Posted by: pjbarr | April 28, 2010

Tennesse Doldrums

Start: US 19E; Mountain Harbour Hostel
Finish: Moreland Gap Shelter
Distance: 18.4 mi.
Trip Distance: 406.8 mi.
Side Trips: Road walk back to trail; Jones Falls; Elk Falls
Side Trip Miles: 2.5 mi.
State: TN
Highlights: Views of Snow Covered Roans from Meadows, Jones Falls, Elk Falls, Elk River, Full Moonrise, Breakfast

Every day you may make progress. Every step may be fruitful. Yet there will stretch out before you an ever-lengthening, ever-ascending, ever-improving path. You know you will never get to the end of the journey. But this, so far from discouraging, only adds to the joy and glory of the climb. – Sir Winston Churchill

Today was book ended with highlights but the middle of it, and majority of hiking, was monotonous and frustrating. I initially had a 24 mile day in mind to reach Kincora Hostel for the evening. While other factors contributed to me stopping short of my goal, the primary reason was my late 10 am departure on account of eating breakfast at the Mountain Harbour B & B. Rumor had it that it was the best breakfast on the trail so far, and it more than lived up to that reputation. It was glorious, and I got to meet and talk with Mary who operates the B & B.

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In our conversation, I learned that my friend AWOL was one of the first hikers to stay at Mountain Harbour and that he also contributed to the building of the hostel itself. I thanked Mary for the best overnight stay yet on my hike and told her I would be back with Allison in the future. I truly had a wonderful, relaxing, fun, and filling experience at Mountain Harbour.
The trail climbed to some high meadows that had splendid vistas back to the Roan Highlands. As impressive as they already were, the sight of their balds – from Big Hump all the way west to Roan High Bluff – were covered in snow. On April 28! What a sight! I’d get a view of them later in the day and the snow had disappeared. It wasn’t rime ice alone either – plenty of late arriving hikers yesterday told horror stories of the blizzard like conditions they encountered up there. While I enjoyed my warm perch in the hostel, I’m almost jealous I missed such a wild experience!

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I enjoyed the trail as far as Isaac Cemetery, which skirted its border. The trail off and on followed old roads and would pass through several meadows. Even shortly after, a side trail lead to Jones Falls, which was much more impressive of a water fall then I anticipated and certainly worthy of a short side excursion.
Speaking of worthy of a side trip, I made the lengthy side trip to Elk Falls today. It was then that I ultimately made the decision to abandon aspirations of reaching Kincora. I reminded myself why I was out here: it was to see all the best sites in the Appalachians. This water fall is certainly one of them. I had always wanted to visit Elk Falls, and a recent reroute of the AT now took the trail down to Elk River. A mile side trip led me to Big Falls, as it is also known. Normally suppose to be buzzing with milling tourists, since it can be reached in the opposite direction by a forest service road, I had the falls all to myself. The water fall was spectacular and impressively powerful. It plunged with furry into a massive pool, far more voluminous than a typical falls. In fact, this falls drained into a small rock canyon. I heavenly enjoyed my side hike to this awesome location and it was worth the added time and effort expended. I only wish they would reroute the AT down from Jones Falls to include Elk Falls – even an old trail between the two exists. Shouldn’t the AT try to incorporate all of the Appalachians highlights that it can reach?

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Visiting Elk Falls also gave me the opportunity to visit North Carolina one last time, as I crossed the border slightly to reach the falls, a Tar Heel possession. I found a side trail that descended from the AT to the banks of the Elk River, which I found appealing and picturesque. I was astonished by the beauty I saw on the other side of the river. A Max Patch-esque rolling hills of meadows, with a few venerable old trees sprinkled here and there framing the scene. The setting was so serene. This site was as pleasing as my visit to the falls themselves. The grass really was greener on the other side, and it’s no coincidence that the other side was North Carolina.
Following my return from Elk Falls, I resumed my hike on the trail in Tennessee. At least I no longer had to specifically turn to my left when relieving myself while hiking the state border as I had grown accustom to doing the past month. This at least makes things simpler.
The trail followed the Elk River downstream for a few miles. This was scenic and pleasing. With the AT typically following ridge lines, an over bank walk is a rare treat and out of character. When the trail left the river, I left my enjoyment of it on its banks.

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The remainder of the day was a hike in and out of every possible cove, rivulet, and hollow imaginable. It was comparable to the dreaded Lake Shore Trail in the Smokies. Like that trail, today’s route had no major climbs but the culmination of three excessive, repeated ups and downs made the total elevation gain difficult to manage. The profile map makes it look flat and easy, just like the infamous Lake Shore Trail. But so far ascents do not register on profile charts because of their lack of stature. But multiply ascents and descents of 50 feet, the equivalent of 5 stories, about 50 times, and suddenly today’s hike was no easy walk.
But what made matters worse was that the trail was a green tunnel for nearly 10 miles, rarely escaping the rhododendron jungle. It was frustrating to never know my general location and have no views to assess my progress between intervals. There were very little land marks during this stretch and those that existed were very far apart. I grew frustrated, lost my motivation, and my pace slowed to a lackadaisical amble

I ate lunch at the new Mountaineer Shelter during this stretch, one of the few landmarks. This shelter was impressive – having three levels of sleeping platforms. It was constructed in just two days by the crew Bob Peoples the operator of the Kincora Hostel, known as “Handcore”. I would see other evidence of past projects completed by this industrious annual workhorse throughout my hike, though I cursed several of their excessive reroutes. I did however, enjoy both Mountaineer Falls and Handcore Falls, which they named and moved with wooden signs. I also would like to stay a night at the Mountaineer Shelter one day.

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I finally emerged from this green tunnel section I deemed the “Tennessee Doldrums” at Moreland Gap where I am spending the night at the shelter. I did get a last vista of the Roan Massif from a view point while descending to the gap. It was similar to the only other one in the stretch where trees had been cut to artificially create a vista where a bench was positioned. Also a product of Bob Peoples, perhaps he realized how dreadfully unappealing this section was. But the latter view, I could see the grassy meadow ascending the hollow up to Yellow Mountain Gap – a historic route followed by the Overmountain Men, and Allison and I on a hike over a year ago.
So while the day was dominated by Tennessee Doldrums, it was highlighted by a scrumptious breakfast send off, picturesque meadow vistas, four waterfalls, and a pleasant river walk. What a great close to a dynamic day was when I hiked to the top of a knob to the west headed up White Rock, a few hundred yards up slope to improve my cell phone reception to call Allison. I was treated to the surprise of a moonrise – an event I had never previously witnessed. But this particular moonrise was a giant ball of orange – a full moon – cresting just like a sunrise over a distant mountain ridge. What great luck – and yet another dazzling display to add to my impressive collection of nature’s light shows. For this, I forgive you Tennessee, though I won’t be back to this section anytime soon. In fact, I better relieve myself one more time for good measure.


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