11/30 9.6 miles
We woke up on top of Newton Bald (not actually a bald) well before daylight. We packed up, and as the sun rose, it offered us beautiful oranges behind a tall range of mountains in the distance.
We had an easy 5 miles of downhill before we reached Newfound Gap Road. Although we hadn’t planned on going into Cherokee, it turns out that we fell for the fences and posts problem when it came to our food. We were spending 6 nights in the Smokies, but that meant 7 days of food, not 6, so we were short one day’s worth.
We got to the road, and I had to go poop. I figured if we could hitchhike into town, I could wait and use the restroom at a store or fast-food restaurant. We put out our thumbs and started waiting. The urge got more urgent, and I started glancing into the woods for a place to go- there were streams and rivers everywhere. Not ideal. There was plenty of traffic passing us, but it was all expensive SUV’s and gigantic pick-up trucks. Nobody actually wanted to pick us up.
After an hour, I gave up and scrambled up into a rhododendron thicket as far as I could go away from the stream in order to do my business. Meanwhile, John was carrying a piece of Tyvek that someone had abandoned at the last campsite, and he was busy drawing “HIKER TO TOWN” using a sharpie that he was carrying for some reason.
We got back out on the road and held out our sign. Pretty quickly a gentleman in a fancy Lexus stopped and picked us up. He was an Israeli who seemed to own half the stores in Cherokee along with another half of the stores in Pigeon Forge.
He told us he was jealous of our lifestyle, that he had gotten sucked into the American dream of making money, and couldn’t give it up, but would much prefer to be free and happy like us. That made me feel slightly better about some of my life choices. He dropped us off in front of Food Lion.
We bought what we thought was a day’s worth of food (this is basically an impossible task because everything comes in packages of 6 or 10), and then went across the parking lot to the McDonalds to use their wifi and charge our devices. We also ate some crappy food.
The funny thing about towns when you’re hiking, is that they’re full of promise when you’ve been on trail for many days. Food, hot food, food that you haven’t carried, fresh food, possibly showers, laundry or both. But in reality, after an hour or two in town, you’ve eaten whatever was the first thing you saw out of greediness, and you find yourself pondering the happiness of the locals around you, wishing you could just teleport back to the trail where all this hustle and bustle is replaced by friendly trees and trail.
Once we were thoroughly sick of town, John decided to write “HIKER TO TRAIL” on the other side of the Tyvek, and we stood by the road and hoped for the best. We were surprised when a gentleman pulled over and asked us “how far is this trail you’re trying to get to?”
He let us jump into his truck, and he drove us all the way back to the Benton MacKaye. I’m quite sure he drove completely out of his way to give us a ride there, and we thanked him for his generosity. It would have been hard to get out of town otherwise– the town was big, and we were trying to get a ride at the wrong end of it.
The trail was another road bed, and we easily covered a few miles before a small side trail took us to a cascade, which made it onto the map. We stoped to take a picture and hiked on.
We got to camp early, as usual, and set up right before it started to rain. Neither one of us were hungry since we had eaten in town, so we just ate a few snacks and hung our food.
We sat in the tent, listening to the rain against the nylon soothing us to sleep.
In the end we didn’t actually sleep much. The rain didn’t last long, but it was humid and quite warm compared to what we were used to. Plus, there was a full moon lighting up the entire tent.
12/1 14.5 miles
After a night of tossing and turning, we finally overslept our alarm because we both decided to put in earplugs sometime in the night. We were slow to get going as we were both groggy and irritable.
Today’s hike was the hardest day of hiking in the Smokies. It was also definitely the most beautiful.
We climbed up to almost 5000 ft, then down to 3,500 then back up to 5000 then back down to 3000 then back up to 5,500. So that was a lot of elevation change. But the trails were still well graded.
On the first uphill, the Enloe Creek Trail had quite a few blowdowns. It almost looked like a freak storm had knocked over a bunch of trees on this one hillside. Besides that one area, the trails were well maintained as usual.
We had one ford, which was slightly unexpected, but now that I’m looking at the guide book, it does say the that Bridge over Enloe Creek may wash out. That must have been what happened. We decided not to take the time to take off our socks etc. since it was fairly warm out, and we had all day to hopefully dry out our shoes.
Down Enloe Creek we saw one cascade after another. The hillside had beautiful large rocks, and the trees were quite large.
We took the time, once again to take our wet gear and dry it out in the sun, since the weather was so nice. Mostly just our tent was soaking wet and therefore heavy from last night’s rain.
The Enloe Creek Campsite is a popular destination for folks looking for swimming holes, and we could see why. This was definitely one of the highlights of our trip to the Smokies.
After climbing and descending another mountain, we started up our last climb of the day, and in fact, sort of our last big climb of the entire trip. We climbed and climbed into a spruce forest, which is the first time we’ve really been high enough to be in a spruce forest. We’ve seen spruces here and there, but on the top of Balsam High Top, the forest was just thick with spruce trees and gnarly birch trees. It was beautiful, especially how the evening sun pierced the woods.
We arrived at Laurel Gap shelter- one of only two shelters on the Benton MacKaye Trail, and it had a fireplace. John decided we’d make another fire, since it’s our last night on trail.
It’s quite nice being in a shelter, all alone with a roaring fire. Tomorrow we finish the trail, and the business of real life will take over. We’re trying to savor these last moments as I’m sure we’ll look back on them fondly.
12/2 11.9 miles
Sleeping in the shelter was great. We slept in a little, knowing that we had a short day, and mostly downhill. It didn’t take us long to pack up, since we didn’t have to pack up the tent.
Before we knew it we were at Mount Sterling, at just under 6000ft. We’ve been here before- earlier this year in fact, and so making it there felt like the end of the thru-hike. We had effectively completed the trail at that point.
Last time we were on Mount Sterling, we didn’t make it all the way up the fire tower, because it’s really tall and scary! This time we were determined to make it up to the top. The stairs are steep, and I made sure not to look down as I made my way to the top. John was ahead of me, and as he made it to the top, he shouted down at me: “hey, there are some people down there!” I made the mistake of looking down, and my stomach lurched into my throat. Not doing that again, I told myself. At the top, we spent just a few moments looking out at the view before heading back down again. I was happy when my feet touched the ground.
From the top of Mount Sterling, we had cell phone service, and I decided to give our friend Libby a call to let her know that we’d get to the bottom faster than we had expected.
From there the trail goes down from almost 6000ft to 1700ft. I think that’s got to be one of the biggest climbs/descents on the east coast. We soon realized that we needed to walk a bit faster, and we huffed it down the mountain to meet Libby and her sweet dog Penny at the bottom.
The end of the trail was not marked as such, and I had to double check the map to make sure the footbridge across the river was indeed the end of the trail before we took our finish pictures. It was a fitting ending to the Benton MacKaye, since this trail is really to be used to join up to the Appalachian Trail, which we had originally planned on doing to get to Hot Springs (slightly closer to home), but we ran out of time, so we were happy finishing here.
We did drive to Standing Bear to pick up our last box on the way home- which we had mailed there in case we did go the extra 30 miles.
In the car, we rolled the windows down. It has been 11 days since we washed any of the clothes we are wearing, and 7 days since we took a shower. I think we’re due.