I had been planning to take a hike over the 3-day Labor Day Weekend and complete the Appalachian Trail in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. I got a couple of quotes for a shuttle but they were way more than I was willing to spend. So I changed up my plans and decided to close a big gap that I had between sections and complete the trail over Iron Mountain in Tennessee. This section of trail covers 16 miles, following the ridge of Iron Mountain between Wilbur Dam Road and TN 91 at Cross Mountain, with no road crossings in between. Here is the map of the route covered:
The plan for the hike was to do an out-and-back going from the trail head at TN91 at Cross Mountain to the road crossing at Wilbur Dam Road and return to TN91. The first day I was going to hike to the Vandeventer Shelter – a distance of 11.4 miles. There were a couple of geocaches that I could grab along the way including a 5 difficulty / 5 terrain puzzle cache. Day 2 the plan was to hike to the Wilbur Dam road and return to the shelter. Day 3 was going to cover the same ground as Day 1 in reverse.
I left out on Saturday, 9/3/11 and the weather was sunny and warm. The forecast called for scattered thunderstorms for the entire weekend, so I kept an ear open and the weather radio handy. I started out southbound from the parking lot and the first mile was pretty flat going through some really permanently boggy sections that had very nice bridges built so that you would not fall in to a mud pit. There was water available here, but I started out with a full load of water in my pack. The trail reached the ridge following this short section and started the ascent up toward the Grindstaff Monument and the Iron Mountain Shelter.
There was only one fairly steep section and I covered the ground fairly quickly and arrived at the Grindstaff Monument. The monument commemorates Uncle Nick Grindstaff, who lived as a hermit on the mountain. His epitaph – He lived alone, suffered alone and died alone. There many hikers who now pass by his tombstone every year – hopefully not quite so lonely. There was a nice cache in the area and quickly found it. I headed out to search for the puzzle cache and was disappointed that I could not find it. I could not hang out too long so I continued on to the Iron Mountain Shelter.
At the shelter I took a quick rest – and as I was looking around, I spotted a black bear about 100 yards south of where I was standing. I was looking at him and he was looking right at me. I tried to get a picture of him but this is the best that I was able to manage.
The bear is just to the right of the center of the photo – I was not able to get him in focus. I didn’t say a word but took a step to my right and the bear took off like a rocket. I guess he was a lot more scared of me. I continued on down the trail and reached the spring for the shelter about a 1/4 of a mile further south on the trail. The stream was dry, but I followed the blue blaze trail further down the draw looking for a spring with some water. Just ahead there was another bear. For all I knew it may have been the same bear that I saw at the shelter. I hollered at the bear and scared him off – The bear was probably looking for water too, but when I looked, all I saw was a dry hole. No water and with a bear in the area, I was not going to hang around looking for it.
I continued on and climbed up and over the highest portion of the ridge – above 4100 feet. I crossed a power line cut and continued on. This section was full of wild flowers and I as able to get a nice photo of one with some butterflies on it.
The section between Iron Mountain Shelter and Vandeventer Shelter passed over 2 large knobs and 5 small, but very steep knobs. Between the temps in the 80s and the sunny skies, it was a struggle to keep hydrated. In addition every place that pointed to water ended up having none or was too far down the mountain to go after. I finally reached the shelter and had about a liter of water remaining. I was expecting to not be able to get water here due to the guidebooks saying water was scarce here in dry weather. I was worried about the return trip over the next 2 days. I looked at the shelter register and it said that the spring actually had some water! Unfortunately, it was listed as 0.3 miles down the mountain, and about 600 feet below the shelter.
The trip down wasn’t bad and I was able to fill up with 4 liters of water from the tiny pool at the spring. The climb up was another matter. It felt like it took at least a half hour to climb back up to the shelter. It was all worth it and it really changed my attitude for the rest of the weekend. I cooked some supper – a mandarin orange chicken with rice and settled into camp for the night. I set my hammock up by the rocks overlooking Watauga Lake and enjoyed the sunset.
The next morning dawned with a beautiful sunrise with fog and clouds all below with the mountain tops like islands in the ocean. The weather was nice and sunny and I looked forward to a nice day hike to the road and back. I loaded up with my water and lunch and headed out. There was a “spring” – more like a puddle – 1.7 miles further south on the trail. I had enough water for the morning and continued on. The trail seemed to have an awful lot of hiking up to be headed down to Wilbur Dam Road. The ridge had long rises with steep downhills along this section. I passed a couple who was out for a run that morning. They were the first 2 people I had met during the hike so far. I continued along and started the real descent to the road. The trail was actually very nicely switchbacked so it was not too steep. This must have been recent because the old trail was still visible following the ridge line down.
I reached the road took a break and prepared to head back up to the shelter. The switchbacks were much appreciated on the way back up. The ascent from the road went from 2380 feet back up to 3600 feet at the shelter. I passed the couple from before on the way back up the mountain. Further along, I stopped at the spring and filled up with water. I wanted to avoid having to go down to the spring at the shelter. This one would not be quite so far to carry up, even though it was further to walk. I met 3 more hikers headed southbound while I was filling up with water. Closer to the shelter I spoke with another southbound hiker and he told me that the weather for Monday was a 90% chance of severe thunderstorms. I checked the weather radio and the moisture from Tropical Storm Lee was streaming up into TN. Not a good situation.
At the shelter, I had to make a strategic decision. Stay at the shelter for the night or get some miles completed to reduce the distance to cover the next day. I headed out at 2 while the weather was holding out. While on the trail, the rain started about 3:30 and started to get worse. I had already gone about 12 miles and was ready to set up my hammock and get out of the rain. I managed to stay pretty dry and was glad to be up and off the ground. The rain and clouds made darkness come pretty quickly – at least the rain didn’t seem to bad overnight.
With plenty of sleep during the night I woke up about 6;30 the next morning – I ate a quick breakfast – No time to waste. I was on the trail by 7 and covering some good ground while the rain was still light. I reached the Iron Mountain shelter by 9:30 and there was a hiker there still sleeping. He stirred and said he was waiting for the weather to clear. I let him know the forecast and let him know it was going to get worse. We chatted for a bit while I was taking a break from the rain. About 10, I headed out during a lull in the rain. There was another 4.5 miles to cover, but it was mostly downhill. The trail wasn’t too bad but was definitely a stream by the time I finished up in the pouring rain.