We hike into the Smoky Mountains and also a blizzard, testing our endurance in the freezing cold.
We packed up our wet tents at Fontana Dam and set out across the dam. It was starting to flurry as we crossed and my hands were freezing in my gloves. After the dam, the trail picked up at the border of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
There were a number of hikers digging through their packs for their hiker permit. You must drop off the permit in a box before entering the park. Michael and I whipped ours out of our pockets and passed the group. The shelters in the Smokies fill up and we wanted a spot.
Today was all uphill. We started at 1,700 feet and climbed to around 4,500 feet. As we ascended, the snow flurries turned to actual snow which then began accumulating. First half an inch, then an inch, then another half. All the while the wind gusted at 20-30mph. It felt like we were mountaineers in the Himalayan’s rather than backpackers in the Smokies. Despite the cold, I actually hiked in shorts and a t-shirt with just my Frog Togg rain gear as an outer layer. The Frog Toggs are practically made out of trash bags so they do not breathe and keep all the heat in. Is it possible to be sweating and freezing at the same time?
As we hiked, the footprints in the snow began to fade. Snow drifted across the trail as I made tracks. We trudged onward and upward as snowflakes hurled themselves at our faces. It was grueling. But the wise words of Britney Spears helped get me through. I sang to myself, “It’s time to get to work, bitch.”
Sometime before 2pm we reached Mollies Ridge Shelter. There were a few guys inside who had stayed the night before and chosen not to hike at all today. They had simply laid in their sleeping bags all day. Wanting to hike on but unsure if there would be room at the next shelter, we opted to stay; we had heard that many of the shelters were already full. We were glad we got ahead of the other hikers earlier as some people ended up tenting in the snow.
It was too cold to go find the water source so I chose to be dehydrated. I also didn’t want to cook so I ate a jumbo honey bun, bag of Fritos, and bag of Cheez-Its for my collective lunch and dinner. Surprisingly this was almost 1,500 calories.
The snow eventually stopped but the wind never did. We are expecting a nighttime low of 15 degrees. It’s gonna be another cold night! In other news, at some point today we hiked into Tennessee. The trail follows the border of Tennessee and North Carolina for a while and we will pass between the two states frequently. I’m happy to hit my third state on the trail!
Day’s Mileage: 11.8
Total Miles Hiked: 186.1
Remaining Miles: 2,013.6
It was a frigid night so we made quick work to pack up and get moving to stay warm. I sang songs like Winter Wonderland and Sleigh Ride in my head as we trudged through the snow. Michael’s boots were not fending off the snow and his socks got soaked. He’s having a miserable time these last few days.
We also came to find that due to the snow there is a road closure in the park. It’s the same road we are to be picked up at in two days time. Our original plan was to hike some easy days so we can meet our friend Lindsey on Day 16 at Newfound Gap and she’ll drive us to Gatlinburg (Lindsey dropped us off at the trailhead two weeks ago). Because the road to Newfound Gap is closed, we will have to hike an extra 15 miles down road to get into Gatlinburg.
Between Michael’s impending frostbite and the thought of adding 15 bonus miles to our journey, we decided to screw the easy day plan and get the hell off these mountains. Mind you the high is 28 degrees with gusting winds.
Our new plan is to hike as far as we can today and then the following day hike up Newfound Gap and eventually to Gatlinburg, even if it’s a day early and 15 extra miles.
As we hike, the sun comes out and treats us with some beautiful views and makes the frozen ice world twinkle. Halfway through the day my foot starts to hurt. Now I’ve been doing a good job treating my blisters and they seemed to be healing well. But now a blister on the back of my foot decided to go for a victory lap and rear it’s ugly head again. We stop at the shelter we originally planned to stay for the night. Here we meet a man in his 60s who’s trail name is Turtle, due to his pace. He is friendly and offers me a special blister band-aid. I thank him and we continue on. The band-aid worked it’s magic.
Having hiked over 17 miles instead of our planned 12, we run into a hiker who tells us the road to Newfound Gap is open again. Our feet are happy to hear the news; no bonus miles to Gatlinburg! Also, our rapid pace means we can get there tomorrow, a day early. We can call a shuttle and Lindsey will meet us the next day in town.
At our shelter we learn that a group of non-thru hikers reserved most of the spots for the night. Not wanting to pitch a tent in the snow, we push on to the next shelter only two miles away. Hopefully the next shelter won’t be full. We’re racing against the setting sun. Our gamble pays off and we snag spots inside the next shelter at Double Spring Gap. Someone even started a fire to warm it up.
From 12 miles to almost 20 miles, we are happy to have pushed on and to be inside, warm, dry, and one day away from a real bed. And despite all our trials today, our mileage push had me cross the 200 mile mark! I’d like to average 100 miles a week—goal achieved!
Day’s Mileage: 19.5
Total Miles Hiked: 205.6
Remaining Miles: 1,994.1
It was our coldest night yet but I stayed warm. We got out of the shelter to find it snowing. There was no cell service but I remember the forecast had said 2-4 inches. I was nervous about the road at Newfound Gap closing again. We hiked into yet another blizzard. Just ten miles today, I kept thinking. Ten miles is just a morning for me these days, but today it felt forever.
Less than halfway along we arrived at Clingmans Dome. This is the highest peak in the Smoky Mountains, in Tennessee, and on the entire Appalachian Trail! Unfortunately, the snowy conditions made for a very gray view. Knowing there would be no view, we were going to skip the walk up the observation tower. But then we changed our minds and climbed up the tower just to nab some illusive cell service. I found just enough bars to call into town and discover that the road to Newfound Gap was closed again, just as I feared!
Now we were feeling miserable. More snow, no views, and an extra 15 miles ahead of us. This would make today the longest day yet of my hike and over half the miles wouldn’t even count! To rub it in our face, the sun decided to come out a few miles after we left Clingmans Dome. We couldn’t see much of the views through the trees anymore. Today was not our day.
We reached Newfound Gap parking lot and finally got a decent view of the Smokies. And we confirmed that the road was still closed. A quick call to the park ranger confirmed this. Not at all excited about the 15 bonus miles ahead, I walked over to the snow removal truck and chatted with the driver. The snow had melted off the roads due to the sun and he was waiting for the all clear to open the road. This was good news. Perhaps we could hitchhike once traffic began to flow.
But our luck changed even faster. The plow driver reluctantly invited us into his cab for the drive down the mountains. He wasn’t sure we’d fit since he only had room for one. I assured him we had experienced this dilemma before back in Fontana! Michael and I squeezed into the passenger seat with our packs on our laps and enjoyed a scenic drive down to Gatlinburg. I don’t think trail magic can get any better than this!
Once in town, we booked a cheap motel and took long hot showers; we were really starting to smell after 9 days without a rinse. We had pizza for lunch and steak for dinner. My how this day turned around!
Day’s Mileage: 10.5
Total Miles Hiked: 216.1
Remaining Miles: 1,983.6
Daily Average: 14.4
Ms. Spears helped get me through the steep and snowy climb into the Smoky Mountains with her famous tune, “Work Bitch.”