After the short road walk back to the trail, it was a surprisingly easy climb from Dennis Cove road. Soon, however, the trail became extremely rocky as I passed through the stunning Laurel Canyon. After dodging boulders and climbing down multiple stone steps (I was happy to get past this section with fresh legs), I finally arrived at Laurel Falls. I had been looking forward to seeing these falls, and they did not disappoint. It was a beautiful start to the day.
Shortly after clambering around the rocks near the falls, the trail followed a narrow edge against the cliffs. It looked a lot more dramatic in the videos I have seen, but it was of short duration and was actually a lot of fun.
The trail continued to follow the Laurel Fork through a gorgeous valley full of rhododendron. There are two footbridges that cross the river, and I stopped at the second bridge to take on food and water. By now, the temperature was up and sun was beating down, and with very few water sources identified on today’s route, I drank my liter of water and filled it up again from the river (paying special attention to ensure that my water bag didn’t float away with the current). I believe this is the first time I have used water that didn’t come from a spring, but desperate times call for desperate measures.
In just a short time, Boo Boo and company caught up with me as we made our big 1,500 foot climb of the day, up and over Pond Flats. It was a hot and arduous climb with no payoff in the form of a view. When we descended to US Highway 321, the Shook Branch Recreation Area came into view on the shores of the picturesque Watauga Lake. Several people were out enjoying the sunny day at the picnic tables and the roped off beach area as we walked by.
Boo Boo decided he was going to hitchhike into Hampton to go to McDonald’s for food and the Dollar General for supplies. The rest of us continued to circumnavigate the shores of Watauga Lake while looking for a shady place to take a break. There were none. Along the shore of the lake there is a four mile stretch of trail that is closed due to aggressive bear activity. Only thru-hikers are allowed in the area, as long as we don’t stop to eat or stop at the closed Watauga Lake Shelter. Water, water everywhere but not a drop to drink.
Eventually, we walked across the Watauga Dam in the blazing sun and started a 0.4 mile road walk up the steep hill. Amazingly, Boo Boo caught up with us here while we were catching our breath. There was some discussion about taking the road to the Dam Visitors Center on the off chance that there was a soda machine, but when I reminded them that the Visitors Center was at lake level, and that they would get to make that climb again, they reassessed their plan. From there, the trail entered the woods for a P.U.D. (pointless up and down) before we came back to the same road on which we started. It was here that we decided to take an extended break until the temperature cooled down.
Once we were rested, and it got a little cooler, we started another climb to get to the next shelter, about five miles away. Three miles in, we came to a very small spring that looked like an oasis in the desert, where we took turns filling our water bags as fast as we could filter and drink the water. The heat, by this time, had drained us all of energy, and all we wanted was a flat space to set up our tents and eat dinner. There was a big hill facing us, and I didn’t think I had another hill in me, but Boo Boo started up to look for a suitable camping spot, and the rest of us followed. Mercifully, Boo Boo found a really nice spot off the trail, less than a half mile from the spring. At the time, it looked like a KOA campground to me.
While we were sitting around eating dinner, we kept hearing a noise that Boo Boo described as farmer Brown trying unsuccessfully to start an old diesel tractor. Something clicked in my brain that made me think that it might be the drumming sound of a Ruffled Grouse. Siri helped to confirm my suspicions by providing a sound recording (Thanks, Siri!), and we listened to this strange sound throughout the evening. Our campsite was slightly below the ridge line, and at one point we heard a racket and looked up to see two deer bounding across the ridge. Their graceful progress silhouetted against the twilight provided a perfect exclamation point to the end of a memorable day.