AT 2017: Day 17, Derrick Knob Shelter to Mt. Collins Shelter

So I'm packing my bags for the Misty Mountains

With our original plan of meeting my sister-in-law at Newfound Gap for a resupply now abandoned, Landon and I set out to execute a new plan.

Actually, we had a new plan and a backup plan.

DateThursday, April 20, 2017
WeatherRain early, then fog (low-hanging clouds); temperatures in low 50s to mid 60s
Trail ConditionsMud, mud, and more mud, plus occasional puddles
Today's Miles13.5
Trip Miles202.5

I would try to reach Vicki before she left her home and ask her to bring my resupply food. If I was unable to reach her, I would take Landon's remaining food.

Either way, Landon would be getting off the trail at Clingman's Dome and leave with Vicki. I would continue hiking to Davenport Gap for my planned pickup by Kim.

That made me a little sad. I had enjoyed hiking with Landon, even when the weather was sometimes miserable.

When we awoke and emerged from our tents near Derrick Knob Shelter we could only see about 50 yards ahead of us. We were in a thick fog.

Or more accurately, we were in clouds that had descended over the mountains.

It had rained again overnight, making everything completely saturated. That made the trail wetter, sloppier, slicker, and, well, a complete mess.

We couldn't wait for the clouds to lift and for the trail to dry out, of course, so we set off hiking.

If we could have waited we would have waited all day. The sun only made a brief appearance late in the day.

We were glad to not be hiking in rain and the temperature was comfortable for hiking, but we had no views where there might have been views to see.

At a couple of times this morning I stopped to attempt to contact Vicki about our change in plans, but I was unable to get a reliable signal.

Landon and I had our backup plan, though, so all was good.

Gradually the clouds began to lift and we could see farther down the trail.

At the same time, as we continued up in elevation we were seeing the forest transition from a mixed deciduous to a spruce-fir forest.

There are only a few places in the Southeast where you'll find a spruce-fir forest. The conditions have to be right for these trees to grow to the exclusion of broadleaf varieties, which primarily means the elevation has to be above 5,500 feet.

Besides the red spruce and the Fraser fir trees, the other noticeable feature of this forest was that nearly everything was covered in a thick carpet of moss.

As we got closer to Clingman's Dome we finally began to see distant views because the sun came out. We could see Mt. LeConte, which is at 6,593 feet in elevation.

It is the third highest peak in the park and the only one above 6,000 feet that the AT doesn't go over or near.

As I had calculated yesterday, we reached Clingman's Dome shortly after 4 p.m.

The mountain rises to an elevation of 6,643 feet, making it is the highest mountain in the Smokies. Though it straddles Tennessee and North Carolina, Tennessee claims the peak as the highest point in the state.

Clingman's Dome is also the highest point on Appalachian Trail, so I guess it can be said that my walk will all be downhill from here.

A 45-foot concrete observation tower with a spiral ramp gives a clear, 360-degree view. Or rather, it gives a view when the weather is clear.

The tower was built in 1959, which replaced a wooden structure that was not handicapped accessible.

The gray ghosts of trees in view from here are Fraser firs, which have been killed by a non-native insect called the balsam woolly adelgid. It is a small, wingless insect that infests fir trees.

Hundreds of these insects will take up residence in a tree's bark, then eat into the tree. As they eat they release toxins contained in their saliva that eventually choke the tree to death.

The balsam woolly adelgid was discovered in Great Smoky Mountains National Park in 1957. Since then, 90 to 99 percent of the park's Fraser fir trees have been killed.

Though his Aunt Vicki was waiting for him in the Clingman's Dome parking lot, Landon decided to extend his hike and his time with his dad just a little longer by walking with me to the top of the tower.

After we said our goodbyes Landon left to meetup with Vicki. I continued on the trail.

My destination for the evening was Mt. Collins Shelter.

The forest was especially beautiful in this section, and even had a spooky, Hansel and Gretel character to it in the fading late afternoon light.

I enjoyed this walk, but at the same time I felt something unexpected.

Loneliness.

The trail went directly over the top of Mt. Collins, another peak over 6,000 feet. Then it began to descend to Sugarland Mountain Trail, which provides access to Mt. Collins Shelter.

At the trail junction the park service had posted a warning sign saying the trail past the shelter was closed.

The Sugarland and a few other trails remain closed because of the devastating fires that burned in the park last November.

Because of prevailing winds and firefighting efforts, no portion of the AT was damaged in the park by those fires, but the trail was closed for a few days.

On my way to the shelter I was escorted for a short distance by a ruffed grouse, which walked along the trail a few feet ahead of me. Eventually it tired of being followed and headed off into the forest.

I got to the shelter late, but there was still enough daylight left to set up my tent and cook dinner. It was minimal daylight, though, because the forest here was dense with large trees.

After completing my dinner at the shelter I quickly packed up my food bag and hung it on a bear bag cable. Then walked to my tent.

This turned out to be a costly mistake, but I didn't realize I made it until about 24 hours later.

You really don't care if they're coming oh, oh
I know that it's all a state of mind, oh.
If you go down in the streets today, Baby, you better
You better open your eyes
Folk down there really don't care, really don't care
Don't care, really don't
Which, which way the pressure lies
So I've decided what I'm gonna do now
So I'm packing my bags for the Misty Mountains
Where the spirits go now
Over the hills where the spirits fly, oh, I really don't know

From "Misty Mountain Hop" by by John Paul Jones, Jimmy Page and Robert Plant (Led Zeppelin)

Comments

"Nothing to tell now. Let the words be yours, I'm done with mine."ref.