We’re excited and full of energy as we cross the Georgia and North Carolina state line. It’s a beautiful day and the trail leads through unique terrain, loads of Rhododendron tunnels and tops out on a few very interesting hill crests. We’re blissfully unaware of the class three cyclone, 800 kilometres away over the Atlantic ocean, that’s about to send some rain our way.
We sit down on a rock in a sunny patch for some crackers, salami and cheese, and compliment ourselves for getting this far without any problems (insect bites aside). It will be our last dry day on the trail for the next 9 days.
How to get wet
We make great pace over the first 19 kilometres and beat the first rain to Muskrat Creek Shelter. While selecting a camp site, it starts bucketing down so hard that we decide to pitch our tent inside the shelter. Shortly after, we’re joined by three young North Carolina locals doing a section hike. Two recently purchased new ultralight one man tents and are keen to pitch them against the elements. The third, who hikes only with a bivvy bag, wisely decides to share the shelter with us.
It rains through the night and the following morning shows no signs of letting up. Neither of the two tents survived the downpour, and while we pack up the two tent-sleepers compare stories about the size of the dams that formed at the bottom ends of their tents (much to the delight of their shelter-dwelling friend).
We start hiking with a plan and a backup plan: if the rain persists we’ll stop short at Standing Indian shelter after only 8 kilometres, if it clears up, we’ll do 20 kilometres to Carter Gap Shelter.
Luckily the conditions don’t detract from the spectacular terrain. At some sections, the path over Standing Indian Mountain hugs the mountain to the left, and to the right it overlooks what we assume to be a huge gorge. Of course, with the mist we can’t tell what it’s overlooking, so we pretend that it’s epic. The rain has turned the footpath into a flowing river. The steep, moss-covered rocks next to the path have waterfalls and streams pouring out every crack. The the moss wallpaper looks like it’s moving as drops form on and then fall from the moss’ little branches. When we close our eyes we’re surrounded from all sides by the sound of streams and dripping water. We’re loving the adventure of it.
It’s during this high spirit and a momentary lapse in the torrential downpour that we decide to push forward to Carter Gap Shelter. Our shoes are a bit wet, but nothing too bad. We even have a few dryish spots in some places. So we push on.
Shortly after our decision, the heavens open up and we immediately regret our mistake. Our pace is slowed down to a crawl and we arrive at Carter Gap Shelter soaked, shivering and exhausted, only to find the shelter full to the brim. The heavy rain has sent every hiker in the vicinity who would normally have slept in a tent, bivvy or hammock to the shelter. The three locals from Muskrat Creek, a father and son, and two ladies with a dog have already chosen their spots in the shelter, which means that we have to pitch our tent in pouring rain. We crawl into our damp sleeping bags, hating life.
If you were to take the feeling you get from changing from cold wet clothes into dry clothes, multiplied that by five and made it negative, that’s what it feels like putting wet clothes back on. It hasn’t stopped raining, and it takes a lot of will power get dressed in wet clothes, pack our wet tent and gear away and start hiking.
The first couple of kilometres leading up to Albert Mountain (1613m), the highest point in North Carolina, is hard. We arrive at the dreaded, rattlesnake-infested rock scramble to the Albert Mountain fire tower, but to our surprise we make it to the top with relative ease. South bounders have warned us about the difficult scramble over the last three days, and making it up so easily gives us a much needed boost in confidence (the top of Albert Mountain also happens to be the 100 mile mark on the AT). There’s no view in sight, but the energy at the top of the mountain in the wind and thick mist is an exhilarating experience.
That said, we’ve had enough of the rain. We hike to Long Branch Shelter for another wet night and decide to hike to Franklin the next day for a day off-trail. Rain 1, us 0.
We stay at the Budget Inn in Franklin. Our wet gear is spread out and takes up every square centimeter of our motel room floor, except for a path that leads from the front door to the bed (around the wet tent we pitched indoors).
As luck would have it, our off-trail day is a beautiful, dry, sunny day… at least our gear dries out quickly.
Getting wet again
Day 6 and North Carolina is back to normal: its raining. As we walk uphill to Siler Bald in pouring rain, we can’t help but think about the first thing the shuttle driver said to us this morning: ‘Are you sure you want to do this today?’. Well, no, but it’s too late now.
We arrive at Wayah Bald tower to find the view from the old stone fire tower, the one that so many people post images about, is not there. We spend five minutes chewing on a granola bar while looking at the white wall of mist and continue on to Wayah Shelter.
The hardest day with greatest reward
We still have two days ahead of us before our next resupply at the Nantahala Outdoor Centre. To our surprise the rain has subsided to a light drizzle during the morning and we can’t believe our luck when it clears up completely just before lunch.
At the top of Wesser Bald we are treated to our first view in 8 days. It’s a 360 degree view of the spectacular mountains we’ve been climbing. The forest is green and fall is showing its presence with a few pops of luminescent orange and yellow. It might be the height of the cloud bank, or the sprawling forest underneath it, but here the sky somehow feels bigger. To the north we can see the Great Smoky Mountains and just before that our final destination, Fontana Dam, and to the south, the storm that is chasing us. This fire tower is quite possibly one of our favourite places we’ve ever been.
We wish we can stay for the entire afternoon, but the wall of rain headed for us makes us uneasy. To add to that, ironically, we’ve run out of water. Luckily, the last 2 kilometres is all that is between us, something to drink and a dry place to sleep.
On arrival at Wesser Shelter we find the water source stagnant and undrinkable. We check the guide book for nearest water source: Nantahala Outdoor Centre, where we planned to overnight tomorrow. This means another 9 kilometres, turning our 19 kilometre day into a grueling 28 kilometre day.
Left with no choice we continue on with tired legs, chased by fading daylight. To our relief this section is mostly downhill. We descend down a ridge line with fantastic 270 degree views. The forest we’re overlooking is first painted in the warm light of twilight and then the colder light of dusk. It’s a beautiful time of the day to be hiking. Almost beautiful enough to make us forget about our tortured bodies asking for a break. Almost.
We make it to the Nantahala Outdoor Centre after dark. Most of the buildings are locked for the night except for The River’s End Restaurant, the only building with a few lights on. We walk in as the staff are locking up for the evening. Judging by their reactions we must look the way we feel, as the first words out of the waitress’ mouth are “The chef has gone home, but please can I make you a sandwich.” We opt for 4 bottles of water and Gatorades and we set off to find a place to pitch our tent.
Not waiting out the storm
We spend the following two days at The River’s End eating pizza, drinking coffee and watching the storm getting progressively worse. The TV is tuned to a 24/7 special report on the hurricane showing radar imagery of the storm, footage of flooded streets and neighbourhoods, volunteers filling sand bags and emergency vehicles driving back and forth.
It’s becoming increasingly clear that the 3 days of hiking we have planned is best spent in sunny Virginia. We order another coffee and google rental car prices.
Trail Head Location (WGS84)
N34º 54.738’ W84º 37.123'
Dicks Creek Gap
Total Distance : 113,5km
Average Distance : 18,9km
Day 1 : 19,1km – Muskrat Creek Shelter
Day 2 : 20,5km – Carter Gap Shelter (New)
Day 3 : 14,1km – Long Branch Shelter
Day 4 : 12,1km – Winding Stair Gap & Franklin
Day 5 : 0km – Franklin
Day 6 : 19,1km – Wayah Shelter
Day 7 : 28,5km – Nantahala Outdoor Centre
Day 8 : 0 – Nantahala Outdoor Centre
Day 9 : 0 – Nantahala Outdoor Centre
Average Elevation Gain / Loss: 1407m / 1462m
Total Elevation Gain / Loss : 8443m / 8774m
Highest Altitude : 1613m, Day 3
Lowest Altitude : 512m, Day 7
Difficulty Rating : 9 / 10
Season Hiked : September – Early Fall