AT 2017: Day 37, Saunders Shelter to Thomas Knob Shelter

Help is on its way

View from Buzzard Rock

I have been doggedly focused the last few days on reaching a road crossing on the trail where my wife can pick me up Friday afternoon. Nevertheless, being successful at this will take more than just determination.

I must hike about 18 miles a day for the next three days. I can't slow down. I can't stop early because I'm tired.

If the skies remain free of rain and the footpath continues to be easy to walk, I have a better shot of reaching my goal, but I will need more help than that.

DateThursday, May 18, 2017
WeatherClear for most of the day, with increasing clouds later; high temperature in the low 80s
Trail ConditionsA few rocky sections, a short, flat section on the Virginia Creeper Trail, before long climbs up Whitetop and Mt. Rogers
Today's Miles19.0
Trip Miles497.5

It's not like I'm putting too much pressure on myself. I know that I'm capable of getting to my goal in time, and I have a couple backup plans in mind if I can't.

Besides, it's worth the extra effort because I get to spend a weekend with my wife when I'm done.

Nevertheless, to be successful this week I could use a little more help than just good weather, good trail, and a constant focus on completing miles. I could use a little luck and a little assistance from other hikers.

And that's what I got today.

Saunders Shelter

No more hikers showed up last night after I went to bed. No mice showed up either, so it was a quiet and comfortable night alone in the shelter.

Because I slept in the shelter I didn't have to pack up my tent this morning. I was ready to get back on the trail by 7:30 a.m., but there was one more thing I had to do before I left.

Pothole, Tweety and Trapper Lee didn't eat all of the peanut butter-filled pretzels I shared with them last night. I put the pretzels in my bear bag before going to bed.

Just before I returned to the trail, I gave them the remaining pretzels and wished them well on the rest of their hike to Damascus. I told them I would look for them at Trail Days.

Clear morning on the trail

Back on the trail, I followed it along a ridge line for about two miles. It then began a gradual descent back to the Virginia Creeper Trail.

Pond in the woods

About halfway down to the Creeper, the trail passed a large pond.

It's unusual to see ponds like this in a mountain forest, and I wondered if it was left over from a human activity, perhaps mining or farming.

Virginia Creeper Trail

After another two miles of mostly easy, downhill walking the AT became even easier to walk when it rejoined the Creeper.

Footbridge on the Virginia Creeper Trail

The AT made use of another long, wooden bridge on the Creeper.

After crossing Laurel Creek, the AT left the Creeper for the last time. From here I was walking mostly uphill as I headed to Mt. Rogers.

I had hiked this section once before, but that time I was going in the opposite direction. There were a couple moderately difficult climbs, but was mostly downhill. Now I was going mostly uphill.

I was hoping to reach Thomas Knob Shelter before dark. I didn't plan to stay at the shelter because I knew there were several camping spots near it.

Pink Lady Slippers

As the long ascent continued I passed the largest patch of pink Lady Slippers I had ever seen. There were dozens of them.

I stopped for lunch at Lost Mountain Shelter. When I hiked this section a few years ago with boy scouts, we camped here.

No one was stopped at the shelter when I first arrived, but soon there were several hikers here who also stayed to eat lunch. Most of them were heading south to Damascus for Trail Days.

Leaving the shelter after lunch, I failed to notice I hadn't reattach my water bottle to my pack. It wasn't until I had walked down the trail about a tenth of a mile before I realized my foolish mistake.

Just as I turned to walk back to the shelter, a hiker named Broadway came bounding down the trail. He had brought my water bottle to me.


Resuming my hike, the climb was once again steady but not difficult.

It wasn't until the trail crossed a large meadow that I noticed how warm the temperature had become. The sun was bright in the nearly clear sky, and I stopped to put on some sunblock.

Columbine flowers

I then passed another patch of flowers, and as with the Lady Slippers I saw this morning, they were remarkably abundant. These were one of my favorite wildflowers, Columbine.

Later I met a young woman, who was hiking southbound with her dog. She was stopped on the trail and looking frantically in her pack.

She told me she lost her SteriPEN, which is a small device that uses ultraviolet light to eliminate bacteria in water. I offered to keep an eye out for it. If I found it, I said, I would try to find someone hiking southbound to take it to her.

Buzzard Rock

Continuing the long climb, the trail reached Buzzard Rock, a rocky outcrop near the summit of Whitetop Mountain.

View from Buzzard Rock

I stopped here for several minutes to enjoy the views, which were many. From a distance I saw several birds circling in the thermal updrafts at the sides of the mountain. Because this was Buzzard Rock, I presumed they were buzzards, but they were too far away for me to be sure.

It's said that you can see four states from this point: Virginia, West Virginia, North Carolina and Tennessee.

This spot was just a bit over 5,000 feet in elevation, but it still wasn't the highest point the trail would take me today. The time was now just past 3 p.m. and I still had about eight miles to go to reach today's goal.

I continued on.


Not far from Buzzard Rock the trail crossed a gravel road, which led to Whitetop Mountain. There, sitting on a rock, was the SteriPEN the hiker told me she lost.

No other hikers were nearby, so there was no one who could carry it to her. The only thing I could think of to do was write a note and leave it with the device. In the note I explained about the young woman who lost it and said she was heading south with her dog to Damascus.

I wished there was more I could do, but I couldn't think of anything else.

Later, I saw a southbound hiker and asked him if he was headed to Damascus, but he said he was planning to turn off the trail at the road and head to his car.

The hiker told me he had been walking with a friend who was struggling to keep up, and asked if I would relay a message to him.

Later, when I saw the friend, it was clear he was exhausted from the hike. I gave him the message, which he was glad to get, but mostly he just wanted the hike to be done.

Rocky, eroded trail

Once the trail re-entered the forest it became more difficult to walk. It was much more rocky than most of the trail had been to this point. It had been severely eroded by water in this steep section of the climb toward Mt. Rogers.

Elk Garden

The trail came out of the forest at Virginia Highway 600 and entered Elk Garden. The time was now 5:00.

Several hikers were stopped here and were setting up tents, but I needed to keep going. I still had about five miles to reach my goal, doable before dark, but just barely.

Elk Garden is a wide expanse of grassy hills. When Dr. Thomas Walker and his exploration party came through here in 1750 to survey the area and points west they found the land rich with animals like elk and bison. The area around Mount Rogers was a thick forest of spruce and fir trees.

The land I'm walking over today is nothing at all like the land Walker saw. When the first European settlers came in they wiped out the large game animals. Lumber companies then moved in during the 1880s and stripped the area bare of trees.

Though the elk were killed off long ago, there is a plan to return elk to Virginia, but apparently not at Elk Garden.

Views near Thomas Knob Shelter

Throughout the rest of today's hike there were occasional expansive views from open areas.

The sun was getting closer to the horizon, clouds were rolling in, and it was getting breezy. Not surprisingly, the temperature began to drop.

I made a few quick stops to take in a view before moving on again.

I reached at 7:30 a junction with a side trail, which led to the top of Mt. Rogers. It was too late to take the trail to the top, but that was okay because I had been there before.

The summit is the highest point in Virginia. It is completely covered in a thick, dark forest, so there are no views to be seen from there.

The mountain was named for William Barton Rogers, Virginia's first state geologist and founder of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

Rogers determined in 1841 the mountain was the highest peak in the state.

It was originally called Balsam Mountain. The name was changed to honor Rogers in 1883.

I continued on to Thomas Knob Shelter, which was a short distance away.

View from near Thomas Knob Shelter

I dropped my pack at the shelter, even though I didn't plan to stay there. A spring was located a 100 yards or so behind the shelter, and I wanted to get water first so I didn't have to come back for it later.

After I collected my water I walked to where I thought there would be an open spot to pitch my tent.

And I continued to walk. There were so many people camped in the area that all of the suitable tent sites seemed to be taken.

Because of the breeze, I wanted a spot that would be sheltered by trees. I couldn't find any, so I kept walking.

After going nearly a mile beyond the shelter I decided to turn around and go back to look again.

Finally, I saw what I thought might be a spot between some fir trees, but it wasn't easily reached. Another hiker had pitched his tent in a way that cut off a clear path to the opening.

Fortunately, he had not yet gone to bed, so I asked him if he minded if I pitched my tent in the spot. He had no problem with that, so I carefully stepped around his tent and entered the small space.

It took a bit of time and creativity to work out a way to fit my tent into the small space, but I was able to get it set up and to cook dinner just as the sun went down.

Why're you in so much hurry?
Is it really worth the worry?

Look around.
Then slow down.
What's it like inside the bubble?
Does your head ever give you trouble?
It's no sin.
Trade it in.

Hang on.
Help is on its way.
I'll be there as fast as I can.


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