“How did you like the Smokies?” asked Waterboy. It took me a minute to think about the answer. “Beautiful, but difficult,” I said.
The Great Smoky Mountains include some of the tallest mountains in the Southeast, and yes, the Appalachian Trail goes right atop them, dancing along the state line between North Carolina and Tennessee. When we hit the high mountains – over a mile high – the forests were rainforests in balsam and spruce, thick carpets of mosses and lichens and fungi laid out at their feet. Very different than we’d experienced before.
In the Smokies, hikers are required to use the shelters, which makes logistics difficult. You must hike a certain number of miles per day whether you’re up to it or not in order to go from shelter to shelter. If a shelter is full, or weekenders have permits to be there, you must set up your tent. In general, few of the Smokies shelters have any good tent sites nearby.
The weather is unpredictable. We had heat and bitter cold, pouring rain and bright blue skies, sometimes all in the same day. Clouds would drift in and envelop us, leaving us damp and cold. The trail is even more unpredictable. In places it’s a walk in the park, an easy grade – when it is shared with horses, I realized – on which we could make good time. In other spots, it’s a rock-hop, a walk down a streambed with rushing water, a zigzag on a knife-edge ridge thousands of feet above the surrounding mountains as you cross the Sawteeth.
It is a wonderland of life. We saw countless wildflowers, fungi, and lichens in every color of the rainbow. A ruffed grouse landed near us on Mount Collins. A deer browsed behind the Double Spring Gap shelter. And almost every day, we found snails trying to race us up the trail.
In the mists of memory, the tough part of crossing the Smokies will fade and the beauty will remain, as it does for backpackers who return time and again. It is certainly a special place on this earth, but we’re glad to have it behind us now.