4:30am, our earliest wake up time yet. Today we will be hiking 28.2 miles from Newfound Gap to Cosby Campground, and my mom’s work colleague will be joining us. Our car is already waiting for us at Cosby Campground because my parents drove it there yesterday. We don’t want to waste any time this morning getting on the trail.
5:30am. We are meeting my mom’s work colleague to park our car and ride with her and her husband up to the top of the mountain. By parking our car closer into town, we will save time this evening getting home, since we will not have to drive all the way back into the mountains. There is just a little bit of light in the sky at this point. Because it is early in the summer, the days are still getting longer, which is great for this hike because we will probably be hiking until dusk. As we are driving into the mountains, my eyes want to close and go back to sleep, but I am keeping them open and trying to stay with the conversations of the car ride.
We have come upon an overlook, and it just so happened that the sun is making its way just above some mountaintops in the distance. So, of course, we have to stop and take a picture.
It’s 7:15am, and we are off on the Appalachian Trail, starting at Newfound Gap. When we got to the Newfound Gap parking lot, we took a couple of “before” pictures and made a bathroom pit stop before embarking on our journey.
The first part of the trail is familiar to me because I have hiked part of it before on a trip to Mt. LeConte. This time, however, I am headed much further. The views this morning are already spectacular. We can see off into the mountain range stretching into the distance. Back in the valley, the temperatures today are supposed to get up into the 90s, but up here in the mountains, we should only get up to the lower 70s.
The adults are hitting it off and flexing their “Chatty Cathy” muscles, talking though a diverse array of conversations. I take the lead and end up far enough ahead in the distance that I am almost walking alone but can still hear the murmur of conversation behind me.
I have not walked alone in the mountains in a while, but I am glad that I get to today because I have so much on my mind. Being in the open air and getting my heart rate up always brings me to a state of thought where I can think through the chaos that is my creative and really make thoughtful decisions.
I keep getting almost exactly 30 seconds ahead of the rest. My pace is slightly faster, so I end up stopping to wait for them to catch up. Each time I stop, I find myself looking around. The scenery keeps changing each time I stop. From ridge-line panorama views and rocky terrain to lush enclosed forest and muddy pathways, we seem to be encountering it all. I am just glad that I am stopping, because on longer hikes, I tend to get in the zone and pay more attention to my feet than what is around me. Naturally, I am trying to make sure not to trip, but when I look down, I sometimes miss the view ahead of me. I have been working on it though and am getting better at enjoying the view while hiking without tripping.
I have to admit, this is my first hike to Charlies Bunion, and luckily it is a clear day. When we reached the rock face side of the mountain ridge that is Charlies Bunion, we had a spectacular view. My dad and I even climbed to the top of a rock to get a better view. But since we have much more ground to cover, we cannot stay long.
We had stopped a few times for very quick water breaks, but it is now verging on noon – time for lunch. On the menu we have salmon wraps, trail mix, and oatmeal cookies. It does not take us long to prepare our food and eat. Plus, it is best that we not sit for too long because we do not want our legs to stove up.
We had already passed Pecks Corner before lunch, and now as we are a little ways past Tricorner Knob, maybe even a little bit passed Mount Guyot, my mom’s friend and I have decided to separate from my parents to pick up the pace and do a little side trail called Snake Den Ridge Trail.
My mom’s friend is trying to hike all 900 miles of trails in the Smokey Mountains (extreme kudos to her), and she has not done Snake Den yet. The trail is only 0.7 off of the AT, and then 0.7 back. So it's only 1.4 extra miles altogether. We are probably hiking a three mile an hour pace, distancing ourselves from my parents in hopes that we complete the 1.4 miles by the time they get to the Snake Den Ridge trail-head.
I have not hiked this fast since my brother and I were kids and we would race ahead of my parents, showing off our speed. Today, I am not as in shape as I was back then, but I am still focusing on my stride technique and breath control. We are booking it, and time is flying faster as our conversation develops.
Along the way we passed an air pad, where helicopters can land, and plane ruins from a plane that crashed into the mountain side. We did not stay long at either site though because we were on a mission, and now that we are at the bottom of Snake Den Ridge Trail, our pace seems to have paid off. We can make it back up the 0.7 miles in 15 minutes, and hopefully my parents will be at the top waiting for us.
Sure enough, they are at the top. We are taking a short break to adjust our shoes, rehydrate, and rally before we start the last five miles downhill.
These days we are not particularly fond of downhill hiking. With the steeper grade of the trails and the length of the downhill stretches themselves, downhill hiking just tears up our legs. I would rather hike uphill than down any day, just because it is becoming increasingly more strenuous on my knees and ankles to hike for a prolonged period of time down a mountainside.
Nonetheless, we have to do it. The downhill stretch is all that stands between us and the car. Of course there are a few comments like “Are we done yet?” an “Why did we do this?” For the most part, however, we are remaining pretty positive and optimistic as we head down.
The sun is setting out beyond our range of sight. As it slowly creeps down the sky, rays of sun shine through the trees, and the forest takes on a new persona. We really have not hiked at dusk yet this year, so it is pretty cool to see the forest dim as we race to the end of our hike and hopefully beat the darkness.
It’s 8:45pm, 14 hours after we started, and we are within sight of the car. I never thought I would be so happy to see our car, but I am. I know there is food in there, that I will soon have my boots off, and that there are comfy seats. At the beginning of the day, I did not think that 28.2 miles would actually take all day, but now that night has almost fallen upon us, the reality that we have hiked all day is truly setting in. The last five miles were gruesome, but overall, I cannot complain. The weather held out for us all day. We did not run out of food or water. No one got hurt. And we all seem to have had a great time.
Now only 4 miles of the AT in the GSM left to hike!
Over and out,