnic tables, and a privy, but we were reluctant to touch anything…

Ray from the Hiker Hostel arrived in the van, we waited for a few other hikers (who ended up not coming with us), then rode down the mountain (about 20 minutes) to the hostel and our car. The other passengers were a Marine and his son who are doing a 50-mile section.

We drove into Dahlonega in search of beer and dinner. The only bottle shop in town was pathetic. I’m pretty sure we have more beer in our house than they had for sale in bottles. We got sandwiches at Subway and headed back for showers, then beer and dinner on the porch.

Heading home tomorrow. It’s been quite an adventure.

20170413GAhike0386_webBC: We were up and out the door by 8, stopping at the store to get some cheese for lunch, then on the trail by 8:45. The steep, 2.5 mile, 1500 foot climb of Blood Mountain is a very popular day hike in Georgia. I had hiked it almost twenty years earlier southbound, and again northbound maybe ten years ago. It turned out to be easier than I remembered, maybe because we had light packs (just food, water, and rain gear), or maybe because by day 6 our legs are getting stronger. Probably both.

The trail at the top goes over big rock outcrops with wonderful views, and the summit has a short climb to a large rock with even better ones. There were a dozen or so northbound thru-hikers at the summit. We stayed about 15 minutes, shot some photos, and headed down. The trail was pretty well graded, but it’s a long way down. We stopped at Jarrard Gap for lunch, then again at Big Cedar Mountain for a long break at the viewpoint. Overall it was a pleasant day on the trail.


We got to Woody Gap at 4:15, and at 5pm the shuttle from the Hiker Hostel arrived to take us back to our car. After we got to the hostel, we drove to Dahlonega, GA, to find some good beer and some dinner that we could take back to our cabin. The beer store was shockingly understocked — seriously, we have more beer in our fridge at home than they had in the entire store. I only wish I were exaggerating, the selection was pathetic. We ended up with a six pack of Arrogant Bastard in pint cans, with a drink-by date of January. Yeah, this past January. We asked the clerk for a local sandwich shop, but there isn’t one, so we went to Subway, which was fine. The beer store did have growlers, and a decent draft list, so maybe that’s how they make it.

20170413GAhike0605_webWe enjoyed dinner on the deck, watching the occasional rain shower pass by. It was easy enough to pack up and load the car the next morning for the drive home. When we checked out of the cabin we asked about a breakfast place heading north, and without hesitation she recommended the Sawmill Restaurant in Blairsville. It looks a little like a local Cracker Barrel, right down to the rockers on the porch, but the food was outstanding. Highly recommended if you’re there at breakfast time.

Overall another nice section hike, and I was ready to just keep hiking at the end. There is something very satisfying about hiking, reducing all of life to the act of walking, and a few simple questions about food, water, and a decent campsite.

2017 Georgia AT Section Hike, Day 5

20170412GAhike0306_webDF: The just-past-full moon rose orange last night and there was a haze around it when I got up at 2 AM. The weather was changing–a cold front bought in more moisture, a few clouds, and slightly cooler temperatures. We had some clouds part of the day, but it never rained.

After our only night camping alone on this trip, we were on the trail by 7:40 AM, heading down towards Hogpen Gap. It was a rolling ridgeline walk, with lots of wildflowers and new green leaves. We stopped just before the last descent for a break and a snack and another great view, after 3.2 miles in 90 minutes. Another 0.4 miles and we were crossing the road at the gap and heading for water. Since it was the only water source for several miles in either direction, we had lots of company.

We made short, steep, extremely well switchbacked climb to the top, where we found a spectacular view of the valley below. Right at the top we met four hikers we’d met at breakfast at the Hiker Hostel the morning they were beginning their hike. They were doing really well, especially after they’d lightened their gear load at Neels Gap. It was great to see them looking happy and confident! And that’s after they’d just made the very steep climb out of Tesnatee Gap, which was our next descent. We took a break at the bottom and then began the climb up to Cow Rock Mountain.

20170412GAhike0575_webAt the top of Cow Rock was a huge granite outcrop, with lots of open space and another view of the valley. We stopped there for lunch and were immediately beset by swarms of very tiny gnats. It was also time for sunscreen, as the clouds had completely disappeared.

The rest of the day was a ridgeline walk with one moderate climb of Levelland Mountain, which really was remarkably flat on top. We ended the day descending into Neels Gap. We met a lot of unhappy-looking hikers along this stretch, maybe because there wasn’t much water, it was hot, and a lot of people were sick. We had heard that a lot of hikers had Noro virus south of Neels Gap, so we have been very careful with our water and sanitation protocols–we’ve been using a lot of hand sanitizer.

20170412GAhike0332_webWe arrived at Neels Gap at 2:40 (10.5 miles in 7 hours). We’ve found that we can average 1.5 miles per hour, including breaks, over the course of a day. We picked up our food box, and an extra bottle of hand sanitizer, and headed down the road to Blood Mountain Cabins, our home for the night.

20170412GAhike0340_webOur cabin has a great room and a bedroom downstairs, and a sleeping loft. We chose the loft because it was a nicer, larger space. The cabins are rustic–ours has three deer heads on the wall and a porch overlooking the mountains. We’re also in the end of a switchback in the highway, so there’s lots of road noise.

BC: We were expecting a more challenging hike today, with several stiff climbs and descents on the ~11 mile hike to Neels Gap. But we knew we had a place to stay, so we weren’t in a hurry, though we needed to arrive by 5pm to get our resupply box at the outfitter and check into the cabin.

The morning started with a lovely ridgeline walk to Hogpen Gap, with a long break at a nice viewpoint for second breakfast. The water source at Hogpen was the first since Low Gap, and possibly the last for the day, so we filled up there. It was a muddy shallow stream, and I used my “dipping cup” made from an old Sawyer bag with the top cut off. It weighs nothing, folds flat, and fits in my water treatment bag, but it turns out to be immensely useful for gathering water into the 2-liter Sawyer bags.

The climb up from Hogpen was steep but well switchbacked, with a terrific view at the top of the ridge. The other side is the infamous climb out of Tesnatee Gap for northbounders, and it’s not much easier southbound. Just as we started the steep downhill, we met four hikers heading our way — the three Germans and the guy from Kansas whom we had met at the Hiker Hostel. They all looked great — fit and happy. They had stopped at Neels Gap to reduce their pack weight, and they sported new lightweight hiking shoes too. We had a nice conversation and wished them luck.

We made it down and then back up to Cowrock Mountain for lunch on a large rock outcrop. Beautiful spot, but by this time it was getting very hot and sunny. On the way down toward Neels Gap we met several thirsty hikers looking for water along the trail, and we saw only one source that had water.


Made it to Neels Gap by mid afternoon, got our resupply box, and checked into the cabin. Blood Mountain Cabins has about twenty small family cabins in the woods, each one sleeps 4-6 people. Our cabin was cute, rustic, and had a great view from the deck. We decided to sleep in the loft at the top, with two windows open to the cool night air.

20170413GAhike0348_webAt this point we had a choice: do the last 30 miles of the AT in two days (doable, but long days), or hike the 10 miles to Woody Gap and get off the trail there. At Woody we will both have completed the entire Georgia AT, as we hiked from the falls to Woody in 2003. We decided we’d rather have a long weekend at home for the holiday, so we got the cabin for a second night and made plans to slackpack over Blood Mountain to Woody Gap the next day.

2017 Georgia Section Hike Day 4

20170411GAhike0226_webDF: 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.

20170411GAhike0257_webAbout 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.

20170411GAhike0278_webAnd 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.

20170411GAhike0235_webBC: 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.



2017 Georgia AT Section Hike, Day 3


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.

20170408GAhike0132_webBack 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.

20170410GAhike0220_webWe 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.

20170410GAhike0608_webWe 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.


2017 Georgia AT Section Hike, Day 2

20170409GAhike0167_webDF: Thirteen tough miles today. We left our campsite this morning at 8:10 and arrived at Sassafras Gap at about 5:30. Lots of big climbs in between.

This is a busy camping area–maybe a dozen tents here, including about eight young hikers who have started a big campfire and are loudly laughing and talking. It’s shaping up to be a long and frustrating night. Hiker etiquette says quiet time starts at nine–hiker midnight–but I’m afraid they haven’t been hiking long enough to learn that.

Last night we watched through the tent as the full moon crossed the sky and set just before sunrise, so it never really got dark all night. We were the first ones up at our campsite–no one else was even up when we left, and we thought we were getting a late start.

We stopped after our first climb up and down at Plumorchard Gap. We did not go the shelter, since it was a long downhill side trail. Ken went down the other side of the gap to get water–also a steep downhill.

It was very sunny and a lot warmer than we’d expected. With no leaves on the trees yet, we had to be careful with sunscreen. We saw tons of spring ephemerals: bloodroot, bluets, and spring beauties, plus a whole bunch of others I couldn’t identify. It’s been wonderful to see leaves unfurling and fern fiddleheads popping up. Early spring is my favorite season.

20170409GAhike0169_webLots of ups and downs in the next 4.5 miles, ending with a very steep down to Dick’s Creek Gap. There were picnic tables at the road crossing, which was nice for lunch and some people-watching.

After lunch, we had a huge climb–1500 feet in 2.5 miles–followed by a bumpy downhill to Deep Gap. Again we didn’t go to the shelter, but Ken went down that side trail to get water. Another very steep climb up Kelly Knob, then down to Addis Gap, then back up another knob, and finally down to Sassafras Gap.


20170408GAhike0107_webBC: We were up early in the morning. I went and got the food down from the tree where I had hung it, and started hot coffee and oatmeal while Dragonfly worked on packing things inside the tent. It wasn’t too cold, so we could sit outside for breakfast and watch the morning light while we enjoyed homemade oatmeal and Starbucks Via coffee.

We hit the trail a little after 8am. It was fairly easy going for the morning, stopping at Plumorchard Gap for water (steeply downhill) and second breakfast, then continuing to the long descent to Dick’s Creek Gap where we stopped for lunch. By lunchtime it was objectively hot — much warmer than we expected from the forecast, and it would stay that way for the rest of the trip.

The climb southbound out of the gap is a long slog, a 1200 foot climb over 2.2 miles to the top of Powell Mountain. But we handled it, stopping at the side trail to Deep Gap Shelter so I could go get water (again, steeply downhill). Then we had two more steep climbs late in the afternoon, 600 feet over Kelly Knob, and another 400 foot climb over a nameless peak before reaching our destination for the evening, Sassafras Gap. This was a 13+ mile day, a little long for the second day out, but doable. Dragonfly had no trouble with her IT Band issues today, even with the longer mileage.

20170409GAhike0190_webThere were easily a dozen hikers here already, as the gap has many campsites and a good water supply. I went for water (very steeply downhill for a change) while Dragonfly set up camp again and made dinner. On the way back up from the water source I met a young thru-hiker heading down with her pack, which I suggested she leave up top — the side trail to water was truly exceptionally steep, even for the AT.

We enjoyed Creole Rice with a bag of chicken and the rest of the bacon, plus a fair amount of Tabasco sauce. A group of young hikers had a spectacular fire going all evening, though they were quiet by 9pm and we enjoyed a pleasant night’s sleep (though I did wonder how well they had put out their fire given the dry conditions).

2017 Georgia AT Section Hike, Day 1

20170408GAhike0092_webDF: We’re camped on a little knob above a stream, waiting on sunset and listening to piliated woodpeckers. It’s a good bit warmer than yesterday, and a whole lot warmer than we expected, so it’s quite pleasant sitting out.

Our day began with breakfast at the hostel. Most of the other guests were beginning their thru-hike attempts this morning. Most had little or no previous hiking experience. They were a bit nervous. And most of their packs were huge and heavy. They took turns weighing them on the front porch–all were between 49 and 62 pounds. Mine was just under 25; Ken’s was about 28. With water and three days of food.

The hostel staff was shuttling them to Springer or the beginning of the approach trail. They don’t shuttle into NC, so we made other arrangements. Joyce picked us up at 8:30 and we arrived at the trailhead around 10 AM. The parking lot was really busy–lots of cars , plus a giant group with big festival tents, cooking for hikers.

20170408GAhike0107_webIt was a gorgeous sunny day, a bit chilly in the morning and warmer in the afternoon. We got dropped off at Deep Gap, just south of Franklin, NC, and started walking around 10:20. It felt like we walked from winter to spring today. There was snow on the ground when we started and very was little green. By the end of the day, we had bloodroot, bluets, fiddleheads, and beech trees leafing out.

We started with a 500 foot climb out of Deep Gap. We got to Wateroak Gap in about and hour and stopped for a quick lunch. Our next short break was at Muskrat Creek Shelter. It was very muddy right in front of the shelter.

We had a lot of up and down next, but mostly very steep downhills. Which made my right knee start hurting. A lot.


The next landmark was the gnarled old oak tree at Bly Gap, just north of the NC/GA state line. There was a crowd of hikers hanging out at the state line sign. We kept going another 2.3 miles to this spot, near Wheeler Knob. No name, nothing special, just a few campsites and a spring. And a killer sunset.

There are two other hikers nearby, but it’s a really quiet spot. Kind of nice after the crowds on the trail today.

UPDATE: right after sunset, things got a bit busy. A pair of hikers showed up and set up right next to us. While we were talking to them, I heard a barred owl. And the moon is full.

20170408GAhike0535_webBC: We were up early to put our packs on the main front porch, then inside the Hostel for coffee at 7am. Hikers started to appear, and breakfast was served promptly at 7:30. We sat with three Germans and a young man from Kansas, all starting from Springer that morning. One of the Germans was a middle aged man, and there were two younger women who appeared to be hiking together. There was a lot of nervous small talk as folks prepared mentally for the first day on the trail.

Then it was time to weigh the packs, a tradition at the hostel. There was a digital hanging scale on the front porch, and everyone took turns. Lots of packs in the 40-45 pound range, then one hiker had a pack just under 30. Mine weighed in at 27 even, and Dragonfly’s pack weighed 24.8 pounds. Another hiker looked at the weight, motioned at me, and said, “Oh, he must be carrying all the food, right?” Dragonfly replied that she had half the food and two liters of water, thankyouverymuch. Then the German man hung his pack on the scale: 62 pounds and change. Wow. This would lead us to worry about him for the next four days.

At 8:30 Joyce picked us up for the ~two hour drive to Deep Gap, a high elevation trailhead on a remote Forest Service road outside Franklin, NC. The drive was entertaining and enjoyable, with Joyce telling us all about her life in Florida and then in the Georgia mountains.

We got to Deep Gap in very good time, getting on the trail at about 10:20am. It was chilly and windy, with a fair amount of snow on the ground as we climbed out of the gap. We wore fleece pullovers, warm hats, and gloves to start, but shed the gloves and hats after the first climb.

The trail was moderate and well graded for the four miles to Muskrat Creek Shelter. We stopped for lunch in a gap along the way – crackers and cheese with Trader Joe’s Turkey Jerky. After the shelter the trail got very steep for a few miles to the border, then we arrived at Bly Gap and got some photos of the famous gnarled oak tree. There are several nice campsites here, and there was a trail to water, though we didn’t go to the spring. Several hikers were at the gap, and several more at the actual NC/GA border a few hundred yards further on.


The guidebook showed a campsite and water source a couple of miles away, so we hiked on, arriving in camp near Wheeler Knob late in the afternoon. We found a great site up on a little hill above the creek, while two other hikers set up nearer to the trail. We got water, set up our new Zpacks Triplex tent, and changed into camp clothes. Dinner was Knorr pasta and cheese sauce with a bag of real bacon and some freeze dried peas – delicious. It started to get chilly as the sun went down over the ridge. After dinner three more hikers walked up to our little hill. One of them kept going, as he had to be back at work soon, but the other two were thru-hikers and set up camp nearby. We had a calm and peaceful night in camp, with a bright nearly-full moon shining all night.

2017 Georgia AT Section Hike, Travel Day

20170407GAhike0053_webDF: Our first day of our spring break adventure–hiking the Appalachian Trail in Georgia. We were on the road by 9:45 heading west on I-40. We drove straight through to Sylva, NC, where we stopped at LuLu’s for lunch just before 1 PM. Ken had the beef enchiladas special and I had rice noodles with chicken, veggies, and peanut sauce. Both were quite good. We’d eat there again, or at the place we went last May, on our next time through.

We talked about scheduling a weekend visit, so that we could go to all three of the local breweries. There are two little motels right downtown–the old-fashioned low-slung one story kind with exterior entry doors to each unit. The county courthouse is also right downtown. It’s a grand white building high on a hill overlooking the town, with a long set of steps leading to the front doors.

After lunch it was almost two more hours to Neel Gap. We dropped off a food box to pick up later in the week, and Ken bought a merino Buff to replace the balaclava he misplaced on our trip last month. Buying a new one means that the old one will most likely show up soon.

The hostel and store at Neel Gap were full of hikers, as expected. It’ll be a busy week on the trail, unless the weather scares people off. We saw lots of snow on the high peaks as we drove through the Black Mountains and the Balsams. Elevations aren’t as high here, so we don’t have snow here, and we do have leaves just popping out on the trees.

The day was sunny and gorgeous, with high temperatures in the fifties. The wind is strong, gusty, and very cold. As it gets later this evening, it’s getting quite cold. We’ve talked about how to keep warm tomorrow evening when we’re out in it. That will be a bit of a challenge, especially at the beginning of the trip. The forecast is for warmer weather later in the week.


Tonight we’re enjoying our private log cabin. It’s sixteen feet square with a bed, small sitting area, and a bathroom. Very cute. There’s a table and chairs on the porch–would be great in milder weather, but definitely not this evening. There are also two “eco-cabins,” which are converted shipping containers, and a main house with common areas and bunk rooms. We’ll have breakfast over there in the morning before our shuttle arrives to take us back to Deep Gap in NC (just south of Standing Indian) to begin our southbound trek to Springer. If all goes as planned, we’ll be back here next Saturday to pick up our car and head home.

20170408GAhike0064_webBC: We made the five hour drive from Winston-Salem to Neels Gap by mid afternoon, with a lunch stop in Sylva, NC. It was a cold and windy day, and last night’s snow was visible on the tallest mountains. The Walasi-yi Center was packed with hikers and tourists. We dropped our resupply box and drove the rest of the way to the Hiker Hostel.  
Our log cabin was cozy and warm, and the Hiker Hostel staff were welcoming. We had packed a nice dinner spread and a couple of beers, hoping to sit on the little front porch of the cabin for dinner al fresco, but it was in the low 50s and very windy so we ate inside.

The Hostel was full that evening, mostly hikers, with about a half dozen starting their thru-hikes at Springer the next morning. We spent the evening on final packing and turned in early. Given the weather forecast and the recent snow, we were prepared for cold nights and cool days.