A Year-Round Guide to Franklin and Nantahala

Sweet Emma Pearl was on her feet, growling, every hair down her spine rigid as a toothbrush bristle. I sat up in my sleeping bag, slowly. She was ready to

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Sweet Emma Pearl was on her feet, growling, every hair down her spine rigid as a toothbrush bristle. I sat up in my sleeping bag, slowly. She was ready to

Rosemary and Goat Cheese Strata

Sweet Emma Pearl was on her feet, growling, every hair down her spine rigid as a toothbrush bristle. I sat up in my sleeping bag, slowly. She was ready to

Sweet Emma Pearl was on her feet, growling, every hair down her spine rigid as a toothbrush bristle. I sat up in my sleeping bag, slowly. She was ready to launch. “Easy, girl,” I crooned. I was pretty sure of what was out there. “Stay.”

Light from a bed of campfire coals flickered in her eyes. Emma was always an overprotective sort. I felt her hind legs tense and made a grab for her collar. “No,” I ordered. “NO!” And then she leapt from the trail shelter as I scrambled to get out of my sleeping bag.

“NO! NO! NO!” I hollered as she vanished into the dark. There were a few seconds of silence. Some shuffling in the leaves. Then I heard a sharp canine yelp from beyond the fire ring. Uh-oh. Suddenly, my yelling took a 180-degree turn. Now I didn’t want that dog anywhere near me.

“No, Emma, NO!” But there was nothing my shouts could do. Emma barreled out of the dark and vaulted back into the log shelter, hitting me at full speed, tail between her legs, her muzzle and chest dripping with skunk spray.

The trail shelter broke out in pandemonium. My buddy and his son came up gagging. The other campers in the shelter howled. The skunk funk slimed my sleeping bag, my sleeping pad, and most of my upper body. I grabbed my pooch and bolted for the dark. It was Emma and me against the world at that point. Trail shelters might offer solace after a long day on the trail and a sort of instant community among hikers bunked down shoulder to shoulder, but there’s a limit to such bonhomie. And a skunked Labrador retriever is way over the line.

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Trail shelters are just what they sound like: simple abodes built along hiking trails to offer weary backpackers a break from rain, wind, or the weariness of having to put up a tent in the waning minutes of daylight. Among backpackers, trail shelters are either loved or hated, and misadventures such as Emma’s tangle with Pepé Le Pew help explain why. Still, despite the occasional rough shelter night — and I’ve had a few — you can count me as a lover.

Photographer Sarah Jones Decker thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail in 2008, then re-hiked it 10 years later, shooting the Fontana Dam Shelter and others for her book The Appalachian Trail: Backcountry Shelters, Lean-tos, and Huts. photograph by Sarah Jones Decker

I’ve bunked in a pile of trail shelters over the years, and stored up a pile of shelter memories. One knock on the shelters is that they don’t hold heat the way tents do, and winds blowing through loose log chinking can make you wish you’d packed a thicker sleeping bag. Once, my wet boots froze into the muddy front porch of a trail shelter, and I had to bash them loose with a frozen head of broccoli. And there’s no privacy — no escape from snorers, sleep-talkers, and burn-the-midnight-oilers. Rodents are common, living the easy life on leftover mac ’n’ cheese. I’ll never forget waking up early one morning to spot a shelter mouse perched on my buddy’s forehead, an arm’s length away, snacking on a green M&M.

But shelter life is also intimately communal. Most people who go to the trouble and backache to get to a trail shelter find common ground quickly. Campfires beckon. Trail stories spool into the night like fire sparks spiraling overhead. Strangers turn into friends. Unless there’s a skunk involved.

Perhaps the most famous trail shelters in the world are the ones along the Appalachian Trail, about 250 three-walled havens scattered from Georgia to Maine, each about a day’s walk from the next. And perhaps the most famous of them is near the shores of Fontana Lake. The Fontana Dam Shelter, dubbed the “Fontana Hilton,” is the honeymoon suite of trail shelters, with water spigots, flush toilets, and hot showers nearby. The Fontana Hilton is 163 hard miles from Springer Mountain, Georgia, where most hikers intent on walking the entire 2,200 miles of the Appalachian Trail start in the spring. By the time the thru-hikers get to the Fontana Hilton, the weak of knee and heart have headed home. In April and May, the atmosphere there is celebratory — if somewhat smelly. If you’ve made it as far as the Fontana Hilton, you might just have what it takes to make it all the way to Mount Katahdin in Maine.

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My best trail shelter memory came about without spending a single night under its roof. My wife, Julie, and I had packed backpacks for a long weekend along the Roan Highlands, planning to spend our first night at the beloved (but now closed) Overmountain Shelter at Yellow Mountain Gap. We were stoked to wake up with coffee in hand and misty valleys unfurling in the distance.

Campfires beckon. Strangers turn into friends. Unless there’s a skunk involved.

Just before we left, Julie slipped into the bathroom. When she reappeared in the living room, her face was white.

“You OK?” I asked.

“I think so,” she said, grinning and shaking her head. “But one thing’s for sure: I’m pregnant.”

She held up a pregnancy test stick: Its two stripes changed everything.

We soared to the mountains, careening between giddy and terrified. Julie wasn’t feeling up to hoisting a 40-pound pack, so we pitched a tent in the valley below Roan Mountain and day-hiked into the backcountry. The trail to Yellow Mountain rose through carpets of fern and fell under canopies of sugar maples, opening to a massive meadow with views of Little Hump Mountain.

We hiked the last quarter-mile to the Overmountain Shelter hand in hand. Miraculously, we had the place to ourselves, and we found a sunny patch of grass next to the great barn. We munched on bagels stuffed with cheese and summer sausage, giggling and awestruck.

I leaned against the shelter, Julie’s head on my shoulder. We had looked forward to a night along the trail, sheltered here, with the late light falling away at our feet and a campfire in the morning. Now, we gazed down the valley, lost in thought, feeling the comfort of taking a new journey together. When we turned back to walk the way we came, every step felt strangely new, the trail fresh and seemingly untrodden. We stopped to take a last look at the old red barn in the mountain gap. The view was endless and inviting. Or maybe it just seemed that way to the three of us.

This story was published on Apr 27, 2020

T. Edward Nickens

T. Edward Nickens

Nickens is editor-at-large of Field & Stream and the author of The Total Outdoorsman Manual. His articles also appear in Smithsonian and Audubon magazines.