Highest Point on the Appalachian Trail

Share this post

The tower at Clingmans Dome.
The tower at Clingmans Dome.

In my last big post, I made it to Fontana Dam. This is the gateway to the Smokies. They’re gorgeous. The highest point on the Appalachian Trail, Clingmans Dome, is also in the Smokies. I hit it at just the right time. Amazing views.

Into the Smokies

If you remember the horrific storm and resultant snow from my last post, the snow extended into the Smokies. Right before I entered the Smokies, I got word from Optimus Prime. He’s also doing the Calendar Year Triple Crown, but he’s two or three days ahead of me. He says I can do 20-mile days through the Smokies if I allow extra time for the snow. Apparently he doesn’t know how slow I am without snow. 🙂

However, since his message, the weather warmed. It rained. Most of the snow melted, particularly at the lower elevations. I made good time for as slow as I am.

A view from the fire tower near Fontana Dam.
A view from the fire tower near Fontana Dam.

The first day I passed an old fire tower. Amazing views. I took some photos, then continued hiking to my chosen shelter. The shelters in the Smokies are rock and have a fireplace on one side. It was too wet to build a fire, but someone had hung a large tarp over the open fourth wall, so even without a fire, this shelter was comfy.

The next day I pushed on. I knew it was going to rain the following morning, so I planned to hike all day and night, hopefully completing a 21-mile hike at a shelter just beyond Clingmans Dome, then sleep during the morning rain. Unfortunately, that would put me over Clingmans in the dark, so no views.

I didn’t make it that far. It was foggy and drizzling that night. I was tired and exhausted. I decided to bail early. I started looking for the next shelter, two shelters shy of my 21-mile objective. I was a bit disappointed in myself for not going farther. Mentally I tell myself that if this next shelter doesn’t have a tarp on the open wall, then I’ll push on. Surely I could make it to the one just before Clingmans.

I walked for what seemed like forever looking for this shelter. Time and time again I checked my map. It should be right here. Hiking and more hiking. I was cursing into the night about where this bleepity bleep shelter bleeping is.

When I finally found it, it was flooded. Not entirely, just the entrance. And no tarp. Bleep this bleeping shelter. I’m pushing on.

The next shelter was less than three miles ahead. I get there. No tarp, but not flooded. And two people are there already.

“Oops! Sorry for the late arrival.”

“You OK?”

“Oh, yeah. I’m doing great.”

I setup my sleeping bag as quickly and quietly as possible. The next morning during the rain, I learn that the couple is Treeline and Captain Caveman. They used to work on the trail. They’re just out for a short loop trip.

I also find out from Treeline that Newfound Gap is closed, so I can’t exit to Gatlinburg. No big deal. I was planning to traverse the entire park before I resupply. Unfortunately, some other hikers weren’t that lucky and got hung up by the closure. More about that later.

I want to take a quick break here to note that Captain Caveman is missing a leg and is hiking with a prosthetic. Think about that. Most of you reading this have two working legs. What’s stopping you from hiking? I’m an avid caver, too. I’ve been caving with someone who was also missing a leg. He doesn’t let it slow him down. I’ve even had a blind caver negotiate a complicated vertical cave with numerous drops and ropes.

I know that a lot of you find this adventure that I’m on inspiring. What’s stopping you from having your own adventure? You don’t have to hike. It could anything that you want to do but haven’t done. Why not? Captain Caveman isn’t letting his missing leg stop him from enjoying the mountains.

I challenge you, my dear reader, to take that leap. Take that pottery class you’ve always wanted to take. Start making plans to visit Stonehenge or Manchu Picchu or wherever it is that you’ve always wanted to see. Go to that Meetup group that you’ve joined but been too shy to attend.

Do something that challenges you. Don’t just sit there on your couch, phone in hand, idly watching someone else’s adventures. Get out there and experience life for yourself. Weave your own tapestry of rich and vibrant experiences. Take that class. Get that degree. Plan that trip. Live the best and most fulfilling life that you can.

Don’t think about it. Do it.

Clingmans Dome

When the morning rain faded, I got back on the trail. The forest was still foggy, but the sun was breaking through the clouds. Beautiful sunbeams decorated the trail.

By the time I made it to Clingmans Dome, the fog and clouds had cleared. The sky was blue. The views from the tower atop Clingmans Dome were amazing. I am so glad that I didn’t make it to my 21-mile objective past Clingmans last night. If I did, I would have missed this amazing sight.

I lingered far too long, enjoying my solitary moment on this mountain top. Highest point on the Appalachian Trail. It’s all downhill from here, right? Oh, how I wish. 🙂

Soggy Socks

Back on the trail, the snow got deeper past Clingmans. It was saturated with water, both from the melting snow and the rain. It was slush. Slush is so much different than rain or snow. Water from rain mostly rolls off your boots. Snow might stick to your boots, but it’s frozen and mostly air. But slush…that clings. The snow traps the water and holds it on your boots where it slowly seeps in.

I hiked through slush for two days. My boots became saturated. My socks were soggy. My feet were cold.

I crossed Newfound Gap in the middle of the night. There were numerous cars crossing the pass. Apparently Treeline was wrong about Newfound Gap being closed. But really, it closes and reopens regularly depending on the weather. More about that later.

I stayed at the shelter just beyond the gap. That night it got below freezing. My saturated boots? Frozen solid overnight. The water-logged socks that I had been wearing? Yep. Frozen solid.

Wet socks frozen solid.
Wet socks frozen solid. My poor toes! Not because the socks are frozen, but because as fellow caver Rachel Saker says, I "isolate each toe in a miserable pocket of unhappiness." Sorry toes, but I have to isolate you lest you rub each other the wrong way. Literally.

That morning I put on my last pair of dry socks and somehow managed to slip my feet into my frozen boots. I decided that instead of stopping to sleep, I would hike through the night and get a morning shuttle to Newport where I could resupply, wash clothes, shower, and sleep. That way I would only take a “nero” or “nearly zero”, meaning I would still hike some trail miles that day, in between a full day and a complete “zero”. I felt better about that than taking a zero because I need to make miles if I’m going to complete my Calendar Year Triple Crown. I’ve had too many zeroes already.

However (you know there’s a however), my phone was dying. I have a rather large battery bank, but I already drained that charging my phone and my GPS tracker. The cold weather is hard on batteries. That day, high on the ridgelines between mountain peaks, I tried desperately to contact a hotel and shuttle driver. On one side of the ridgeline, the wind was blasting hard. So loud and fierce that I couldn’t hear anything on my phone. On the other side of the ridge, it was quiet but there was no cell reception. I had to find that sweet spot right at the cusp where I had reception, but the ridge blocked the wind.

Unfortunately, AT&T was a fickle bitch atop those mountains. 5 bars of 5G. Oops…dropped call. Now same location, no service. Switch on and off airplane mode. Now 5 bars of 4G. Call…start making hotel reservations…dropped. I hike farther and try another location. Same teasing signal then dropped calls. Again and again. Meanwhile, my phone is dying. Battery percentage rapidly dropping with each attempt. If I can’t arrange a shuttle, I can’t get into town. I desperately need to resupply and thaw out my feet.

I eventually find a spot that has signal long enough to make reservations and get a shuttle. Then I shut off my phone. No checking the map. I’ve got to hope the trail is defined enough to follow in the dark. But at some point in the middle of the night, high atop a ridge, I see the entire horizon covered in lights. Little towns. Big cities. I’m so curious that I pull out my phone to see what the lights correspond to.

My phone powers on. Battery level: 20%. Literally a second later, 14%. And a second after that, my phone shuts down. Like I said, freezing temperatures are hard on batteries. I’m on my own now, hiking through the woods in the middle of the night.

Fortunately, I made it without incident to Newport, resupplied, recharged, and was back on the trail in less than 24 hours.

More Snow (Yet Again)

Despite the day in town, I was slow, heavy with resupply. Again, I planned to go farther than I did that night. As I hiked, a thick fog enveloped me. It was so thick that I could barely the ground at my feet. Then it started raining.

There is a peak called Max Patch, apparently a very popular location on the Appalachian Trail. I crossed it at night so I didn’t get to see its full glory. Even worse, at the summit, the well-defined trail disappeared into a grassy knoll. I wondered back and forth looking for a trail. I finally found one, started down it, but noticed there were no white blazes marking the AT. Suddenly it ended at a T intersection with another trail. No white blazes indicating the direction. Clearly this was the wrong trail.

I work my way back to the little kiosk sign at summit and pull out my phone. I start walking in one direction. Phone map says I’m getting farther from the trail. Dang it. I turn around and walk the other direction. Seems totally wrong to me, but I’m getting closer to the trail even though there is currently no visible trail. Well, maybe this little indention in the grass? Nope. Still not the trail, but getting closer. Eventually, bam! Big deep rut in the grass. After a short bit, a post with a white blaze. Finally back on the trail.

It’s still raining. Still foggy. When I get to the next shelter to eat, I decide to hole up there for the night instead trying to find my way in the night through the rain and dense fog. I was exhausted. Two days prior I hiked all night without sleeping. The night in town was spent writing my horrific storm post. I had barely slept in 48 hours, so I quickly fell asleep to the pitter-patter of rain. The next morning, I woke to 5–6 inches of snow blanketing the forest.

Fell asleep to fog and rain. Woke to 5-6 inches of snow.
Fell asleep to fog and rain. Woke to 5-6 inches of snow.

That day I hiked through the snow. As I climbed higher up the mountain, the snow grew higher as well. 8–10 inches. Then a foot with occasional swathes of two foot deep snow. My boots were becoming saturated again in the deep snow.

Eventually, I made it to the shelter that I had originally planned to stay at. Just like not making it to the shelter beyond Clingmans Dome, I’m glad that I didn’t make it to this shelter last night, but for an entirely different reason than missing the views. This shelter was crap. Tiny. Gaps in the walls. And the entire sleeping area was covered in an inch of snow. If I had stayed here, everything I had would have been covered in snow. I look at my app and see that the next shelter where I was planning to stay is the same crappy design and thus likely filled with snow, too.

I decide that instead of staying at the next shelter, I’m going to push on to Hot Springs, NC. I call Laughing Heart Hostel (great name, right?) and see if they have space available. Oh, and I’ll be a late check-in. Like 3 AM late. No problem. They set me up.

I hike into the night, and the snow lessens as I progress. I actually make it there ahead of schedule. 12:45 AM. Woohoo! I’ll actually be able to get some sleep.

The next morning, I hear a familiar voice…Ice Bear who I met at my first hostel, then again at Rock Gap after my first day of debilitating knee pain. He already hiked the AT in 2021, so he’s skipping around right and just enjoying the trail.

Long story short, he convinces me to take a zero. We went to the nearby bar for drinks. They have a large “karma board” where you can pre-purchase a drink for someone. Ice Bear says there’s one for “Any Hiker” and lets me redeem it for a free beer.

We went back again that night for supper and more drinks. Ice Bear was in contact with Point7 and Bartman. They were stuck in Gatlinburg. Newfound Gap was closed again. Ice and snow. 90 mph winds expected in the Smokies. Apparently I traversed the Smokies at just the right time (assuming frozen boots and socks are “the right time”).

I buy two karma beers for the board: one for Point7 and another for Bartman. Now they have to make it through the Smokies to Hot Springs. They have beers waiting for them.

In the Lead

I made a brief post about being the leader of the NOBOs (north bound thru-hikers). Here’s a bit more detail. That day when my phone was dying, I crossed paths with Da Vinci, who was finishing a yoyo (a yoyo is when you do a thru-hike, reach the end, then turn around and hike it back the other direction), as well as Timber, both of whom were heading south and said I was the first NOBO they had seen. But Optimus Prime should have been a few days ahead of me. Meh, maybe they just missed him at a shelter or taking a zero. I also met Slug on the trail. Same thing—first NOBO he’d seen.

To lock it in, Laughing Horse Hostel gave me a free night for being the first NOBO. The waitress at the diner in town took my photo as the first NOBO they had.

Turns out Optimus Prime had to bail. Ice Bear heard from Point7 that Optimus Prime got injured in the Smokies. What? He told me that I could do 20s in the Smokies, then he gets injured doing that himself? I messaged him directly. Achilles tendinitis. He’s out 6–8 weeks. He’s not going to complete the Calendar Year. Instead, he’s switching to the Great Western Loop (five trails, 6,875 miles). Besides, he’s already done the AT twice before.

With Optimus Prime out of the CYTC, I’m currently leading the pack of NOBOs on the AT. Thankfully, my quadricep tendinitis resolved itself in just a few days and didn’t put me out of commission like his injury. Despite the fact that I desperately need to push more miles per day, I’m even more cautious, pacing myself to very slowly build up to 30+ miles per day.

15–20 Miles per Day

With that in mind, I’ve been doing 15–20 miles per day, usually close to 20. My pace is getting faster. Previously, 20 miles would take me until the wee morning hours to complete. Now, I’m able to get to camp sometimes before 10 PM.

Still, I was on top of Big Bald late at night. That was miserable. It’s called Big Bald because it’s barren. No trees or shrubs on the mountain top. The wind was fierce. Gusts nearly blew me over several times. I relied heavily on my trekking poles to keep me upright.

It was cold. My hands were getting numb. I had planned to push on through the night to ensure that I made to the outfitter in the upcoming town before they closed for the weekend. But I was so cold. I stopped at the shelter just after Big Bald and spent the night.

The next morning, I got up and was on the trail just before 9 AM. I hiked nearly 17 miles and arrived just after 5 PM. A good pace for me. I’m getting faster. I might be able to pull off this Calendar Year Triple Crown after all.

And, as of now, you’re all caught up. But my adventures continue, so there’s more to come. But before that, I need a trail name, and I need your help for that. Amy Morton was right—I am alone on the trail. There is no one around to assign me some comically insulting name based on some happenstance. Thus, I am going to need the help of my readers to select a trail name for me. Stay tuned for that upcoming post of comical names and stories.

Share this post

11 Responses

  1. I’ve been up to Gatlinburg and I never knew there was so much wilderness! Amazing!

  2. I feel you need something more than comical. I go for “The Seeker”. Think about your caving, photography, hiking! You always strive for the next thing or how to make it better. This trek has got to be about something more than just hiking a lot of miles, right? Remember the goal thing 😊

  3. Hi! I look forward to following your progress and wish you all the best with your CYTC! I’m an AT section hiker and ran into Captain Caveman before! He was a ridge runner for, I think, NJ or VA near Shenandoah maybe, I can’t remember where. He also carried a home made backpack made from a Tyvek birdseed bag. He was so interesting and inspirational! Keep on hiking!

  4. Best of luck on your adventure! I’m living vicariously through those like you sharing your experience and soon through my 18 yr old son who’s starting his NOBO AT attempt Feb 23. He’s quick, but not likely to catch you!

    I know the trail name thing is supposed to happen organically, but yours has to become “Tight Squeeze”!! 8M views! A cool story to tell and as a caver I don’t know how it won’t “stick”!

    Happy trails!

  5. YOU ROCK BENNETT! My husband and I enjoy hiking. We keep them fairly moderate hikes but will be doing a section hike from Springer to Woody at the end of March. Never have we done this but your words of wisdom telling your readers to go for it, whether you are scared of that group you joined because you are shy… I swore you were talking directly to me!! 🤣🤦🏼‍♀️ I am beyond so excited to follow you and this awesome journey you are on. I will keep your journey close to heart when we start ours, even though it’s a small, small section in comparison to yours. I am so thrilled I came across your page and honestly I cannot even remember how I did. Keep up the great work regardless how slow you feel you are. It’s a marathon not a race!

  6. “Lens Solo”. Your view thru the lens is unique and shows a true eye for nature’s beauty, and even more special as you hike alone. Just my suggestion… 😉

  7. Been enjoying your posts and pictures! Where is the VOR (FAA navigation tower) in the picture located? Thanks for the great stories. Keep up the good work!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *