max patch to hot springs.
Seeing a rattlesnake and a bear in one single weekend backpacking trip can make for a pretty interesting time. Never in a million years did I think I would see both, in one day, if even at all in my lifetime.
Welcome to the woods…
It started as a regular Friday morning at my office catching up on emails. I was antsy, excited, packed up, and ready to get out of town and into the wilderness for the weekend. Getting off around lunchtime, I quickly headed home. We immediately hit the road with Winston Salem in our rear-view mirror, nothing but the mountains ahead.
Luke, Lavella and their dog Hilary Duff were meeting us in Hot Springs, NC. We were going to car pool from there, leaving one car at Hot Springs, driving the other to Max Patch Mountain. We were to endure a 20-mile hike over the course of two days on the famous Appalachian Trail - from Max Patch Mountain back to Hot Springs where the other car awaited our return.
Arriving in Hot Springs a bit before dark, we ate dinner at Spring Creek Tavern. After we loaded up on carbs and enjoyed a nice band playing on the deck, we headed back to Hot Springs Campground to set up camp and spend a night to prepare for an early start and a long day of work ahead.
Hitting the road around 7:00 AM, we arrived at Max Patch mountain at about 8:00 AM and hit the trail immediately.
Day one we hiked 12.10 miles. It was hot, uphill, downhill, and oh yeah, we saw a freaking rattlesnake ON THE TRAIL (more info on this later). We had a blast going through the unique forest on this section of the Appalachian Trail. Bordering the Tennessee and North Carolina states, we saw a lot of different bugs, wildlife, trees, and shrubs.
Continuing to head North on the Appalachian Trail, we made our our way through Roaring Fork, with the next stop being the Roaring Fork Shelter. This would be one of three shelters we would come to before getting back to Hot Springs, and is 1.9 miles from Max Patch. We stopped here for a quick break and snack.
Once packed back up, we hit the trail again and made it to Lemon Gap (Elev. 3,550). Crossing a few bridges, small streams and beautiful rhododendron tunnels along the way, I was in the lead and making serious headway with the team behind me, and Hilary Duff running a short distance in front of me. We had just crossed the service road at Lemon Gap, called Round Mountain Road and were somewhere in between this road and the next shelter, Walnut Mountain Shelter. This is when out of the corner of my eye I saw a tail. Not just any tail, it was a rattle tail. Stopping dead in my tracks, my mouth was open but I couldn’t speak. Immediately the group stopped and realized what was beginning to curl up and get pissed off a short distance in front of us, was in fact, a rattlesnake.
Hilary Duff was ahead, putting the snake in between us, and her. She began to growl and we immediately made her sit down and stay - figuring out our next plan of action. Keeping the dogs focus and a close eye on still very pissed off and shaking his rattle, rattlesnake, the guys were able to maneuver up, over, and around the trail to safely grab the dog. Once we had her safe, we had to figure out how to get around this thing ourselves.
Not having really done much research on rattlesnakes and what to do when you encounter them, we decided to try to scare him so he would move to a position that we could safely get around him. Throwing rocks and large sticks, Mr. Rattlesnake eventually slithered away to a distance I felt comfortable getting around him at. This whole process took about 30-minutes and completely changed the morale of the group. We were thankful Hilary Duff didn’t get bitten, but we were all pretty shaken up about the whole situation. This snake was mad and didn’t calm down too easily, and we didn’t have a leash on Hilary Duff, so we were taking a risk in itself. I’m thankful for the outcome, but needless to say, I have been steady researching best practices for encountering snakes on the trail now…
Shortly after our snake encounter, we had reached the Walnut Mountain Shelter where a sign leading to the Walnut Mountain Trail, read: “Rattlesnake Gap ahead 0.9 miles”.
At some point between the Shelter and where we decided to camp, we began to run into a lot of people. Everyone was really nice, helpful, and it was pretty cool getting to meet others from a variety of places around the world. The Appalachian Trail brings in a lot of foot traffic each year, and the crowds can sometimes be displeasing. Finding a place to camp can also be a challenge.
We found our camp at 12.10 miles around Garenflo Gap and Taylor Hollow Gap. Setting up on a bluff overlooking a small creek, we ripped off our hiking boots, pitched our tents, made small talk while preparing dinner, and literally hit the pillows before dark. The next day would mean 8 miles and my mind was racing about that rattlesnake… Did he follow us? Is he outside the tent? What if he crawls in here tonight?
Waking up just before the sun the next morning, I hopped out of the tent with nothing really in mind except having to pee. I ran over into a little spot and heard the men starting to wake up, Lavella still inside their tent. I then hear my Ginger say: “Hey, Bear”.
He says it so calmly, and looks me dead in the eyes, nodding his head up and down insinuating that this is really happening right now. After saying hello to the bear, the big black monster traverses the side of the mountain off the trail, and disappears so fast I never even saw it. Well, that was easy enough. Luckily black bears are so skittish even the faintest sight of a human will scare them away. We had hung our food in a Ursack bear bag the night before, just to be safe. Needless to say, I’m glad the food was up there where Mr. Bear was lingering, and not with us at camp.
Sighing a sigh of relief, getting a quick breakfast gulped down, and packing up, we hit the trail early this Sunday morning and were feeling pretty good about the next 8 miles.
The hike out on this last day was rough though - we all began to feel a painful soreness in our legs - every single muscle hurt, and it was just hot as crap outside. These last bits of the hike are a blur to me as all I did was move forward, one step in front of the last, and tried my best to keep it together pushing onward.
We finally arrived at the last shelter we would see, the Deer Park Shelter. You’ll never believe what we saw walking up to this shelter… A DEER. My conclusion is that the names of things around here are accurate to what you may see around here. So don’t say I didn’t warn you.
After taking a short break, we continued going but quickly found the famous gravestones of the Gragg’s just past the shelter. There were two tombstones, one dating back to the 40’s and the other to the 60’s. Very interesting to find these out in the middle of nowhere.
We were about 3 miles to the town of Hot Springs and we ended up arriving there just after lunch. Cracking open a fresh and appropriate beverage: Pink Blazer Hefeweizen by Blue Blaze Brewing. Sipping this beer, kicking our feet up, relaxing in the shade, and munching on some trail mix in a grassy patch in the town of Hot Springs is how we slowly ended our weekend, and this trip.
Feeling tired, sore, and just plain smelly - we drove back to Max Patch, picked up our car, and said goodbye to Luke, Lavella, and Hilary Duff. The specifics of the trip became a huge blur in my mind as we drove the 4 hours back to Winston Salem. My face, however, held the biggest smile.
My heart felt even bigger - WE MADE IT. This had been a goal hike of ours for a while now and we were glad to have finally knocked it off the list. I guess the moral of the story is: always be prepared for surprises. Not only on hikes, but in life. My surprise after these 20 miles wasn’t just a rattlesnake, or a bear - it was how much endurance and perseverance I have inside to just keep going even when things get scary… and it’s always nice when you surprise yourself. That’s the biggest accomplishment of all.