It’s hard to believe that another year has come and gone but, sure enough another RAT birthday hike adventure has been completed. For those of you who keep up with such things you may recall last years 34 mile excursion was from Fox Creek to Damascus, Virginia. (Pics seen HERE ! ). Due to a recent motorcycle accident which left me with several busted ribs and injury to my right arm in May, along with some weight gain, I chose a shorter trek for this year going from Max Patch to Hot Springs, North Carolina approx. 20 miles. My friend Bol’Dar came along; I am happy to say he has never missed a birthday hike yet.
Arriving in Hot Springs around 2:30 pm on Thursday 9/9/10, we discovered that it would be after 5 pm before our shuttle driver could take us to Max Patch. This was not planned and although we were anxious to get on The Patch, we had no other choice since Daniel at the Bluff Mountain Outfitters had graciously agreed to take us at a discounted rate due to our affiliation as trail maintainers with the Carolina Mountain Club. While waiting we enjoyed some food and a cold beer at the Rock Bottom Sports Bar and Inn. The chicken/bacon/ranch wheat wrap was delicious ! Afterward we waited on time to pass by sitting on a sidewalk bench observing life in a small town that is quickly changing to a more ‘touristy’ metropolis like Damascus, VA and Gatlinburg, TN. Eventually the time came and we were dropped off at the Appalachian Trail road crossing to begin our ascent of the mighty Max Patch Bald around 6 pm.
The trail there was in great shape thanks to old friends Dwayne and Sara Stutzman who maintain that section. Having been a year since I donned a 40+ pound pack I was soon huffing and puffing up the hill to near the top but, the increasingly awesome views had a way of keeping me going. The sun was beginning to set and there were several people there when we arrived at the summit. Some were planning to camp there. I remained as long as I could, taking many pics of the breathtaking views before moving down to the treeline on the North side where we needed to set up camp before dark. The skies were quite impressive as the clouds were coming in over the setting sun. I encountered some interesting inhabitants atop a large hay bale on my way down who did not seem to mind me taking their photograph.
After the camp was established and supper was prepared, the ‘hairnt bugs‘ (cicadas or jar flies as I call them) began their ‘hairnting’ at us, reverberating echoes throughout the trees all night long. It was a cool night so I slept well but, soon discovered that I had some remaining rib pains when laying on the harder surface verses my bed at home.
The next morning after relaxing in the hammock that Bol’Dar had brought along, we began our journey down into the Roaring Fork Valley under blue skies, stopping only to get water at the first spring and taking one last look back at Max Patch from the campsite at the bottom of that first hill. I later learned that Bol’Dar had taken a fall near there and re-injured his ankle. It had been at least 20 years since I hiked this section and I was looking forward to seeing the new shelter. Coincidently the old one was new last time I was there but has since been dismantled and a new one built closer to Max Patch. The new one is unreal, the CMC definitely did a great job.
After a snack break there we did the next 2 miles or so on to the old shelter site close to Lemon Gap. It is still being used as a party camp spot which is one reason why the shelter was moved. I found the spring and after replacing the pipe, filled up with enough water to get up Walnut Mountain. After passing several nice campsites (more obvious party spots) near Lemon Gap (that I later wished I had stopped at) and meeting a nice couple and their intimidating but beautiful Boxer dog at the road crossing there, we began the climb up Walnut Mountain.
I could not recall many previous memories of the climb other than a statement I remember making back then like: ‘”around and round like the stripes on a barber pole!” This was basically true and it was not long before I was wishing we had camped back near the gap (although being that close to a road on a Friday night was probably not a good idea). It was slow, steady climbing for me but soon enough I could see the opening to the recent clear cut area on top of Walnut Mountain known as the ‘Historical Cut‘. The trail was ‘historically’ overgrown through there and just as I came off the top where I could see the Walnut Mountain Shelter, the couple and their dog we had met at the gap caught up with me. My camera batteries had died just at this point and I had stopped to change them. I was relieved to be there and as I snapped a pic of the shelter, I noticed Bol’Dar had chosen a campsite behind it and already had his tent set up !
Although I was feeling tired, I wasted no time in getting my tent up in time for supper. The evening weather was very nice but I remember asking Bol’Dar if we were going to cover the tents with our tarps then, or wait until the middle of the night and do it when it starts raining ! I would later regret that statement and regret even more not covering my tent before turning in for the night. The couple and their dog stayed in the shelter and had a nice fire going. It was all just a bit too calm.
The ‘hairnt bugs’ did not seem as loud that night and after all the miles and climbing that day, I had no trouble drifting off to sleep. This however was short lived as I was awakened in the middle of the night by the sound of multiple paws pounding on the ground coming from behind my tent. As I became more awake and aware of the situation, I had a flashback of a trip through the Smokies when a herd of wild hogs came through in the dead of the night. Somehow this sounded different. I scrambled to turn my light on and slowly unzipped my tent flap to have a look when I was suddenly sniffed and licked right in the face by a large dog wearing a radio collar with an antenna !!! Although it may not sound like much, it was rather startling at the time ! There were three dogs, all equipped with tracking collars and it seems the one female was in heat and making a lot of noise while the one male dog was on her like a bug on a glue trap, not taking his nose off her for a second. They went back and forth on the ridge between our tents barking and howling for quite sometime making it impossible to get back to sleep. Finally they moved on and it was quiet once more but this would also be short lived.
After finally getting back to sleep I was awakened once more by the sound of heavy raindrops and felt the splashing of the water through the open screen vent of the tent. I sprung into action poking myself half out of the door, unrolling the tarp and spreading it over the tent as best I could in the ensuing downpour. Hoping the wind would not blow it off, I hunkered down to ride the storm out but soon felt water on the upper side. I realized the tarp was not positioned evenly and a section of my tent was exposed so I had to make an adjustment. We managed to make it through the night but the rains did not stop when daylight came.
It was about noon before I heard Bol’Dar say he was heading to the shelter that it was now empty. I could not stay a minute longer in the cramped tent that had become our prison during the storm, so I grabbed my food bag and stove to make my way down to the shelter. My back was so stiff and sore I could barely move. It was dry inside the shelter so we had our breakfast and waited for the rains to stop. This did not happen until after 2 pm. At this time we decided that our gear was too wet and it was too late to hike any that day not to mention I was barely moving anyway, so we moved our tents from our current ‘ghetto-like’ location, on up the hill to the nicer campsite. I called this the ‘Hiker Relocation Program’. This gave us time to dry out a little and get better prepared for the next storm system (Remnants of Tropical Storm Hermine) that was expected later that night. It became sunny and very nice so, we laid our stuff out to dry and hung out in the hammock until suppertime.
Just after eating, when the light was starting to fade, we heard it. Thunder rolling a long way off in the distance. It became louder and closer and soon we could see the flashes of lightning. It was time to batten down the hatches as the show was obviously about to begin.This time I secured my tarp with huge rocks which was a smart idea as the first thing to hit was a super blast of straight-line winds, guessing gusts of 40 to 50 mph or more. This was followed by very loud thunder and lightning, limbs falling, and then sheets of pounding rain that seemed to never end.
All of this was constant and went on for hours. Somehow I managed to get to sleep despite being stung by a yellow jacket that had gotten inside my sleeping bag. It was a long night. It was all over by the early morning light when I looked out to see that we were engulfed in the cool mountain clouds. It stayed cool and windy at this altitude (about 4000 feet) so it was hard to dry anything out, so we ate our breakfast and packed our wet gear and headed down the mountain. We had lost some time staying here an extra day so we had to make up the miles today or else not make it home on schedule.
From the top of Walnut Mountain it was all downhill to Kale Gap.This was below the foggy cloud level and I remember finding a yellow jackets nest right next to the trail that was very busy as they do go into the ground this time of year. (This was to be foreshadowing of event to happen later that day) We took a break at the gap to ‘snack early and snack often’ and contemplate the climb up Bluff Mountain that lied just ahead. I recalled the climb was rather long and steep but, back in those days we did this trip on an ‘over-nighter’ and after all it had been 20 years so, I was unable to remember very much of it. It was steep but well graded and the many unusual rock formations made for a very enjoyable hike, considering I was going slow enough to see every rock, tree, and plant it had to offer !
Just as I completed the first climb to almost Catpen Gap, I was met by a large dog (who jumped up on me) and some day hikers going South. I stopped briefly at the gap, but Bol’Dar was nowhere to be seen so I continued the ascent. There were rocks and more rocks, rhodo-tunnels, huge patches of jewel weed, and some twisted, wiry looking trees as I gained elevation ascending back into the cloud level. Soon I made it to the large campsite at what I call the ‘false summit rocks‘. Knowing this was not the top, after a short rest I continued to climb. About 30 minutes later I could see the home stretch with the summit rocks in sight. Bol’Dar was already there of course, boots off, resting on the rocks and eating a snack. The top is listed at 4,686 feet according to the sign (that was not there the last time I was here) . I remember we camped just North of the summit on that trip, but the trail has been relocated since then. There is now a side trail to that spot. We took a moment to reminisce and laugh about the ‘Caramello bar’ incident that happened there on that trip some 20 years ago ! (I must add that to the ‘Trail Stories’ on trailstealth.com)
We rested for awhile before heading down the much steeper North side of Bluff Mountain. I was running low on water and knew there were springs further down the hill. We did manage to get a few small views of the mountains around us on the way down. It was a very nice day to be hiking but I did get stung again, twice in the same spot (perhaps by the same yellow jacket). We stopped at the first spring but decided to move on to the Big Rock Spring as it is nicer. You will know when you are there not only from the sign, but there is a steep set of steps leading down to the side trail to it. We filled up with water as we had been informed that there was not much water between there and Deer Park Mountain shelter. Although we had planned to finish on Sunday, taking the zero day at Walnut Mountain would now mean getting back on Monday. We knew we would not make it to Deer Park Mountain by dark, so we planned on finding a campsite somewhere after Garenflo Gap. Carrying the extra water along with wet gear made for a much heavier pack.
Continuing down the steep descent, the trail passes by a large rock formation with a cave-like area at the bottom of it, then continues by some cool looking trees (including a ‘wishbone tree‘ growing on top of a huge rock), some small springs, and more downhill. I could see a greenish gap-like area glowing in the distance,which was thought to be Garenflo Gap, but upon arriving I noticed there was no gravel road, which was somehow stuck in my memory. This was a nice spot for a snack (and for Bol’Dar to paparazzi a toad) but after that we moved on, ending up climbing another knob with some strange double blue blazes on top that had no trail anywhere near them, then on down to the real Garenflo Gap. The sign there is very informative.
I noticed some strange, metal tubes that were laying about the woods there, and some were fitted around a few of the small saplings . I instantly thought of the strange rubber tubing stretched around some trees that I passed just after Elk Garden on lasts years hike. There was a Southbound thru-hiker that called herself ‘Jinglez‘ that passed me on the way down but she was going so fast that I did not bother to stop her for conversation. The trail was very steep and narrow where we met so I said hello and moved out of her way ! It seems Bol’Dar had spoken with her already and taken her picture.
After the gap it was back to climbing yet another knob then crossing some more
old log bridges and then up again. I came upon a small dead rodent in the trail and wondered what had happened to it. Near the top of the large knob, I rested on a curved tree that was made just for such a thing. Near that was a view of the surrounding mountains. Seems you could always look back and see the last knob you just came over. In this case you could also see Bluff Mountain looming behind us.
It was becoming a long Sunday hike after 8+ miles. We knew before we left Walnut Mountain that we would not make it all the way to Hot Springs or even Deer Park Shelter for that matter. After climbing and descending Bluff, and all the knobs in between, not to mention the extra water weight, I was feeling tired yet still had this Lamb Knob thing to climb. It was apparent that Bol’Dar had not yet came across a decent campsite as I had not caught up with him. After finally reaching the Lamb Knob summit, the trail proceeded downhill on a narrow ridge with still no campsites and I was beginning to wonder if I could actually make it two more miles to the shelter or not (figuring it would be the ‘or not’) when I came to a place where the ridge flattened out for just a short distance before continuing on downhill to the next gap. There was Bol’Dar, already set up and was home for the night ! After 9 miles, I was happy to see it. It was a very nice place to camp.
It wasn’t long before the sun was setting and a new moon was up. We had our last supper and sat around remembering our journey and contemplating the final day yet to come. It was warmer here at this lower elevation, so we were able to dry out our gear and got the best night’s sleep of the entire trip. This was one of the most peaceful and quietest places I have ever been. Even the ‘hairnt bugs’ were quiet. No distant human sounds, no dogs barking in the middle of the night, no thunder or rains, only the occasional acorns falling and the light breeze that was blowing, it was totally serene.
The next morning came early enough as I was awakened by the sounds of the ‘doodle-doo`s’ and a ‘hairnt’. Just after breakfast a large group of dayhikers passed by us going North. They tried to place breakfast orders but I informed them the kitchen was already closed as it would not be long before we headed that way ourselves. We would later meet four others going South. With the lightest packs so far, we traveled down, down, to the gap and then right over to Canebrake Ridge and down again. We could look back to see the Lamb Knob and the flat spot on the ridge where had camped the night before within just a few minutes.
The trail followed the ridge, rolling up and down like a roller coaster, over one knob, then another, from one side to the other. Bol’Dar was in high gear ahead of me, evident by the slain Tree Orcs laying in his wake! After a couple of miles I entered a familiar rhodo-tunnel going down towards Gragg Gap where I knew the side trail to the shelter was. I had forgotten just how far off the trail the Deer Park Shelter was ! We took a good long break there enjoying the old log cabin that was built back in the CCC days (1930’s). There are dates carved here that go back pre 50`s. It has lovely surroundings with a great camping area out back. As much as we wanted to stay, we knew we had at least 3 more miles to go to reach the end of our journey so once again we shouldered our packs and continued North.
The first thing you see while going through Gragg Gap is the tombstones of George and Eva Gragg who were each born in the late 1880`s and died in 1940 and 1966. We paid our respects and moved on.The trail climbs out of the gap and crosses the next ridge and does more ‘roller coastering’ (as you can see by looking back) before it loses even more elevation on the long descent to Hot Springs. There are a few small views here and there of the mountains that line the French Broad River Gorge, and before long you can start to see houses. It didn’t take long for the ‘whoa nelly’ gears to get hot, so we stopped at some butt logs for a break and a snack.
Once the main ridge ends, it drops sharply, switching back and forth, down, down, down. Soon as you reach the point of that ridge, you can instantly hear the hustle bustle sounds of Hot Springs. The sounds of kids playing at the school, cars and loud Harleys, along with big trucks, can be heard as if being blasted over a large sound system . It can be a bit overwhelming after five days and 4 nights in the wilderness, but I was starting to crave some cold milk. After a few more twists and turns we got a small view of the Lovers Leap Ridge where the trail leaves town going North on the other side of Hot Springs. I tried for a close up but it was hard through all the trees. About 15 minutes later I could see the car and came out by the rock with the trail plaque on it near the old Jesuit Hostel that is no longer in operation. The local kids had been studying about thru-hiking the trail and have made an awesome A – Z display at the information sign in the parking lot. Some were very good, some were funny, and some made you just wonder, what the ??
Overall, despite the delays getting started on the first day, along with the insane rains and thunderstorms, multiple bee stings and barking dogs, not to mention being another year older, it was a great birthday hiking adventure. I am already considering locations for next year. Hairnt !
For another perspective on this hike, please visit the ‘Bol’Dar-blog’ HERE.
To view the complete collection of photo’s taken from Max Patch, visit the ‘RAT-Photo Gallery’ HERE.