The Standing Indian Loop, Day II
The second day dawned crisp and sunny through the newly budding trees of Beech Gap; the night had proven to be nowhere near as cold as the previous one. Sylvia reported no issues with her ‘manos’ and was generally in better spirits, the lingering effects of her fall having passed on like bad weather.
We filtered some more water (easily done with the new hydration system, which can net a whole gallons worth in 20-25 mins with little effort.) Then we broke camp and were once more on the AT.
We had a good ten miles to go today, making it likely the longest trail day of the trip (the first day had clocked in slightly under nine.) The big unanswered question was where he would stay that night…Albert Mountain summit, the most difficult obstacle on the trail, was nine miles down the trail. If we felt strong, we’d go on past it to Big Spring shelter. If not, we could always camp this side of it in Betty Creek or Mooney Gap, or wherever we could find water.
This morning’s trail, like the previous days section, was pretty easy. We passed only one section that could be termed modestly rough and water sources kept coming up at frequent intervals. There were no steep grades at all. We passed only two hikers.
Just a couple hours of walking brought us to Carter Gap, where there are more campsites and a shelter with a privy. The privy is quite rustic (there is no door…just a seat.) But hey, when you gotta go…
We moved on from Carter Gap, headed for Betty Creek Gap, some four miles distant. Depending on our speed over the next section we might stay at Betty Creek, or perhaps further on around Mooney Gap where there is a spring. If we made good time (as was my hope) we would clear Albert Mountain entirely and push on to the next major shelter at Big Spring.
This section again turned out to be quite modest. The trail follows the crest of the Blue Ridge across Ridgepole Mountain, where it walks the very center of the ridge line. There would be some amazing views all along this ridge if not for the wood in the way…as it is, there is only one view accessible by an obvious side path but it’s a great one. From that spot, you can see much of the rest of the day’s hike ahead of you.
Albert Mountain lies ahead. But between us and it lay a mountain that surely would win the approval of Sir Mix-A-Lot, — Big Butt. It looked quite rugged in the distance.
Here, yet more chicanery ensued. It turned out a certain person had left the camera on yesterday when putting it away, thereby draining the battery, thereby rendering it useless. And we had no means of powering it back up (none of our charger cables fit.) Which meant that Sylvia had carried this delicate and weighty piece of equipment all this way effectively to get a mere half dozen pictures from Standing Indian Mountain. Sylvia lectured the person in question at length as to the correct operation of ‘any piece of electronic equipment’ which need to be powered off before storage.
We were however able to use our back up cameras and the GoPro, so all was not lost.
Leaving Ridgepole Mountain the trail descends toward Betty Gap. Here on the downhill stretch I turned a bend and noted a hiker in the distance moving quite slowly and surmised maybe there had been an injury. However, when we caught up, it turned out to be a woman who could not have been much less than 80 years old, hiking alone. Sylvia expressed some concern and dismay over this, but to me she seemed to be doing just fine. The Appalachian Trail is NOT just for the young by any means, and in fact the age record for completion of the entire AT currently is held by a man of 82 years. Hiking is a passion that can be indulged in by people of all ages.
Betty Creek Gap turned out to be a small clearing in the trees, the least impressive of the camp areas we had seen. There were a few hikers milling around here looking for the water source that was supposed to be nearby. Though water is available continuously on the SIL, it is not always easy to find. A good guidebook helps. We spoke with an AT thru hiker ten days out of Springer Mountain who had all the guides downloaded to his phone in PDF form. It began to dawn on me that, well, maybe not ALL technology is the work of the devil after all.
It was still early and so we decided to push on all the way to Albert Mountain. From Betty Creek Gap the trail becomes steeper, and the next two miles (until just after the Albert Summit) are by far and away the toughest of the 24 total. The trail ascends a steep pitch to Mooney Gap where the dirt road to Albert Mountain crosses…several jeeps and trucks passed through in a rush of dust and pebbles, so this is obviously a well traveled road. Just past the gap is a flat, open area with a piped spring, where any number of people could camp. This place could be used as a stopping point if you decide to leave Albert Mountain for the morning of the third day. In fact, if the weather is bad, I would consider stopping here…since the best views are just ahead, no point in pushing on to a socked in summit if there’s a chance it’ll clear up the next morning. But we had both clear skies and plenty of time and so we pushed on past.
Past Mooney Gap the trail gets rougher and passes a series of dripping rock slabs and cliffs, the some rocky areas that were visible from Ridgepole Mountain. No trip report I have seen makes mention of these, but they are in fact very cool and among the highlights of the trip. A few sections are also rather hair raising as the trail itself approaches quite closely to the cliffs, and sometimes traverses undercut banks, below which are serious drop offs. There are some good viewpoints here into the secluded valleys below, which are part of an experimental forestry area.
On past the cliffs and the trails again meets the dirt road, then winds through Bearpen Gap, steepening as it goes. There is a view of the distant tower atop Albert Mountain somewhere in here. After the last conjunction with the road the trail launches abruptly up the last pitch to Albert Mountain, and this is the steepest scramble of the whole trip. It’s part high log steps and part rock scrambles the whole way, some of it hand over hand. But it is mercifully short….maybe 150 yards at most. The last pitch ends on an exposed rock ledge with GREAT views, after which the trail breaks back into the trees and emerges again at the base of the tower.
Here there is a natural viewpoint (cordoned by the chain link pence) as well as an interpretive sign and, up on the tower, plenty more view of a more assisted sort.
A gentleman who was finishing a section hike of the entire trail was camped here, his tarp was a short distance from the tower. You can camp here or near about, but if you do, you will need to carry in your water for there’s none on the summit.
We couldn’t stay long at Albert and did not have time to explore the tower…we’ll leave that for another trip. On down we went, down the backside of the mountain, which while steep is definitely NOT a scramble. In fact the trail is so wide I figured it for an old road and had to ask an approaching hiker if this was in fact the AT (it is not blazed, but the trail is quite obvious.) The steep pitch is about one hundred yards in length this direction, and once it levels off, the hard work of this day is over.
I have seen at least one description of this trail that recommends doing the loop in the clockwise direction specifically to avoid climbing the steep pitch I just described, and instead ascend the less challenging northern slope. I have no idea why you would want to do this. Unless you are a mountain goat and have no fear of mechanical injury, or are just plain lazy, I have no idea why anyone would want to make the dubious trade of a less strenuous uphill in exchange for a very steep and potentially dangerous downhill section. Maybe it’s just me; with my ‘trick knee’ I spend a lot of time thinking about the downhills, while it seems most other hikers spend all their time thinking about the uphills. Yeah, hiking uphill is harder, but downhill is more dangerous (most injuries happen on the descent) and more damaging to the knees and feet.
At any rate, we had no trouble with either section. And if you don’t want the views at all, the whole summit can be bypassed by walking the road.
After Albert Mountain we reached what we thought was our day’s destination — Big Spring Gap — very quickly, and here discovered that it was NOT our destination. In fact, here was the crowning bit of chicanery that would happen during this whole hike…there is no shelter here anymore at all, and camping is not even allowed at Big Spring Gap. The Big Spring Shelter had been removed in 2012 and relocated, and the new shelter – now named Long Branch – now sits over a mile distant down the trail. Any recent guidebook or map would have told us that.
But I had no guidebook with me, and my Natgeo map must have had outdated information…for it showed the Big Spring Shelter to be still located right where it wasn’t. And in Big Spring Gap (which is, by the way, right around the Hundredth Mile of the AT, Northbound) there is no sign telling you any of this. This is what the sign DOES in fact say…
…Glassmine Gap being the end of the AT for us, much further than we wanted to go. There is as you can see no indication of how much further you have to go to get to the shelter.
We kept going and I kept expecting to see the shelter right around the next bend, and I kept being disappointed. It was now almost 6 PM. My foot had started to hurt after the last downhill. We were losing the light, were nearly out of water and had no place to camp. I kept second guessing myself that we had passed the shelter somewhere and missed it, despite the fact that every other shelter and gap had been clearly marked. Sylvia postulated (correctly) that a certain person had ‘miscalculated’ the location of the shelter and that it was further than said person had thought. All we could do now is keep walking.
But first I had to do something about that aching foot. Experience has taught me that no matter how much of a rush you think you are in, leaving a hot spot on the feet untreated and trying to push through the pain is a bad idea. So I stopped and took off the shoe only to find that one of my toes had managed to poke right through a hole in my sock liner, and was basically being garroted. I took the sock liner off, applied a handy butterfly bandage…and the foot instantly felt better.
Not long after the ‘foot repair’ break, we began to hear rushing water in the distance. This boded well, and raised our hopes that the shelter – which figured to be near water – was just ahead. This time our hopes were not dashed. The stream in question was Long Branch and the shelter was right beside it.
We pulled into camp at 6:15 pm. The shelter was, for the first time that we saw on this trip, full…we took the last available ‘real’ campsite down at the bottom of the hill. Between the shelter, tent campsites and at least one guy who strung a hammock between two trees, probably two dozen people went to ground at Long Branch that evening. It was quite an active place.
One of the few issues we noted with the Sawyer hydration system is that if you have a very shallow water source, it’s hard to scoop up enough water to fill the collection bag. This is one problem you don’t have with pumps. But there was no problem at all in Long Branch…we filled up directly from a pure mountain cascade. In fact the water was SO pure we took what remained after the trip home and continued to drink it for days.
From the tent site we had partial views down the Long Branch back toward the valley of the Nantahala and the campground…where, next morning, we’d be headed.
All in all, a very good finish to day two, by far the best day on this trip. Now, all we had to do was hike out to the car. Hopefully avoiding any further chicanery on the way. From here on in it figured to be all downhill.
Next…The Downhill Run