Roan Highlands. My favorite part of the Appalachian Trail south of Maine. I was back and ready for a great hike, with the added bonus of hiking a new section for me. From 19E to Dennis Cove, the majority of today’s AT is remarkably different from the miserable piece of trail I hiked in 1999. These four days lived up to my hopes and then some.
Sunday, June 12, 2011
Upon arriving at the packed parking area, Dewey and I got our obligatory photo at the Carver’s Gap sign.
I stepped off around 1:30 and was immediately struck by the realization I had never walked the Roan Highlands in late spring. I had never seen the balds covered in rhododendron before.
As I headed up the hill into a section of conifers, I had to take extra breaths now that I was higher up than Denver, Colorado. But the views and weather would prove to be more breathtaking. The blazing orange of flame azalea competed with the pink of rhododendron for control of my imagination.
But distant thunder quickly gave way to a freezing cold rain. It only lasted about five minutes, leaving streams where the trail had been and much wispy cloud cover to play peek-a-boo with the views beyond.
The running water along the trail shone silver in the distance.
Even so, I was still treated to many good views that slowed my pace as it always does. Once I headed downhill I made good time to Stan Murray Shelter, where Dewey and I enjoyed a brief break.
I then pushed on, making good time to Yellow Mountain Gap. I quickly headed down the side-trail toward Overmountain Shelter. I first headed down the blue-blazed access trail to the beautifully flowing piped spring and filled up for the evening.
I then headed on to the shelter, the old barn that offered one of the finest views along the trail.
Thunder rumbled in the distance, and I was just able to hang my hammock and rig my tarp snug before the skies opened up with a fierce storm.
Dewey sat and wondered how long the rain would last.
Eventually, he convinced me to cook dinner in the shelter before we headed out to the hammock to sleep. He agreed to keep an eye on it for me while I looked over the register.
About 45 minutes before sundown, the storm ended and the view to the southeast opened up.
Once I wrapped up dinner and chatting with the several other hikers in the barn, I headed out back to my hammock, where I slept soundly.
Monday, June 13, 2011
I was up later than usual, nearly 8 am. I pulled down my rig and packed up fairly quickly. I sat eating breakfast and noticed nobody else had left yet either. The balds to the north were still socked in with clouds and many of us sat hoping that the sky would clear up, allowing for better views. About 9:15, most of us headed up with the summits above us mostly clear. This allowed a great view back to the shelter as I climbed up Little Hump.
Still, as I neared the summit, clouds rolled back in, and views dropped to about 50 feet.
However, I pushed onward, down into the treeline as I neared Bradley Gap. By the time I reached the Gap, most of the clouds had cleared away, revealing Hump Mountain above.
Dewey and I stopped for a break before we began the last climb of the day.
As we began to climb, I was struck by the sheer number of wildflowers in the tall grass.
The 650 foot climb is always tough on the legs, but easy on the eyes. The view from the summit was spectacular as usual.
Then I pushed on down, passing two large scout groups heading south. I made good time down in the treeline despite the rocky trail. As the trail grew smoother, I pulled into the small field and views at Doll Flats.
There I took my final break for the day. While I headed 300 yards down the blue blazed access trail to the spring, Dewey climbed a gnarled tree and proclaimed himself king of Doll Flats.
Then we pushed on the last three miles to 19E. Half a mile before the road, I stopped briefly at Apple House Shelter to sign the register among a dozen scouts sprawled there. They were friendly, but I was looking forward to checking out the hostel at Mountain Harbor. Once I reached 19E, I turned left and walked .3 miles to the hostel.
The bunkroom was full, but I was able to hang my hammock, complete with shower & towel, hostel common room access, and a shuttle to town for just $8. I quickly pronounced Mountain Harbor a great deal. While the best sites were already filled with tents, I found two excellent trees over the old woodpile.
Dinner and town followed, with Bob’s Dairyland offering an excellent burger. Back at Mountain Harbor, I bought some Gatorade for me and Yoohoo for a very happy little bear.
We both retired to our hammock happy.
Tuesday, June 14, 2011
It had been 12 years since I had hiked from 19E to Dennis Cove. It had been a long, rainy, miserable day, filled with trail that went straight up and straight down every little ridge, took hikers up a road where disgruntled locals turned their dogs loose on me and every other hiker that walked through, and offered a generally mind-numbing experience. It had been a little over 19 miles then.
Now, this section covered nearly 25 miles, but followed a mostly different path, complete with elegant switchbacks, a new shelter, and two new waterfalls, one of them the tallest on the entire AT. It would prove to be a wonderful two days worth of walking on mostly new trail for me.
As I stepped off, I immediately noticed that I was hiking up switchbacks. There were NONE when I walked this section 12 years earlier. I silently thanked Bob Peoples and his Hard Core crews that did pretty much all the trail maintenance and building in this section. I remembered the walk up through the steep cow pastures in this area.
But once I neared the road where the “dog walk” had occurred, the trail quickly crossed the road and headed back into the woods. A couple of miles later, I turned the .1 mile side trail to Jones Falls. I was expecting a small cascade. I got magnificent, tall, multi-plunge falls that took my break away.
I headed away with a bit of awe, thinking that the awful trail I’d hiked over a decade earlier had transformed like a caterpillar into a butterfly.
I pushed on, making good time to the newly built Mountaineer Shelter. It is a 2 ½ level model near the modest Mountaineer Falls. Dewey sat and chatted with a cousin, a chainsaw-carved bear on the second level.
It was only 9 miles into the day and 2:45, so I decided to push on. I figured there were several possible sites listed in the guidebook, so I headed on, keeping my options open. I stopped for a few moments at a steel, lattice-work bench dedicated to “Vango”. From there, I enjoyed a magnificent view.
I pushed on another half mile until I reached Laurel Fork. Aggie Al, whom I had met back at Mountain Harbor, was camped on one side. I pushed across the bridge and hung my hammock catty-corner to his site.
It was a wonderful campsite, the best I’d had on the trip. I cooked dinner, read, and rested until I drifted off to sleep a bit before dark.
Wednesday, June 15, 2011
This was to be my last day on the trail, and as usual, I woke up a bit earlier than usual. I still didn’t get to walking until about 8:15, but it was my earliest departure of the trip.
This section consisted of much more of the trail from 1999, and I was ready for many ups and downs. In reality, the trail contoured around many of the peaks it had gone directly over in the past. I was distinctly pleased.
Though the rhododendron and azalea of the highlands was behind me, I passed several stretches still blooming with mountain laurel.
I made good time to Moreland Gap Shelter. The .2-mile walk down to the water source was a minor expedition, but the piped spring was a thing of beauty. After an early lunch, I pushed on.
The trail was getting rockier and rougher, but I was still making good time. I stopped for a quick photo at an overlook about 3 miles from Dennis Cove Road.
Just as I snapped the photo, the first roll of distant thunder sounded. Dewey highly suggested I move on smartly, and I did. Still, it wasn’t enough. The sky darkened, the wind picked up, and about a mile from Dennis Cove Road, sprinkles began to fall. I pulled on my pack cover just before marble sized raindrops began pouring down. A bolt of lightning struck about 300 miles ahead and just above me. Dewey shouted in my ear, “Faster you! MOVE IT!” Once again, I followed his direction gladly.
The last little stretch got quite rocky, but I still moved on swiftly. As I entered a little clearing with the remains of an old log-style barn, I knew I was nearly there. The rain was light as I reached my truck at the trail crossing.
From there, I headed up the road to Kincora Hostel. There I saw several faces I had known over the last few days.
Dewey gave two paws up to the accommodations.
I cleaned up and claimed a bunk for the night. I happily stayed there, reliving memories from walking in during a long rainy day a decade ago. In the morning, I would give my buddy Hooch a shuttle from Dennis Cove to the 19E trailhead. He too would get to experience this new and very nice stretch of trail. Dewey and I would head for home.