My hike through the Great Smoky Mountains National Park (GSMNP) was a great adventure. The trek took 5 days and 4 nights (May 8-12, 2014). The path across this grand national park involved 71 miles of rugged terrain. I had beautiful, sunny weather for three days but had to embrace two days of rain. Reflecting on those days on the Appalachian Trail brings back many memories.
The first day out of Fontana Dam was sunny with blue skies. To arrive at the national park, the hiker actually crosses over the dam and gains a close-up view of the waters of Fontana. Arriving at the park’s trailhead, there is an official box that requires a permit to hike the trails. I purchased the $20 permit in advance at Fontana Lodge.
Hikers in the GSMNP are required to stay in shelters and no stealth camping is permitted so my hiking agenda was limited to the shelter sites. The first day, for example, I had several options. There were four possible destinations 12.1 miles; 14.9 miles; 17.8 miles; and 24.1 miles from Fontana. The trail was a twenty-mile uphill climb to Thunderhead Mountain, so my hope was to get to the second shelter at 15 miles and then evaluate the weather, the shelter, and my energy (the latter being the most important). Shelter #2 at Russell Field, was where my body told me I should stay. I was tired and did not want to push on and find myself exhausted for the next day.
Today was my first bear sighting on the Appalachian Trail. Just like Goldilocks, I saw three bears, but, unlike her, I did not stop to eat porridge with them or take a nap on their beds. Instead, I quickly passed by them hoping that they were not hungry for backpack food or the backpacker. It was a thrill to see them. Before leaving for my thru-hike, I hoped that I would be able to safely see some bears on the trail. They are such magnificent animals that seem to embody power and agility. I was not sure what to expect. Would they run, would they run toward me, would they charge and attack? I continued walking the trail (as quietly as possible) with the bears on the hillside to my right. To my relief, they just ignored me and kept lounging among the trees.
I also experienced one of my favorite activities on the AT – climbing a fire tower. The Shuckstack Fire Tower is a 60 ft. tall structure with 78 steps. The top of the tower gave me a fantastic view on this clear day of the surrounding North Carolina mountains. I stood in amazement at the beauty and the waves of mountains that filled my 360 degree perspective. From the tower, there is a special view of Fontana Lake that very few people are able to see.
Seeing the forest from the fire tower gave me a chance to see the big picture and the incredible expanse of the GSMNP. But under the canopy of the woods, I was fascinated to see the variety and beauty of individual trees. Two very unusual trees caught my eye during this first day in the park. One trunk opened up like a teepee inviting me to sit inside to eat my lunch. The other tree stood about four feet off the ground before it bent completely over headed toward the trail and finally completed an “s” shape as it appeared to readjust itself back toward the sky.
Day one in the GSMNP was a glorious day on the Appalachian Trail. If you would like to read more of my adventures please check out my book, Hike It Forward, on Amazon.