The morning at Derricks Knob was a touch breezy and with temps in the 40’s, it was a brisk start to the day. I started out in shorts nonetheless.
Up and out of the shelter at 7:45am, I brought some water to a boil and made oatmeal. Eating a warm breakfast on a cold trail morning is a really good mood lifter. After cleaning up and making last minute adjustments to my pack, I headed out with B Rocket (formerly Quick Change) and got set on the long day ahead; this morning I’d decided to not hike the short 7.2 miles but to conquer Clingmans Dome and beyond to Newfound Gap, which is a long 18 mile day.
Silers Bald Shelter is 5.5 miles from Derricks Knob and we hiked it in about 2 hours: we were killing it. Onward and iPod on, we caught up to Blue and St. Croix and we four hiked on to the highest point on the AT: Clingmans Dome. The long climb to 6,655′ was spectacular. With many, many viewpoints and vistas along the way, our grueling hike was peppered with stunning mountain-to-valley views as far as the eye could see, it was mind blowing. As we climbed through the 6,000′ mark we were greeted with spruce and fir trees that lined the trail with their incredibly identifiable aroma. Through and up, winding the trail we spotted the observatory through sparsely laden branches; we all let out a hoot in awe of it all.
The trail seemed to go on forever, but eventually we rounded the top of the trail and there it was.
Climbing up to the observation tower I was filled with myriad of feelings: utter excitement, relief, achievement, and of sheer accomplishment. It was unlike any other feeling I’ve experienced, but I was also rather overcome with disappointment. I wanted to share this with my wife, with the one person I’ve held so close to my heart for these almost three weeks; a major milestone of any AT thru-hiker – Clingmans Dome, checked off my list. I did get some cell service at the top so I called her at the office which was great (I could feel the emotions welling up in my eyes the entire time – this was an emotional day).
After some photo ops and hydration, we started the [extremely] long descent down and over Mt. Love, up a steep (but short) Mt. Collins and down to Indian Road Gap. Through the very enclosed and damp trail to Indian Road Gap, we hiked alongside massive upturned trees now showing their incredible root systems.
Down at Indian Road Gap we saw the sign to Newfound Gap (our original and intended destination) was another 1.7 miles away, and up and over another pretty steep incline; we were all spent, the long descent from Clingmans was technical, hard on the knees, and our feet were throbbing. I started calling shuttle and hotel numbers from the AT Guide while sat on the curb, and Blue had his thumb out hoping for a hitch; and on the 3rd attempt, two cars pulled into the parking area. Epic.
AT section hikers Love and Peace were just returning from a hike themselves, what perfect timing. I hopped into Love’s SUV with B Rocket, and Blue and St. Croix were behind us in Peace’s car. We headed down the long and gorgeous valleys and gorges into Gatlinburg.
We checked into the Grand Prix Hotel, dumped our packs, and with mud-caked legs, we headed out for dinner. After platefuls of ribs and other meaty and carby treats, we headed back to the hotel and talked about the day until way after 1:00am; zero day tomorrow so we weren’t too concerned with the late night, it was great to reflect on our achievement and enjoy the humility as a group.
I think I was out before my head hit the pillow.
Long day, big miles (16.3m), and one heck of a milestone – I broke the 200 mile marker today!