17.5 miles, 359 overall (Cherry Gap shelter)
The night is uneventful, a nice change of pace from the last 2 hostel experiences. Uncle Johnny’s hostel was a neat place and has restored my faith in these pillars of the AT community. In the morning I pack my gear and take it outside while everyone else sleeps so I can eat breakfast on the picnic table. Other hikers soon begin to gather around waiting for the 9:00 breakfast shuttle. As they leave TW and I are putting on our heavy, resupplied packs to start hiking.
The trail takes us over the Nolichucky River and back into the woods. Unlike most trails leaving town this one is not incredibly steep and we ascend next to a mountain stream. The stream is not as great as Ogelsby Branch was, but it is still enjoyable. In only 4 miles we reach the first shelter and find Flugelhorn still preparing to get moving for the day. I discover he is a recent VT graduate and we spend a few minutes talking before he moves on. TW and I stay a little longer for a snack. The shelter is only about 2 years old and so has less graffiti than others. However 2 things catch our eyes: first, the American flag in the second floor, and second, the “pizza and beer challenge”. We take pictures of both.
We move on soon but the trail is uneventful for the next few miles until we climb to a bald called Beauty Spot. The view is amazing and we pause briefly for a snack and a break. There is a large group there including Flugelhorn who have been hiking together for a while. They have set up to stay for a while, but we want to reach the shelter early today and the big climb of the day is still ahead.
The data book says, “Unaka Mountain, dense spruce forest”. We can see the mountain from the Beauty Spot but the forest on top doesn’t look incredibly dense. On the way we do find a snake in the middle of the trail that has a salamander in its mouth – pretty neat. The climb looks as if it will be steep, but once we start it isn’t that bad. The trail has lots of switchbacks and is graded well. When we do reach the top it reminds me a lot of the Smokies. It is completely different from the deciduous forest I’m used to. I take my time passing through, enjoying the Christmas smell of the area and some of the new plant life. The forest does turn out to be rather dense, and we praise AWOL (the author of the data book we are using) for the accurate description. On the other side we go downhill and transition back to deciduous forest before we reach the shelter for the night.
The shelter is old and not appealing. We both prefer to tent if possible anyway and since there won’t be rain for a few days we set up our tents. Unfortunately while setting mine up I make a genius move and wind up breaking my tent pole. Luckily I brought a piece with me that will fit around the break and serve as a temporary fix. I make a note to call the supplier soon to find out about a replacement. Hopefully once I drop “thru-hiker” in the conversation they will replace it for free. If not I may get to buy a lighter tent after all!
TP catches up to us a short time later. He is continuing to match my mileage since our long day. The group from Beauty Spot arrives too but they plan to push on to a campsite ahead. Their plan is to zero tomorrow for 4/20 so some of them can enjoy some recreational inhalation items. TP, TW and I end up being the only ones at the shelter and we all tent. We’re in our tents before sundown, getting some good rest for a long next day over Roan Mtn on the Appalachian Trail.