Day 19: Hot Springs to Little Laurel Shelter, 19.6 miles
Day 20: Little Laurel Shelter to AT mile 312, 19 miles
Day 21: AT mile 312 to Whistling Gap, 17.4 miles
Total AT miles hiked: 330.3
We slept comfortably in Hot Springs for a bonus night, due to the rain, wind, and snow in the forecast. They predicted the snow may linger into the next day, but when we awoke there were blue skies and no signs of snow. We walked to the Smoky Mountain diner for the third time during our stay in town, and enjoyed pancakes and eggs, before heading back into the mountains around 9am. The day was chilly and windy, but luckily no precipitation. Not much to report from the trail, we meandered up and down deciduous forests for a good part of the day- pretty typical AT! We passed a store we didn’t know was 100ft off trail, and were excited to get a Powerade and chips to help us finish the last bit of climb to the shelter. When we arrived around 6pm we were surprised to find the shelter full, and that the campsites around the area weren’t great. We managed to find one, and set our tent up for the first time in 6 nights!
While the day before we had seen little bits of snow as we hiked-up into the mountains, we were surprised to see how much snow was on the trail north of the shelter. We kept thinking it would melt off, but it persisted for the first 11 miles of the day. As we started to hike down the south slope of the ridge it suddenly disappeared, and we had dry trail and green meadows to pass through. Feeling confident, we started up another hill, and passed up a few nice camping spots by a cascading stream because we thought we may find something better. As we started to climb higher, we started seeing spots of snow and mud along the trail. Neither of us wanted to risk setting up camp on snow, so we called it a night a little before 6pm.
Most of the time the trail feels like home, but every once in awhile it makes me feel like a stranger. At the close of our third week on the trail I anticipated I’d be in my hiker grove, but day 21 felt long and arduous. We’d hoped to get over twenty miles in, but the first fifteen were mostly uphill- and not the fun kind either! The trail seemed like it couldn’t make up its mind, sometimes it was straight-up and to the point; other times it meandered on the side of the mountain, seeming never to reach where it was trying to go. That morning we had slushy snow to walk on, the afternoon the trail was a muddy mess. Not all was lost though, we managed to eek out a little over 17 miles, the weather was beautiful, and the day pulled together in the end. A bad day of hiking is still pretty good! Around lunch we stumbled upon some trail magic, and met Quiet Paul who served us each a larger plate of eggs and hash browns than I ever could have expected. Garrett thinks he gave us 4 eggs each, and a heaping pile of potatoes. He also had PBR, soda, and oranges. Beer and eggs make a heck of a hiker lunch! Much thanks to Quiet Paul, who hiked the trail in 2007. As I mentioned, the rest of the day was uphill, until we got to Bald Mountain with some splendid views. After that it was finally time for the downhill, we made it a few more miles before settling into Whistling Gap for the night.