almost Hughes Gap to US 19E
Fleeting Moonlight Camp to Mountain Harbor Bed Camp
AT miles: 21.9
Total miles: 403.5
Elevation change: 5509ft gain, 6693ft loss
The world was wet and dripping when I opened the tent flap to check on the state of things. A big storm was on the way, so naturally I was anxious to confirm that it hadn’t arrived a day early. But all looked well. The drips were from the cloud that had settled in overnight. It was thinning already, and I could see the last few stars overhead. When the sun clambered above the horizon, casting its brilliant glow through the mist and trees, unimpeded by any cloud layer, I knew that it would be a good day. Snow tomorrow, sun today.
I started hiking in my damp-for-some-reason wind jackt, but it was mostly for looks. The temperature was pleasant even though the sea of cloud and thin mist in the trees looked frigid. I crossed the road at Hughes Gap, then with the sun blinding me half of the time, I began the long, switchbacking ascent up Roan High Knob.
My early morning legs didn’t make too much fuss about more uphill today, and the trail was gentle, so I cruised. I ate a big cookie and swigged some water whenever I stopped to peer through the tree branches at the expansive views of the cloud-cloaked lowlands. As the elevation increased, I climbed back into the spruce-fir forest that had been such a treat the day before on Unaka. It wasn’t quite as enchanting this time around, but I did start humming Taylor Swift’s song Enchanted anyway. I cut across what I assumed was the old AT several times, steep and overgrown, grateful for the gentle switchbacks.
The top came earlier than I expected, not that I was complaining. The wind wooshed in heavy gusts as I checked out the old Cloudland Hotel site, marveling both at the industriousness of the people who built it in the 1800’s and the fact that it had ever shut down once built. All that remained were a few open meadows and incomplete foundations. How did this location ever go out of fashion? The views were huge, the room rates reasonable.
The trail turned into an old gravel road for a few miles to Carver Gap. The Red Spruce forest was dense and dark. Bright beams of light were blinding, but fleeting as I jogged to stay warm.
The character of the hills changed completely at the gap. On one side, I exited the forest. On the other, I climbed up the vast and grassy Round Bald. The scenery was arguably the finest of the trail so far. At least that’s what I was thinking as I stopped every 100 yards to spin around and take another ‘best picture yet’. This strip of the Appalachian ridge, the Roan Highlands, was the tallest thing around by far, with exception of Mount Mitchell to the South. With most of North Carolina still covered in fog, and Tennessee relatively flat, the views were both surrounding and expansive. After the rain two days before, the air was exceptionally clear. I was sure that I could see for 100 miles in whichever direction I chose. I even convinced myself that I could make out the faint massif of the Smokies, far distant in miles and memories.
My pace slowed and I leap-frogged with a few day hikers. It was different and awkward, but we made it work. As I swooped down the other side of Round Bald on the wide gravel trail, I couldn’t help relating this scenery with images of the past. I’ve already made comparisons of this trail to the CDT and England, and the undulating ridgeline of grassy balds before me brought back those memories, only moreso. I was reminded of riding similar ridges for weeks at a time in Montana and Colorado, of nabbing four or five grassy peaks on a big loop hike in the Brecon Beacons in South Wales. They were all memories that stuck with me (obviously), and I was sure that these moments in the Roan Highlands would be similarly sticky.
At the top of Jane Bald, I turned on a side trail to the top of Grassy Ridge Bald. Though it added over a mile round trip, it was the tallest of the balds and, therefore, irresistible to me. I made quick work if the gradual climb, and plopped down on a summit rock for views and an early lunch. I finished off all my best food, leaving only bars for later, and watched the distant sights. I rotated every few minutes to catch a new angle. The sound of a distant chainsaw floated intermittently on the breeze, and some up-to-no-good youths made a ruckus in the nearby timber. It was all wonderful. The airy perch was strangely distant and close to so many things.
With the hot sun on my back, I made great time through the woods, then up and over Yellow Mountain. At Yellow Gap an unexpected urge to poop directed me to the perfectly timed privy at the Overmountain Shelter, which was really an awesome old barn with a huge lawn. I was grateful for the opportunity to see it, and the bedazzled privy had a great view.
The climb up Little Hump Mountain was hot and brutally steep. I bribed my legs forward with a Probar, which seemed to work, but then needed to gird myself for the bigger climb up Hump Mountain. I filled my bottles at a pipe sticking out of the ground, then followed the muddy trail to the saddle between.
Looking up at Hump from the bottom was easily my favorite moment of the day, picked from a pile of great ones. I’m not sure what it was exactly, but gazing at the gorgeous exposed ridge filled me with all the good warm feelings. Perhaps it was the culmination of all the good CDT vibes running in my veins all day. This view in particular reminded me of the climb up and over Parkview Peak, one of my absolute favorite memories from the CDT. Even just remembering that sunset grind to the top brought a smile to my lips. Comparisons and gushy nostalgia aside, this ridge ahead of me also just looked freaking epic.
I felt the newly formed heel blister pop on the way up. It didn’t sting painfully, it just tingled in a disconcerting, lick-a-9-volt kind of way. But the view was worth it of course. This was the final bald of the Highlands, and so benefited from a single view that captured it all. I was tired and beat up, but this day had been rewarding and without a doubt, my favorite of the AT so far. Max Patch was cool, but the Roan Highlands multiplied that coolness by 1000%. I gratefully soaked it all in, eating a mushy Clif Bar, then turned to the long descent to civilization.
My hazy, sun-soaked brain floated on numb stumps over frustratingly rugged trail. It was all downhill to end the day, but irregular granite wasn’t making it easy. After crossing the border and leaving NC for the final time, the tread did smooth out, and I perked up in the shade. The final two miles to Highway 19E were smooth and quick.
A few hundred yards down the road I found Mountain Harbor, my accommodation for the next two evenings while I wait out the killer snowstorm due to hit the entire trail, from Maine to Georgia. The old barn was full of friendly vibes from the two people working there. As the only guest for the evening, I had the run of the place and got the inside scoop on the quirks of running a hostel. The first splash of hot water from the shower made me groan with pleasure. I had not prepared for it to feel that good, and I lingered, telling myself that I earned a little extra water today. After pushing hard to get through the high hills before the snow hit, I was feeling a little run down and beat up. Yep, I had earned that shower. I’d earned a rest day as well. I ate a satisfying kale salad smothered in a can of black beans, then turned in for the night expecting to wake up to a winter wonderland tomorrow.