AT Day 028: Friday May 5, 2023

Mile 415.5 + 18  miles / 29 km

Total Distance Hiked: 433.5 miles /697.5 km

White Rocks Mountain – Dennis Cove Rd – Pond Mt Wilderness – Laurel Fork Gorge – Laurel Fork Falls – Horseridge Gap – Kind Flats  – Shook Branch Recreation Area – Watauga Lake – Watauga Lake Dam 

A: 3888 ft /1186 m   D:5341 ft / 1629 m

We woke this morning to a mostly blue sky and hardly any wind. It was bliss.  Filtered sunrise through the tree trunks was a welcoming sight as I opened the tent fly. A dull sound of traffic could be heard in the distance.

We broke camp and were on our way around 7am.  The air was cool but it did not take long before  jumpers were off. It was a delightful morning. We passed a campsite with a still smouldering fire and no one around. It looked potentially dangerous so  Hammer used the last of his drinking water to put the flames out. 

We were beginning to see Rhododendron in bloom. By the time we descended to Dennis Cove Rd, there were some many blooms it felt like spring has arrived in these parts. The sun had a bit of warmth and tall Rhododendron plants covered in masses of flowers lined the trail. 

It was about 9.30 when we crossed the road and entered the Pond Mountain Wilderness. Here we also met our trail angel from a few days ago,  Mountain Doctor and his friends. They were having breakfast and preparing chilli for sharing with hikers later in the day.  It was too early for a Cinco de Mayo margarita for us, but we happily  accepted a donut. The chilli and margaritas  should be good for hikers coming through at lunchtime and later. 

We crossed the Laurel Fork in bright sunshine and warmth in the air. Blessing the bridge makers everytime we cross a bridge. As we were out of water Hammer stopped to filter some and I sat in the sun. Hard to believe that the icy cold winds earlier this week actually happened. This was just so peaceful and sublimely beautiful. Just like yesterday the glory of the day was above with dappled light falling through the new leaf growth on the tree canopy above. The Japanese  have a word for how the sunlight filters through the trees.  The dappled light this creates is called komorebi. How beautiful to have a word for this sensation.

I don’t know who was happier me or the birds. They were chirping and singing and hopefully announcing the end of frosty weather for the season.

The hiking along Laurel Fork and into the Laurel Gorge was interesting. The rock formations look so fragile and unstable. The descent into the Gorge towards Laurel Falls was very steep with uneven rocky stairs. It would be so very easy to tip over and end up badly hurt. 

Once we reached the Falls, they were spectacular,  very high and wide. The water made a crashing sound as it tumbled down the rock face. It was worth the steep climb down. 

From the falls we followed the river downstream. There were some very nice campsites along here. Shame it was still so early in the day as the gorge would make a great camping location.

We followed the river for about a mile and then slowly started the steep, four mile ascent out of the Gorge.  Most of the elevation gain today was in this section. The trail was lined with flowers so it was good to stop and rest while taking photos. Hammer was slowly grinding his way up. It feels like it has been a long time since we’ve done any climbs in warm weather. It was steep and very tiring.  It was a relief to reach the top and then start the long descent towards Watauga Lake. 

The only hiker we saw today was Flash who caught up to us as we were descending to the lake. We’ve hiked with him a few times now for short sections, usually late afternoons as he starts later in the morning and hikes fast. He was stopping at the lake to get a ride into the nearby town of Hampton. We were so excited to reach the lake. It reminded us of hiking in Oregon. The trail is along the lake for only a short section. It was such a disappointment to start to climb up and away from the lake.  Hammer had hopes of going for a swim, but it was not to be.  We crossed the dam wall and were ascending further away leaving the lake behind. 

As today has been a tougher then expected day, we decided to stop early. We are camped high above the lake with filtered views of it’s brilliant emerald green water. Sound of gunfire is reverberating across the water. It has been going on since we reached the lake. I can only think there is a gun shooting range somewhere across the water. 

We are both exhausted by today’s hike. I was relieved we stopped early. My feet are feeling smashed. Hammer fell asleep as soon as he got horizontal, while the gunfire still raged down below.