Days 24-26: Hot Springs
May 6th: Roaring Fork Shelter to Hot Springs
May 7th: SunnyBank Inn to Riverside campsite
May 8th: Campsite to Spring Mountain Shelter
The next day, the rain continues off and on, and the air is heavy and cold. It's supposed to be an easy 11-mile downhill cruise to the fire closure before shuttling around the damaged trail and into town. But at lunch, we learn that the fire closure has been reopened that same morning. In the pouring rain on top of Bluff Mountain, with fingers so cold it is difficult to grip our trekking poles, we decide to hike the full 18 miles into Hot Springs. It rains for a couple of hours, but then the sky clears around our original endpoint for the day. It's sunny and warm by the time I reach the charred stretch of trail that has been closed for six weeks due to one hiker's mismanagement of a campfire at the shelter.
After more than 10 hours of hiking, I find myself on the A.T. on the sidewalk in Hot Springs. I blink in the sunlight. The bone-chilling downpour on the top of the mountain just hours before feels like a dream. I find Etienne and Ed, who both beat me there, and we spend the night at SunnyBank Inn, known by the community simply as "Elmer's." SunnyBank is a house from the 1800's that was converted into a B&B in the early 20th century. The house hosted Earl Shaffer on the very first A.T. thru-hike in 1948. Elmer bought the house in the 1970's following his own thru-hike, and he's been running it ever since. The furniture is antique and mismatched, the layout of the house odd and non-sensical, the porches open out onto a green, green yard, and it is a wonderful place to stay. That night we eat a good dinner at the Tavern by the creek with friends and then spend a comfortable night in the historic house for $25 per person. The next morning, we eat a delicious family-style vegetarian breakfast with Elmer and his two employees (also hikers themselves) and the other thru-hiking guests.
We plan to hike out that afternoon but procrastinate throughout the day. All the dryers at the laundromat are out of order, so we hang our clothes in the yard at Sunnybank and wait. In town, we see several hikers from our group in the Smokies who had zeroed at Standing Bear and fallen a day behind. Eventually, we just decide to follow the trail for twenty minutes, across the bridge and down along the riverbank to find a place to pitch our tents. We walk back into town, spend another evening at the tavern, nearly the entire group from the Smokies now reunited, and then we sleep beside a river rapid.
The next day, we plan to buy fuel at the outfitter and hike out of town, but then we are sucked into Hiker's Ridge Ministries, where there is free food and wifi and real upholstered furniture, practically unheard of for stinky hikers. Once we finish our errands, we finally hike out of Hot Springs. Heavily loaded down with too much food from the Hillbilly Market, we hike ten miles up to the first shelter.