After weeks of anticipation, Max, Megan, Merritt, and MacGyver (I had to find a way to join the list of M’s) were all set for a thrilling trip to the Smokies to watch the eclipse from within the path of totality. We had all read about the curious sights and sounds that come with a total eclipse, and we were anxious to experience it. At noon on Friday, Max and Megan arrived at my house to begin the carpool to North Carolina. We picked up Merritt in Staunton along the way, and with an extra hour or two of traffic delays, we made it to the Smokemont Campground around 10:30pm. The hike to our site for the night was only a mile and change away, so thankfully we were there by 11pm, in time for a decent night’s sleep. The site (#50) was good enough, and the white noise of the stream nearby was a relaxing touch after the long, stressful drive.
Despite being the last ones to camp on Friday night, we were the first ones out on Saturday morning. Saturday seemed difficult to me, after a couple months of inactivity, and looking at the elevation profile, I see why. We started at 2360ft and ended at 5870ft, with some extra ups and downs for good measure. On the way up to the AT, the Bradley Fork Trail and the Dry Sluice Gap Trail were very pleasant, with quite a few stream crossings along the way, ensuring that we didn’t need to carry a large water supply. Not far before the AT, I saw the largest, freshest pile of bear scat I’ve ever seen. In hindsight, I’m sad that I didn’t take a photo. I have no doubt that the comment thread would have become one of DC UL lore. Just after reaching the AT, we took a short side trail of of the AT to Charlie’s Bunion. There were quite a few other people there (day-hiked in from Newfound Gap), but it’s understandable, given the spectacular view. We relaxed for a while, took some photos, ate lunch, and then proceeded along the southbound AT toward our spot for the night. Upon reaching the turnoff to Mount Collins, Max informed us that he wanted to use the extra daylight to press on to Clingman’s Dome and back. The rest of us were content to enjoy a nice dinner near the Mount Collins shelter, which was quite nice. There were a few others in the shelter, and about six more in tents and hammocks nearby.
The cornucopia of nighttime sounds was a story in itself. Not unexpectedly, snoring in the shelter drove me out to set up my tent after dark. No worries, it didn’t take long. Just as I was dozing off, I hear strange music. Repetitive music. Sigh…a ringtone. And it didn’t stop. I waited about five minutes, then decided to emerge from my tent to find the culprit. Was it Max? Nope. I continued in the direction of the noise only to find it coming from a backpack hanging high in the bear cable system. After a whispered expletive, I starting bringing the offending pack down, just as the son of the owner figured out who was responsible. The father was fast asleep, and after fishing the phone out of the right pocket, the son hit the snooze button instead of the stop button. (Well isn’t that special.) He asked me if I knew how to turn it off. I said, “That depends on whether he has a passcode.” And of course, he had a passcode. So the son wakes up the dad, disables the alarm, and I return to my tent to make the best of the remaining time for restorative sleep.
On Sunday, as discussed in advance, Merritt and I took the originally planned route, and Max and Megan took a longer route that would involve more elevation and less backtracking. Sounds like they had a great time at some swimming holes. I’ll let them followup with any pertinent details. Merritt and I headed along the southbound AT toward Clingman’s Dome and stopped off at the tower just as the first film crew was setting up for the eclipse event the next day. Because the road to Clingman’s Dome was closed, we enjoyed a much more peaceful experience than we would have otherwise—at the tower and on the trail near the road. We continued southbound until turning right on Miry Ridge Trail for a relatively gentle (for the Smokies) descent to campsite #26. Per a plan to meet in the middle, my dad had driven up from Texas to see the eclipse from the Smokies as well. He was setting up his tent when Merritt and I rolled in. It was a very nice site, with three different sections (and a spring), even though it was intended for a maximum of 10 people. It would have been nicer without the three other guys playing music as the rest of us were trying to sleep.
On Monday, the BIG DAY, we all had our own plan. Megan wanted to join the party at Clingman’s Dome, Merritt wanted to watch from one of the scenic spots we had seen the day before, Max wanted to do some extra miles, and I told the group in advance that I planned to hike with my dad. We made it to the Double Spring Gap shelter to watch the eclipse, knowing that there weren’t many good open spaces for the next couple miles. There were three other people at the shelter, and we had fun learning about what brought each of us there. Around 15 minutes before the totality, things were definitely very different. The bugs seemed to become more active, the breeze picked up, the temperature dropped, and the daylight seemed to be, well, grayer. It was eerie. I set up a camera to take video of the surroundings as the light gradually faded and then returned, but it just can’t do it justice. There is nothing like being there to see it all happen. To watch the ring of fire at “night” in the middle of the day is just not describable. So I’ll leave it at that. We all signed the shelter’s log to mark the occasion.
After the light started to look normal again (even though the sun was still more than 50% covered), I continued on towards Clingman’s Dome at a brisk pace, watching the crescent-shaped shadows get fatter along the way. Almost there, I ran into Max, who hadn’t quite caught up with Merritt and Megan and was enjoying the eclipse from a scenic spot with an expansive southern view. (Later I would find out that Megan and Merritt had watched the eclipse from the path between Clingman’s Dome and the parking lot where the party was taking place.) Max and I continued on to Clingman’s Dome, hoping to score some food from the party. We got there just as things were starting to close down. I enjoyed a delicious pork sandwich (Max had two), some potato salad, and a coke. There’s something about a cold soda that I dream about on a long hiking day. I was in heaven…again. It was almost 5pm, and we still had a lot of mileage left, so Max and I headed back up to the top to continue northbound on the AT. Max’s two sandwiches were dragging him down, so I pressed on ahead, hoping to make it to the campsite (#53) before dark. I did—just barely—and Megan and Merritt were already fully settled in, as they had arrived a couple hours earlier. Max followed about 30 minutes later, and after briefly sharing our eclipse stories, we all settled in for the night, because we had an early morning ahead of us. It was a shame that we couldn’t spend more time there, because it turned out to be our favorite campsite of the trip.
On Tuesday, Megan, Merritt, and I headed out in the dark around 5am, navigating a few tricky stream crossings along the way. (Max started about 45 minutes later.) At one point, Megan insists that I stepped on a live rat, but I refuse to believe it, for my own mental health. As the pre-dawn light emerged, we were greeted with beautiful scenes of the creek flowing beside us. Once we turned left to head uphill, it was a long, slow climb from about 2400ft to 5000ft. There weren’t many grand vistas on this part of the trail, but the solitude of the woods was exactly what I imagine when I dream about the perfect day out, wandering among the trees without any evidence of civilization to bring me back to reality. Occasionally I would rejoin Megan and Merritt at a trail intersection, only to be left behind as they continued on at a slightly faster pace. On the downhill towards Smokemont, we picked up the pace just as Max came blazing by in his Bedrock sandals (which he wore the entire time, by the way). We were all excited to be on track to reach the car ahead of schedule, hoping that we could make it back home at a reasonable hour.
Thankfully I didn’t know then that my hopes would, in fact, be dashed. We had a bit of a mix-up waiting at the car for the whole group to assemble, and then we were on the road with many, MANY other people who had the same idea. Yes, it took us about 12 hours to get home (including a stop at Brickhouse in Maggie Valley for lunch), but yes, it was worth it. P.S. I found out later that a friend who returned to the DC area on Monday took 17 hours to get home. So I’ll count my blessings.
Total (standard) distance: 1-17-14-19-17 = 68 miles
Total ascent = 19,000 feet
(Megan and Max did more.)