A gnarled old oak tree sits atop Bly Gap at 3,800 feet on the Appalachian Trail, famously marking the boundary between Georgia and North Carolina. The Tar Heel State, the second on the northbound thru-hiker’s agenda, wastes no time with fancy introductions, putting a couple of brutally steep 4,000-footers directly ahead: Courthouse Bald and the aptly named Sharp Top.

I spent my first night in North Carolina a few miles beyond on a high ridgeline above Muskrat Creek, where I was treated to gusty winds, a dusting of snow and night temperatures in the single digits. It was by far the coldest night on the trail, and one that drove numerous hikers to the valleys and the warmth of motel rooms, but I reveled in the weather, happily prepared for it.

North of the Georgia line to the Smokies, the trail follows a meandering route through the 531,000-acre Nantahala National Forest. Nantahala is Cherokee for “Land of the Noonday Sun,” and in many of the region’s deep river gorges, hemmed in by steep-walled mountains, only a few hours of direct sunlight reach the ground around midday.

The first 5,000-foot summits of the AT trek are reached on the second and third days in North Carolina – first the grassy perch atop Standing Indian, “the grandstand of the southern Appalachians,” and then Albert Mountain, with its fire tower and far-reaching vistas.

Beyond the trail town of Franklin and Winding Stair Gap, the trail follows a rather rough-and-tumble route over the Stecoahs, a series of high, grassy balds in the 4,000-5,000-foot range. Siler, Wesser, Wayah, Cheoah and any number of lesser balds all provide wonderful views, allowing hikers to trace their route from the Tennessee Valley Divide in Georgia all the way to the Smokies. While much of the trail through the Stecoahs has been tamed with switchbacks since I was last through, enough of the old straight up-and-down trail remains to exhaust most hikers. I know I sweated buckets in that 30-mile stretch.

The balds of the southern Appalachians are quite unusual in that many of these high summits feature a thick vegetation of native grasses or shrubs rather than the wooded forest growth that might be expected. Why some southern balds are like this while others are forested remains a mystery, but this hiker certainly appreciated the fine views from the open summits.

To date, several weeks into the hike, I’ve observed a fair number of woefully ill-prepared hikers out here, people with Army surplus, cotton and other poor quality gear. Some are out of food and fuel already. I’ve seen hatchets, camp chairs, big candles, lanterns, huge knives and such. Sorry, but these folks aren’t going to make it very far. There are in fact few truly experienced hikers on the trail; most are out for their first big backpacking experience and learning the ropes by trial and error.

The other notable item is the amazing amount of stuff – trash, most of it – that has been left at places along the trail. I particularly remember a heavy rain jacket, bag of assorted gear and a big bag of food at one shelter. I’ve also seen several abandoned tents, left right where they were pitched. At every shelter and camp site, hanging from trees or bear cables, or just left on the ground, the amount of trash early on is disturbing.

There are simply too many hikers on the trail in springtime on the first 100 miles between Springer Mountain in Georgia and Franklin, North Carolina, so issues like trash are inevitable. That said, despite the throngs of hikers, I’ve experienced plenty of solitude each day, hiking for many hours at a time very happily on my own and seeing relatively few people. And that, my friends, makes this hiker joyful beyond measure.

Carey Kish of Mount Desert Island is the author of AMC’s Best Day Hikes Along the Maine Coast. Follow Carey’s AT thru-hike in his Maineiac Outdoors blog at:

mainetoday.com/blog/maineiac-outdoors