Georgia Loop (BMT/Duncan Ridge/AT)

Georgia Loop

I’ve failed miserably to write this post for several weeks now, but I did want to get it into a blog since I think it’s helpful to compare this loop to the Bartram/Appalachian Trail loop, which is almost the same distance (55-60miles). 

Although I thought both loops were fun, I do prefer the Bartram/AT loop because I feel like it has more points of interest (Cheoah Bald, Wayah Bald, Wesser Bald, and the Nanthalala River), as well as the possibility to have a burger in the middle (which I can’t actually vouch for since I’ve never made it there while they’ve actually been open). 

The Georgia Loop, however, connects the Appalachian Trail, the Benton MacKaye Trail and the Duncan Ridge Trail, and is also roughly 55-60 miles long, but rather than have several large climbs, it has many more smaller climbs, and fewer points of interest (I would say that Long Creek Falls, Toccoa Bridge, and some of the small views near Woody Gap are probably the only highlights). This loop may be slightly easier to follow from a navigational point of view, but that’s debatable.

In any case, we started this hike on October 30th, and here is our experience:

Day 1:  12 miles

John was scrambling to finish some last minute work before the hike, so we got a somewhat late start.  The drive from Asheville was about 2.5 hours, and we parked on Highway 60 to start where the BMT crosses the road.  There was room for maybe 5 cars on the side of the road.  We could also have started further down the road at Woody Gap on the Appalachian Trail section of the loop.

The air was crisp, in the 50’s and very windy.  But the sun was out, and because of the recent hurricane, most of the leaves were off the trees.  Each time the wind stopped for a moment, I felt the sun penetrating through my clothing and I started to sweat.  But a few moments later, I would find myself on the shady side of the mountain, with 30+mph winds, and all the warmth left my body.  It was difficult to figure out what I should be wearing, so I settled on keeping my hat and gloves in a side pocket where I could grab them every few minutes.

Many trees had been knocked over by the recent storm, and we scrambled over and around them as we followed the Benton MacKaye Trail to where it intersected with the Dunkan Ridge Trail just 5 miles in.

We knew that the Duncan Ridge Trail would be challenging. We had a map which showed the profile of the trail, and the ups and downs looked practically vertical. I also knew that there is an infamous trail race here, which is considered one of the toughest 50K races in the Southeast. A friend of ours had done it several years in a row, and had managed to injure herself each time. So, I braced myself for some tough climbs, and treacherous descents.

Strangely, though, the trail meandered gently through the forest.  I tried not to make any comments to jinx this lovely trail, but I looked up at the mountain that we were walking around and wondered why on earth this trail was called a “ridge trail” when clearly we were not on the ridge.  Soon, we couldn’t ignore the fact that the trail was simply not as advertised, and we started staring at the map perplexed.  We were going the right way.  There wasn’t another trail anywhere near here that we could have mixed it up with.  What gives?

We continued on, and enjoyed several more miles of pleasant, flat, and mostly well groomed trail. We got to a gap, which we quickly identified on the map, and were relieved to find that we were going to right way. Then, we noticed signage on either side of the gap fixed to a tree, which seemed to be in front of another, less well-worn trail. “Trail Closed” it said. We figured it out. The Duncan Ridge Trail had obviously been rerouted recently. No wonder.

Not far from the gap there was a perfect campsite, and we weighed the pros and cons of staying there, but couldn’t think of any, so we decided to keep hiking.

Suddenly, the trail acted more like the trail we had anticipated, and shot straight up a mountain. It started to get dark, and as we struggled along, I noticed that the miles were going by much more slowly now. In distance, the moon was rising. There was only really one place up ahead that apparently offered a spot to camp according to our data (we took the Duncan Ridge Trail page out of the Benton MacKaye Trail guide book). It was going to be at another gap, where there was a small road.

I heard rumbling in the distance, and saw the headlights of a car driving by down the ridge ahead of us.  “Oh, God” I thought to myself, “we’re going to be camped next to a road that people actually drive on?”.  I thought back to that perfect campsite we had left behind during daylight hours, several miles back.

We got to the road and found almost no good camping options.  We managed to create a crappy campsite that was somewhat tucked away from the road so we couldn’t be seen, and sat in the tent eating mashed potatoes and cookies.  A few more cars passed, and each time we turned off our headlamps so that they wouldn’t see our tent.  We didn’t want to be bothered.

As we unpacked our backpacks, and got into our sleeping bags, John found quite a large pinetree branch that somehow had made its way into our tent with us.  “Look!  A Christmas Tree!”  he proclaimed!


The temperature dropped, and we snuggled inside our sleeping bags listening to the rumble of a far-away highway.

Day 2: 18 miles

In the middle of the night, I rolled over in my sleep to find a better position and John suddenly jerked awake and screamed at the top of his lungs, which then caused me to scream back in response.

“AHHHHHHHH!” We both screamed.

“What the hell!?!” I yelled

“Oh…. I thought there was an animal.”  He answered.

“Yeah. There was. It was me, rolling over!” I said, my heart racing.  He was already asleep again.

When we woke up in the morning, I remembered the incident.  “Hey, do you remember screaming at me in the middle of the night?”  I asked.  John thought for a moment, and giggled “Yeah, sorry, I guess that one time a bear was sniffing at the tent taught me to scream at everything that moves.” I couldn’t argue since it seemed like a genuinely good reflex, but he had totally scared the crap out of me.

We got moving, and continued on the Duncan Ridge Trail. It was hard, and tiring. The leaf litter made it even harder, because not only were all the rocks and roots invisible under the pile of leaves, the leaves themselves were slippery and the steepness of the trail meant that I was constantly slipping on them. Somehow I pulled my big toe on an invisible rock, and it ached with every step.

It was Halloween, and I was excited when we crossed a road and entered Blood Mountain Wilderness, and soon after passed by Slaughter Mountain.  Ok, so although it seemed fitting that we were passing by these gruesome sounding landmarks on Halloween, I must mention that the reason these places have these names is to mark a bloody battle between the Cherokee and Creek Indians.

We heard the Appalachian Trail before we saw it. We could hear people shouting, laughing, screaming, and generally being obnoxiously loud, and before we knew it we were on the AT “superhighway,” as we call it. The leaf litter had already been crumbled and compacted, and the walking got easy, which was a relief, because at the rate that we were hiking the Duncan Ridge Trail, we probably never would have finished this loop in the time that we had.

The miles on the Appalachian Trail went by at almost double the speed.  I spent most of the afternoon doing mental math, trying to figure out how many miles we had left, and whether we were likely or not to run into our friends, Heather and Adam, who were hiking the Benton MacKaye Trail southbound. We were supposed to pick them up in two days from the terminus.  The mental math was not simple because we were using three different sources of data for mileage because the loop connects three different trails.


“Ok, so we plan to camp 8 miles from the end of our loop tomorrow, so that’s 20-something miles from the end of the Benton MacKaye for them, and they’re walking in the opposite direction, so when we intersect the BMT, that will be the point when they only have 11 miles left, and then we’re walking towards them, but what time will that be at?”

These discussions went on for hours.  What else is there to talk about?

We finally found a place to camp right before Woody Gap in a very windy saddle with plenty of camping.  The area was covered in trash, and we spent a few minutes picking all the trash up and putting it in ziplocked bags.

It was very windy, and this made us nervous because according to the forecast, the next night was supposed to be much colder – dip into the mid 20’s – and be at least three times more windy, with sustained winds around 40mph.  Now that’s windy!  We shivered thinking about it.

Day 3: 20 miles

In the morning, we walked down to Woody Gap, which is along highway 60, and was absolutely overrun.  Huge tents with Halloween lights were set up just uphill from the parking lot, and the parking lot, which was pretty big, was packed with vehicles.  I guess everyone had the idea of trying to go camping on Halloween.  We continued on, happy to be up and hiking before most of these other people woke up.

A few miles later, we ran into a group of Trail Maintainers and chatted with them for a while, and found out that apparently the Duncan Ridge Trail was built as an emergency reroute for the Appalachian Trail because the Blue Ridge Parkway was supposed to extend into GA at one point. But, apparently that idea got abandoned. I was also impressed to see that one of the trail maintainers was hiking with a prosthetic leg. I told her that I was impressed, and she shrugged and said that technology was really good these days. I’m so glad that’s true.

After lunch, we were surprised to run into another set of trail maintainers, who had unfortunately gotten the blade of their chainsaw stuck in a tree.  They asked us to take pictures of any other blow-downs further down the trail and report them to an email address when we got home so that they could take care of them.  It’s amazing how quickly these trail crews clear these trails after a hurricane.  I was impressed.

We soon got to the junction of the BMT and the AT, for the final leg of our loop.  At the intersection, there is a lovely waterfall called Long Creek Falls just a tenth of a mile off the trail.  As we left the Appalachian Trail, I felt a sense of relief that we wouldn’t be bumping into so many other people from now on.    The BMT meandered along a stream through rhododendron thickets before climbing a ridge, where we would eventually have to find a place to park ourselves for the cold and windy night that we had been dreading.

We found a spot, well before dark, and worked to secure our tent in such a way that it wouldn’t blow away.  We put rocks on top of all our stakes, and piled leaves around our tent to insulate it better.  We crawled into our sleeping bags, and watched the sun set by peeking out through one of the tent doors every few minutes while devouring everything and anything that looked appealing in our food bags, knowing that the extra calories would keep us warm, and we only had 7 or 8 miles left to hike in the morning.

Day 4: 7.5 miles

We were both pleasantly surprised in the morning when the sun rose and we hadn’t frozen our butts off overnight.  In fact, I hadn’t even put on my poofy jacket in the middle of the night, like I had anticipated.  Even though it was clearly well below freezing, I think there are a number of reasons why we weren’t colder than we were.  First, we weren’t completely exhausted, and hungry.  I think this makes a huge difference.  Those extra calories kept us warm.  Also, although we were on a ridge (basically at the top of a mountain with trees), this was warmer than at a gap where it would have been more windy, and definitely warmer than by a water source.  There was very little humidity, and so our down sleeping bags performed at their peak.  Also, although it was windy, I think our little leaf barriers also kept us somewhat insulated.

At this point we decided that Heather and Adam must have passed us before we started the BMT section, and therefore they must be on the early side for finishing their hike – we wouldn’t pass them after all, despite all the mental math.

I wore all my clothes for the first few miles, and the ground was frozen in spots.  The trail went down to the famous Toccoa River Swinging Bridge, and finally spit us out at Highway 60 where our car was waiting for us.

We drove to pick up Heather and Adam, and indeed, they had finished hours earlier, and were waiting for us at the Amicalola Visitor’s Center.

Thanks for following along!

Tahoe Rim Trail: Tahoe City to Echo Chalet

TRT Day 4: 23 miles

I heard Donner get up to go pee around 5AM, and John was tossing and turning.  I hadn’t slept well because of the bed – soft and the covers got totally messed up.

We managed to leave the hotel just after 6AM, and although I was tired, I was thankful that we were getting an early start because I knew we had a lot of climbing to do and I wanted to get as much of it done as possible before it got hot.

I also wanted to carry as little water as possible, so I decided to chug two liters of water before leaving the hotel and only carry 1 liter for the next 4 or 5 miles uphill.

The trail was nice and cool, and because of all the water I drank, I had to pee every 10 minutes.  That got old really quickly when I realized that there were quite an abundance of mosquitos around.  I remember these mosquitoes from the PCT.  They were most similar to the Oregon variety, which could land on you regardless of how quickly you were trying to run through them.

Luckily the mosquitos were not a constant.  They were only really present in spots where we were going through a meadow, in the forest or near a stream.  This side of Tahoe is definitely much more wet than the other side.  Water sources are plentiful.

Early on we passed an active logging site, and repeatedly heard chain saws followed by trees falling and crashing onto the forest floor nearby as loggers cut them down.  Although we weren’t close enough for it to be dangerous, we jumped every time a tree fell.

Donner made the mistake of showing an interest in lichens, when the topic somehow came up, and John spent the next hour or two regaling us with every detail on lichens he could possibly remember – which, given that he has a book on the topic, and the brain of a sponge, was a lot.

I decided to steer the topic away from lichens and onto quantum mechanics.  Donner was a physics major, so between us we tried to remember details of our physics and chemistry courses.

There were tons of hikers – both day hikers and backpackers.  We intersected the Pacific Crest Trail, and that brought a few PCT hikers into the mix too.  We were constantly pulling our buffs over our faces as we jumped off the trail to let folks pass.  I’ve been really impressed with how many hikers have pulled out masks to pass us.

At lunch we cracked open a gigantic jar of Nutella, and also made tuna wraps.  Once we finished, John and I packed up and John was standing there with his pack on ready to go 20 minutes after we sat down to eat.

“God, you guys really just like to hike, don’t you?!”  Donner said.

It’s at that point that we realized that we had been such in thru-hiker mode that we hadn’t really taken a really long break just to sit and admire a view or take an extra long lunch just to relax in nature.  Our style has always been to just keep walking.  It’s not that we don’t admire views, but usually not for more than 5 minutes or so.  Donner was more used to taking half hour or hour long breaks to enjoy the scenery.

Since we got such an early start, we got done with quite a few miles early on in the day.  We realized that there was no point in rushing or completing more miles than we needed to, since that would just mean that we finish the hike before we had planned.  We made plans to attempt to slow down a bit and take more breaks during the next section

We decided to camp at Richardson Lake, a popular camp spot – there are dozens of other people here, but really pretty.  The lake was very warm, and I soaked my feet.  I would have gotten in if it wasn’t so breezy and getting a bit chilly as evening descended.

 

We decided to take a little stroll around the lake to check out a Sierra Club hut that was listed on the map.  It turned out to be quite a quirky little hut, built in 1955, and obviously designed for use during the winter, when snow would pile up to the second level, so the leave a door unlocked at the top of the hut, which gained us entrance.  The inside was warm and there was a register, which I signed, which had many recent hiker’s signatures in it as well.  Outside the hut was a double decker outhouse, which we did not investigate as thoroughly.

Tomorrow we will be entering the Desolation Wilderness, which is probably the most scenic stretch of this trail.  We are all very excited, and anticipate enjoying some breaks near lakes along the way.

TRT Day 5: 21 miles

We woke up in the morning refreshed from an only slightly interrupted sleep. An animal repeatedly hissed for an hour in the middle of the night. Maybe a fox?  Who knows.

The trail was noticeably moist compared to the dry Carson Range on the Nevada side of Lake Tahoe. At points it seemed like someone had been spraying the trail with water and other times it was even slightly overgrown with vegetation around dry creek beds (on the dryer side, there was much less vegetation).

Today was the day that John and I have been looking forward to since booking this trip. We entered the Desolation Wilderness, one of our many favorite spots from our Pacific Crest Trail hike. A few steps past the Wilderness boundary sign John said, “We really are in the Desolation Wilderness look at all the granite rocks!”

Slowly the damp trail became more rocky. We came upon the first lake of the day and took a long break to swim.  I was nervous to get into the cold water, but John and Donner convinced me to jump in from a rock.  It was nice to go for a swim.  Four years ago when we were here it was too cold to even think about swimming here.

We continued onto Dicks Pass which presented us with an absolutely gorgeous view. We could see the chain of lakes we passed as well as many others that were out of view.

Dick’s Pass

Moments after we arrived, another a hiker arrived and gasped at the scenery. It was wonderful to watch her reaction.  We spoke with her for a bit, and found out that her name was Rose. We also found out she hiked from the Washington/Oregon Border along the PCT and was finishing her section tomorrow.  As we walked away we noticed that there would be an even better view a few steps further along and John said, “It will be great to see her reaction over there.” Predictably, Rose gasped again.

Rose

Rose had wanted to hike the whole PCT this year, but changes her plans when COVID hit.

“I hope you get to hike it in 2021,” I suggested

“If there IS a 2021….”. She retorted.

There was a small patch of snow at the top and Donner attempted a snow angel and threw a couple of snowballs at us. 

As we descended my hip started to hurt and we slowed down.  Donner and John both offered to carry some of my weight, and I took them up on their offer since John always accuses me of being too stubborn.  I was pretty upset that my hips were not cooperating, and I silently wondered if my thru-hiking days weren’t over.

The temperature seemed really warm with all the granite reflecting the sun back at us. When we got to Susie Lake we decided it was worth taking another swim.

Donner: “Did I miss a spot?”

We debated spending the night there but it was still early so we moved onto Aloha Lake, where we found a perfect spot with a spectacular view.

Can you tell which way the wind blows?

As we watched the sun set and the moon rise, we noticed that little tufts of pink clouds passed by.

“Hmmm, clouds”  John commented.  I knew what he was thinking.  We hadn’t seen clouds in almost a week.  Out here clouds usually mean weather.

TRT Day 6: 17 miles

We took our time packing up in the morning – no need to rush since we had only 6 or so miles to Echo Chalet, where there is a small store where we planned to resupply, and we knew they didn’t open until 10AM.  The clouds were strangely gone after a quiet night, and we had a perfectly blue sky.

We descended from Aloha Lake to Echo Lake through huge boulder fields.  The trail was mostly pointed rocks, which was slightly hard on the feet.  It was in one of these rocky areas that we heard some little squeaks, and found that they were coming from a pika!  Pikas are only the cutest alpine rodent.  They’re actually closely related to rabbits, I believe, but they look kind of like big fat fluffy mice with big ears.  I attempted to take its picture, but it was in a hurry to get somewhere with the tuft of grass in its mouth.

Pika

I’m assuming that this area is normally quite crowded, but today being a Friday, it seemed especially busy.  We passed group after group after group of hikers walking up from Echo Lake.

I remembered this section quite vividly from the PCT.  Once you exit the wilderness, Echo Lake has quite a few cute little houses and huts along it, with no access besides either the trail or the lake.

When we made it to Echo Chalet, we immediately bought a half gallon of ice cream to share along with chips and guacamole, soda, and potato salad. 

“Growing up, my dad used to microwave the whole tub of ice cream so he could eat it melted, and then put it back in the freezer so all we ever had was freezer burnt ice cream,” Donner griped.

“That sounds awful!”  I replied

“And then my mother would dig all the good bits out of the ice cream, like if we got chocolate chip cookie dough, there was never any bits of cookie dough left.  That was pretty much the extent of my horrible childhood.  Maybe I’ll write a book about it.”  He said, shoving spoonfuls of ice cream into his mouth.

Donner noticed that Rose was in the parking lot, having met her family who were there to pick her up.  He came back with a bag of cherries that she gave us.  So sweet!!  We went over to say goodbye and gave her our website to look us up when she got home.

It took us another hour or two to buy and sort through all the food we needed for the rest of the trail, which should take us about three and a half days.  The store was two or three times more expensive than a normal grocery store and with limited selection, so we wanted to choose our food wisely.  We managed to buy a few things that we could split between the three of us, plus a ton of Ramen noodles.

Echo Chalet

When we started hiking again, it was brutally hot.

“East Coast heat melts you, and West Coast heat bakes you”  Donner remarked.  It’s true – I felt baked, and my legs were cracking because of the dry heat.  In fact, right at the front of my ankles, my skin is so cracked that it is bleeding.

We got to a cold stream where we collected water and I took my shirt off and dunked it in the cold water and put it back on again.  That felt divine.

“What’s for dinner?”  I asked Donner

“I’m pretty sure all my meals involve Ramen somehow”  he replied.

“I think we’re going to have instant stuffing mix and hot dogs”  John said.

“Oh, then I’ll have Ramen with hot dogs!”  Donner said with excitement.

We noticed that clouds were beginning to form, and quite quickly.  These were not cute little clouds like last night, these were very obviously thunder heads.

Soon enough we are shaken with a sudden “KABOOOM!!”  A thunderstorm was upon us.  I started hiking faster, since we were headed up a hill, and we scurried over the top of it.  The rain soon started, and we made sure everything in our packs was in something waterproof.  I was glad I brought my rain jacket and rain pants, because the temperature dropped quite quickly.  Luckily my shirt was almost dry.

Now instead of holding our umbrellas up for sun, we had them open for the rain.  It didn’t rain hard, but it rained enough to bring life to the hillsides, and as we continued we passed many meadows and drainages absolutely packed with wildflowers.  Views of nearby mountains were incredible.

The rain subsided, and the flowers and views continued to take our breath away.  We could hardly stop taking pictures.

Eventually we got to the lake where we wanted to spend the night, called Showers Lake.  Funny that we came through on a day with showers…

We ate dinner by the lake, and enjoyed the last lake that we will have along this trail.

Tahoe Rim Trail: Spooner Lake to Tahoe City

TRT Day 0

Well, here we are!!  We’re currently in Carson City, NV, the day before we begin the Tahoe Rim Trail.  We’ve thought about this trip for many weeks now, not only because we were raising money for Big City Mountaineers, but also because of our fear of COVID-19.

By the way, we reached our goal of raising $5000 for Big City Mountaineers!  This will effectively breakdown some barriers in order to get kids into nature.  The $5000 will outfit an entire week-long expedition of kids from dis-invested communities who would otherwise not have the means to go backpacking.  Thank you so much to everyone who donated, we had at least 85 people who contributed to this effort!

We’re doing this trip with an Appalachian Trail friend of ours, whose trail name is Donner.  We drove to his house in Nashville so that we could all be on the same flights to Reno. 

We’ve spent the entire day traveling, wearing KN-95 masks.  The flights were somewhat terrifying because people just can’t seem to understand how to wear masks correctly, and Donner and I witnessed a girl in the row next to ours wipe her exposed nose with her fingers.  She then looked at her dirty fingers like she wasn’t quite sure what to do with them next.  Donner and I looked at each other wide eyed and I whispered, “get me out of here!!!”  We were so grateful to have bought KN-95 masks (the Chinese equivalent to N-95 masks).

Southwest is currently keeping middle seats empty unless you’re in a group traveling together, so even when the flight was completely full (which our second flight was), there was still a feeling of space on the plane.  I did find it funny that although you apparently have to wear your face mask for the entire flight, they also hand out water and snacks.  We all decided not to eat or drink on the airplane, so I stuffed the packet of pretzels in my bag for later.

We decided for the sake of logistics to spend one night in Carson City before hitting the trail early in the morning.  We arrived basically famished, and the first thing we did after dropping our bags at the hotel was order Chinese take-out.   We brought the food back into the hotel room and for a good 15 minutes we acted like we had been hiking for weeks.  There was a long period of silence while we stuffed our faces.

As we packed our backpacks, and I realized that I forgot my p-style (the device I use to pee standing up), and Donner suggested I try cutting a small plastic water bottle in half as a substitute.  I found one to attempt to engineer into the right shape, and then practiced in the bathroom, and found that the new set up may actually work.  Gross or genius – you decide, but it will allow me to pee in a gatorade bottle inside my tent at night.  Yay!

Hotel room gear explosion

Now jet lag has started to set in, and although it’s only about 8PM, it feels like midnight.  I have a feeling we’ll have no trouble getting an early start tomorrow to get a full day’s hike in.

TRT Day 1:  22 miles

I woke up sometime between 5 and 6AM, and John and Donner were still asleep, so I stared at the ceiling for a little bit until the alarm went off.  I must have slept well.

We packed up, and used Uber to get a ride to the trailhead.  Our Uber driver was chatty and proclaimed that he had only started wearing a mask a couple of weeks ago when it became a mandate, because the mask was not letting him get enough oxygen because he was an asthmatic.  Then he started complaining about COVID-19 and how it’s really only a bad flu and our government should have just let it run its course instead of letting it drag on.  John and I rolled our eyes at each other and tried to change the topic.  Once again I was so grateful that we had bought KN-95 masks.

Once at the trailhead at Spooner Lake Summit, I was thrilled to be in the wide open forests of the dry mountains surrounding Lake Tahoe.  We climbed and climbed, but the trail was easy.  As usual, the trails out West are so nice because of the lack of tree roots and water erosion.

Donner stepped only a couple of feet off trail to pee and suddenly there was someone coming in the opposite direction.  Bad luck, I thought.  But moments later we passed another set of people, and then another.  I realized that this was not going to be one of those remote feeling hiking experiences.

We climbed up a few thousand feet, and started getting lovely views of Lake Tahoe.  The sun started beating down on us, and we all whipped out our umbrellas.  The trees were all pine and fir trees spaced wide apart with lots of sandy ground between them.

The air was very dry.  I could feel sweat evaporating from my lower back, and my tongue felt dry since my mouth was hanging open, panting from the lack of oxygen at this high elevation.  We climbed to over 8,000ft, and my lungs could feel it.  I haven’t been at this elevation in a while.

Cute little wildflowers dotted the side of the trail and John, who had brought his Sierra Nevada field guide book stopped intermittently to identify plants.

Ten miles into our day we reached Marlette Campground, which had a water pump that we had spent quite a bit of effort trying to figure out if it would be functional or not.  Donner had even called the Tahoe Rim Trail Association (and got a reply in the form of a voice mail!).  The pump worked, and we sat there and ate lunch, while downing at least a liter of water each in order to try to stay on top of our hydration.  The next water source wouldn’t be for another 12 miles or so.

Eventually the trail became a popular mountain biking trail, and we had to jump out of the way of dozens of mountain bikers.  Maybe 50-100 mountain bikers, I kid you not.  It definitely got old and certainly slowed our progress.  On top of that the wind picked up quite a bit, and blew more dust in our faces, while making it slightly challenging to hold up our umbrellas.  But, we were making good time, and before we knew it we were already at the next water source.  Two young men were collecting water in what looked like a dribble coming out of some rocks. 

“This is Ophir Creek!?”  Donner said looking wide eyed at our water source.

“Welcome to west coast water sources!!”  I said. It actually turned out to be the headwaters of Incline Creek, but we managed to collect plenty of water from it.

We hiked a bit further and found a somewhat sheltered spot tucked away between some rocks and some trees and called it home for the night.

TRT Day 2: 24 miles

I heard John unzip the tent, and I looked at my watch, 5:50AM.  I felt fairly well rested.  Donner emerged from his tent and told us that his thermometer read just under 40 degrees.  What a perfect temperature for sleeping in.  We were hiking by 6:30AM.

We soon hit a road leading to a campground just slightly off trail where we stoped to use the toilets and dumpsters.  They also had running water, so we filled up our bottles.  The chipmunks in the campground were fearless, and one almost stuck up behind me to grab my breakfast.

The trail then climbed up to the tallest point on the trail, 10,398ft up at Relay Peak.  On the way up there was a little waterfall with many beautiful flowers on either side of it (such as monkey flowers and lupine).  The trail was very exposed, and we were so happy to have our umbrellas to keep us from getting sunburnt.  As we climbed over 9000ft, I started to really feel the effects of the altitude.  My stomach was a bit queasy, my head slightly achey and my lungs gasping for air.

The scenery, though was so breathtaking, that I easily stopped every few hundred feet to take a picture.  That made the climb much easier.

When we got to the top of Relay Peak, it felt like we were on top of the world with 360 degree views.  I hardly knew which direction to point my camera.

Then, we started the long descent to the next water source, which was a lake that was about quarter mile off trail.  Along the way we crossed from Nevada into California.  Once we got to the lake, we sat there and collected and drank water for quite some time since we knew that the next section would be over 17 miles with no water sources.  I decided to wade into the water a bit to get my feet wet and wash my dirty legs.  The water was frigid.  Across the lake we saw a deer munching on some grass, occasionally glancing up at us.

“Wouldn’t it be cool if a cougar took that deer down in front of our eyes” Donner asked.

“Maybe the deer is waiting to see a cougar take us down.” I answered.

We realized that it was already 2:30PM and we were barely half way done with the miles we had planned for the day, so we made a move, and I tried to pick up the pace a bit.  We had a lot more downhill to go, which made it easier to go quickly, but also harder on the joints.  Soon my hip started to hurt followed by my shoulder, my ankles and my feet.

Around 6PM we stopped to make dinner and let it soak.  None of us brought a stove, so all the food we are carrying needs to cold soak.  On the menu for John and I was couscous, which takes about 20 minutes to rehydrate in cold water, and Donner had instant mashed potatoes, which are still pretty instant with cold water.  By 6:30, we sat down again and ate our dinner.  Around this time I got a bloody nose.  It’s something that happens often when I hiked in such a dry climate, especially at high altitude.  A few mosquitoes started pestering us, which helped in finishing dinner rather rapidly before picking up and continuing with a few more miles.  Not 20 minutes later, John also got a bloody nose.  Somehow Donner was spared (so far at least).

We hiked a few more miles and crossed a road.  Hoping to find some camping a ways from the loud road, we continued on.  The last mile or so of a long day always feels even longer… I hurt quite a bit at this point.   I’m definitely not in thru-hiker shape.  It didn’t help that we were carrying quite a bit of water still.

We finally found a spot slightly off the trail along and ATV route.  We set up the tents quickly and dived into them to avoid the mosquitoes.  They’re not terrible, but they’re not fun to have buzzing around your head outside the tent either.

Tomorrow we’ll wake up early and try to hike the 18 miles into Tahoe City fairly quickly so that we can resupply and still hike out of town to camp.  The hotel prices in Tahoe City are outrageous, so we’re going to skip trying to stay the night there even though it would be really nice.

As I’m writing this, darkness has set, and the moon is rising, mostly full.  I hope it doesn’t keep us up.

TRT Day 3: 18 miles

At 5:45AM I heard Donner’s voice: “GOOD MORNING!!  Town day!”

We all scurried around packing up more quickly than normal, and started hiking just after 6AM.  We had 18 miles to get into town, and I knew some of them were going to hurt, because my hip was still sore from yesterday’s effort.  As we hiked, we passed an active logging site which was making a racket chopping up trees.

We had one water source for the day, and that was at Watson Lake, and we got there in short order.  I was somehow still carrying too much from our 17 mile dry stretch, so I only collected half a liter.

We passed a sign saying 14 miles until Tahoe City.  I did some mental math on how long that would take us.  Five minutes later we passed another sign saying 12 miles until Tahoe City. 

I turned to John, “Wouldn’t it be nice if the next 12 miles go as fast as those two went!”

Not 20 minutes later, another sign:  13 miles to Tahoe City.  Huh?  The signage in this area was obviously not to be trusted.  Another mile went by, and we got another sign: 12 miles to Tahoe City.  Ha.  I figured I should stop caring about how many miles it actually was and just hike.

We were at lower elevation than we had been for quite some time, and the heat we experienced really made us appreciate the altitude of the previous section.

A few bikers and a few hikers passed us, but honestly, the most remarkable part of this section was just how hot it felt.  I felt sweat dripping from my back and quickly evaporating.  At least our sweat was working, but we were probably quickly getting dehydrated.

Finally, we made the final descent into town, and I hobbled down the road to the grocery store, my hip aching.  We sat outside the store charging our devices and trying to decide whether or not we were going to spend the night in town.  There were a couple of outlets next to the store, and we bought some soda and sat there while our phones charged, and we took turns buying our resupply food.

Finally, we made the decision to spend the night in a hotel that had a hiker discount, so wasn’t as ridiculously expensive as everything else in town.

So, as I write this, we are comfortably installed in a room with two beds, contemplating where we will pig out for dinner.  A burger sounds good to me.   I’m not sure if I’ll have the opportunity to update the blog until we finish the trail, but we’re now about a third done with it.  We’re looking forward to the Desolation Wilderness, which is supposed to be the most beautiful section.  That should be coming up in a couple of days.

Now, time for a shower and a greasy meal!!

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.

2019 and new adventures!

Admittedly, 2018 will go down as one of my favorite years.  I knew that hiking across New Zealand followed by an awesome summer job working in three national parks followed by a European adventure would be a hard act to follow.

In December, we got back to our house in Asheville and started applying for jobs.  Luckily, we were distracted from our situation by training for a race: John was training for the 40 mile Mount Mitchell Challenge and I was training for the 26 mile Black Mountain Marathon (same day, same course, John just had to run further- to the top of Mount Mitchell).  I was annoyed at the time that we had these races to train for because I was tired of running and sick of trying to train in the winter.  But looking back, it was good for us because we still had a goal to strive for, and we were also able to stay physically active.  This has always helped with anxiety and the winter blues which always ensue at the end of a long hike or adventure.

We applied for the Leave No Trace Traveling Trainers position thinking we had a good shot this year having worked for them over the summer.  Unfortunately, their hiring process took several months which did not help with the aforementioned anxiety.

Luckily, we still had connections in Asheville, and we started working again with Blue Ridge Hiking Company.  I also started applying for engineering jobs again, and John started applying for environmental jobs.  To cut a long story short, we were not offered the Leave No Trace position, but we both were offered jobs in our respective fields.  I decided to turn down a promising sales engineering job in favor of a part-time job working for Jennifer Pharr Davis (owner of Blue Ridge Hiking Company) as her Director of Corporate Sales.  Who knows if that was the right decision, but I’m pretty happy with it.  The fancy title means that I’ll be helping her to book talks at businesses.  She’s an amazing speaker and author, and if you don’t know who she is, you should look her up – she shattered the gender gap in hiking by being the first female hiker to break the overall record on the Appalachian Trail.  Pretty impressive.  Knowing she hiked 46 or 47 miles per day for a month and a half has given me a lot of inspiration over the years.

Meanwhile, John accepted a job working part-time with some old colleagues as an Environmental Scientist.  With both of us working part time, we have been able to also start guiding again with Blue Ridge Hiking Company.  In fact I just guided the first backpacking trip of the season, and it reminded me how much I love guiding hikes.

Although we’re going to be hustling a lot this year, we do have the flexibility to do some personal hiking, and while the guiding season is still young, we thought we’d take advantage of some extra time by hiking the Bartram and Foothills Trails.

The Bartram Trail is about 115 miles long and runs through North Carolina and Georgia.  We’re going to hike it southbound (NC to GA).  The trail roughly follows the route that William Bartram, a botanist from the 18th century, took .  He must have covered many more miles, however, as he traveled for several years all over the southeast taking notes on the local flora and fauna. The Bartram Trail connects to the Foothills Trail, which is a 76-mile trail in South and North Carolina, and apparently has some amazing wildflowers in late March, which we hope to encounter.

As usual, I welcome you to join us on this roughly two-week adventure!  More blog posts to follow!