Pt 1 Smokies
Lost Creek Campground: Mile 180.9
We left Reliance Fly and Tackle on an early misty morning after grabbing some coffee and biscuits from their deli.
Making quick work of the .6 back to trail we started the road walk through Reliance.
Reliance itself seems like quite the fun little stop, with a lot to offer by way of rafting and some cool local history preserved too.
We were planning for a small day out of town to Lost Creek Campground back in the Cherokee National Forest. It's a no fee campground with sites on a first come, first serve basis beside Big Lost Creek. A beautiful spot that was also popular with vacationers. The campground also has a pit toilet and trash, so could be worth a quick stop on along your way.
When we first showed up, the site beside us was occupied by a guy from Chattanooga out on little two day trip Friday-Saturday (he ended up leaving after a storm we had to wait out) and as we chatted with him a huge teal semi-trailer truck drove through bobtail on it's way to a family gathering.
In Guthook, some folks complained about the noisiness of the campground, but I actually think places like this are part of the fun of hiking the BMT in the summer. All along we've been hearing that this is "cold weather" trail, better hiked in Fall and Spring, but there's a wonderful vacation vibe to all the stops that I think would be missed a bit in those seasons. Rafters going down the Hiawassee (and soon we'd seen Ocoee), fly fishers on the Tellico, mountain lodges and resorts, and family gatherings in campgrounds make the challenging parts of this trail seem more distant. This is just how J-Dub and I are celebrating our summer vacation before I have to head back to NYC and teach.
In fact, we liked Lost Creek Campground so much we took a zero!
The heat index was still a bit too high for our liking. "Stay Safe," has become our motto for the trail after being told by so many folks, literally, "Stay Safe." So we stayed in our hammocks and stayed safe.
Ducktown Inn: Mile 193.9
Up early and onward over Little Frog. We both had some trouble sleeping and were feeling it. While I did, admittedly, just wax poetic about vacation-land, late campers coming in and out were a bit disruptive and then there was the discomfort of heat which would have been a problem anywhere in lower elevation.
Once on trail we caught some rain right away which actually felt nice after all the heat. The cloud covere stayed with us keeping the temperature down a bit, but bringing humidity. It was a fairly even exchange keeping us good and sweaty hiking along to the Piney Flats Branch and crisscrossing up the Kimsey Mountain Highway.
We had been debating whether or not we wanted to stay at Thunder Rock Campground or stay in Ducktown. It seemed like either way we'd have to pay since pushing to a campsite past Thunder Rock Campground didn't quite feel in our range. It would already be about a 13 mile day and while this was the day that would break the heat, the afternoon was still going to be hot.
Since we had service we decided to call the Ducktown Copper Inn. We first heard about them from the Nobo hiker Jared we passed during our Coker Creek push. Then we read about them in comments on Guthooks, everyone was raving that they were hiker friendly and worth the visit.
We called and right off the bat they offered a hiker-rate of $59.00 a night. While hiker rates are fairly common along the Appalachian Trail, this was our first of the BMT and our first sign that this place would be legit. Along with the hiker rate, they offered a free shuttle with stay to and from the trail. Check. Check.
We ponied up the $59, deciding that we might be able to get a good night's sleep, wifi, and laundry done, which we had read on Guthook they'll do on a donation basis.
With our plans set, we headed into the Little Frog Wilderness and up Little Frog itself. The climb was misty from the rain and as we reached higher elevation things cooled off even more making the humidity more tolerable and the climb really enjoyable. In the fog and cloud Little Frog looked, well, froggy. Everything had a slick freshness to it from the ferns and moss to the leaves on the trees and the trails were really quite clear! The climb was a nice challenge and we made quick work of it.
On our way down we passed another Nobo hiker "Karate Kid." He's a triple-crowner (having hiked the AT, PCT, and CDT) on his first BMT thru-hike who also highly recommends The Foothills Trail. We chatted for a bit and he had just come out of Ducktown from the Ducktown Copper Inn with nothing but great things to say. He also told us he had a border collie follow him through Big Frog Wilderness and the folks at the Ducktown Inn helped him get the dog back to it's owner.
The trail headed down Little Frog and right out to the Ocoee River where folks were rafting along the river. The waters looked like a great ride and we were only a few miles up from the Ocoee White Water center, an event for the site for the 1996 Atlanta Olympics.
Then over the bridge to the TVA's Ocoee #3 power station. It's a small station with humongous flume beside it which controls the water flow of the river. Standing next to massive pieces of industry and engineering certainly has it's own kind of awe. Like Fontana Dam, this flume was a pretty intense mechanism to stand beside. (Especially seeing the water levels down when we got back on trail Monday)
In the parking lot of the power station we called the Ducktown Copper Inn and were soon picked up by owner Jerry in his pick-up. He gave us a great overview of the town and surrounding area. Having recently purchased and renovated the inn, he was egaer to share all the town had to offer both in terms of a visit and hiker-specific needs like: proximity to Family Dollar for a resupply, which gas station markets had the best snack and beverage stocks, and, importantly, what pizza places might be open on a Sunday afternoon.
The Inn itself lived up to the hiker friendly reputation with a great hiker box (bearing Jared's name, so thanks Jared if it was some of your stuff in there!) where we scored some free snacks and a free gas canister for my Jetboil, which is a serious score. They also did do laundry for a give-what-you-can donation. The rooms themselves were wonderfully re-done. As someone who travels a good amount for conferences and the like in my work, the interior was a Hyatt quality room at a quarter of the price. Definitely a spot to check out if hiking and if vacationing in the area, since coming with a car would give you some good proximity to both the Cherokee National Forest and the Nantahala National Forest
We hadn't totally planned on a stop and hitting Ducktown itself on a Sunday didn't give us a chance to hit the downtown which seemed like a charming drag with restaurants, a brewery, and a local history museum focusing on copper mining in the area. We ordered some pizza from the town over using a delivery app called RidgeRunner, which serves the area, got some blogs up, I bought some $5 shorts at Family Dollar after having some pants shredded and torn, then we watched some Olympics and slept hard.
Double Springs Gap Campground: Mile 204.8
A coffee, a blog, and a shuttle back from Jerry got us on trail around 10:30am. We also chatted briefly with the camp host at Thunder Rock who was outside her space having some coffee.
Through Thunder Rock Campground and onto the Thunder Rock Trail which was recently re-opened with a new bridge.
The trail then led up some forest roads until bringing us into the forest and beginning our ascent up Big Frog.
Big Frog is one of the big climbs on the BMT and, honestly, one of the climbs and wilderness areas I was most excited about when we began our prep.
The climb itself was long and we were hitting it in the afternoon. We had ridden out the heat wave and were back in the low 80s, high 70s (getting cooler every 1000 feet), but it was still the afternoon in the South.
"It keeps hopping away," J-Dub joked at the long ridge walks and switchbacks all the way up. Toward the top it got a bit brushy, but not as bad as Bob's Bald area, and in fact the brush turned into some pretty ridge meadows full of black-eyed susies and purple flowers.
The signs at some of the intersections were damaged so we really had to cross reference our guide and Guthooks. But after a bit of bushwacking around makeshift summit campsites we were back on trail and beginning the steep 1000 ft descent to Double Spring Gap to camp.
The campsite was fantastic, the quintessential image of a wilderness area site. The water was very slowly flowing, we had to use scoop, but it was still flowing! We also made a fire, because it felt like we shouldn't leave Big Frog without a proper campfire.
At the gap we also made our reservations at the Douglas Inn in Blue Ridge. While some of our other zeroes were out of necessity from the heat, Blue Ridge was a zero we had planned from our prep. The Douglas also reccomended a shuttle from a local town driver named Howard who we called for a pick-up.
Jacks River Fields Campground: Mile 217.1
Woke up and got up and over Hemp Top from Double Spring Gap.
We were making pretty quick work of the terrain and it was shaping up to be a day of just doing some miles. The temperature was pretty mild with some rain on the horizon to cool things down. We were also excited to pass the Pinhoti Trail's northern terminus.
Then on our way down Hemp Top, right around the first intersection of the Jacks River Trail we heard a hound dog howl. We figured a day hiker was out or something of the sort, but then a black hound dog with a collar and two radio collars came out of the brush.
It was friendly and looked a bit thin, but we thought it might be off leash or training or something of the sort. Neither J-dub or I are hunters, so we didn't know for sure.
As we kept hiking, we noticed it following us at a distance. Then it began getting closer, hiking in line with us and every so often leading and looking back down trail for us to catch up.
It hiked along the ridge with us, up and over the unnamed knob and through some cold afternoon rain. Finally it got comfortable enough and close enough that we could give it some pets and read the collar. We got the owner's number and reached out via the satellite messaging on my GPS since we didn't have service.
We were able to get in touch and took the .5 mile detour down to the Forest Service's Jacks River Fields Campground for the man's Uncle to meet us and get the dog.
In the open campgrounds the dog became much more skittish then on trail and kept its distance. The Uncle told us it must have been out for awhile since some of the gamelands allowed training about a week or so ago!
The dog was a bit wary and it took the Uncle, and the old basset hound he brought, a bit of time and howling to get the dog in.
Having had our excitement for the day, and having made some good mileage, we decided to stay put at Jacks River Fields a really wonderful spot (pit toilet and trash on site) maitained by the Backcountry Horsemen of Northern Georgia.
Indian Rock Shelter: Mile 235
Over Flattop in the morning, not too bad of a climb and the trail through here was also really clear of brush with some great signage.
Then a long rolling ridge walk with some steep ups in the rolls.
We bumped into a Nobk hiker "Packmule" taking a break after the road walk stretch. He said he had a 24 mole day the day before to get past the "no camping" section. Not trying to go as far today, we told him about the next water source by Hatley Gap which was flowing well for us and Jacks River Fields
We hit a beautiful stretch of craggy mountain laurel right as rain came in and it felt a bit like walking through a Tim Burton set. Then road walk time!
First part on Bushy Head road was nice, we passed through a lot of lovely farmland and mountain homes.
Then at a cemetry supply store we turned on Boardtown Road, an actual raod with a 55mph speed limit and not a lot of shoulder.
I mention the cemetery supply store both as a curiosity and a potential landmark for future hikers. It's a large, blue metal warehouse with the words "cemetery supply store" in black font on a gray sign. I'm sure cemeteries do need supplies and the store plays an important function in the community, but it definitely harkened back to those Southern Gothic vibes especially after a bit of rain and tail winds from supped up F-150s driving by.
This road leads you to the walk through Sisson company property which is another pretty and peculiar section. Short steep ups to roads and past luxurious cabins, sometimes literally right past, like almost in the front yard. The homes (or maybe vacation rentals, maybe both?) made for some fun eye candy though to break up the monotony of the road.
Following this we eneded up at Indian Rock Shelter, the only shelter on the trail outside of the Smokies. It was a well built shelter with the water source right out front, room to hammock, and a few tent spots that could work in a pinch. It sits on someone's property however, so coming out of long section of wilderness, felt a bit like backyard camping, which can be fun in it's own right (especially with pizza and a movie projector...just sayin' BMTA, think about it) but definitely felt a bit odd. Especially when it comes to the bathroom, there's no privy and houses all around.
We had someone from the community come by on an evening walk with their dog. He said he lived just up the way and this was their daily loop. He was really kind, making sure we had everything we needed for the night, and reccomened some pizza in Blue Ridge. Other than that, no interactions wirh the neighbors!
Blue Ridge, Douglas Inn: Mile 236.7
We set ourselves up for an easy morning into Blue Ridge from Indian Rock Shelter.
Getting picked up off the trail crossing at Hwy 76 (which was a bit of a tricky cross) by a local driver Howard reccomended to us by Carol from the Douglas Inn where we were staying, " We don't have Uber, but we have Howard." She joked.
Howard does a lot of driving in the area from local rides for hikers, to hospital trips, to shuttling actresses from the Walking Dead. He was as professional as he was charismatic, keeping up with us about pick-up time while on trail and politly rescheduling calls coming in on his Bluetooth while we were his passengers.
The Douglas Inn and Suites is a great hiker stop in Blue Ridge. Carol and Wanda at the front desk were really kind, letting us check in early and take a much needed shower. They also have a small continental breakfast, laundry on site, and are a short walk from both the touristy downtown and some local shopping plazas that have more local flair and a Food Lion for resupply.
We took a short walk down to Mystic Mountain Pizza for lunch, a fun local spot with some good pies and a hippie vibe. Our waitress told us they had live music later that night so we made a mental note. Then down to a few chores. I had some emails to catch up for work, we got some hotel snacks at Food Lion, and began planning our 240 mile loop back on the AT.
With some necessities done we made our way downtown to explore the town some more.
Our first stop was into the outfitters and fishing stores. We were hoping to replace our bear cans with stuff sacks to hang on the AT. We carried the canisters through the BMT because it felt a bit more responsible with recent activity in the Smokies and Joyce Kilmer Slickrock Wilderness. But on the AT some of the early shelters and Smoky shelters have cables and J-Dub and I both typically hang.
While nowhere had a true stuff sack, the store manager at Blue Ridge Adventure Wear, Arianna, let us check out some of their back supply (they're in the process of rebranding a bit) and we found some Big Agnes "Air Mattress Inflator bags" that double as stuff sacks and even outdoor showers! She held them behind the counter for us since we'd need to see if there was a post office box big enough to ship our canisters home first.
Outfitters done, got a cupcake at The Sweet Shoppe of The South (of Cupcake Wars fame) which lived up to the hype, sampled some local beer and craft soda, explored Mountain Man comics and the antique mall, and grabbed some smoothies at Blend Superfoods which other hikers had shouted out on Guthook and was on our walk back to the Douglas from downtown. Kyle, the batista at Blend, hooked us up with a great meal and helped connect us with the local scene.
We headed back to Mystic Mountain Pizza for the live music, a regional act called Tire Fire was playing. They're a bluegrass band (though not traditionally bluegrass we were told since they use an electric bass) in the vein of Trampled By Turtles. Live music is always such a treat on a hike and their energetic set was definitely a nice way to end a big town day.
Blue Ridge: Zero Day
Yesterday was fun and games, but today there were chores.
Laundry first. I passed the morning in the hotel laundry room chatting with Karen, a traveler from Oklahoma in town for a wedding. She needed a framing shop to frame a wedding present: a lovely family portrait from 1918 with true sepia tones still intact and in amazing condition for being over 100 years old.
I remembered passing a framing shop downtown and as we got talking she offered to drive J-Dub and I to the Post Office in exchange for helping her navigate to the frame shop. Deal!
This was helpful for two reasons:
The part of town the Post Office is on has no sidewalks making it not the best to walk.
Part of our prep for the AT was a big shakedown. J-Dub I cut all the campsite niceties we brought for the BMT, so not having to carry that was great.
At the post office we did manage to find a box to fit our bear cans and in total we mailed back 17 pounds! We also "bounced" our resupply to the Franklin, NC post office since we had a good amount of food leftover and could supplement from a quick Food Lion run. "Bouncing" is a pretty helpful trick and one we used before. If you don't open your general delivery box you can send it ahead for free one time.
Post office, Karen's frame, and our laundry done, it was back to the outfitters.
Blue Ridge Adventure Gear, sister store of Adventure Wear, took my old fuel can which is always super helpful and Arianna at Adventure Wear had our stuff sacks ready!
We also got a bit of trail magic at the Blue Ridge Knife Company. J-Dub went in to ask how much it'd be to buff out a blemish on his knife and the man working the counter not only did it for free, but threw in a free sharpening too. Definitely head in there for any knife or multi-tool needs you have on trail!
We explored a bit more of the further end of East Main Street and West Main Street including some galleries, a great bookstore with some rare books like an Issac Asimov children's story, and the Art Center before heading into the library to work on the blog.
After writing and photo editing we made a big pizza hut order, some family calls, and a resupply getting ready for our sprint to Springer.
As a teaching artist, I need to be back by September 1st so aiming to get off trail August 28th at the latest to have to time to organize, head back to New York, and get settled in.
We have about 22 days to go and 290 miles to cover in order. Channeling a bit of the Olympic spirit as we lighten our packs and keep our gaze forward.
Mileage estimated using the 2021 Benton MacKaye Trail Thru-Hiker's Guide by The Engmans AKA SGT Rock & Kanga