Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Looking Towards the AT: Tennessee and North Carolina Between the D's

Section: Tennessee and North Carolina Between the Ds*.
Region: South
Miles of trail: 225.6
Highlights: Hot Springs, NC, Max Patch, Roan Mountain and it's related balds, Overmountain Shelter, Lake Watauga, Laurel Falls

AT marker in Hot Springs, NC. The trail along the town's sidewalks are marked with this symbol.
So you're at Davenport Gap on the northeast end of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Now what? Is it time to give up, considering you've just been through one of the most scenic places in the Eastern United States? Of course not!

There's plenty to see as you straddle the border of North Carolina and Tennessee on your way to Damascus, Virginia. Not only are there more mountains, but this is the land of the balds. Whether it was caused by aliens, fires, or (most likely) usage for agriculture and livestock for centuries by natives and non-natives, the zone between Davenport Gap and Damascus is home to many wide open spaces with panoramic views. The culmination of this is the jaunt across multiple balds and wide open spaces starting at Roan Mountain. This part almost creates the feeling of being above timberline, despite the first actual length of alpine trail occurring hundreds of miles north in New England. On good days, you can see into the great valleys and ridges of Tennessee, or mountains such as Old Grandfather in North Carolina.

This stretch of the trail is also home to a unique shelter, the Overmountain Shelter. Named in honor of the militia men from "over the mountain" who helped win the battle of King's Mountain in the Revolutionary War, this shelter is a remodeled barn. As such it's larger than most shelters, and certainly an interesting looking trail shelter. Granted, it's still a backcountry shelter, so it's no "Fontana Hilton".

If exploring the trail within closer proximity to indoor plumbing and reliable hot food is your method of choice, this segment is for you. It is here that the trail goes directly through Hot Springs, North Carolina, the first NOBO trail town that is actually on the trail.  From the point it crosses the road from a quick downhill descent, to the point it crosses the French Broad River and ducks down along the shoreline on the east bank, the AT follows a sidewalk through town. It passes restaurants, a library, and even a day spa featuring the namesake springs. For those "purists" who want to stick exactly to the trail, Hot Springs is one of the few resupply stops that make this easy for them. 

For much of this section, the trail alternates between Virginia and North Carolina, rarely more than few miles from the border. However, shortly after crossing US Highway 19E, the trail makes a turn away from the border, saying goodbye to North Carolina. It is here that Tennessee finally has exclusive claim to the trail. On the way to Lake Watauga (a TVA lake) you pass Laurel Falls, one of the highlight falls of Tennessee. The trail skirts the edge of Hampton, goes along the shore of Lake Watauga, and onwards across ridges and valleys to the VA/TN state line. Almost immediately you'll come to Damascus, VA, a town (and a state) for another post**

One of many views along the ridges near Roan Mountain, this one atop Round Bald.

Like most sections of the trail south of US 30 in Pennsylvania, we have very limited experience. I've walked the portion through Hot Springs, and have climbed to the top of Round Bald near Roan Mountain. Beyond that, I've driven past several trail crossings in the gaps from Davenport to Lake Watauga.  Judging by the terrain I've seen, it's pretty similar to what is south in North Carolina and Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and is also pretty similar to what lies north in the vicinity of Mount Rogers. I've been through Hampton and Erwn, Tennessee, both of which are with a couple miles (via connector trails and/or roads and sidewalks through town). Thus, resupplies and zero days should be more accessible in this part than other parts, without much road walking or hitchhiking required.

One thing to note is that this area has had some issues with some (not most) locals being less than friendly to the Appalachian Trail. At times in the past some parts of the trail were known to have fishing hooks at eye level hanging across the trail, while other parts of the trail have been wrecked at various times by irresponsible ATV owners. While these troubles have subsided in recent years, it's still a good idea to be wary. Places like Hot Springs, Erwin, and Hampton have worked in recent years to create a more welcoming environment for hikers, and it must be reiterated that these negative actions were the works of a small minority of people. As always, you should treat the towns and people you come in contact with respectfully, and never operate with some sense of entitlement that they are simply there for your pleasure.

*Davenport Gap and Damascus, VA
**Actually many posts. 1 out of every four steps you'll take on the AT are in Virginia.

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