Finishing the PCT: Etna to Castella

I haven’t blogged in ages, but we’ve been busy guiding hikes in Asheville and I never blog about guided hikes (I’d hate to embarrass anyone).  We haven’t had many personal trips since this spring, so when we realized it had been 5 years since we hiked the PCT SOBO in 2014, we decided it was finally time to finish that hike.

We have had 100 miles left to hike since 2014 – a 100 mile section which was closed due to wildfires.  The last 100 miles left was the section from Etna to Castella in Northern California.

Before we started our hike, we met a trail angel and friend, Ken, who agreed to meet us at the terminus of this section, and drive us to the start.  He and his wife were also generous enough to let us stay the night in their house before the start of our hike.

Day 1: 18.7 miles

Despite being completely exhausted from two days of travel, we woke up fairly early due to jet lag.  Ken and Theresa made us a lovely breakfast of fresh fruit and and egg casserole before Ken gave us a ride to the trail head (with a stop along the way at a local bakery).

At 9:30AM we arrived at Etna Summit, the road crossing where I quit 5 years ago after trying to make up the last miles of our southbound PCT thru-hike.  The last time we were here it was November and I was in severe pain from hip dysplasia (which I didn’t even know I had at the time) and it was freezing cold.  As we arrived to the exact spot where I had finally decided that the last 100 miles would have to wait another year, memories came flooding back.  I remembered the pain.  I remembered the exhaustion.  Mostly, though, I remembered the pain.  I had spent the last few hours crying – trying to justify the pain for the miles…for the end-goal, and it just wasn’t worth it.  Sometimes quitting is almost as hard as continuing on.

And now here we were again, 5 years and 3 surgeries later giddy with enthusiasm.  As we stepped into the forest the dry cool air assaulted my sinuses.  The forest looked so foreign compared to the lush green forest of Western North Carolina, but it felt so familiar – like we were home again.

I was nervous about being in good enough shape to finish this section in the amount of time we had allotted -5 days- which would mean an average of 20 miles a day.  Could I still do 20 miles a day?  When was the last time I did a 20 mile day?  I racked my brain and remembered that I hiked/ran the 30 mile Art Loeb trail in a day back in June.  I was probably only carrying a 5 lb pack though and that was two months ago.  Now my pack was 26 lbs – pretty light for a fully loaded pack, and so I still had my doubts.

We started walking and pretty soon I felt comfortable with our itinerary.  The PCT is easy.  I almost forgot how easy.  The ground is mostly soft, there are not too many rocks and roots, and although we had a steady climb ahead of us, it was just that – steady.

I blew my nose into my hanky and immediately got a nosebleed.  I’ve had so many nose bleeds on the PCT, it barely came as a surprise.  The dry air, the dust, the altitude…

The views were tremendous.  Large coniferous trees dotted the mountains which were rocky and ragged.  We took tons of pictures.

We also passed burnt trees – a sign of the 2014 fire that closed this section when we were thru hiking.

As the miles wore on, my giddy enthusiasm was replaced my a meditative state followed by the reality of tired legs and sore shoulders.

During the day we saw much more wildlife than I had expected.  We walked straight past a doe and her fawn.  We also saw very fresh bear scat right in the middle of the trail.  We were just remarking on how fresh we thought it must be when the bear in question appeared in front of us, scurrying up a hillside.  And then, not 10 minutes later, another bear crashed through the underbrush away from us.

We had expected to see absolutely nobody.  This is not the place to be in September if you’re a thru-hiker – neither northbound nor southbound, and even those who skipped the snow or flip flopped up to Washington probably wouldn’t be here now.  So we were surprised to pass 3 northbound hikers – a lady and then a couple.  We traded notes with each of them.

It was cold all day.  I never took off my long sleeved shirt, and I often times wore my rain jacket and my gloves as well.

When we stopped for lunch, we realized that our container for making food in had cracked.  We don’t carry a pot or a stove or fuel because we find it’s easier just to eat cold food, but we do make food like oatmeal or instant mashed potatoes in a hard sided plastic container which somehow had cracked severely.  We would have to improvise to make some of our meals.  Ziplock bags go a long way.

The clouds were beautiful as the sun started to set.  Chipmunks scurried away from us, and adorable yellow flowers dotted the hillside in shades reminiscent of sunset.  I grew sleepy quite early – probably from all the travel and jetlag.  I was surprised when we found a suitable campsite and we had managed to hike almost 19 miles.  The 100 mile goal now seems quite feasible.

Just as we crawled into our tent, it started to drizzle.  Maybe the clouds will keep it slightly warmer tonight, since other hikers told us that last night it was well into the 20’s and they were cold.  I haven’t been cold in months.

Just as I finish this entry a southbound hiker named “Hang-time” arrived at our campsite.  It’s almost dark out and we didn’t exit the tent to say hello (it’s also drizzling), but we exchanged a few pleasantries through the tent wall.  Maybe we’ll meet him for real tomorrow.

Day 2: 24.8 miles

It was chilly overnight, but with all my clothes on, I was warm.  We got up at sunrise and packed up.  Our friend was still asleep as we left camp, and we wondered if or when we would see him again.  We took our time hiking the first few miles of the day – taking in the early morning fog which had caused quite a lot of condensation in our tent, but was beautiful in the valleys below.

By midday we heard someone behind us and it was “Hang-time”.  I stepped aside to let him pass, but we quickly started chatting.  He was a young man from Bend, OR who had hiked and traveled all over the west coast and was going to finish his hike on Mount Whitney, hopefully by early October.  We traded information about the Sierras and the PCT.  Because I had let him pass, I had to keep up with his fast thru-hiker pace in order to carry on the conversation.  It was great to have someone to talk to, but at the same time I was starting to feel a sharp pain in my shin.  We stopped for lunch and Hang-time stopped too.  I tried to stretch out my calf muscle and rub my shin, but I could tell this was going to keep hurting.  We soon got hiking again, and again I found myself trying to keep up with Hang-time.  Eventually we stopped at a stream to collect water, and I realized that I was headed towards full blown shin-splints.  I told him I needed to slow down and since he was planning a 30-mile day, he forged on ahead.

I took a long break by the stream, but when I got up to start hiking again, I could only limp along.  I was mad at myself for not listening to my body earlier.  We hiked the next few miles slowly taking as many breaks as I needed, and eventually came upon a road.  At the road there were one or two cars parked there and a van.  A man jumped out of the van and asked us if we were thirsty.  I told him thanks, but we had plenty of water.  He then asked if we wanted a soda, and of course I couldn’t turn down a sugary drink.

He pulled out a couple of camp chairs and proceeded to ask us if we wanted ice cream sandwiches, bananas, pears, cookies or beer.  Our jaws practically fell to the ground.  Trail Magic!?  We haven’t experienced trail magic in years!  We chowed down on an ice cream sandwich followed by a banana.  I didn’t know it, but this was just the break I needed from my terrible shin splints.

The trail angel’s trail name was Buff and he had hiked many sections of the PCT.  We traded stories and enjoyed the magic until we were both cold and realized that we probably ought to get going to find a place to camp.  We bid Buff farewell and thanked him again for his generosity and hiked up from the road.

The trail was so easy and my shin felt better and better until I couldn’t feel the shin splint any more.  I did however feel a sharp pain on the bottom of my foot and stopped to take my shoe off.  My left foot was suffering slightly from what I think is trench foot – but I’m not sure.  Basically the skin on the bottom of my foot was folding because of wetness and the fold was creating a crack.  I decided to change my sock for a dry one.  It wasn’t like my feet were super wet, but the dirt from the PCT kind of cakes inside your socks and shoes because there is so much of it, and then makes your feet stay somewhat damp, I think from sweat.  We only had a couple more miles until we found a great camp spot among some trees just as the sun was setting.

It’s much warmer tonight, and we’re looking forward to sleep.

Day 3: 24.2 miles

I woke up suddenly to the sound of John screaming.  He told me he thought he heard a mountain lion making a bunch of noise including hissing.  I asked him how he knew it wasn’t a bobcat, and he said he wasn’t sure, but I could tell he was a bit paranoid as he peered out of the tent.

Once it got light enough, we packed up and got hiking.  We spent a good number of hours in the morning staring at the dusty trail trying to figure out whose footprints were on top ahead of us.  I could see Hang-Time’s footsteps, but I could also see a gigantic pair of Altra footsteps and I couldn’t tell if they were on top of Hang-Time’s Chaco sandles or not.  I found a really good specimen of the Altra footprint and tried to mark bottom and top of the footprint to size it against John’s foot.  It was definitely at least a size or two bigger.

“I bet they’re size 15,” said John.

We kept walking and as we walked up to a lovely water source surrounded by pitcher plants, I noticed an older gentleman resting nearby.

“Hello!”  John said.  “Do you have really big feet?”

“Yes, size 15.”  He replied.

I laughed.  “Size 15 Altras! I knew it.  We’ve been following your footprints.”  I told him.

We traded notes, and he was headed southbound and was planning to hike about 25 miles, so we figured we’d probably be seeing him again.  His trailname was “NTN” (short for “No Trail Name”), and he was from Alaska.  He had done lots of hiking over the years.

We collected our water and carried on.  It was much hotter out than it had been previous days, and we were so grateful to have umbrellas.  There was very little shade, and the sun was relentless.

Finally, we reached a road where there were many cars parked by the trailhead.  We passed a huge group of hikers who were part of a guided REI hike as well as a few other hikers.

The scenery was getting more interesting, and soon we passed a lake and got amazing views of Mount Shasta.

My legs were starting to hurt quite a lot as the miles wore on.  It was still quite early in the day when we were close to the 20-mile mark, but around that time I thought that my legs may not want to take me much further.  Of course a place to camp does not magically materialize whenever you want to call it quits for the day, and as I studied the map I realized that we were in a long stretch where there was not going to be much in the way of flat ground.  I grit my teeth and continued on.

We passed another northbounder and I asked him if there was any good camping up ahead, and he said we should definitely camp at Porcupine Lake.  He looked at his watch and said “it’s about an hour away.”

As he walked away I turned to John and made an angry face.  “He’s lying to us!  Porcupine Lake is at least 5 miles from here.  Jerk!”

I went from angry to determined and from determined to demoralized and from demoralized to severely in pain.  My legs hurt and my feet hurt even more.  I leaned heavily on my trekking poles and tried to admire the gorgeous views of Mt Shasta.

Eventually, less than a mile from Porcupine Lake, a small flat area emerged downhill from the trail, and we found a suitable place to pitch our tent.

I was so glad to take my shoes off and admire the rising moon.  We had such a peaceful view.  A half hour or so later, I heard the sound of footsteps and trekking poles approaching, and realized that NTN had made it this far too.  He was also weary and looking for a place to camp, so we invited him to tent nearby since there was just enough flat ground.

Day 4: 17.8 miles

As usual in the morning we woke up before sunrise.  Looking out of the tent door we could tell we were in an amazing spot to watch the sun rise, so we secured the door open and spent a lazy half hour or so watching the sky change color.  When eventually the first rays of sun hit our tent, we decided it was time to pack up.  Our friend NTN also got a slow start as we all decided we’d probably take a slightly shorter day.

We hiked up to Porcupine Lake, which wasn’t far from where we camped, and admired the reflection of the mountains in the water.

The trail then reached a series of road crossings, and at the first one John joked about wanting more trail magic.  NTN who caught up to us while we were snacking told us he hadn’t experience much trail magic so far this hike.  We had just told him about Buff and the trail magic we got the other day when we got to another road crossing and saw Buff’s van parked.  We ran up to it full of excitement.   On the menu was fried egg sandwiches, quesadillas, soda, beer and popsicles.   We sat down and basically had one of everything.  As we sat there savoring the magic, several other southbound hikers showed up.  We got talking with a couple named Beardo and Sweatpea who had hiked all over the place and had loads of stories from other trails.  A group of three guys also rolled up and we all hung out for way too long.  We were probably there for three hours before we finally made a move.

We managed to miss hiking during a good part of the heat of the day, but it was still very hot, and very exposed.  I was glad to have my umbrella, but I could feel the sun still roasting my legs.  I put some sunscreen on.   We had great views of Mt Shasta.

John wasn’t feeling great and kept needing to sit in the shade.  His stomach was cramping up and eventually he also started feeling nauseous.  After pepto didn’t help, I suggested he drink some water with electrolytes, and that seemed to help slightly.  Finally though, he ran off trail and dug a hole, and it turned out that that’s what was really needed.  He probably was constipated from being dehydrated.

Eventually we hiked over a hill and were surprised to see the Castle Craggs right there in front of us.   I kept taking pictures as they got closer and closer.  The trail became a bit overgrown with bushes, but it was only a minor inconvenience.  We were glad when the sun got lower in the sky so we occasionally got some shade.

Eventually, we came across the campsite that we planned on staying at, and the group of three other southbound hikers were also camped there.  Luckily there was plenty of space for all of us, and we chatted briefly over dinner.  Just as we were falling asleep, a bunch of other hikers showed up, made a racket and blinded us with their headlamps.  Once they were finally settled in, everyone fell asleep.

Day 5:  roughly 13 miles.

Our last day on the PCT was beautiful.  We had a ton of downhill to do, and I wanted to get the miles over with fast before it got too hot.  My legs went fast, and we managed to walk about 3 miles per hour until we caught up with NTN.  I was happy when the exposed trail finally led us into the forest.

We figured we would probably be giving NTN a ride into Shasta since we knew he was looking for one, so we slowed down a bit for the last few miles of our hike.

Soon we entered Castle Crags State Park, and the trails got better and somehow even easier, if that’s possible.  Just a mile or two from the very end of our hike, there was a detour – due to timber thinning.  We followed the well marked signs, and this slight detour probably added a mile or so, but I was happy that someone had a well planned detour for PCT hikers.

Once we were back on the PCT, we came across a register left on the trail right near the road.  I was surprised to see it there, and there was a small amount of what looked like bear poop on it, but I signed out nonetheless “Dormouse and Dirt Stew – DONE!”

We got into our car, which was cleverly parked at the end of our hike, and drove NTN down the road 15 minutes or so to the town of Shasta where NTN was kind enough to treat us to lunch.  A warm meal was just what we wanted in order to celebrate the end of a journey which took us 5 years to complete!

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Top 10 Most Challenging Hikes in America

In today’s world of Instagram fame and drone photoshoots, epic pictures and videos show up every single day from the tops of ragged mountains nationwide luring us to accept the challenge and venture outside for a hike.  A truly epic hike is full of challenges and obstacles and a dedicated hiker must persevere to complete it.

So, you may ask, what are the most challenging, the most epic hikes in America today?

Here’s our top 10 list of most challenging hikes:

 

1. Record Breaking Hike.

Go to https://fastestknowntime.com/ and search for a trail near you and find out what the fastest known time on that trail currently is, and go out and try to break it.  For example, the beautiful 115 mile Bartram Trail in North Carolina has been completed in 1 day, 7 hours, and 55 minutes.  Can you beat that?

 

2. Longest Loop Hike.

Take out a map of the largest park or public land near you, and map out the longest loop in the park and try to complete it in one shot.  For example, in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, I bet you could easily map out a loop that would be well over 100 miles long.

 

3. Connector Hike.

Find two parks that are not connected by any trail, and walk between them.  For example, Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park (also know as just Big Sur) is nowhere near Kings Canyon National Park in California, so I bet it would be pretty challenging to walk on highways for nearly 200 miles to connect them.

 

4. Hurricane Hike.

The higher the category, the bigger the challenge.  Wait until there’s a massive hurricane about to hit your favorite park, and battle it out against nature to see who wins.  I’m sure you’ll have epic stories to share if you make it home.  If you’re not in the hurricane-prone Southeast, then another national-emergency type weather event will work as a substitute.  Tornadoes, 120 degree heat waves, or winter blizzards with massive amounts of snow are all acceptable.

 

5. Never Ending Shortest Loop Hike.

Find the shortest loop in your local park and do it over and over again until you physically cannot do it anymore.  The epitome of this sort of challenge is the Big Backyard Ultra in TN (see: https://ultrasignup.com/register.aspx?did=53391) where runners complete a 4 mile loop once an hour until there is only one runner left.  Last year the winner ran 283 miles.

 

6. 72 hour Challenge.

Just try hiking for 72 hours straight without sleep.  I bet that would be hard.

 

7. Starvation Hike.

Bring no food.  For this challenge to be really effective, it should probably be done on a long hike or better yet, a backpacking trip so you can really feel what it’s like to be starving.  Obviously there’s no challenge in going out on a 3 mile hike with no food.  Even better, combine this challenge with any of the above challenges for a really epic hike.

 

8. Mother Nature Calls.

Start your hike before going to the bathroom, and hold it until you’re done with the hike.  Best if you have to go #2 as well as #1.

 

9. Minimalist Hike.

Pick a hike, and do it with nothing.  I don’t mean without “gear”, I mean without anything.  Don’t bring shoes, don’t bring clothes, and certainly don’t bring your glasses.  If it’s not an epic hike for you, it probably will be for someone else.

 

10. Princess Hike.

Pick your least out-doorsy, most annoying friend or acquaintance and invite them on a grueling preferably multi-day hike and listen to them complain the whole time.  Make sure you don’t have anything with you to make the situation better, especially a first aid kit, extra layers, or alcohol.

 

Note: The author of this blog has not completed most (if any) of the above most challenging hikes.

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Foothills Trail: to Table Rock

Foothills Trail

Day 9: 12.6 miles

After we slept in and finished our town chores, we easily got a ride back to the trail with someone who either worked at or owned a golf course we passed. He originally was only going to take us part of the way to the trailhead, but once he realized how nice we were, he decided to drive us all the way there. That’s just how nice people are.

It was warm out, and there were these annoying little flies that kept on landing all over us. I tried to keep my mouth closed, but they found my eyes just as intriguing.

The trail took us just down the road from Whitewater Falls, an amazing waterfall that John has never seen before. I had the pleasure of seeing it with my mother a year and a half ago. This is definitely one of the best waterfalls I’ve seen.

At the viewing platform we noticed that there was a Carolina Hemlock growing next to an Eastern Hemlock. You don’t see Carolina Hemlocks very often, but it was unmistakable.

The Foothills Trail continued past the end of the staircase down to the falls, and we scurried down a long set of stairs that led us to a bridge crossing the river.

The trail climbed up and down, and I soon noticed that the air was becoming thick with smoke. Luckily, we knew what it was. John had looked up the map for Table Rock, and found information about a controlled burn at Table Rock, which was supposed to be happening today. It was making the air thick, and it was even obscuring the sun. I hate walking through smoke (something we did quite a bit of on the PCT), because I know how bad it is for your lungs.

Then, along the trail I spotted our first dwarf crested iris (I’m told these days they prefer to be called small crested iris). Such an amazingly colorful wildflower: mostly purple with a hint of yellow. Spring is finally here.

Besides the wildflowers, the temperature definitely feels like spring. I was too warm in a tank top and shorts as we climbed uphill past another river with a big bridge, the Thompson River.

Soon, though, we found a nice quiet place to pitch our tent by a babbling brook, and the temperature dropped, as did the smell of smoke.

Day 10: 19 miles

It was super warm last night. We wound up opening both of the doors to the tent, and in the middle of the night, I pulled my socks off because my feet felt like they were on fire. It’s strange to think that just a week ago we were waking up to ice on our tent.

Sometime mid morning I saw a cluster of white flowers out of the corner of my eye and stopped. I had just found the entire reason why we were on this trail right now (in late March). Oconee bells!! We were told by our friend Judy that she saw them here this time of year, and it was totally worth timing a hike based on it. Just to clarify: these aren’t flowers that you’ll just happen upon by accident. They’re very rare, and they’re ephemeral, so they’re only out for a couple of weeks each year. We were nervous that we somehow hadn’t timed our trip quite right.

We sat down and started taking pictures.

Steps later there were more. And more. In fact, for the next dozen miles we were surrounded by hillsides of Oconee bells. They lined the trail around each stream that we crossed. We took loads of pictures.

Besides Oconee bells, we were other wildflowers as well including foamflower, violets, dwarf crested irises, and wild ginger.

“I can’t believe we haven’t seen anyone all day.” I remarked.

“Well, it’s a Monday, and I’m pretty sure we’re in the middle of nowhere.” John replied.

We crossed over the Toxaway River on an impressive suspension bridge. We ascended a hill and got views of Lake Jocassee, which we’ve been walking around.

In the middle of the afternoon it started to rain. This is the first day of rain that we have gotten our entire trip. I can’t believe how lucky we’ve been given that this last year has been the wettest of recent history.

It was warm enough that a rain coat wasn’t necessary, but we pulled out our umbrellas.

As if on queue, we were reminded off why we enjoyed hiking in the rain when a red salamander appeared in the middle of the trail.

Moments later, a newt appeared. They’re so cute.

The trail was mostly easy going – often wide logging roads. Before we knew it we had almost hiked 20 miles, and we decided to end early so that we’d have some hiking left to do tomorrow before the last campsite of the Foothills Trail. We determined that we’ll finish the day after tomorrow by climbing Table Rock. Somehow the trail doesn’t go to the top of Table Rock, but it seems dumb to come all this way and not climb it. More bonus miles!

The rain subsided just as we started setting up camp. I was glad to put on some dry clothes and crawl into the tent.

Day 11: 17 miles

We knew we didn’t have too many miles to do today, so we attempted to sleep in. The attempt was laughable.

Everything was still wet from yesterday’s rain, but the sun was shinning, and droplets on branches and leaves glittered, We were in the middle of the section of trail that crosses back and forth over Laurel Creek, and for a while it felt like we were in a jungle. The rhododendrons looked so green in the morning sun, and we were constantly by gushing water.

I was admiring our surroundings when I went sliding of the edge of a small bridge made of wood right into the stream.

“Oh my god, are you OK!?” John called down to me as I scrambled to get out of the water.

I was surprisingly ok. I had banged up a knee, but otherwise I was just a little shaken up. It had been a small bridge, just three wooden beams nailed together, and slippery as all hell from being wet.

I put a bandaid on my bleeding knee and carried on.

The trail has been very nice about providing bridges for each water crossing. We came across one bridge, however, that had gotten completely destroyed by a downed tree. We scrambled over the ruins.

The trail has also been almost annoyingly good at providing little wooden steps each time the trail was remotely steep. At first I thought I liked them, but now that I had fallen because of slippery wood, I was much less keen. In some places these wooden steps are totally unnecessary anyways.

We ran into another hiker, and after we leap frogged a couple of times, we started hiking with him. His name was Will and he was a veterinarian from Jackson City. He had cleverly parked his truck half way along the Foothills Trail so he could do an out and back of each half and resupply in the middle using his own vehicle.

We got to Sassafras Mountain, the tallest mountain in South Carolina, but they had closed the top to repair or replace the observation tower. We put our tootsies on every rock that looked like it could be the natural top of the mountain. We wouldn’t have been able to see anything from the top of the observation tower anyway since we were fogged in.

After we had hiked a few more miles, we realized we had lost track of where we were on the map. The landmarks on our guide seemed very nondescript “boulder field” “creek, wooden stairs”, “good campsite.” We passed many creeks, loads of sets of wooden stairs, and many campsites some of which were better than others. We had no idea where we were.

We decided we’d just keep hiking until we got to the most obvious landmark – the trail junction to Pinnacle Trail. Luckily for us, when we did finally arrive at this unmistakable landmark, there was camping. We’re right where we want to be for tomorrow’s short hike to the top of Table Rock.

Day 12: Maybe 10 miles?

It was cold over night, and when we got packed up, we realized it was windy out too. We bundled up and started climbing Pinnacle Mountain. We were no longer on the official Foothills Trail.

As I mentioned before, we had figured out that the Foothills Trail ended at the Table Rock parking lot and not at the top of Table Rock (in other words, the trail did not climb Table Rock), so we figured we’d add a few bonus miles and climb the thing while we were in the neighborhood.

The easiest way, seemingly, was to take the trail that went up to Pinnacle Mountain first, and then carry on to Table Rock Trail.

It warmed up quickly, and soon we were on our way up Table Rock. It was a steep trail with lots of rocks, and obviously well used.

Once we got close to the summit, there were views of the surrounding landscape which seemed so flat in comparison to where we had come from. Down below we could see a lake and some little hills, and that was about it.

We were definitely the first people to reach the top of Table Rock that day, as there was nobody else around. As we descended, however, we started seeing other hikers making their way up from the parking lot.

As we got close to the parking lot, there were some nice waterfalls along the trail.

We reached the Nature Center, which was closed, and then the parking lot, which was practically deserted. There were a few cars there, but nobody came or left as we stopped to use the restrooms.

We decided we probably would need to walk to a bigger road. We found a bus driver sitting at a picnic bench reading a book, and we asked him the way out. He pointed down a road and told us it was about a mile to the intersection.

We headed that way, and nobody passed us going in the direction we were. We got to the intersection, but still no traffic. We kept walking. We walked all the way to Route 11 before we decided it was worth trying to hitchhike.

After some time, a pickup truck stopped and picked us up. it was a nice couple who were into hiking. We shared stories of local and far off trails, and they kindly drove us all the way to Route 25 so that we could get a direct ride to Asheville from there. That was super helpful.

I thought it was going to be tricky to get a ride on 25 with traffic going by so fast, but it didn’t take too long for a car to pull over and offer us a ride all the way to Asheville. I couldn’t believe our luck. We were about an hour away still, so we got talking to our new friend who was a parole officer for sex offenders. Interesting job.

As we got to Asheville, he told us that he was going to head to 12 Bones (our favorite bbq place), and we told him we’d love to go there too. After we were completely full of ribs and cornbread, he kindly dropped us off just down the road from our house. It was perfect.

We walked down our street and up to our house. Once inside, it was like we had never left. We turned the heat on, took a shower, made a pile of laundry and made a shopping list. It was weird to be back, yet not weird at all. We just finished 220 miles in 11 and a half days and all we had to show for it were some scrapes and bruises and a pile of dirty laundry. I think tomorrow we’ll go to the climbing gym.

Bartram Trail to the Foothills Trail: Franklin to Cashiers

Bartram Trail

Day 4: 18.9 miles

We slept in and gorged ourselves on the hotel breakfast before loading up and heading out the door for the second and longer part of the Franklin Road Walk. We had about 10 miles of road walking to do, and our packs were feeling very heavy with 5 days worth of food weighing us down.

The road walk was much more delightful than I ever could have anticipated. Although it was practically not at all marked, we were able to follow along using the NatGeo map we had. We walked along quiet country roads with cute homes with large freshly mowed yards with daffodils blooming in the gardens and small creeks babbling nearby.

Cardinals and blue birds fluttered by and dogs barked as we passed each house. We passed pastures with little donkeys and Shetland ponies and the occasional goat or cow. These bored animals stared at us as we walked past.

The views of nearby mountains provided the perfect backdrop. The occasional pick up truck or car would pass by and wave at us. We never felt like we were about to get run over.

Of course road walking sucks to some degree. Our feet started to get tired, and we took many breaks to eat some of the food we were carrying to try to reduce our load. At one point we stopped at a church which had an inviting picnic area with a nearby water spigot.

When we finally reached the end of the road walk, we got to a trailhead with a map that suggested that there had been a reroute of the Bartram Trail, which would have cut off a small amount of the road walk. It wasn’t on our map, and we hadn’t noticed any sign of a trail leading off from the road we had just walked on, so we figured we would just take the old Bartram, which still existed, but was now marked with blue markers. We still saw some of the old yellow Bartram markers occasionally too.

At some point we passed a day hiker. This is notable because this is only the second time we’ve passed any other hikers on the Bartram (not counting the sections where it intersected the AT).

The trail seemed very abandoned, and unused but surprisingly easy compared to the previous section. We did stumble upon a few confusing spots where the trail seemed to intersect another trail and then carry on in both directions, but we figured out that one of them was the new rerouted Bartram Trail, and the other time there must have been someone who was confused about where to add trail markers. Or something like that.

Eventually, however, the trail reached the ridge, and we got sweeping views of the surrounding mountains. A Barred Owl swooped overhead as we hiked over the ridge line.

Something that one often forgets about hiking during this time of year is just how much exposure to sunlight you get. None of the trees have leaves on them, so there is basically no shade. This also means we have views practically all the time.

We passed by an abandoned school bus. I have no idea how this school bus could possibly have gotten to this ridge, with no visible road nearby, and no reason for it to be here.

At some point the trail entered a slightly more wet area, and we hiked through rhododendron bushes, which were recently cut back by a trail crew. We were astonished by the amount of work this trail crew put in. It was absolutely delightful to hike this section of trail.

We got to a junction where we could take a side trail to reach the top of Fishhawk Mountain. We decided to take it. It was a steep, narrow climb to the top where we were rewarded with a plaque in memory of William Bartram.

We scrambled back down, and the trail continued to impress us with informative plaques about the native flora. I couldn’t believe how well this section of trail was looked after. I took pictures of each plaque so I could read about the plants later, when I wasn’t busy chasing daylight to a campsite.

The sunset was beautiful, and because this trail is so underused, we decided to camp right in the middle of the trail. Honestly, it’s probably the best way for us not to have a negative impact as there aren’t many other durable surfaces for us to camp on.

Day 5: 20 miles

We woke up somewhat early, and packed up.

We had one more mountain to climb before entering Georgia. Scaly Mountain offered beautiful views and we stopped for a snack.

As we climbed down Scaly mountain, we were in awe of the trail maintenance that had obviously just happened. It was incredible how many downed trees, and rhododendron bushes they had cut back. I thanked the folks and the hard work that went into clearing this trail out loud several times although nobody was there to hear me.

We passed a beautiful waterfall not far off the trail covered in icicles.

We encountered a couple of disoriented day hikers as we approached a road. They told us they were hiking a loop, but we couldn’t figure out what loop they were talking about. Sadly, it became clear once we crossed the road. There were several trail intersections, and one of them was even called loop trail. Those poor folks had started their hike on the wrong side of the road.

We continued to marvel at the trail maintenance as we descended into Georgia. There was no signage to tell us we had just crossed into another state, but our map provided the information.

We walked past many creek and streams gushing water with cute little bridges leading us across. The rhododendrons were thick, and I was thankful for the coolness of this ecosystem as we entered the heat of the day.

We climbed Rabun Bald, a slow steady climb, with an amazing stone observation tower on top with sweeping views in all directions.

Finally the trail maintenance ended, and we were left scrambling over blow downs and through thick rhododendrons. This made me appreciate the work that went into the previous sections all the more.

Our feet grew tired, and the day wore on, and eventually we called it quits at Wilson Gap where there was an established campsite. Since we finished early for the day, we spent some time going through our provisions and noted that we probably had enough food for at least 3 more full days, possibly 4. It’s amazing how much food we carried out of Franklin! It’s nice to think our packs will only get lighter as we approach the Foothills Trail!

Day 6: 21 miles

The moon is so bright at night, it’s really hard to sleep sometimes. I wake up thinking it’s daylight.

Eventually I woke up to the sound of vireos and pileated woodpeckers signaling that it was in fact daylight.

We hit the trail only to find it covered in fallen over rhododendron bushes and other branches and trees. It was like someone played a game pickup sticks with the nearby vegetation. The trail looked easy under all that mess, but we were left to scramble up and over and under and around all these fallen bushes and trees.

Eventually, though, the ecosystem changed, and we entered a much dryer area with fewer blow downs.

At each gap, someone had carved “Bartram Trail”, and occasionally the name of the gap on a large rock.

We descended into the beginnings of spring. We probably timed this hike a bit too early because we had wanted to see wildflowers and other spring plants, but so far they’ve been few and far between.

But hiking down to lower elevations brought some wildflowers to life. We saw blood root, rue anemone, violets all over the place, and sharp lobed hepactica. It was amazing how locally abundant some of these flowers were. It slowed us down as we stopped to examine the flowers and take pictures. We were also treated with several waterfalls, one right on the trail, and another not far off trail.

The trail was easy. I mean REALLY easy. It gently rolled up and down over small hills.

When we got close to and crossed a road, there were a surprising number of day hikers out and about.

Eventually we hit the mighty Chattooga River and followed it a ways until we found a lovely place to camp.

Day 7: 21 miles

We were camped only 6.3 miles from the end of the Bartram Trail, and they were easy going miles along the river.

We hit the road, where the Bartram ends and looked around for a sign. We found one of the rock carved signs sitting next to the parking lot, and took a celebratory picture marking the end of the Bartram Trail.

The beauty of this trip, though, is that there is a short connector trail leading to the Foothills Trail. So the end of one long trail meant the beginning of the next.

We crossed the Chattooga River on the road, and found a trailhead on the other side. We had 3.7 miles on this connector trail. Our pace came to a screeching halt when we found ourselves surrounded by wildflowers. Toadshade (a type of trillium) and rue anemones we’re everywhere. We also found sharp lobed hepatica. These wildflowers were abundant, and it was hard to put our cameras away.

Eventually, however, we hit the Foothills Trail. Unfortunately, this connector trail intersects the Foothills Trail 8.5 miles from the southern terminus, so we had to walk south toward Oconee State Park knowing that we would have to double back and walk those 8.5 miles again.

The Foothills Trail was busy. We passed several folks day hiking and backpacking.

The last few miles before we got to the state park dragged on. My feet were sore and I was tired from the sun beating down on us.

We had thought that we would see oconee bells somewhere near Oconee State Park, but we were wrong about this. In fact the trail goes nowhere interesting in this park, it simply terminates at a parking lot with a few signs about the area.

We sat down in the parking lot, ate a snack and then walked back the way we came.

Somehow the miles went by faster on the return. It was evening, and the sun was setting and the break did me and my feet some good.

A few miles later we found a spot to camp.

We spent some time trying to figure out how and where we are going to resupply. We’re thinking either Cashiers tomorrow if we’re making miles fast, or Sapphire the next day if we don’t think we can make it into Cashiers at a reasonable time tomorrow. It’s about 21 miles from here. I guess we’re in a 20 miles per day kind of pace. I can’t believe how quickly this trip is going by.

Currently we’re sitting in the tent listening to someone shooting a gun over and over again not too far away. Glad we’re not closer to the road that I’m sure they’re on.

Day 8: 21 miles

We set our alarm for 6:30AM to get an early start in the hopes of making it to Cashiers today.

We started hiking by 7, before sunrise and had the pleasure of seeing dawn break.

We didn’t see much of anyone until we hit the Chattooga River mid-morning, and then suddenly everyone and their uncles were out on this beautiful Saturday. There were day hikers, backpackers, people fishing, people out with their kids, groups of people, you name it.

The trail was slightly trickier along the bank of the river, but we were often rewarded with waterfalls.

The miles went by quickly, and eventually we left the river and headed uphill, passed a couple of trail maintainers along the way. We thanked them profusely for the work that they were doing, and hiked another 5 miles or so to the road crossing to Cashiers. I was impressed that we were able to cover 21 miles before 5pm.

We were able to hitchhike with a young couple who had just done a bike road race, and they dropped us off at the Ingles in Cashiers. We then had to either walk a mile on a scary road or hitchhike again just a mile down the road to the hotel I had scoped out. I was surprised when we quickly got a ride.

We checked into the Laurelwood Inn, and they were running a promotion for the month of March giving guests a $25 gift card to the brewery next door along with a night at the Inn for less than I had anticipated spending just on the hotel. We happily accepted the offer and showered before walking over to the brewery for burgers and a beer.

We slept really well with blackout curtains keeping the moon and sunlight out.

Bartram Trail: Cheoah Bald to Franklin, TN

Bartram Trail

Day 1: 19 miles

We woke up to our alarm, and got out of our warm comfy bed for the last time in a while.

At 8:30AM, Jen came to our house to pick us up. Her kids are used to being strapped into the back seat of her car. An hour and a half later, we were at the NOC, and our trail friend Rob (trail name Donner) met us there with another thru-hiker (AT class of 2018),Russell (trail name Savage). The two of them are doing a ~60 mile loop with the Bartram and the Appalachian Trail, and they had just done a 20 mile day the day before to reach us.

We started the long ascent on the Appalachian Trail up to Cheoah Bald, a 3000ft ascent. Having only gotten going at 10:45AM, and knowing that we had almost a 20 mile day to do, I tried to set a decent pace. The climb, however, was relentless.

The Bartram Trail officially starts at the top of Cheoah Bald, so you have the choice of either an out-and-back on the Bartram, or starting on the Appalachian Trail (a slightly more gradual ascent). John felt hot spots on his ankles and stopped to tape them up. We took brand new shoes for this trip – something we never recommend that anyone does.

At the top of Cheoah Bald we had a terrific view, and stopped to eat a late lunch. Given that it was already 2pm and we had done less than 5 miles, I started to question our goal. But, since daylight savings was a week ago, we knew we had quite a bit of sunlight.

The Bartram diverged unceremoniously from the AT a few steps later.

It was like exiting a highway onto a dirt road. The trail was soft and covered in leaves whereas the AT was bare and hard, having seen thousands more hikers in recent months. We descended from the top of Cheoah Bald along a beautiful stream with many impressive waterfalls.

We reached a stream crossing, and Donner painstakingly took off his shoes and socks in order to do the crossing barefoot. John and I simply plowed through with our quick drying Astrals (basically water shoes). Before long there was another stream crossing… and then another. Donner and Savage tried over and over to keep their feet dry while performing impressive rock jumps and log balances.

We reached a road, and after a nice flat section on a paved bike trail, we got to a parking lot and quickly got disoriented trying to follow the blazes. Finally, a fisherman showed us the way, and we headed up our second large climb of the day. My shoulder and right hip started bothering me. Same old problems, different trail. I kept my head down and kept plowing forward.

As we reached the golden hour (the hour before sunset), we started descending amongst rhododendron thickets. Soon darkness started to fall, but as we got to a landmark, we figured out we had only a mile left to complete our 19 mile day. I was impressed.

I soon pulled out my headlamp. I’m always the first to put out a light because my night vision is not good. The four of us completed the last part of the last mile with the help of my headlamp. We got to a nice camping spot along a stream and set up camp and ate dinner. It got cold fast, and my fingers were numb despite my hands being in gloves. I didn’t take long to jump in the tent and crawl into my two (yes, we each brought two) sleeping bags.

John took off his shoes, and to his horror his socks were covered in blood. He had massive blisters on the back of his ankles and they had popped. This is the first time John has ever gotten blisters, and we guess it is because they redesigned the heel cup on the shoes he’s wearing. He put some Neosporin on his ankles and put them in some dry socks for the night. Hopefully we’ll stay warm.

Day 2: roughly 20 miles

I think I must have snored last night because I vaguely remember waking myself up snoring. That’s a first. I must be getting old. John tended to his feet and we packed up and got going.

We walked along the Nantahala River for miles. The trail was easy, but sometimes hard to follow, and the river was high, so when the trial got close to the river, it was sometimes washed out.

We eventually got to a paved road, and after crossing it, we started walking on a gravel road, diligently following the blazes. We walked fast, hoping to get to a promised gas station and restaurant before they closed for the day. Eventually, however, the trail dead ended at a concrete road completely submerged by the Nantahala River. It looked pretty daunting, but upon further inspection, we saw blazes on the other side of the river. We stood there dumbfounded for a while, checking our maps and wondering why on earth there wasn’t any warning about this.

We decided the best option was to attempt to ford the river. We prepared and linked arms. We got maybe 10 or 15 ft into the river before my feet started slipping under me. I was the lightest so I figured it was up to me to make the call to turn back. We got back to the bank and spent some more time staring at the map trying to figure out what to do, It turns out tat the Bartram Trail on the Nat Geo map is incorrect compared to the way it is blazed and also compared to the trail notes we were following. But we could walk 2 miles back to the road crossing and walk on pavement around this section. So, that’s what we did.

When we got to the road, I was worried about the amount of extra time and miles we were adding to Donner and Savage’s hike. They already had planed a 20 mile day followed by a 4 hour drive back home before work the next day. A 24 mile day sounded painful. As we walked the road, I stuck out my thumb.

Time passed, but eventually a pick up truck pulled over and drove us to the gas station. That probably saved us a mile or two, and a bunch of crappy uphill road walking. We were happy. Sadly, however, the gas station was closed. It was a good thing we weren’t counting on it, but it would have been nice to stop in for some more snacks.

We carried on, and followed the trail back into the woods straight uphill towards Wayah Bald. The trail was steep and we were all a bit tired at this point. My neck/shoulder problem was bothering me, as usual, and I tried to focus on one foot in front of the other, but I eventually stopped and took some Advil.

Before we got to the top of Wayah bald, we intersected with the Appalachian Trail, and this is the spot at which we had to bid Donner and Savage farewell. They would hike another 2 miles downhill to their car, and we would continue on. It was so nice to have other hikers join us for a stretch of trail, it was sad to see them go. But, as a parting gift, Donner gave us a few of his extra snacks. I downed two to three granola bars on the spot.

After they left, we continued uphill to Wayah Bald. There is an observation tower on top, and the views were phenomenal.

The cold wind drove us off quickly though, and we scurried down to start looking for a campsite. The Bartram soon diverged from the Appalachian Trail, and we carried on. Soon we found some flat ground to call home for the night. We’re above 5000 ft here, and I know it’s supposed to drop below freezing down in Asheville and Franklin so we’re in for another cold night. I’m so glad I have two sleeping bags!! I have no shame.

Day 3: 14-ish miles

We were warm last night, perhaps even warmer than the night before. It’s all about campsite selection. We picked the perfect spot – not in a valley, not near a stream, and somewhat protected by bushes.

We started what I had imagined to be a 10 mile mostly downhill section towards Franklin. I guess mostly downhill isn’t completely inaccurate as we did wind up at a lower elevation than when we started. For those of you veteran AT hikers reading this blog… do you remember the section of the AT they called “the roller coaster” in Virginia where the trail went up and down about 13 times? Well, that’s what this was like. We went up and down so many “PUD’s” (pointless up and downs), that I actually started to get annoyed.

I mean, I’m a hiker, I don’t generally mind going up and down a bunch, but I think what got to me was that trail was often times slightly steeper than was actually comfortable (like you had to climb on your toes, and descend slowly and carefully). Admittedly, my mind was also fixated on the all-you-can-eat Asian buffet that I knew awaited us in Franklin. My mouth watered.

At least I still had some Doritos left in my pack to polish off. I sat down and rummaged through my pack.

“Where are the Doritos?” I asked John

“What Doritos?” He replied

“MY Doritos!!” I barked

“I thought we were sharing” He said sheepishly.

“There were TWO bags!”

“They’re all gone…”

John looked at me with big puppy eyes.

“What do you mean they’re all gone?! You unceremoniously polished off two bags of Doritos without offering me any!?!”

I sighed. The Asian Buffet lingered in my mind for a minute as I swallowed a few spoonfuls of peanut butter can carried on.

As we descended, the first wildflowers started to appear: blood root, a beautiful while flower. And another strange green plant we didn’t know (if you know it, please tell us!)

We reached a road, and started the long road walk through Franklin. Road walks are boring, but I don’t mind them as much as I used to. I guess New Zealand changed me. As long as I don’t have to walk down a busy highway with no shoulder, I’m happy. Not that I want to be walking on a road. I’d happily skip it. But I understand that sometimes in order to connect two bits of trail, a road is sometimes the only way.

Before we knew it we were at Walmart resupplying. We bought five days worth of food and then dragged our heavy backpacks into the Asian Buffet and gorged ourselves.

We’re now spending the night at the Microtel. The lady here made us sign a piece of paper specially for hikers noting that if we got anything dirty, they’d charge us for it. They also handed us some non-perfect towels so that we wouldn’t get their perfectly white towels dirty. I wish all hotels gave towels like that to hikers. I was happy that they knew how to treat hikers, so I went back to the front desk and asked if they also had non-perfect sheets because John has bloody blisters on his heels and we didn’t want to get blood on their sheets. They told us no, but if we got blood on their sheets, they would charge us for it. I went back to my room with a somewhat sour taste in my mouth. I kind of wish they just put on their website that they don’t really want hikers staying at their hotel. I would have gone somewhere else.