Bears, Bores, and the Great Smokies
From Great Outdoor Store
In January, my parents told me they were considering a trip out to Gatlinburg, TN, where they were hoping to spend a week in the Smoky Mountains. The trip just so happened to line up with my college graduation, so I jumped at the opportunity for another adventure! My younger sister and I have hiked quite a bit in Montana and thought it would be a great opportunity to explore the backcountry some more.
I knew that I wanted to try and hike out there if I could, even if it was a just a few short day-hikes. I started researching some trails to see if there were any good 3-4-day hikes, and that is when I stumbled upon a 30-ish mile hike on the Appalachian Trail. I did most of the research on thru hiker’s blog posts to see what the trail conditions and difficulty be. I had never been to that part of the country prior to this trip, so I was not really sure what to expect! Based on the time we had and our proximity to the park, I decided it would be easiest to start at Clingmans Dome, which is the highest point in GSMNP, and hike south on the trail from there. We would finish our hike at Fontana Dam, where the AT actually crosses the dam itself.
Deciding where to start and finish our hike was the simple part. After that, I had to try and figure out which shelters we wanted to stay at each night. This was completely unfamiliar to me, as I have never personally purchased a permit or created an itinerary. Permits have to be purchased directly through the National Park Service by either calling or using their website. You can purchase permits 30 days prior to your first night in a shelter and specify how many nights you’ll stay after that, too. Overall, the system is very easy to use, but I would recommend having the sites picked out before you start the process, as it seems certain shelters fill up quickly. I was pretty dependent on blogs to help me pick out sites. Looking at mileage alone can be pretty deceiving. It is important to account for elevation changes or tougher terrain since that can lengthen the time it takes to finish a day’s hike quite a bit. We were planning on doing close to 10 miles a day. Our second day we planned for a bit longer in order to make our last day easier. Since you can buy permits 30 days before staying I logged on right away to make sure we could get a spot at the shelters we had picked out! It was very simple and straightforward once you had picked out dates and shelter locations.
In terms of supply and equipment I was not 100% sure what I would all need. Shelters and pre hung bear cables are provided but I figured there was no harm in being overprepared. I already had a backpack (Osprey Aura 65L), sleeping bag and sleeping pad, as well as hiking boots and a tent (Marmot Limelight 2p). We didn’t end up needing the tent—now I know! The only real gear purchase that I needed was a stove. Luckily, I had many great options to choose from and ultimately decided a JetBoil Zip would be a good option. The size and easy use sold me! Because I’m usually pretty lazy when it comes to cooking on trail, I packed a bunch of Good to Go meals (the Pad Thai is good!!). I also was not sure what to expect from water sources, so I just got tablets to put into my bottles, which ended up working really well.
The forecast was nice, so I started in shorts and a t-shirt. I brought my Smart Wool base layer just in case, which ended up being a life saver! I also brought my Arc’teryx Beta SL Hybrid Jacket which worked great in the rain. I always over pack socks, as well as an extra pair of leggings and a long sleeve. After packing everything up, we headed out early to start our day of hiking!
For our first day, we went from Clingmans Dome to Derricks Knob, which was just over 9 miles. This was by far the easiest day of our hike, since most of it was downhill. It was the busiest part of the trail that we hiked on, and we counted about 20 hikers passing by us before we quit trying to keep track. We stayed in our shelter with five other people, who had all hiked on the AT before. They had some helpful hints and tricks for us newbies like always asking passing hikers what the water at the next campsite is like, even if you don’t intend to stop. They also told us about an app called Guthook that works without service and gives you great detail about elevation changes and water sources on your hike. Passing hikers also gave reports on bear and boar activity, which was a nice head up.
Campsites on the AT in the Smokies are a bit different than other sites I have stayed at. They have shelters with 2 large bunks on them as well as pre-hung bear cables. Tents are not permitted at the shelters for conservation purposes, so most people doing shorter hikes don’t even carry a tent with them. The campsites have signs pointing to the closest water source, which can be a bit of a trek depending on the site. Our first night at Derricks Knob was pretty uneventful, other than a few mice hanging out in the bunk area!
The next morning, we got up early and headed off towards Mollies Ridge, which was just over 10 miles from Derricks Knob. We knew there were a few portions of trail with incline, but we still thought it would be a doable distance for the day. Shortly after lunch, a torrential downpour started, and after hiking in the rain for a few hours we decided to stop at an earlier shelter and try to dry off a bit. Wouldn’t you know, right when we got packs back on it started to downpour again! We called it a day and stayed at Spence Field. Luckily, you can make one change to your permit. Cell service was very spotty on the trail, but we got enough to send a text to our ride telling them we would not be at the pick-up spot as early as we had anticipated. Once we dried off and warmed back up, I cooked my favorite meal: the Good to Go Pad Thai. We went to bed pretty early since we knew we had a super long day ahead of us!
We were up before the sun the next day to pack up and hit the trail for our daunting 16-mile day. This is the furthest that my sister and I have hiked in one day, so it was a bit intimidating, but we were eager to make it back to the Dam. It was a pretty strenuous day, and the last mile was the worst since we could see where we were ending. But we made it!!! I was very excited to have a Diet Coke and some chocolate waiting for me. :)