|The start of our day.|
|Our first view back toward Erwin, TN.|
For as long as I can remember, I have longed to complete a 20 mile day of hiking. I've came painfully close from both a mental and physical perspective with an 18 mile Grayson Highlands hike in the fall, to a 15 mile romp in foot deep snow across the Brumley Mountain Trail, but the magic number of 20 miles eluded me. One day while thumbing through the book I zeroed in on a hike from Iron Mountain Gap to the Nolichucky River, the distance was listed at 20.1 miles. A glance at elevation change made me cringe slightly with a 4000ft gain but I've been working hard to build my endurance even running in my neighborhood lately and doing so has gave me a renewed confidence...I could do this! With the hike being settled I reached out to a few friends but when I got to the 20 mile selling point I was met with a firm "NO" on more than one occasion.
|Candi and Halley at our first stretch of rime ice on the ridges above the Cherry Gap Shelter.|
|Even the flowers were frozen stiff.|
I decided that the hike would most likely have cell phone service in some sections and I knew what to expect around the Unaka Mountain area of the hike so I would go alone and have Amber pick me up victorious along the banks of the Nolichucky River. I was a little hesitant but once I get something on my mind I can't get rid of it until I do it but thankfully my friend Halley called asking what my hiking plans were for the next trip out. I honestly thought she would say no when I got to the mileage part but she simply responded, "I'm in." Having a hiking partner lifted my spirits and when she included Candi in the trip, our day was set. The 20 mile hike would become a reality!
|Candi attempts to warm up at Cherry Gap Shelter.|
|Climbing higher on Unaka and meeting up with a light dusting of snow and Rime Ice.|
Sunday morning, I left my house before 8am to meet them just past Uncle Johnny's Hostel along the Nolichucky River to leave my truck and ride over to our starting point at Iron Mountain Gap off of highway 107. They were running a few minutes late so it gave me time to choke down a biscuit and double check all my gear for the day. When they arrived around 9am we all piled in Halley's car and used the ride over to the gap to catch up. I couldn't remember the last time that I had hiked with Candi but it was if we had seen each other yesterday, and Sallie was so happy to see me she spent the ride sitting on my lap coating me in white fur. Iron Mountain Gap isn't much more than a pull off for a few cars with the Appalachian Trail intersecting the roadway. When I stepped out of the car, I was greeted with stiff winds and bitter cold. I had dressed too light but fetched my coat and gloves from my pack to warm up. Poor Candi was even less prepared but thankfully Halley travels with all her worldly possessions and we were able to dig enough clothes out to keep her warm. I found something that resembled a yoga pant leg that I borrowed to use as a neck gaiter, we may not have looked fashionable but we were warm for the time being.
|Detailed shot of the ice. All I could think of was thorns.|
|You might as well get used to it now, there's a lot more ice pictures to come.|
The hike starts off on a slight downhill grade before leveling off hugging the side of the ridge. Unfortunately we were on the windy side of the mountain and my legs were cold under thin compression pants. Both Halley and Candi said they were cold as well but we used it to move faster and stay motivated knowing we would reach a shelter to warm up in within the first four miles. The hiking to begin with was easy and there wasn't a lot to see or slow us up from a photography standpoint. We passed several hikers early and often as they were traveling the opposite direction on a thru hike attempt, nearly everyone of them complained of the cold. As the trail lifted us around the ridge via switchbacks and steps we passed a frozen waterfall on a small stream and a clearing looking back into the 107 valley. Higher on the mountain the fog had frozen to everything it touched giving us our first glimpses of the rime ice that would come more spectacular the higher we climbed. Our pace slowed considerably as we snapped shots of the ice but our minds were off the cold for the most part. It didn't feel like it took us long but as we descended into a gap I could see the Cherry Gap Shelter. I was excited to get my pack off for the moment and we used the time to eat some snacks as well. My visions of being warmed up out of the wind were not quite as good sitting in the concrete block building --I've been in warmer refrigerators.
|We just thought this section was the most photogenic.|
|Some sections barely had ice at all but the trail still was beautiful.|
|but it was cold everywhere.|
After our mini lunch break, we were back on the trail and I was honestly struggling with the cold. Even under several layers my skin was chilled and I rubbed my torso to try to warm up. Mercifully the trail dropped us over the opposite side of the ridge and out of the wind for about a mile stretch giving me enough time to warm up slightly. Ahead of us through the trees, I could see Unaka Mountain looming and the rime ice looked to completely engulf the top of the mountain. Hiking out of the gap we gained a little over a thousand feet in elevation which helped really warm us all up but burn our lungs with cold air. I picked up a sizable lead on the girls and was able to slow my pace and take in the now changing surroundings higher on Unaka. The small forests transitioned into laurel lined trails and then the sporadic Pine would appear before dominating the upper stretches of trail. The moss clung to everything and was a vibrant color of green even early in the season. As I continued on I had no clue of the beauty that awaited me near the summit.
|Halley and Candi in the winter wonderland on Unaka.|
|White blazes and white trails.|
|Everywhere was beautiful|
I found a small stream with a pool to filter water from so I decided to take a break and let the girls catch up to fill their bottles. A few minutes went by and I got a little worried but when I rose to my feet I heard the jingle of Sallie's collar and their laughter as they rounded the bend. Halley was happy to see some water and filled her bottles while Sallie had a few drinks as well. When we got back to hiking it wasn't long until we started seeing some really good rime ice. The hiking slowed to a crawl and all of us were in awe of the beauty. The ice clung to even the tiniest branches and resembled white thorns. Even now, finding the words to describe it is difficult. Halley and I lagged behind taking pictures while Candi continued up the mountain, and when we caught up to her we found her taking shelter in a cluster of tree roots making the perfect small hut. All of us took a break in it, and posed for a few pictures before enjoying another snack. If it hadn't been so rocky it would be a great spot to camp. Back on the trail the ice kept us in almost a speechless trance, the only noises were the looks of Halley's camera. Just shy of the Unaka Mountain summit we came across the best of the rime ice. The ground was coated in bright green moss and the trees were white with thick ice, the contrast made for some of the most spectacular photos of our day.
|Say Cheese, Sallie!|
|Unaka Mountain has a wide selection of Christmas Trees.|
|The ice was electric.|
With all the photos and slow moving we were at mile 7 as 2pm approached and the unknown sections of trail ahead made me wonder if we should call it off at Indian Grave Gap just to be safe. I give full credit to Halley for saving the day though because when I asked her what she thought she just grinned and said, "heck no, we got this!" and we found renewed motivation getting a long stretch of downhill hiking heading toward Beauty Spot. We reached the gap and another pit stop for water in only thirty minutes having hiked two quick miles. The climb up to Beauty Spot was tough in spots but our breaks along the climb were short. When we crossed over the top of the mountain winds were once again tough on the open fields and we opted for a snack break just downhill a bit to shelter against it. The sun made a brief appearance and I laid my head on my pack soaking in the first true warmth I'd felt all day. I looked at my GPS watch and noticed we had tumbled over the 10 mile mark, half jokingly, I looked over to the girls and said, "Good news--we're over halfway done."
|My favorite section of the entire day.|
|My favorite people of the entire day.|
|The darkness of the summit.|
We continued to pass a lot of hikers and several people had obviously hiked up from Indian Grave Gap with their day packs and blue jeans huffing and puffing on a long uphill march to Beauty Spot. As best as i could tell with the trail guide, the majority of our climbing was over. It was during this stretch that I believe I had my first experience with meditation. I took a huge lead over Halley and Candi and I drifted into a zone like I've never experienced before. My breathing was calm and my legs felt weightless, I didn't have any thoughts at all just a weird sensation, it was either mediation, or I was dying for a moment. I was shocked back to reality when I reached highway 395 at Indian Grave Gap. I stopped and waited on them to catch up and told them about the experience. Candi suggested it was pure meditation and that I should be happy to have a moment like it because according to her, some people can never achieve it.
|Come on in, guys!|
|This tree looks familiar.|
Regardless of what it was, I was re-energized and out of Indian Grave Gap we climbed a short stretch before following a slight incline for the next several miles. We passed cliffs of quartzite boulders, and lush ferns lining the trail. Long tunnels of rhododendron and rowdy stream crossings highlighted the last stretches of being high on the mountain. I remembered looking at the sign above the Cherry Gap Shelter stating the next shelter was 13 miles away and how that seemed days away but as we lowered into a gap I could hear people's voices and see the roof of the Curly Maple Shelter. We stopped briefly visiting with the hiking duo of Ben and Trinity before saying goodbye to chase the sun from the sky with four miles remaining and an hour before dark. The trail drops steeply to meet Jones Branch and the steep grade finally got to me by rubbing a blister on my right pinky toe. Crossing over the seventeen mile mark it did little to concern me, twenty miles was now so close! Halley and Candi once again were behind a good distance so I arrived at a foot bridge over Jones Branch and took a break. A few minutes later Sallie arrived looking tired and laid on the bridge looking at me as if to say get me out of here! I still felt good but when Halley and Candi failed to show up after a few minutes I started to go back up the trail before I caught a glimpse of them. Candi had a bandage around her knee and had both trekking poles but they both were still happy. Candi borrowed a few ibuprofen from my pack and we were back on the trail as dusk fast approached. I came across a tree balanced over our path, it had fallen over another dead log making a giant seesaw and being the fun loving crew that we were, we stopped for some playtime bouncing on the log. The sun finally settled behind the ridges for the day and darkness swallowed us up as we now were hiking along the walls of the Nolichucky River Gorge. The trail narrows high above the river and traverses a few tricky rocks but now past the 20 mile mark we knew the end of our day was near. When we crossed the CSX railroad tracks at 20.5 miles I started thinking we may stretch it to 21 miles. The Appalachian Trail was now level with the Nolichucky and it meanders past deep muddy pools that were filled with singing frogs and the occasional street light could be seen across the river. At the 21 mile mark the trail descends to a paved road just short of the bridge across the river to my truck at Uncle Johnny's Hostel. As I crossed the river bridge, I paused for a selfie in the dark. It was hard to make out in the picture, but I was smiling from ear to ear.
|Wide open spaces at Beauty Spot.|
|Someone is spoiled.|
Halley and Candi were hot on my heels and all of us breathed a sigh of relief as we tossed our packs in the bed of the truck. I glanced at my watch before saving our trek. The final stats were 11 hours, 21.3 miles, and 3510ft in elevation gain, in other words, the longest day of trail miles of my life. A few days have passed since the hike and I'm still on cloud nine. My soreness has been minimal and my blister is starting to heal already. I have so many fond memories from the day it's almost impossible to pick just one above another. I owe a tremendous amount of gratitude for Halley and Candi joining me and adding so much to the day. There were moments for all of us on the hike that we seemed to have the right thing to say to keep each other motivated. One that jumps out at me, is just after parking and realizing how cold it would be for the entire day, Halley punched me in the arm and yelled, "Damn it, Horton!" It's kind of a universal sign of a good trail day. Until next time, happy trails.
|Daylight fades along Jones Branch.|
|Crossing the Nolichucky at dark.|
|Picture or it didn't happen.|