Thursday Oct 21st 2021, 0630-1900
Cloudland Hotel Site to Jones Branch Rd, SOBO AT mm 1847.5
5930 gain, 10,375 loss
The wind really picked up overnight, making for noisy and somewhat chilly conditions. I was most happy for my tent being in the trees and close to the ground. I could hear Mud’s tarp flapping in the wind and wondered if he was cold in his hammock. It was a risky thing to camp so high, so late in the season, but it worked out. The wind that blew up from the valley was temperate and dry, at least, coming from the west. The full moon lighted the surroundings like a lantern, dancing in the clouds that rolled up from below. The dog never came back, as far as I knew. With him in the vicinity, nothing else was about all night. The bears were running scared all over Tennessee.
We were off pretty early to pack in a big mile day. I’d gotten antsy about our 25s and one short effort the day before. So I needed to prove to myself that 30s were still feasible. I’d convinced Mud that we could make it to a river resort 33 miles down trail, enticing him with rumors of a sauna. That was enough to get us going and moving fast all day. But we still had a few distractions…in a very good way.
We watched the sun come up to our right, over Roan mountain, since the trail did a funny dogleg north for almost 5 miles. Going north always makes me anxious… it’s the wrong way for us SOBOs. Finally we were headed in a general southwest direction the rest of the day, putting me at ease. The skies grew cloudy all morning and by 10 am, it was raining. The forecast had given the rain a rather low probability but in these mountains, if there’s even a slight chance, it’s going to fall. It was a light rain, giving me a chance to initiate my new umbrella.
We came to Iron Mtn gap around 11 am. Who should be waiting for us but our new favorite Trail Angel, Marlene! We raided her Prius pantry once again and she even had some cold pizza slices to give us. Her positive energy had the effect of making the rain subside so we could enjoy our break. It was so great to see her again and I hoped it wouldn’t be the last time but possibly. She was flipping up north then taking the next week off… I’d say she’d earned it.
We continued for a short bit until we ran into a trail crew building cribs alongside the trail. Who should we meet but the MAN, Mr Bob Peoples…doing trail maintenance of course. It was so crazy that we saw both Marlene and Bob 3 days before, just a mile apart in that order, then met them again in the same fashion. I think it means the two are destined to meet and become good friends. This time I got a picture with Bob…in his element.
After all the excitement mid-day, the rest of the afternoon was mostly just hiking. The trail went over Unaka mountain at over 5000′, with a nice spruce forest at the top. Called the Enchanted Forest, it would have been lovely to camp there. Next was a bald area named Beauty Spot. Sun dogs were on display on the surrounding mountains, the ragged clouds dramatic. I had to take a short break to recharge on sugar and caffeine, since the miles were starting to get to me.
A long slog of about 9 miles followed. The trail felt rough, with some rocks and roots, but it was just because I was tired. At least it was mostly all downhill…in fact we did over 10,000′ in descent this day, all the way from 6,000′ at the start to just 1800′ in the river valley (plus all the ups and downs in between). This amount of miles and elevation change was just a little too much, but we made it. I was really temped to stop at the last shelter at the 30 mile mark.
We rolled into the campground just as it was getting dark, finding the bar and grill easily since it was the only place with people about. We paid $15 each for a bunk in the 40 person bunkhouse. This time of year, mid-week, we had the whole cabin all to ourselves. I also got a chicken salad sandwich and bowl of chili, plus a $2 PBR. This place was a great deal for hikers, even if it caters mostly to car campers and rafters. After stuffing my face, it was time to hit the SAUNA! Rumors of this mythical beast were true…it did exist. I was able to foam roll and massage ball my feet while I saturated in the heat. Later Mud built a fire in the cabin fireplace. The rain began again and was really heavy. I was so glad to have a roof over my head. What an incredible way to unwind from such a long day. It was definitely worth the few extra miles.