It’s been nearly a week since completing the Pinhoti Trail, but I feel as though the journey hasn’t stopped! After a half day of rest at the Pinhoti Outdoor Center, I hopped on a flight back to Portland and dove right back into work the next morning (I’ve been helping out as a teacher aid in an elementary school classroom, and coach high school track in the afternoons). Home/work life seems to parallel trail life, or at least the task-oriented FKT attempt trail life, in the sense of, packing what you need to survive for the day, remembering to hydrate, snacking often, getting to where you need to go on time. Taking care of you so that you can carry out the things you need to do.
I’m happy to share I now hold the self-supported women’s fastest known time for the Pinhoti Trail! It has been verified and logged on Fastest Known Time. I compiled my daily recaps from Instagram into one full report. Plus for the data nerds, there are links to all my Strava entries and a gpx file from my tracker. For those interested, I thought it would be fun to summarize some stats:
Total trail miles hiked: 348.6
Total time to complete the trail: 7 days, 18 hrs, 22 minutes
Avg miles per day: 44.9
Avg hours of sleep per night: 5.9
And some daily stats with a link to my daily recaps:
Day 1 – Northern Terminus to Dalton (intersection at corner of McD’s)
Distance – 65.0 miles
Start – 6:52am ET
End – 9:48pm ET
Total hours – 14:56
Pace – 4.3 mph (ran with a light pack)
Addt’l notes: Today was a bit of a gamble. I started later in the morning so I could maximize my sleep the night before, and so I could give myself a few more hours on the last day if I was close to breaking Willie Thacker’s overall self-supported record. I was counting on finishing at a reasonable hour, which I did. I estimated and hoped the day would take me 14 hours, and I got pretty close. Then the question was, would I recover okay following such a big first day? The answer, thankfully, was yes. My coach and I knew day two would probably be rough, but if I could get through that okay, I had a nice ‘recovery’ day planned for day 3 with fewer miles and a hot meal, shower, and bed at the end of the day in Cave Spring.
As for the trail itself- the first 38 miles or so from the northern terminus, until hitting the long road walk that takes you all the way into Dalton, was my favorite section of trail in Georgia. It was probably the greenest and lushest part of the trail, as everything seemed to get dryer and dustier farther south. It’s a popular section for mountain bikers, and Mulberry Gap about 19 miles in seemed to be a hub for that. The trail was maintained very nicely, I’m assuming because of its popularity with bikers. I saw lots of people out hiking and biking. Beyond that, the road walk had some nice moments being out on some pretty country roads, but 27 miles of that was a total grind! I’m glad I did it all in one go.
Day 2 – Dalton to tent site at mile 114.3 (a few miles north of Mack White Gap)
Distance – 49.3 miles
Start – 4:50am ET
End – 9:00pm ET
Total hours – 16:10
Pace – 3 mph (hiked with full pack from this day on)
This day couldn’t have gone any better. Despite the big first day, I think it was early enough in the journey that my legs were still feeling fresh, and simply having to walk after a full day of running felt relatively like a piece of a cake. The trail went up and over lots of mountains all day, including a grueling little jaunt up to Keown Falls and Johns Overlook. There was also plenty of nice ridge line hiking to enjoy. I was definitely tired toward the end of the day, and my throat and nose were really dried out after breathing in pine dust/pollen all day, to the point that I got a bloody nose. Every mile past forty was all mental- I was very ready to be done. I don’t mind night hiking in the morning, but hiking into the night is probably my least favorite thing. Being in a shoulder season with less daylight than in the summer, night hiking was an inevitability. Part of the reason I went the ‘extra mile’ today had to do with finding somewhere safe and quiet to camp. The trail criss-crosses roads accessible by ATVs, and sadly, a lot of campsites I passed by toward the end of this day were strewn with garbage, and in general there was a lot of illegal dumping off the sides of the forest service roads- things like old mattresses, appliances, clothes, and random junk. The campsite I ended up at was only accessible by foot, and it was clean and quiet (it is at mile 114.3 on the FarOut app).
Day 3 – Tent site at mile 114.3 to the Hearn Inn, Cave Spring
Distance – 45.8 miles
Start – 4:08am ET
End – 7:10pm ET
Total hours – 15:02
Pace – 3 mph
This was a deceptively hard day. I’m glad it was a less demanding route because the first two days were catching up with me. About 11 miles in I missed a turn and hiked all the way up to the top of a mountain (High Point) before realizing my mistake. In the end that added 0.7 miles and about 200ft of elevation gain to my day. Not a huge deal. The day ended with a fifteen mile road walk that was particularly challenging due to sun exposure and lack of places to find water. The toughest part was being on the shoulder of a busy highway (W Rome Bypass) with the heat, dust, and just generally being a little stressful with all the traffic. The most torturous part was that paralleling the highway was a logging forest for a paper mill with shade and streams galore- I could see it all from the highway! I wonder if it will ever be possible for the organizers of the Pinhoti Trail to strike up some kind of deal to allow hikers passage through that property. It’s possible they’ve already tried and gotten a big, fat “no”. The Georgia section of the Pinhoti Trail is still relatively new, and no doubt there are many challenges beyond my scope that come along with that. For now, road walking it is!
I was glad I made it to Cave Spring with time to spare before the local restaurant and grocery store closed. I went into the restaurant and ordered some chicken tenders and sweet potato fries to go, then while they made my food I went across the street to the grocery store to resupply. At the end of a long day it was hard to make any kind of decision and I just grabbed whatever looked good and would last in my pack for a couple days. I landed on Dave’s Killer bagels, Sunbelt chocolate chip granola bars, Cheetos, trail mix, and Twizzlers. Oh and a half gallon of vanilla ice cream for later that night. So healthy! Haha. It was busy at the restaurant so I ended up waiting outside on a bench for a little while. I had some nice conversations with people coming in and out of the restaurant, and the staff had asked me all about my hike. The air was getting warm and sticky and you could definitely feel that a storm was coming. When my food was ready the host and servers wished me well on my hike and they also asked if I had somewhere to sleep that night- I think they were concerned for me in my sad/disheveled state with my pack and many grocery bags. I told them I had a reservation at the Hearn Inn and they looked relieved for me.
I left the restaurant and followed google directions to the Hearn Inn which turned out to be positively wrong. I wondered all over the tiny little downtown not able to find it! I really think my brain was tired and fuzzy and I started to wonder if I’d ever find the place at all. It turned out I had to keep following the Pinhoti Trail (which was on the road) around a bend and over a bridge to get to the other side of a stream, where I finally found the inn. Honestly, I probably spent 30 or even 40 minutes trying to find it- it was kind of embarrassing. And my arms were incredibly tired from carrying several bags of groceries and chicken dinner. Despite arriving in town a bit after 7pm, I don’t think I actually checked in until 9pm.
The hosts of the inn were warm and inviting, and I ended up getting the entire top floor to myself. I had a bedroom, bathroom, kitchen, and living room. I got to take a shower, do a bit of ‘surgery’ on my blistered feet, launder my hiking clothes, and then finally got to sit down and eat. When I opened up the to-go container, I saw they loaded me up with five chicken tenders instead of four, and a TON of fries. I was really feeling the love in Cave Spring! I ate as much as I could and still had plenty leftover. I ended up not even eating any of the ice cream I bought, so I left the unopened carton in the freezer for the next lucky hikers (I let the host know).
I checked the weather forecast and saw it was possible for the storms to go as late into the morning as 10am or 11am. I decided I’d set my alarm for 5:30am or so, get ready, have breakfast and coffee, then assess the situation and leave when it seemed safe to do so.
Day 4 – The Hearn Inn, Cave Spring, to North Dugger Mountain Shelter
Distance – 37.2 miles
Start – 7:30am ET
End – 8:12pm CT
Total hours – 13:42
Pace – 2.7 mph
This morning, I had the rest of my chicken tenders and fries for breakfast, and a nice mug of hot coffee. I would never eat chicken and fries for breakfast normally, but on the trail anything goes- and that breakfast gave me life. I felt amazing! I checked the forecast and looked outside. It was just getting light out, and then storms had tapered off, so I set off on my way at 7:30am. Honestly I think I could have left a lot earlier–at least a couple hours–and been fine (the storms tapered off sooner than forecasted), but I was afraid of hiking in the dark and chose to stay inside and drink my coffee. My fear of the weather, along with my want for comfort in town, was probably my first real point of “weakness” in terms of setting a fastest known time. Everything before today had gone exactly to plan, but now I was starting late, and that would throw everything off.
The day started swimmingly with an easy road walk, then the trail section was a lovely, flowing section covered in pine needles which felt amazing on my feet. I felt so good from the extra rest and recovery I even ran a little bit. That all came to a halt when I encountered my first stream. Unbeknownst to me, the storms had caused some crazy flash flooding. This water was swollen, clouded and muddy, and rushing really hard. Not having hiked the Pinhoti Trail before, I wasn’t sure how normal this was. I walked up and down the stream looking for a safe place to cross. I entered the water up to my knees or so, making my way around trees and vines and trying not to let my shoes get sucked up by the muck underneath. But every time I got close to the middle, where the water was moving quickly and seemed to be quite deep, I stopped short. I wanted to be brave and tough, but it simply wasn’t safe to cross. I was probably there for half an hour or so trying to figure out a way across, to no avail. I wondered what in the world I could do? Would I just have to sacrifice a day, camp out, and wait for the water to recede? Finally I pulled out my phone to look at a map. I found that a forest road just before the stream crossing met up with the trail a little ways down. I followed the road for about a quarter mile, not even, and sure enough, it reconnected with the trail. The trail was underwater, but at least it was only by a few inches or a foot at the most. I splashed through the water and down the trail. There were a couple more water crossings from there, but nowhere near as dangerous as what I had just encountered- it just meant getting my feet wet. The rest of the morning was spent splashing through a wet trail and some more swollen streams, but thankfully none of it was as dramatic as the initial flash flood encounter. It ended up being a pretty good day all in all. I crossed the state line into Alabama which was a nice little milestone, as well as going beyond the halfway point. I gave myself a few options as to where to end my day: North Dugger Mountain Shelter, or the Dugger Mountain campsite a few miles beyond that. I ended up opting for the shelter, because it meant I wouldn’t have to set up my tent (less set up and tear down time) and there was more of a guarantee of warmth as it wouldn’t be as exposed to the wind, which was a possibility with the campsite based on what I’d read.
Since I ended the day with fewer miles than planned, and got to the shelter relatively early at just after 8pm (I was now on central time versus ET, so technically it felt like just after 9pm, but still), I decided I’d get a nice, early start the next day and try to cover at least fifty miles.
Day 5 – North Dugger Mountain Shelter to 3 Magnolias Campsite
Distance – 46.6 miles
Start – 2:29am CT
End – 9:29pm CT
Total hours – 19:00
Pace – 2.5 mph
Well, as I said in my Instagram update, I’m very glad I got an early start this day. I thought the worst of the flooding was behind me a day removed from the storms, but what I didn’t know was that the trail would skirt around Sweetwater Lake and Shoal Creek, which was completely and totally flooded way above where the trail was. I later read that the flooding was 6-10 feet deep. There I was, just walking along the trail, when suddenly the trail just totally disappeared into the lake with no sign of where it came back out. Again, not knowing how normal this was for the Pinhoti Trail, and not knowing how deep underwater the trail was, I had thoughts of, “am I just supposed to hike through this?” However, it quickly became evident the water was murky and deep, and not safe at all to cross. I pulled out the FarOut app on my phone once again to see where the trail went. Essentially it followed the shore line of the lake, with the occasional inlet crossing. Well, the inlet crossings were extremely flooded too. This made for a very slow and harrowing bushwhack around the lake. It was harrowing because it required going up and down some very steep embankments on a loose, crumbly surface. There were many times I was on all fours clinging to whatever hill I was on. You could hardly trust any rock, root, or branch to hold onto. Most of the rocks were loose, and most of the branches were dead. It made me glad that I have experience rock climbing, because I certainly put those skills into use… not to mention while wearing a large pack. It was the first time I felt truly scared on this hike. I was noticeably shaking.
I finally reconnected with the trail, feeling triumphant in doing so. I took a deep breath and congratulated myself and continued on my merry way, feeling victorious. Then I went around a bend only to reveal more of the same: the trail disappearing into the lake (it was a big lake- or perhaps it was another lake? my memory is a little fuzzy- it was all following Shoal Creek) and no easy way around. I could have cried. I almost did, but I knew it wouldn’t do any good. So again I pulled out my map, found the least steep and scary way around that I could, and did it all over again. This time there was another water-filled inlet to get across, but unlike the previous one, there was no good way to do so because the other side was a rock wall that went straight up. I went up and down the bank a few times trying to figure out a solution. It was too deep to cross where the trail was. Up where it was shallower, there was nothing but the rock wall on the other side. The water here was clear and still, and I could see that if I crossed the shallow water, I might be able to move back downstream by stepping on the largest rocks in the water, arms holding onto the rock wall, and at least avoid crossing the deepest part. So that’s what I did. It went against every natural instinct to step into that water. If you’ve been reading my blog you might remember that I couldn’t even bring myself to go snorkeling a few weeks ago! I am truly fearful of deep water. I made it across to where the rock wall was, then slowly walked down stream using the bigger rocks in the water to step on, hanging onto the wall with one hand, and using my hiking pole with the other to double check every single step before stepping. I finally made it across and reconnected with the trail, for good this time. I knew it was for good, because the trail made its way uphill and away from the lake. This time I did not feel like congratulating myself for making it across. I felt shaken up and really upset. The rest of the day was pretty peaceful and uneventful, and I did eventually calm down. There was a nice walk along a bike path for a bit and the weather was fantastic- sunny and cool. Toward the end of the day the trail went through a beautiful pine grove and I was treated to a soft, pine-needle covered trail. It was like walking on carpet which was wonderful for my aching feet. With all of the lake detours I was surprised I’d made it so far. It really ended up being a pretty good day. I was behind where I wanted to be, but happy I made it as far as I did.
Day 6 – 3 Magnolias Campsite to tent site 1.6 miles north of FS 600
Distance – 41.0 miles
Start – 3:37am CT
End – 8:29pm CT
Total hours – 16:52
Pace – 2.4 mph
This was a tough day! The trail was in great condition, no flooding, but the terrain got a lot tougher with a big climb up and down Mt. Cheaha and some very rocky trail later in the day. My right shin was starting to feel overworked and I noticed the night before that it was getting a little puffy. Despite that I felt in pretty good spirits. I made a little detour, 0.6 miles in total, to resupply at the Cheaha State Park general store. I stocked up on Clif bars, trail mix, candy, and Advil. I even took a quick rest to eat a tuna sandwich. I had resisted taking medicine to that point, but I took some to give a bit of relief to my shin, knowing the rest of the day would be tough with a lot of steep downhill and rocks, which seemed to aggravate it the most. The rest of the day was pretty rough, especially toward the end when I navigated through about a mile, mile and a half of the “mega rock garden” I’d read about. It was sort of like a mini Rocksylvania, à la the Appalachian Trail. It took me a long time to cover 41 miles. I had hoped to maintain my lead on the overall self-supported FKT holder, Willie Thacker, but settled for ending right about where he did at the end of his sixth day.
Day 7 – Tent site 1.6 miles north of FS 600 to Porters Gap
Distance – 5.3 miles
Start – 3:45am CT
End – 6:23am CT
Total hours – 2:38
Pace – 2.0 mph
I don’t have much more to add to what I already wrote about this night at the link above- it was brutal! I think the combination of drinking flooded creek water (albeit filtered) all week, plus taking Advil on an empty stomach at night, plus being generally fatigued, really did a number on my body and stomach. It was a bummer to take the day off, but it was definitely what I needed. I didn’t take any medicine for the rest of the hike, and I’ll certainly think twice about doing so in the future. It is better to listen to your body and give it what it needs rather than just charge on through- that can be a fine line that’s easy to cross over in an FKT attempt. In a self-supported endeavor, especially, you have a huge responsibility to prioritize your well being and take care of yourself so you don’t get yourself, or others, into a nasty situation. I’m so thankful there was help nearby- I’m grateful to the Pinhoti Outdoor Center for arranging a shuttle to get me off the trail, and having a warm and dry place to recover and recoup.
Day 8 – Porters Gap to Southern Terminus
Distance – 58.4 miles
Start – 3:41am CT
End – 12:14am CT (3/28/22)
Total hours – 20:33
Pace – 2.8 mph
Again, not much to add on top of what I already wrote! This day exceeded any expectations I had. I felt really strong after having a full day to recover and I don’t think this could have gone any better. It was a really enjoyable section of the trail, I met some awesome people (fellow thru-hikers and Nimblewill Nomad!) and reaching Flagg Mountain at night was totally surreal. What a great note to end the hike on!
I had many fears going into this hike: camping alone, loose dogs, storms, tornadoes, bears, falling trees, getting hit by a car (there are 80 miles of roads on the Pinhoti Trail). The mere thought of any of those things could have been enough to make me go “nah” and not do the hike at all. There is never a guarantee that bad things won’t happen, but I’m glad I didn’t let my fears keep me from giving this adventure a chance. Here are my personal experiences with facing some of these fears. Hopefully sharing these can help with anyone facing similar fears, not to say that bad things can’t happen and I surely got lucky with a few things:
Camping alone – my first night camping out was restless. I could hear a critter outside my tent and it woke me up a few times. I think a combo of yelling in my scariest voice and shining my flashlight around drove it away but who really knows? The rest of the nights I camped out, I was too tired to care about what was out there. I also made sure that wherever I camped wasn’t close to any roads, mostly for safety due to accessibility by non-hikers, plus the highways can be noisy.
Loose dogs – this ended up being a non-issue. I had tons of dogs that ran up to me and barked at me, but they were just excited and riled up–it could be scary sometimes, but ultimately not threatening. I can see how the loose dogs on people’s properties could be really scary for people not used to dogs. There were a few times I used my most intimidating voice to yell at them to back off, but most of the time I just spoke to the calmly “Heeeey buddy, oh yes, you are so scary, oh my!” The only time I got nervous was when dogs ran out onto the road with oncoming traffic- I was worried they’d be so distracted by barking at me that they’d get hit.
Storms – cell phone reception was pretty good on the trail, so I was able to keep an eye on the weather. I got lucky with timing, in that storms came through overnight when I was staying at the Hearn Inn in Cave Spring. I adjusted my plans to leave later the next morning so I wouldn’t have to hike through a storm. I hiked through tons of storms on the AT, and was lucky that it was fine, but I’m glad I gave myself flexibility on this trip. I had a list of bail out options and phone numbers, and notes about how many miles apart the shelters, or lean-tos, were on the trail in case I needed to get off trail or take cover in a shelter.
Bears – I generally seem to attract bears but somehow I saw none on this hike. I’m sure they’re out there, but perhaps there’s not a large population around the Pinhoti Trail, or maybe they’re still in hibernation.
Cars – I brought a couple reflective blinky lights to wear on the roads. In general, people were courteous and gave me lots of space. As a solo female hiker, I was extra leery and in defense mode anytime I was on the road. I was kind of expecting to get a lot of catcalls, but that only happened once in downtown Dalton from a carful of silly teenagers. For the most part, drivers just gave me space and a little wave. On the highway section north of Cave Spring, a few people pulled over to see if I was okay or if I needed a ride–in a genuine and non-creepy way. In general, the road and town sections made me extra aware that my appearance gives me a leg up in terms of the hike and in society in general. People are very willing to extend help to a young (looking- haha), pretty blonde white lady. There were a couple times I begged for water by walking up to someone in their driveway or knocking on someone’s front door–no problem. While this was “self-supported”, I certainly benefited from the help, kindness, and benefit of the doubt from strangers on this journey.
In terms of how I did overall- I would give myself maybe a B+.
The good- I think I had a really solid plan going into the hike that played to my strengths and ability. I’m really proud of myself for all of the problem solving through the flooded sections of the trail, and then getting off trail when it was clear I needed to. I think I prepared well in terms of the gear I brought with me. I did a good job taking care of my feet with taping, treating, and preventing blisters. As I went along, I figured out how to fuel and drink in a way to feel my best (not counting the night of the bad water/medicine combo)- I noticed that the times I felt the achiest directly correlated with how dehydrated I was. I got into the habit of chugging a full liter of water every time I stopped to replenish my water bottles, which really helped me to consistently feel good. I didn’t want to deal with mixing electrolyte powder in my drinks so I kept a stash of flavored salt tablets in one of my front pockets, and taking those really helped with relieving cramping, aches, and pains as well. I brought two water filters with me in case one failed, and I’m glad I did, because one did get really clogged up with all the cloudy water I drank. I can happily say I never suffered on this hike and felt pretty good most of the time. There was no crying or whimpering or feeling sorry for myself–though during the night/morning of stomach upset there was lots of moaning for sure. The most direct comparison I have is my supported women’s northbound FKT on the Appalachian Trail, in which I suffered horribly (not to say that it was a bad experience, quite the opposite, but physically I went very, very deep into the well). On the AT I had horrendous blisters on my feet that took a couple hours to ‘warm up’ each morning, the tops of my toes got all cut up from stubbing them on rocks and roots over and over again, and I had terrible shin splints that stayed with me for most of the journey. By comparison, the worst thing I had to deal with on the Pinhoti Trail was some discomfort in my shin and some stomach upset, both of which got better with some extra rest.
Needs improvement- In retrospect, I wish I had given myself a chance to start day four from Cave Spring a few hours earlier, as the storms had passed over well before I began hiking that day. I felt great and I could have easily gone further than 37 miles and given myself fewer miles to do over the last three planned days. Alternatively, I could have hiked further into the night instead of stopping, but the unknown element of the condition of the potential campsites gave me pause in doing that. So on either end of the day, it was my own fear of the unknown that held me back. Then on the flip side, I think I pushed myself over the edge on day six. My shin was starting to hurt, I tried to alleviate the discomfort with medicine, and I really pushed through some fatigue toward the end of the day. This also happened to be the most difficult and slow-going section of the trail, in my opinion. Part of me wonders if I should have just stopped at Cheaha State Park (with 85.3 miles to go), rested my leg, and loaded up on some “real” food ahead of the final push (I mean, we’re talking frozen pizza and sandwiches from the general store, but still). It would have for sure put me out of the running for the overall FKT, but taking a half day off then might have saved me from taking a full day off later, and maybe I could have finished half a day sooner. At the same time, I felt pretty good and lively coming through Cheaha, and stopping at that point would have felt silly and I probably would have regretted it. Perhaps the better solution would have been refraining from taking medicine (both for the sake of not ‘masking’ any shin pain, and preventing stomach upset), slowing my roll coming down off of Cheaha, and end up wherever I ended up that evening, even if it wasn’t as far as I hoped. Whoever goes after the women’s self-supported record next, I just basically gave them an entire free day! Regardless of that, I absolutely think a woman can take down the overall record–even though all didn’t go perfectly as planned for me, hopefully my journey can show that it’s possible and offer a vote of confidence for the next lady.
Outside of all of the practical and technical aspects of the hike- this was a really, really enjoyable journey! The Pinhoti Trail has really been growing in popularity and it felt exciting to be there. I met a lot of genuine people who are passionate about the trail, hiking, and the outdoors. I enjoyed having a singular task to focus on for eight days straight. I saw lots of beautiful sights and enjoyed the time alone with my thoughts. As I tend to do, I found myself composing little repetitive melodies in my head as I hiked, reflective of how I felt in the moment. Some old melodies I made up while on the Appalachian Trail came back to me. There must be something about the tempo of my footsteps and my state of mind that brings me into that particular headspace. There isn’t anything else besides long days hiking that brings it out of me, which is pretty neat. How often do we give ourselves a chance to disconnect in such a way? I also recognize that not everyone can just take off and hike for eight days at a time, and I feel really fortunate and appreciative to be in a situation where I can do so.
Special thanks to the Nathan and Kimm from the Pinhoti Outdoor Center, Matt from Pinhoti Trail Alliance, Laurie Wilbanks, Allison and Ben Mercer, and all the kind people I met before, after, and along the way for making this hike extra special!
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