Where did you go?
I went out to the Roan Highlands - a section of the Appalachian Trail that travels along the North Carolina/Tennessee border. I thru-hiked the AT in 2017 and have been trying to return to this section of trail ever since - I actually booked this trip with flight credits from my canceled flight to do the same trek in late March of 2020.
Aside from being extremely beautiful, it just happened to host a really significant moment on my thru-hiker journey. Like a not insignificant number of people that start the AT, I was a fairly inexperienced backpacker at that point - I’d spent most of the beginning of my thru-hike very overwhelmed and pointedly not allowing myself to think too far ahead. At times it seemed unlikely I’d make it 500 miles, so I thought it was best to avoid all thoughts of 2000+.
The few weeks before the Roan Highlands were pretty miserable ones - I got norovirus in the Smokies and then it rained on me for a good 100 miles straight. I stopped at Clyde Smith shelter having just thrown up an overzealous and poorly advised hostel meal of a pint of Ben and Jerry’s and two Yoo-Hoos - I am lactose intolerant - so I was cranky to say the least. But, in a startling change of pace, it was not supposed to rain the next day and word on trail was that the next section was going to be a good one.
And it was. The joy I felt from both the beauty of my surroundings coupled with the fact I was not being rained on or vomiting just off trail was like nothing I’d ever felt before. I remember feeling like I really understood something profound about thru-hiking that day. Not only was the moment made more joyous by how miserable the preceding week had been, I also remember realizing it was a fair trade to me - I’d take the week of rain and vomiting for this incredible day of hiking along balds with a heart filled to the brim with pure happiness. I’d do it again and again. It was the first day I remember feeling like maybe I could make it to Katahdin and I’ve wanted to come back to the Roan Highlands ever since.
Miles Traveled: 21 - full disclosure, it was supposed to be more but I missed my flight and we had to do some pivoting.
Length of trip: Three days, two nights - we hiked out three miles from the trailhead our first day after a red eye flight got us into Asheville that morning.
Weather: Largely sunny, just a tad muggy and buggy - very much Appalachian Trail weather. Somehow, it waited to pour until the day after we finished.
I think there was a part of me that was worried I’d romanticized this section to such a degree that it would never be able to live up to my own memories of it - that I’d hike along and realize that it wasn’t actually as beautiful as I remembered.
But if anything, it was even lovelier. The foliage was much fuller at the end of May than it was when I came through in April on my thru-hike - the grass and trees were greener, wildflowers dotted the balds, and the rhododendrons had started blooming. A week or two later and we might have seen some fireflies. So the best moment was coming out of the treeline and realizing that the Roan Highlands can hold up to the fevered romanticized memories of a thru-hiker who’s spent six years separated from her first trail.
I also hiked to the white blaze that's been my phone screen background for six years, so that was pretty special too.
Missing my flight! I’ve never done it before and there aren’t a whole host of flights from Portland to that area of Appalachia. It meant that instead of arriving Tuesday afternoon to an evening of good sleep and time to prepare to hike in the morning, we landed at 8am Wednesday morning with just enough time for some rushed prep before heading out to the trail later that day. I can’t say I recommend hiking right after arriving off a red eye cross country flight, but desperate times.
I bought new Altras at REI’s anniversary sale the weekend before leaving, so my gear MVP is the Lone Peaks and their lack of a need to be broken in.
For a quick company plug, my partner and I both checked our packs with our Diorite poles - despite our hesitancy to trust anything carbon fiber in the hands of an airline - and both sets came through unscathed despite us watching our 60+ year old baggage agent heave our packs with the ferocity of a much younger woman and his pack getting lost on the flight home and arriving a day later. I still wouldn't recommend trusting anything breakable to airlines if it's at all avoidable.
Who would you recommend this trip to?
Living on the west coast and hiking the PCT for my second thru-hike, I find I run into a lot of folks that assume the worst of the AT. No views, no mountains, too many trees, too crowded, bad weather - I could go on. I’ve long since stopped trying to convince people all the AT has to offer, but to them, I would recommend this trip.