4:55 AM. Yes, I am up. And yes, we are leaving in 30 minutes to drive into the mountains to get on the trail at Cades Cove by sunrise. Luckily I had laid out my clothes last night, so getting ready isn’t turning out to be too much of a problem. My mom woke up to my alarm, so we are getting up at the same time. My dad, however, is already 30 minutes into his drive to the trailhead at Fontana Dam.
Today, because the span of the AT we are hoping to cover is a little spread out, we are planning to start at two different ends of our hike and then end up where the other started and drive their car home. By doing so, we will save lots of prep time in driving cars around. Today’s hike will be around 20 miles in length, the longest we have attempted so far for a day hike.
After breakfast and loading the car with all of our gear, we are on the road. It is still dark outside, which thankfully means we are on time. As we have been driving, the sky has started getting lighter as the sun is slowly coming up. We are currently on the Highway 321, 30 minutes out from Cades Cove, and the sunrise is painting the sky in shades of deep orange and pink. I wish I could stop and take a picture, but my phone is in my bag and we are pressed for time.
6:30 AM. We have arrived at Cades Cove, right on schedule. Our car is parked a little way from the trail head, and we are going to catch the bathroom on our way to the trail head. It’s Memorial Day weekend, so a good number of park visitors are already here in Cades Cove waiting to claim picnic areas and go around the loop. Luckily, we are the only ones that seem to be getting on a trail to hike.
6:45 AM. We are off. The beginning of the trail is familiar, because we hiked it when we hiked up to Thunderhead. It is an absolutely beautiful morning, what you would imagine the perfect spring day to be like – warmish temperatures with a refreshing wind as we walk through the shade of the trees.
The uphill trek to Russell Field is anything but easy. I am carrying a 35-pound pack, which is probably too heavy for a day hike. I am, however, my mom’s Sherpa and am carrying her gear as well as all of our water supply.
8:45 AM. Finally at the top of the hill after two hours of uphill hiking. We are at the Russell Field shelter. So I snap a quick pic and head on our way.
The next section of the trail has turned out to be a collection of mild uphill and downhill climbs, as we make our way across the mountain ridge line. Since spring is in full force, the lush green trees are blocking our views out into the distance, but the vibrant greenery is a noteworthy sight in its own respect.
11:00 AM. A mile or so after we passed Mollies Ridge shelter, we have finally caught up with my dad. For lunch we scarf down tuna and salmon wraps and then head on our separate ways.
11:30 AM. Back to our hike.
We have passed the halfway point in our day hike, and the trail just keeps going onward. We are still facing a series of up and down hill climbs. It is getting somewhat monotonous, putting one foot in front of the other, but the weather is great and I am enjoying the time with my mom.
2:00 PM. We have finally reached the Shuckstack fire tower after two and a half hours of concentrated hiking. It is definitely a much-needed break, and I am glad to finally be getting some panoramic views from the tower. I have hiked up to Shuckstack before with my family, so the rest of the trail down should be familiar.
Our feet hurt, well at least mine do. The downhill trek, after 17 miles of hiking, is no fun because my feet are feeling the stress of stepping down a steep grade. But the end is near; I can feel it. Yet, it seems like we keep on saying, “This is the last switchback,” but another one keeps sneaking its way onto our path.
3:45 PM. I can see the car!!! We are done! We completed 20 miles in nine hours with about one hour worth of breaks. Not too shabby at all. Now we only have two more section hikes before we have completed the whole Appalachian Trail through the Smoky Mountains.
Ending our hike in Fontana is quite the treat. My family would come up to Fontana Village through out my childhood, so I have countless fond memories of this place. Plus the scenery – crystal clear lakes and lush green mountains everywhere you look – never gets old. My mom and I sat for about 30 minutes looking out on the Fontana Lake while we ate chips and hummus and fresh strawberries before we started our drive home.
Over and out,