Appalachian Trail: N.O.C. to Clingmans Dome
For our first backpacking trip of the spring, we joined this year's flood of thruhikers for a 60 mile section along the Appalachian Trail.
For the past few years, my mom has been piecing together her multiyear section hike of the A.T., having covered over 1,500 miles so far. I am continually inspired and impressed with her dedication to getting out on the trail, but as of yet had never found the opportunity to join her on one of her trips. Luckily, that changed this month, so my wife and I headed down to North Carolina to hit the trail beside her.
We planned the trip with the benefit of two cars, choosing to hike southbound along the A.T. and descend two particularly lengthy climbs that northbound thruhikers dread. We also broke the trip into two sections, allowing us to resupply ourselves and ditch our tents before heading into the Smokies.
Fontana Dam to N.O.C
After spending the night at the Nantahala Outdoor Center, we left a car behind and drove north to Fontana Dam where we set out southbound along the Appalachian Trail. The A.T. skirts the lake past a popular hiker shelter know as the "Fontana Hilton" (more on that later) before passing the marina and starting a lengthly climb out of the gap. Spring had not quite hit this area yet, so the scenery was mostly dried leaves and bare trees. Combine that with a heat wave, and it made for a fairly unpleasant climb. After topping the ridge, the trail proceeds to rollercoaster its way down through lesser gaps and up over nameless summits. Switchbacks along the southern A.T. are infrequent, and the trail seems to go out of its way to charge straight up the steepest ridges. Our first night we camped at Cody Gap along with a group of thruhikers headed north.
Day two we traversed a section known by hikers as Jacob's Ladder, a reference to the onslaught of climbs and descents that compose the trail through this area. We had one welcomed respite from the difficult trail, a trail angel serving up hot dogs and cheap beer at Stecoah Gap where the path crosses NC 143. On my '09 thruhike I ironically hit trail magic at this same gap as well. There's a small picnic area along the road that makes it a prime location for the charitable who want to aid thruhikers.
Day three we got out first decent views of the trip after summiting Cheoah Bald, the high point of this section at 5,062 feet in elevation. We off loaded some extra snacks we were carrying to some northbounders and made the long descent down to the Nantahala Outdoor Center to wrap up this 29 mile section.
Clingmans Dome to Fontana Dam
After dinner at the N.O.C. we drove back to Fontana Dam to spend the night at the shelter. The "Fontana Hilton" is one the nicest shelters on the trail, mostly due to the fact that hot showers and flush toilets are available for hikers year round. It was much as I remember it from my thruhike, though the addition of tent sites and a solar powered device charging station give away the changes to thruhiking that have occurred over the years since I was last there.
We resupplied out of our cars and left our tents behind. They would not be necessary in Great Smoky Mountains National Park due to backcountry camping restrictions, and we had reservations for shelters for our two nights within the park.
After making the long drive up to Clingmans Dome, we set out on day four from its 6,643 foot summit, the highest point on the whole Appalachian Trail and third highest peak east of the Mississippi. The contrast in the environment from the previous section could not have been more drastic, and highlighted why this park is the most visited National Park in the country. Though the park was not yet in full bloom, spring was appearing all around us, with flowers carpeting the forest floor. We spent the night at Derrick Knob shelter.
Day five we followed the trail along the ridge, the carpet of flowers stretching out to either side. Some particularly great vistas can be found on the summits of Thunderhead Mountain and Rocky Top, with Fontana Lake nestled among the mountains to the south. After passing the shelter at Spence Field, the trail is open to horses, and is graded accordingly, leading to gentler climbs and descents. We stopped at Mollies Ridge shelter for our last night.
From Mollies Ridge, the trail weaved its way over a couple wooded summits before gently descending down to Fontana Dam. The forest began to transition back into what we saw on the first part of our trip, though the trees were now beginning to leaf in the warm weather. The A.T. takes hikers along the road and across the top of the dam and past the visitors center, where our trip came to a close.
Distance: The Appalachian Trail covers 61.4 miles from the N.O.C. to Clingmans Dome.
Difficulty: Moderate to Strenuous. The southern portion involves steeper and more frequent elevation changes than the trail through the Smokies.
Trailhead: The A.T. crosses right through the Nantahala Outdoor Center and Fontana Dam, making them excellent access points to the trail. Getting to Clingmans Dome involves a lengthy drive into the park, and the road can close unexpectedly due to adverse weather. We used a shuttle service to reach the trailhead there to avoid leaving a car at the Clingmans Dome parking lot.
Permits: Necessary for all overnight hikers in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, reservable up to 30 days prior to your trip.
Overnight Possible: Yes, shelters and campsites are abundant. Overnight hikers on the A.T. are required to stay at designated locations within the national park.
Best Time To Go: Year round, with peak spring bloom in May being ideal. Weather in the Smokies is particularly unpredictable, so pack accordingly.
Where to Poop: Privies are available at most shelters, though not all of them. Follow signs indicating toilet areas and follow proper LNT procedures when it's necessary to poop in the woods.