We left the cabin early around 8am and drove both cars out to Cooper Gap where we would end the hike for the day. I drove the rental car in the lead and Stacie and the kids drove the minivan behind me. The drive into Cooper Gap was a dirt road with frequent and deep pot holes so it made driving the rental car a bit tricky. Cooper Gap is basically grand central station for the training US Army Rangers at Camp Merrill and the north side of Sassafras Mountain which I had made my nemesis throughout training for this hike. I pulled into Cooper Gap and parked on the side of the road behind a Ranger Hummer, locked the doors and hopped into the minivan. Noticing the icicles frozen to the steep hill to our left, we drove down the bumpy road to where we stopped the day before at three forks creek, parked the minivan on the side of the road and started gearing up.

This was a cold morning and the kids were still in great spirits ready for another romp in the woods. Today’s hike things really started to pick up in intensity, so we were all about to be challenged. The beginning of the hike was a gradual climb through the woods and nothing too crazy, we were all in the groove and the kids proceeded into their usual singing and skipping, sometimes running routine while I struggled between going too fast in the front and then resorting to the back of the line after a gentle nudge from Stacie to slow the heck down.

The first real climb of the trail so far came just before Hawk Mountain shelter. Some kind of knob that doesn’t have a name but just kept going up and up and got fairly steepish toward the top. I was the first up and the kids and Stacy one by one made it up. We took a decent break to catch our breath and rest here. The trail today was packed with hikers both day and thru hikers. There was almost always at least two groups of hikers in front and in back of us within reasonable sight distance at all times. The art of politely passing hikers is a learned skill. The rules of stay to the right are pretty much out the window out on the trail. Too often the kids were right in the backside of a group of slower hikers and it became slightly awkward waiting for the group to realize we wanted to pass and the kids trying to refrain from yelling out “You’re Slow Move!!” like our 5 and 7 year old had said to an earlier group.

We made it into a jam packed Hawk Mountain Shelter where everyone was wall to wall taking up every inch of the shelter itself, but nobody was at the picnic table. I took zero time dropping my pack on the table and directing the kids to quickly sit down before we lose the opportunity. It was still early in the day maybe about noon, but I wanted to try out our Jet boil stove and cook some lunch. Turns out that the stove worked great but I brought and cooked way too much food. It’s very difficult to dispose of extra food way out in the woods where wild creatures of every variety would be front and center harassing all the shelter hikers over night.

After maybe 45 minutes we packed up and headed out toward Hightower gap. Lots of hikers now and everyone was super friendly asking for trail names and just generally chatty. Stacie was impressed that I was taking to the whole social scene of the AT which is out of character for me as I’m usually very low key and unassuming around other people. Eventually my trail name became Lokë which is pronounced “Low Key”.

What happened next was something I will never forget and sadly this was a small window of time my daughter was not filming. With daughter out front, followed by Stacie, then the two boys and myself in the rear we are cruising down the trail in the middle of the woods. I’m eating a granola bar and a hand reaches out from nowhere and grabs my right shoulder!!! As I turn my head I’m greeted with about 30 or 40 US Army Rangers who just “appeared out of thin air” right in front of us. The Ranger who had grabbed my shoulder put his finger on his mouth telling us to be silent and pointed toward the front where my daughter was. Another Rangers doing the same be silent gesture, motioned us forward allowing us to pass. I was in total shock and disarray as I replayed this scene in my head over and over. How the heck did we not see 40 US Army Rangers in full gear and roll right into their training exercise like that. These guys have mastered the art of camo and silently moving through the woods without even breaking a stick. It was quite amazing!!! Then as the Ranger released my shoulder he whispered in my ear to put that granola bar away before I get taken hostage, these guys are not fed very often!! We hauled ass outta there in a hurry!!

We reached Hightower Gap where 2 hummers and a couple more Rangers were stationed. We passed on through and entered the final section of the day. The hills leading up to Sassafras Mountain were brutal on unseasoned hiker legs. I really started to drag ass right around here going super slow on the up and even slower on the downs. My kids were running up and down these hills like they didn’t even notice we were in the mountains. We eventually came to Horse Gap and looked straight up at the 1 mile climb up Sassafras. We took a good 30 minute break here and I rested my legs. Ironically, as we were sitting there, we saw that lady from the day before with the 50 pound pack walking the road around Sassafras which is kinda cheating but hey Hike your own hike I guess!!

The climb up Sassafras was a beastly monster!! This climb even phased the kids….well so I thought. A couple times the youngest would lay down on the trail to catch his breath, so I would take the opportunity to do the same. Only the moment I get my pack off and join him, he leaps up and starts running full sprint was up the trail. I only fell for that twice. At some point, I literally took a 20 minute break as the switchbacks started just to get breathing again. Eventually I made it up and the kids and Stacie were all rested up and ready to continue. The funny thing about Sassafras is once you think you’ve made it to the top, your wrong, there’s a whole different section of going up!! I was under the impression that the hardest part of mountain climbing was the climbing up, I was so wrong. Going down the north side of Sassafras with legs already beat to hell tore up my knees and what was remaining of my legs. Stacie and the kids must have been waiting for me for 30 minutes when I finally came limping down into Cooper Gap and to the car.

As we drove back to Three Forks to pick up the minivan, we were in for another Us Army Ranger show!! The helicopter came down right next to us and another 30 or so Rangers just magically emerged from the woods, boarded the chopper and took off again. We did get most of that on video thanks to my daughters handy work you can see on YouTube!

This concludes our hiking trip in 2011. Stacie and I came back a couple years later to knock out Cooper Gap to Woody Gap. We were once again joined by our three, now older kids, and our little Chihuahua for Woody Gap to Testnatee Gap in Part 4.

Thanks for reading!