Day Twelve, June 17, Upper Laurel Fork Camp, 13.2 miles: I rise early, eager to leave Mountain Harbor and return to the peace of the trail. Waving to ‘Storm’ and ‘Roachy,’ we will meet at Mountaineer Shelter (9.3 miles) for the night, I head for the highway. The prospects for a lift are slim, so I trudge uphill without trying.
The first few trail miles negotiate strips of disturbed land snaking among small streets emanating from US 19E and state road 1302. Overgrown fields, power lines, and a cemetery are evidence of human habitation close at hand. Poison ivy, further proof of civilization’s intrusion to the natural order, is also prevalent. The fields are in sore need of that weed-whacking couple I saw near Beauty Spot. Grasses and other plants like Black-eyed Susan approach waist height or higher and carry a full load of dew this morning, soaking my pants within minutes. Stems and leaves catch on my trekking poles.
The drag of fighting through resistant herbage, an uphill trajectory, and my lack of energy due to poor rest and no dinner make a debilitating combination. I still manage a respectable 3.8 miles in about two hours, crossing Buck Mountain Road with its church visible on the right. My brain, however, is not in the game today. Two miles later, I walk right past the 0.1 mile side trail to Jones Falls, a lovely spot well worth the visit. Oops. Maybe some other day.
Path Rush, a small grass-like plant loves the disturbance and compaction found along the A.T. A different texture and darker color from other weedy, trail-side species, it stands out lining either side of and even intruding into the dirt track. The trail sidles along the Elk River for a short stretch with adjacent flat campsites. From the river, it is a very gradual rise to Mountaineer Shelter through the forest.
I startle a Ruffed Grouse who startles me with its thrumming wing beats. During lunch, a mouthy Pileated Woodpecker treats me to his extensive oratory. I scan the trees looking for him throughout my break, and finally set eyes on him right at the end. A Scarlet Tanager and Black-throated Green Warbler attempt to get a few words in edgewise. In the distance, an American Robin is less deterred by the loquacious woodpecker and sings enthusiastically.
Since Erwin,TN, the trail has remained above 4,000 feet. Descent from the Roan massif puts the A.T. below that mark where it will remain for the next several days of my hike. Mid June temperatures are running noticeably higher than normal with an increase in humidity. There has also been little precipitation in the mountains. Rain events have been short-lived and widely scattered.
Today I officially pass the halfway mark…my twelfth day on trail with 11 more to go. Psychologically, this countdown is important. I learned in 2013 that three weeks is likely to be my enjoyability limit. By that time, I’ll be ready to go home. I’ve already been thinking of my sweet little Siamese kitty all alone in Nashville and even begun plotting how I’ll clean my gear. Not the best signs with half the trip still ahead.
While I’m pleased to have reached this point, I am also very tired from last night. Due to the weather, I find myself sweating much more despite the far less physically demanding terrain. I’ve been guzzling water all day. After a long lunch communing with the birds, I reluctantly hoist my pack and head for the shelter.
Mountaineer Shelter is located in a very unlikely spot. Most shelters are near a spring or stream on a plot of land somewhat wide and level. Positioned near Mountaineer Falls, this shelter has the requisite water source, but the surrounding landscape is neither wide nor level. Tucked within steeply sloping hillsides, it can be tricky to simply walk around. A depression below the shelter could handle a few tents.
Despite the sloping terrain, Mountaineer is one of the newer and nicer shelters I’ve seen since Hot Springs. Reminiscent of Curly Maple Gap, it’s a double decker accommodating 14 with a covered sitting/cooking area. The shelter’s front is perched at the edge of the slope downhill toward the fire ring and tenting area. A lack of convenient bathroom options appears to be the main drawback.
I arrive around 1:30 and spend time simply resting. The trail profile for the next 8 miles undulates gently at 3500 feet. My plan tomorrow calls for a Herculean 17.5 miles including a difficult rocky section near Laurel Falls. I’ve certainly got time, if not much energy, to knock a few of tomorrow’s miles off today should there be suitable stop.
The next shelter is nearly 10 miles away, and its water source is noted as “a long way downhill.” That option is a non-starter. A few campsites are indicated in between. One is four miles away next to a ‘waterfall’ on Upper Laurel Fork. I could manage this.
While plotting my options, a man and his son from Bristol, TN, stop at the shelter. They are out for a few days to get in shape for further hikes later in the year. We chat a bit. They too are interested in taking advantage of the afternoon and like the idea of the waterfall campsite. I hate passing up a night at a decent shelter, especially considering my current state, but the chance to get a leg up on tomorrow is too enticing. I head for the spring to fill my water bladder and bottle.
At the spring, I hear a whistle and turn around. It’s ‘Roachy.’ She and ‘Storm’ have arrived and want to keep going as well but need a food break first. I’m ready to hit the trail and tell all four I’ll see them at the campsite later this afternoon.
It is easy hiking through this section. A half mile from the campsite, a vista to the south opens where a wood and metal park bench has been mounted trailside for quiet contemplation, allegedly the only such bench on the A.T. I sit for a long while enjoying the peaceful view. An American Holly is flowering overhead, dropping its small spent blossoms like bits of confetti.
One would think a campsite at a waterfall would be fairly easy to locate, but the trail crosses a stream conveniently identified as Upper Laurel Fork on a sign tacked to the bridge. There is no waterfall, but there are two very small cleared spots that could be campsites. There is also a flagged side trail that leads to a hostel, noted in Miller at the waterfall location. I pause a moment wondering if this might be the site and decide to continue. Surely there is something better. The trail follows Upper Laurel Fork and is often wet and miry. In about 0.1 to 0.2 mile, I see a wider opening ahead and hear the sound of fast water. The “waterfall” is a small cascade, the stream pouring past a progression of descending rocks maybe 15 to 20 feet. A fire ring cinches the site and there is room for all five of us. Miller’s guide apparently conflated the two spots.
I begin setting up my tent and search for that ever elusive food bag limb. A dead hemlock branch is within tossing distance on the slope across from the campsite. I toss my line and hook the branch. However, the end of the line tangles and hovers above my reach. I must pull it down and try again. The tangled end catches on a tiny branchlet and instantly knots. *&%#@! I tug, I pull, I bounce, I curse, I throw things. Some of the tangle releases, but the knot remains firm. AAARRRGGGHHH!!!
The others have not arrived, and I begin to suspect that they have been fooled by the small clearings. Carrying my food bag, I walk back to the bridge. There they are trying to figure out how to make those tiny sites work. When we are all at the right camp, ‘Storm’ helps me with that dang food line. I’m sure I’ll have to cut it and want to do so as near the end knot as possible. I even attempt to lash my knife to a stick in hopes of leaving as little rope as I can stuck in that tree. ‘Storm’ tries another path. Putting his entire 6-foot heft into it, he finally gets the limb to break. Once again, I’ve retrieved my rope unscathed from what appeared to be certain shortening. I move to the other side of camp, find an ideal limb, and hang my food without angst. Wish I’d looked there first.
Day Thirteen, June 18, Braemar Castle Hostel, 14.4 miles: I’m up at first light, wanting a head start on the day’s heat and the more difficult trail conditions ahead. The five of us are going to Laurel Fork Shelter (13.6 miles), and I’m on trail at 7:05. There isn’t a breath of wind this morning and the humidity is brutal. Sweat pours down my face. It is slow going.
Despite the lack of rain, this section has many wet, miry areas that would be ankle-deep, sloppy puddles with normal precipitation. There are frequent small stream crossings and footbridges. About 1.5 miles from Moreland Gap Shelter, the trail begins a 500 foot climb up White Rocks Mountain to crest slightly over the 4,000 mark before its short, sweet descent into the gap. I’ve gone 5.7 miles in 3 hrs, 40 mins, a very disappointing performance for easy terrain during morning hours. The humidity is killing me.
I break for lunch at the shelter and meet ‘K-2’ from Seattle. He started in Hampton, TN, 8 miles back and is lying prone on the shelter’s platform, his shirt drenched in sweat. He hiked the majority of the A.T. last year SoBo and only lacks Hampton to Springer, just over 400 miles, to complete the trail.
‘K-2’ tells me that Laurel Fork Shelter is in horrible shape, perched on a rocky ridge with little to recommend it, and points to excellent campsites along the Laurel Fork river. Miller’s guide notes a campsite at Waycaster Spring 0.3 mile beyond the shelter. I’ve read its spring emerges from the base of a pine tree. That’s where I set my sights. I will leave ‘Storm’ and ‘Roachy’ a note on a rock at the final stream crossing before Laurel Falls, letting them know of my plan to stay at Waycaster.
Atmospheric conditions have not improved. Any exertion generates profuse sweating, and my water supply is getting low. Problem is, so are area streams. At the last spring noted in the guide for the next few miles, I stop to filter water, the first time I’ve had to do so on trail. I’ve pulled into camp with very little remaining in the pack bladder, but three liters have always been sufficient to get me through the day. Not today. I will drink five liters by day’s end. The spring is a mere trickle, it takes time to collect enough water to filter.
The trail bounces just over and just under 4,000 feet for the next three miles, then begins a 2,000-foot plunge to Laurel Fork. This descent isn’t difficult and proves far less sweat inducing. The slightest incline, though, immediately activates sweat glands. At Dennis Cove Road, the terrain flattens as the trail enters Pond Mountain Wilderness.
Pond Mountain Wilderness, located south of Watauga Lake and east of Hampton, TN, is a small section of Cherokee National Forest encompassing Pond Mountain, Pond Flats, and the gorge of Laurel Fork with its waterfall. The A.T. zigzags through its western edge traversing the river’s gorge and summiting Pond Flats before leaving the wilderness to circumnavigate one end of the lake and ascend Iron Mountain, where the trail blazes an arrow-straight, 14-mile course toward Shady Valley.
The trail is flat and smooth as a baby’s butt at the start of Pond Wilderness, a very disarming contrast to what lies ahead. Narrow passage between massive rock walls with piles of boulders at the base on either side is the first hint of things to come. Crossing a beautiful bridge over Laurel Fork, hikers enter the sheer rock gorge, and the fun begins. First is a climb (yes, a climb) winding up steep rocks along the sheer wall of the gorge. The trail flattens out again and runs a smooth gauntlet through more canyon-like alleys of rock walls and boulders. Then the trail plummets a few hundred feet straight down on nothing but rocks strewn in an uneven, haphazard, never-ending series of steps tumbling to the river.
Periodically some youthful summer visitor to the falls would breeze past leaping rock to rock like some graceful mountain goat as I’m literally sweating each foot placement. Even ‘Roachy’ and ‘Storm’ catch up and pass me here. Well, more power to them. With uncanny accuracy, the A.T. always finds a way to hit its hardest at the end of tough day. I’m plain whipped.
Laurel Falls is impressive, and I enjoy watching ‘Roachy’ and ‘Storm’ play in Laurel Fork. However, I still have a mile to go before I can get these boots off and relax.
At Laurel Falls, the A.T. slips along the river’s waterline following a partly natural rock, partly cemented trail that hugs a massive rock face bulging into the river’s course. During flooding events, the trail disappears under rushing water. A short distance up that rocky descent is a bypass trail for such conditions. Laurel Fork Shelter is located on the bypass trail. I stick with the “real” trail and have more fun with rocks.
The cemented path at the river’s edge is narrow, and bulky packs can bump against the rock face, yet it presents an interesting and fun variation to the typical trail. The rest of the trail in this area, though, is just maddening, full of ridiculously steep, precipitous, treacherous, rock-step climbing followed by ridiculously steep and slippery descents on loose shaley rock and dirt. Two years ago I’d have been blubbering like a baby negotiating this crap. Today, I’m cursing like a stevedore.
What’s amazing to me is that Laurel Falls, an understandably popular destination, has families and folks of all ages and abilities accessing the site the same way I just did. They don’t carry 30-pound packs, but still…you’d think some effort would go into decent trail building here for safety if nothing else. The high volume of foot traffic has seriously strained trail conditions in some places. Locals and other visitors run up and down this part of the A.T. like a freeway. I see no excuse for the obvious lack of any attempt to construct a trail surface that is safer, more durable, and less damaging to the natural surroundings. Pond Mountain Wilderness could take a few cues from Chimney Tops Trail in the Smokies.
There are large roomy campsites by the river, and none are occupied. I remain bound for Waycaster. At last, the trail settles down next to the river and becomes a smooth forest path. Nailed to a tree, a small sign announces my destination about twenty yards from a bridge spanning Laurel Fork. A narrow campsite sits between the trail and river with the spring hidden in a dense, nearly impenetrable grotto choked in overgrowth and downed woody debris. Not exactly the idyllic spot I’d hoped for.
People pass with regularity. One young man warns of two cubs he’s seen about 300 yards up trail. The mother has to be somewhere. A quick scan of the tall, smooth-trunked trees, predicts no easy task throwing a food line tonight. ‘Roachy’ and ‘Storm’ finally arrive. He is not impressed with Waycaster and is nervous about the number of non-hikers on trail.
A half mile further is a one-mile side trail to Hampton, TN. ‘Storm’ wants to get to Hampton and stay at Braemer Castle hostel. He and ‘Roachy’ will be leaving the trail there. As game a hiker as she has been, the high mileage days and hot, humid weather are taking their toll. I don’t really want to leave the trail. I sense that if I get off here, I won’t return, yet staying in this spot alone is not an attractive alternative. I pack my gear and walk another 1.5 miles to US Hwy 321. We find a family at the parking area willing to give us a ride to the hostel.
Braemer Castle, an old two-story stone building (former offices) with wooden floors and an attic fan, is run by the Brown family who also own Brown’s Grocery in town. I take a lovely private room on the second floor for $25. ‘Storm’ and ‘Roachy’ grab bunk beds on the first floor. Each floor has a kitchen and bath. The second floor features an airy back sitting room with wall to wall windows and ceiling fans, the place to be on a hot, still summer night. It’s clean, comfortable, and quiet, the best accommodations I’ve experienced thus far on the A.T. Several hikers are in residence including ‘Snuzz’ and ‘Shamrock’ who I met earlier on trail.
‘Roachy’ comes to my room and asks if I’d like to join them for dinner at Subway. Weary doesn’t begin to describe my state. I thank her very much for the invitation but decline in favor of a shower and lying prone on my bed. I’ve got a decision to make.
The next shelter, Watauga Lake, is closed due to bear activity. Signs warn hikers not to even stop along the trail for a break through that entire 5-mile section from the base of Pond Flats to the start of Iron Mountain. Water sources are scarce through this area, and the elevation change from Hampton to the next shelter, Vanderventer (15.3 miles plus the one-mile side trail), totals 6,000 feet, two-thirds of that uphill. The lady at Braemer hostel said it was very unusual for June to be this hot in the mountains and forecasts were offering no relief. I call my son Sam and talk things over with him, but it’s an academic exercise. My instincts were right at Waycaster. I’m headed home.
Later that evening ‘Storm’ brings me his MSR gas canisters. He can’t take them on their flight home to Houston. I follow him downstairs to say goodbye to ‘Roachy.’ A cramp in her leg has her limping, but her spirits are as cheerful as ever, even as she begins to nod off while ‘Storm’ and I talk. I give her a hug and a kiss on top the head and thank her for being such a wonderful camp mate. This young woman will go far, shining brightly all the way. I’m proud to know her.
Friend Allen Sweetser arrives the next morning in my car and graciously agrees to chauffeur me to Knoxville where I buy him a thank you lunch before returning to Nashville and little Tucker who can’t give me enough welcome home head butts and nose licks.
I covered 145.6 miles in 13 days. My plan now is to return to Hampton at some point, leave my car there, and hire a shuttle to the Groseclose exit on I-81 in Virginia. I can hike southbound through Damascus back to Hampton to finish the remaining 123 miles. It’s high time I experience trail life as a SoBo!