ENTERING THE GREAT SMOKY MOUNTAINS NATIONAL PARK

AT Day 013: Thursday April 20, 2023

Mile 165.8 +  21 miles / 33.6km

Total Distance Hiked:  186.8 miles /300.6  km

Fontana Dam Shelter – Visitors Center – Dam Wall – Shuckstack Fire Tower – Birch Spring Gap – Devils Tater Patch – Big Abrams Gap – Doe Knob- Ekanetlee  Gap – Sassafras Gap – Rocky Top – Thunderhead Mountain

A:6640 ft/ 2024 m – – D:3530 ft/ 1076 m 

Stargazing under a clear sky is a particular joy of trail life for me. I was awake early, feeling a little quizy, so I made a cup of coffee,  enjoying the silence and watching the sky gradually lighten.

We broke camp and were on our way around 6.30 eager to make a start on the long  uphill in the GSMNP. The air was cool but surprisingly humid. The steepest part of the climb was in the first two miles after that the climbing was broken up by short ridges with a wonderfully cool morning breeze on top. Just the hum of the breeze and the twitter of birdsong….what’s not to love?  It was a superb bonus to see another slipper orchid on the downslope. Almost lost my poles in the excitement to get closer.

We ascended 2405 feet ~733 m to reach the first clear view from the Smokey’s at  the Shuckstack Fire Tower.  Hammer climbed the tower – fearless,  I stayed below couldn’t hear to even look up  – not a fan of heights. 

Fontana Dam from Shuckstack Fire Tower

A sweet couple of miles on an undulating trail followed towards Birch Spring Gap.  We passed a wizened hiker here, trail name T, a veteran of numerous AT through hikes. We had stopped to filter water and have lunch and  ‘T’ stayed with us for a while chatting. An interesting character with so much knowledge of the trail and all its natural assets. Another couple of hikers we met yesterday at the marina joined us for lunch (Fox and Fourth Fork). It was nice to have company while stopping for a break. It’s been a great morning, we were feelinga little  euphoric, let’s see how the afternoon pans out.

“T” , just T

According to our permit, overnight stays GSMNP are only allowed at the shelters and these are spaced various distances apart. We are trying to maximise our distance covered today and tomorrow to reduce the length of time we are out in the predicted bad weather on Saturday. Low temperatures and wet weather with snow at higher elevations is predicted for Saturday. We plan to go into Gatlinburg for a nero on Saturday. This section of trail to Gatlinburg includes the climb over Clingmans Dome, at 6,612 feet ~ 2,915m it is the highest point on the AT. 

Early afternoon hiking offered no views of the elusive blue ridges we can climpse through the shruby looking trees.  We stopped to filter water at one of the most beautiful shelters we’ve seen so far. Made of stone, it was set in a massive field of white flowers. Looked quite magical. A hiker we met yesterday, Cory from Mississippi, caught up to us here. We talked to Cory for a bit while filtering water. I loved hearing him speak, such a lovely accent.   

Bees getting stuck into the fringed phacelia Phacelia fimbriata,
Unusually shaped Squirrel corn – Dicentra canadensis

We left him here and hiked on hoping to get a late afternoon view of the blue ridges of the Smokey’s above the treeline. It was a hard uphill slog along the trail to a feature called Rocky Top. This offered incredible views to the south. So pleased we pushed on in the late afternoon. The late afternoon glow on the blue ridges was quite spectacular.  Hiking further uphill to the summit of Thunderhead Mountain was hard work which was completely unrewarded. A summit covered in thick rhododendron with no views what so ever. Although Lou-Seal did bag another summit in the GSMNP. 

The descent off Thunderhead Mountain was quite tricky with loose rocks. It took longer then we thought it would. We like to stop hiking before it gets dark. The next shelter at Derek Knob was another 3 miles away, so we thought we would run out of time to make it before dark. As it was we had plenty of daylight left, but we had already stopped short of the shelter.

Thick stands of Rhododendron obscure all the views off Thunderhead Mountain