Having delayed a couple days due to the severe storms in the region, I was dismayed when a small rain cloud came over at 8am while I waited at the Mountain Harbour B&B for my shuttle ride. Fortunately it was short lived, and I was on the road by 8:30am. David was great in giving me a rundown of the area, including the results of the storms and what I could expect condition-wise. Plenty of stories of inexperienced backpackers, tales of bear activity and the experiences of running an AT hiker hostel.
We arrived at Indian Grave Gap shortly before 9:30am, welcomed with postings of bear activity. I wasn’t worried, but on alert. Also, the residual weather from the storms was apparent, with pretty intense humidity, a very wet trail and a lingering fog:
The visibility was limited, but at this point, it didn’t matter since I was hiking in pretty dense forest. That didn’t change soon enough to enjoy a view at Beauty Spot in 2.3 miles, which is supposed to be the best view until you get near the Highlands.
Otherwise, the trail was pretty much a walk through a forest with a steady incline to Unaka Mountain. It was pretty evident quickly that I will be seeing some really interesting sites within the forest during this hike.
I reached Unaka Mountain, a fairly long ridge top over 5,000′ (and the high point for the day) in a couple hours. Unaka was a walk through a beautiful pine forest. I ran into a Forest Ranger/Naturalist doing a census on a rare salamander that lived on the mountain. This was the only person I ran into all day. After a short lunch on Unaka, the walk down was through a dense forest. The sun was still hiding behind the clouds. After reaching the Cherry Gap Shelter (8.5 miles into the hike), where the height of the bear activity has been reported, I took another break. It was still pretty early, and I determined at this point I could make the campsite after Iron Mountain Gap, which I had seen referenced as “The Apple Orchard” (4.5 more miles).
Shortly after the shelter, the sun finally started to peak out, and I came across the first (and only) vista of the day.
I reached the Iron Mountain Gap a bit later, thrilled to find that the elevation was actually 3750′, not the 2130′ that was reported on the AT mileage guide I printed out. After almost 12 miles, I wasn’t up for an 1800′ climb to my desired campsite! 200+ was music to my ears (and legs)! I reached The Apple Orchard at 5:30pm, definitely ready to stop after a 13 mile day.
The Orchard must have been part of an old homestead, with remnants of several old apple trees. There were even a couple buckeye trees along the trail, a warm surprise for this Buckeye! The clearing for the area included a very robust collection of flowering plants, complete with a bunch of hummingbirds getting their fill.
Unfortunately, it was too wet to make it worthwile to build a fire, but I enjoyed my cigar, nonetheless. Also, too cloudy to enjoy the stars, which I was hoping given the clearing I was camped.