This past weekend, I went with four companions on an overnight backpacking trip. We hiked 13.6 miles on the Appalachian Trail from Stecoah Gap to Wesser. Early Saturday morning, we drove to the Nantahala Outdoor Center in Bryson City, NC and left one of our vehicles. Afterwards, we drove to the trail-head at Stecoah Gap.
The air temperature was hovering near freezing as we began our hike. Two days before, there had been light snow in the area, so I expected that we might encounter a little unmelted snow and maybe some ice on the ground, but I wasn’t prepared for what we actually found. The snow was not a problem since there was only two or three inches of accumulation. It made the forest look like a winter wonderland. The extensive ice on parts of the trail, however, proved to be quite an obstacle. The ice made the trail very slippery and forced me to cut my stride-length to less than half of normal. I also had to dig in my hiking poles and watch where I planted my feet on every step in order to avoid falling.
The trail climbs immediately from Stecoah Gap (elevation 3165 feet) and continues to climb most of the 5.4 – 5.5 miles to Cheoah Bald which stands at an elevation of 5062 feet. We hiked past Simp Gap and Locust Cove Gap before reaching the top of Cheoah. There is a treeless grassy area at the top of the bald that provides spectacular views of mountains that seem to go on endlessly.
It was quite windy and cold at the top, so I didn’t linger for long. The descent down the other side of Cheoah was very steep and covered with lots of ice and snow. I was sure that I was going to fall on my backside and slide down the mountain. Surprisingly, I managed to stay on my feet and continued to hike the 1.2 miles from Cheoah to the shelter at Sassafras Gap, where we planned to spend the night. Two members of our group were a couple of hours behind us. Because it was starting to get late when they reached the top of Cheoah, they decided to set up camp and to spend the night on the bald.
I was relieved to reach the shelter knowing that we were done hiking for the day. I’ve hiked as much as 21.7 miles in a single day, but because of the conditions, this 6.7 miles proved to be very exhausting. I love hiking and backpacking, but I have to wonder whether or not I have a masochistic streak, since I continue to willingly subject myself to these difficult conditions. Sometimes, when I’m struggling to catch my breath on a steep climb, I just have to ask myself – Why? The answer of course, is that the rewards far outweigh the negatives, and secondly, I don’t dwell on the difficulties for very long.
At the shelter, we encountered a group of six men that were doing the same hike as us, but had left the trail-head at Stecoah Gap about an hour earlier. The shelter had two levels and a roof over the cooking area at the front.
We made a fire, ate dinner, put on our warm clothes, talked a little about gear and hiking, and were entertained by listening to the other group poke fun at each other. At about 7 pm, since it was dark and cold, and since we were all tired, we climbed into our sleeping bags and went to sleep.
The next morning, we were back on the trail by 8:15 am. Our second day’s hike started with a steep climb. We also encountered more ice and snow. This made for tough going, as it had on the first day. One stretch of trail was full of ice covered boulders and was particularly difficult. The day wasn’t without it’s rewards though. After hiking 2.1 miles, we reached a place called the Jump-Up where there are great views of the Nantahala Gorge.
Later, we passed through some open woods that had an impressive rock formation about 100 yards off the trail. Finally, as we approached the NOC, we could see and hear the Nantahala River as we passed some nice rock-faces.
It was a strenuous backpack and the weather was cold, but again, the rewards easily outweighed the negatives. Ready for the next hike!