Bald and Beautiful on the Appalachian Trail
Some weekend trips just work out perfectly. Sometimes you expect tough climbs or bad weather, or that you'll have to sleep in a cold car the night before you get on the trail. And sometimes you get a bed & breakfast and a beautiful sunset on a stunning bald.
My friend Sherry and I were going to drive up on Friday night to sleep in our cars at the trailhead and get an early start on hiking a section of the Appalachian Trail on Saturday, but after a little sleuthing on forums and Facebook groups I was tipped off to the Mountain Harbour Inn bed & breakfast and hiker hostel. By the time I called the hiker hostel was full, but they offered up a room in the B&B.
We arrived at the Mountain Harbour Inn late on Good Friday - around 8:30pm or so. The owner ushered us in with hushed tones explaining one patron was already in bed. Sherry and I had made good time carpooling from Durham, chatting happily about anything and everything. The roads were good and direct - our final road 19E was a highway and took us straight through Banner Elk to the B&B in Elk Park where we bunked up in a beadboard-lined room that looked out over the highway and large parking lot.
Breakfast was at 8am but it was a full house so at 6:40am I caught the first whiff of good things from the kitchen - toast, and then sausage, and then bacon. By 7:30am the house was bustling with activity - hikers happy for a warm meal and company, weekenders excited to hit the trail - and from my view of the highway I could see even more hikers coming in.
The breakfast itself was INSANE - a whole ham, scrambled eggs, egg casserole, blueberry pancakes, thick sausage, apple turnover, coconut cake, and so much more - and well-deserved the reputation of best breakfast on the Appalachian Trail. Sherry and I sighed with happiness over our breakfast, and we almost considered just staying in that cozy mountain home for the weekend, but the shuttle to Carver's Gap was leaving at 9am and it had two spots reserved for us.
We piled into an old Suburban with a father and daughter from Wisconsin and enjoyed hearing about their stories - the daughter a college student at Appalachian State, the father visiting for the weekend and telling stories of hiking in the cold northern hills. The shuttle dropped us off in a parking lot tucked away from the road where the trail rose through fir trees with trunks spiked with broken branches before popping out on a breath-taking bald.
It was almost unfair to get such beautiful vistas so quickly and so easily, but the trail stretched onwards and upwards through Round Bald and Jane Bald and Grassy Ridge Bald, and we chased the trail and the views through the scrub and over loose rock, until finally we reached the trees, and Sherry and I both stopped in shock.
I had expected much of the trail to still be barren from winter. Several people had said this section of the AT is best experienced in June when the wild azaleas are at peak color, but as we entered the trees the trail was lined in green and white, the forest floor covered in spring blooms. Spring beauty. Fairy spud. I didn't know its names at the time, but the forest was thick with tender little white blossoms that greeted us from the underbrush with a smattering of yellow trout lily and white quatrefoil bloodroot and gentle violet.
At Yellow Mountain Gap we found a yellow dog who padded to its owners hiking up from the Overmountain Shelter, a converted red barn from the era of farming in the area. We didn't stop to see the palatial shelter; we could hear the noise from rowdy hikers a mile up the trail so we chose to push on, up and over Little Hump Mountain.
From there the trail wound through the trees, skirting more wildflowers and teasing our tired feet with the promise of water and campsites. Winter and summer were both at our heels. Winter nipped at us with every passing cloud and summer exhaled hot breath on us from every cloudbreak. Hot, muggy air rose from the valleys as we pitched forward and upward, tripping up the trail. We finally stopped halfway up Hump Mountain, camping out on a beautiful bald knob while the wind whipped around the behemoth mountain along our northern route. In the morning we would finish the hard ascent and then coast down almost 2600 feet to Elk Park and that wonderful bed & breakfast, but until then we set up camp exposed to the wild wonder of it all.
As we pitched the tent and boiled water for dinner Sherry kept laughing at me. "You look so happy!" And I was happy. I was.
It was cold on the bald in the evening, but we had the perfect vantage point to watch the sun sink over the jagged horizon. The sun set in a blaze of red, pink, lavender, and blue and I had to admit: there was nothing like watching that big red disc sink perfectly and unstoppably below the mountain horizon. There was nowhere else I'd rather be than right there, right then.
On Easter morning I watched the sun rise over Hump Mountain, a great easterly lump that blocked much of the morning glory until the sun was a full fifteen degrees risen and all the surrounding hills were crowned in gold. If I'd been smart I would have climbed Hump Mountain before dawn and watched the sunrise from the summit, but I wasn't smart, and it was windy and cold and I barely tumbled out of my tent in time to see the sun rise over the mountain's slopes.
After a nice breakfast of oats and tea we again headed northbound, but the trail threaded easterly and we climbed up Hump Mountain as the great yellow morning eye first glared at us, and then watched our ascent reproachfully, and finally opened to us at the peak.
From there it was all downhill, and we proceeded northbound on the trail into Doll Flats and Tennessee and Elk Park while a hiker by the name of Curtis fell in line with us.Curtis told us stories of working in construction near the railroads in Pennsylvania and hiking the Appalachian Trail twice - in 1996 and again this year - and hiking the PCT and bike-packing from New Mexico to Canada and from East Coast to West Coast, and all the spaces in between, and as we hiked past fringed phacelia and trillium and phlox and Dutchman's breeches I felt my feet grow light and my heart swell with his tales on the trail, and before we knew it we had reached the highway where kids with their parents handed out dyed eggs and chocolates from their pick-up truck and Sherry and I turned left back to the B&B and our daily lives.