Since I have completed half of the trail and I have some time I’m going to name the best and worst of the first half of the trail. Note these are my opinions and, as such, are completely subject to my preferences as well as my particular experience. So, without further ado, here they are!
Best mountain: Hump Mountain, with Unaka a close second. Hump was incredible because it was a tall bald with a great 360 view and a Scottish feel. Unaka was unique because of the spruce forest on top and, given another chance, I’d camp somewhere on it instead of moving on.
Best stream: Ogelsby’s Branch. The trail follows its cascades for quite some time. It was raining when I hiked it but for some reason I think that made it better.
Best section: The last several miles into Hot Springs where the trail follows the contours of the land about halfway down the ridge, making for a stream crossing every few minutes as it moves into and out of each watershed.
Worst section: The jungle just before the Roller Coaster.
I don’t think I’m being a spoiled hiker when I say that the maintainer there needs to get on the ball.
Best moment: Leaving Carter Gap shelters there is a tunnel of mountain laurel as the trail climbs a bit. On the right was a side trail through the mountain laurel to a view. I reached the spot at about 8:15 in the morning when it was still foggy but the viewpoint was above the fog. Laid out in front of me was a sea of fog with mountaintops poking out of it. I stayed there for almost 30 minutes enjoying the view and the calmness of the morning.
Best waitress: Hands down, has to be the Ice Cream Goddess in Hot Springs. Close second goes to the woman at the NOC who told me I didn’t smell bad.
Best town: Hot Springs. The town seems to absolutely live for hikers. Everything is on one main drag very close together and there is plenty to do, including a bath in the hot springs.
Worst trail town: Duncannon. It is technically past the midpoint of the trail but since I’m writing this now I’m including everything I’ve done up to now. I can’t decide whether the Doyle is a mark for or a mark against Duncannon. Overall it is probably a slight positive, but I didn’t see much else redeeming about the town. Of course I was only there for a few hours, but I didn’t feel a need to stay longer and that is perhaps the most telling evidence.
Best sunset: Max Patch. Beautiful colors and great company.
Best sunrise: McAfee’s Knob. It took some work, but it was worth it.
Best hiker moment: Bunny entering camp the last night I hiked with her. It had been raining and everyone else was already at the shelter. She came walking up and I was expecting her to be soaked, tired and depressed. Instead she was soaked but she was incredibly happy and as we all yelled, “Bunny!” she got the biggest smile on her face and told us how she liked being the last into camp so she could hear everyone be excited when she arrived.
Best hostel: Woods Hole. Great caretakers, good food, fun atmosphere, and dogs! Bear’s Den is a close second – another good caretaker, cool building with historical-ness and a lounge area, and the hiker special.
Worst hostel: Standing Bear. Besides a hiker almost peeing in the bunkhouse, the staff seems to spend all day (or at least all evening) drinking. Although I liked how the place looked, overall it just felt sketchy. I haven’t met too many hikers who came away with a different opinion.
Did I miss anything? Let me know if there is another superlative that should be included here!