Click for interactive map of route.
We started clockwise in cruise control along the air-conditioned ridgeline of the AT Interstate. Eventually, with map in hand, we ventured off the beaten path and encountered some delicious blueberries with evidence of bears on the unmarked and unfrequented trails of Rocky Fork. Before leaving the state property, we made an excursion to check out Hidden Lake tucked away at 4,000'.
From Bearwallow Gap, we pieced together our route over grassy forest service roads to a mile-long creekside bushwhacking descent to some lower roadbeds pouring out onto pavement and leading to the Nolichucky. Here at Uncle Johnny's, halfway through both the loop and day two, we sought out ice cream and local input on the frequency of freight trains through the gorge.
We followed the railroad to Lost Cove for a few miles. Fortunately, we didn't encounter a train. But the ruthless afternoon sun and rough footing made for a mandatory river cool-down session halfway to camp below the abandoned logging town. We still made camp with plenty of daylight for another post-dinner swim to rediscover how inflatable sleeping pads make great river floats.
A storm eventually chased us back to our camp where we spent the remainder of the evening listening in awe to thunder echoing through the gorge and watching the wind sculpt veils of rain. Shortly after dark, two trains rumbled through and shook us in our rocky roost. Come morning, we toured the rusty remnants of this remote ghost town before climbing up to rejoin the AT near 19W.
Afternoon rain passed over us near High Rocks, but cleared by the time we reached the summit of Big Bald. We enjoyed a grand 360-degree view for dinner before continuing on our way back to Sam's Gap by nightfall. The trek was everything we hoped it could be. More than ever, I'm grateful for these lush mountains that still feel like home.