Friends who have run or hiked this section in the Smokies say it is one of
the most spectacular sections of the entire Appalachian Trail. I've really been
looking forward to experiencing it.
I'll just have to take their word for it. The biggest disappointment of my
adventure run so far was deciding to run this section today instead of waiting
one more day for good weather. I had only one little window of time, maybe 30
minutes out of twelve hours, when I could see the awe-inspiring panoramas I knew
were out there.
The rest of the time, I couldn't see more than a hundred feet in either
direction of the Trail because of the fog and rain. What a shame.
This section traverses the wildest and most difficult portion of the Smokies.
There are many deep gaps and several peaks over 6,000 feet, with eleven major
climbs and descents. Since my knee/quad is fine now, I was happy to be traveling
south to north with a net elevation loss. I had a total ascent of 4,608 feet and
descents totaling 7,678 feet.
The Trail is very rocky in places, as well as extremely narrow on some of the
ridges. My left foot was literally in Tennessee and my right foot in North
Carolina on some of the skinny ridges. Cool, huh?
This is not a section to run if you want to go fast or if you are afraid of
heights. The drop-offs on either side for several miles along the ridges are
potentially fatal. Because I'm not known for my grace or agility, I did a lot of
walking, especially since it was either foggy or raining most of the time I was
on the most dangerous ridges. The rocks and roots were very slick and there was
a lot of mud once it started raining.
It took some tough individuals to build this Trail on the narrow ridges.
There is simply no place to put a tent or sleeping bag except on the Trail
itself for several miles! There are huge drop-offs on either side. Farther
along, it's too steep up or down on either side to camp. I have no idea how they
got in to this area with the tools necessary to carve out a trail.
Because of the distance, I again started out early (about 6:40 AM). I was
optimistic about the weather because the forecast was for clearing by noon. It
was very foggy when I left Newfound Gap, but I loved being up high in the misty
spruce-fir forest that reminded me of being in the Cascades in the Pacific
Northwest or Olympic National Park.
Jim prefers the crystal-clear views one can enjoy most days in the mountains
out West. I love them, too, but I also love the green and hazy bluish mountains in
the East. Some of my favorite views are after it rains, when the clouds hover in
the valleys and the mountains peek out above them.
And I don't usually mind running in rain, especially if it's warm. But when
it started raining today about an hour into my run, it just angered and
depressed me because I knew I was missing out on so many spectacular views.
It was ironic that on Friday, when the weather was perfect, there weren't
nearly so many panoramic views. Today's overlooks provided great views much of the
way, but the fog and rain totally obscured them.
The sun came out just before I got to Charlie's Bunion, about four miles into
the run, and I was able to take the photos above. Charlie's Bunion is a rock
outcrop that was named by Horace Kephart, who thought it stuck out like the
bunion of Charlie Conner, an early hiker in the area accompanying him on a hike
to Mt. LeConte.
I just love some of the names of the places along this section of Trail:
Sweet Heifer Trail, Icewater Spring Shelter, Wooly Tops Lead, Hell Ridge,
Camel Gap Trail, Snake Den Ridge Trail, and the ironically-named "Boulevard
Trail," which follows a very rugged ridgeline similar to the one the AT is on.
Although I saw about thirty people on the Trail today, including seven
equestrians and additional pack horses, I had conversations with only one pair
of 30-ish men that I saw several times as we headed north. They were doing a
male-bonding weekend of hiking together, having a lot of fun despite the rain.
We spent some time at the Tri-Corner Shelter during the hardest rain. One of the
guys is a runner, and had lots of great questions about my trek and trail
running in general.
I met the equestrians about seven miles into the section. Since they were
going south, I had one more trail hazard most of the rest of the way to
Davenport Gap: horse poop every quarter mile!
I had my third fall after hours of rain. My mood was as gloomy as the
weather, so I was trying to think of something funny.
I remembered something I'd read recently in Neal Jamison's latest book about
adventure racing. One of the contributors, Kristen Dieffenbach, talked about
having the "umbles" several days into one of her adventure races:
mumbles, grumbles, fumbles, stumbles. It fit my day perfectly!
And then I fell.
My right foot caught under a rock and I went down on my left knee into rocks.
Although my knee bled a little and the fall hurt more than when I fall
on dirt, I had to laugh. As another contributor to the book, famous ultra
runner/adventure racer Marshall Ulrich, observed, "Humor is the antidote to
At least I didn't fall down in horse poop!!
This run was harder mentally than physically. I felt pressure to go, go, go
since it was a long run. I had to focus very intently on the footing most of the
way so I didn't drop down into oblivion. The rocks and roots were very slick,
and I slopped through ankle-deep puddles and mud that sucked off a shoe twice.
Jim spent a lot of time cleaning up those shoes afterwards!
The sun came out about two hours before I completed this section. By then I was
down lower into trees and the ridgetop views were gone. The last five miles were
great: mostly smooth trail, mostly gradual downhill.
I felt good physically most of the day, although I was carrying so much water
that my shoulders were sore. There is very little water up on the ridges. Creeks
start from springs that are farther down. After running out of water Friday, and
not being sure of the sources for today, I carried two bladders (100 oz. and 70
oz.) in my pack and a 28-oz. hand-held UD bottle with my concentrated Perpetuem
and Sustained Energy mixes. I didn't drink anywhere near all the water because
it was so cool and wet all day (it even sleeted some).
Despite the rocks most of the way, I completed the run two hours faster than
Friday and went about a mile farther (it was a net downhill, after all). Twelve
hours out on the Trail seemed a long time, though. I'm getting tired.
After getting back to the camper, I just vegged out and watched the
"Survivor" finale on TV. It's taken me four days to find the time to write this
entry. I'm still bummed out that I didn't wait a day to run this section!
RUNNING IN THE SMOKIES
I've got to say, despite the weather and lack of views the day I ran this
section, this is one of the most awesome trails I have ever run/walked. I want
to return some day when the weather is good and run it again, perhaps in the
fall when the leaves are colorful.
I highly recommend that other ultra runners tackle all or part of the AT in
the Smokies. Several friends have done this in groups. You could do it in one,
two, or three segments, but you need either two vehicles or a crew for a
It's a tougher workout going south to north for the whole 70 miles. If you
want more uphill or more downhill training, you could determine which direction
to run by looking at the profiles of each section. For example, going north from
Fontana Dam to Clingman's Dome or Newfound Gap is mostly uphill, while Newfound
to Davenport Gap is net downhill.
I think completion of the AT in the Smokies, even done over two or three
days, would be great training for many "technical" 100-milers like Massanutten,
HURT, Superior Trail, or Big Horn. The only thing you're missing is altitude
over 7,000 feet for some of the Western 100s.
The Smokies are great for the whole family. There is no entrance fee to the
park (how many national parks are free??) and you don't need a permit to hike if
you're not camping out. There are numerous side trails for shorter runs/hikes
for other family members, and you can devise various loops that wouldn't require
a crew or two vehicles.
Unless you can float over rocks and roots, I wouldn't count on a fast time.
This isn't a good trail for a speed workout. Take the time to enjoy the views
and the geology. If you want to run really fast, or you're afraid of heights,
find another trail!
I'll opt for better weather when I do it next time. Be prepared for wintry
weather at the highest elevations even in the summer, just as you would in the