After a long drive from the Outer Banks to Great Smoky Mountains National Park (via my alma mater Elon University and a stop-worthy city in Asheville), my week-long travel companion and grade-school friend JR Cole and I finally reached our opportunity to hike. This activity had been deprived of us in Shenandoah, as thunderstorms diverted our route to the coast (see Cape Hatteras/Wright Bros post for the full story), and we eagerly laced up our boots and hit the trail. Great Smoky Mountains National Park boasted over 11 million visitors in 2016, almost double the second most visited Park, Grand Canyon National Park (coming in at 5.9 million 2016 visitors). The reasons for its enormous popularity become quite clear when looking at a map of the Park and the surrounding area. Great Smoky Mountains lies along the border of two states, North Carolina to the east and Tennessee to the west, and is within reasonable driving distance of a large number of major metropolitan areas, including Nashville, Charlotte, Raleigh/Durham, Atlanta, Richmond, and DC. The Park also contains large portions of the Blue Ridge Parkway, making it a popular driving destination and allowing visitors unwilling or unable to embark on grueling hikes to reap the beauty of the mountains from the comfort of their vehicle.
Our first hike was up to the Chimney Tops, though the last portion of the trail leading up to the Chimney Tops themselves was closed off due to a wildfire which had ravaged the area a year or so previous. The trail is advertised as 4.2 miles in total, but with the last bit closed to hikers, it amounts to more like 3.8. This served as the perfect length for us to complete a hike in late afternoon before the arrival of darkness. Winding up a moderate trail, Chimney Tops is mostly flowing mountain streams and beautifully colored autumn leaves until you approach the end of the ascent, where the following view of the Smokies awaits…
The first night spent at Cosby Campground on the Tennessee side of the Park was spent collecting wood and kindling for a fire, as we did not have the presence of forethought to buy wood on our way into camp. Despite this, JR, to his credit, was able to start and maintain a very respectable fire while I set up the rest of our gear and camp kitchen. My beloved Subaru Crosstrek, Mithrandir, has a permanent souvenir from this particular campsite, as I made the mistake of parking under a large black walnut tree. Two small dents are visible in the middle of his hood from falling ordinance, but hey, chicks dig scars, right?
Our second hike was harder, longer, and much more rewarding than our truncated ascent to not-quite-the-top of Chimney Tops… The Alum Cave to Mt. Le Conte trail was roughly 12 miles in total, but with the handful of side paths we took off the main trail, it was more like 14-15 miles for us that day. This trail includes about 3100 feet of elevation gain, but is spread out fairly well so as to not have any one section be overwhelmingly strenuous. Alum Cave, or ‘Alum Rock Overhang’ as it should more accurately be called, is a worthwhile stopping point on the trail… for a snack. Fuel up here and make the push to the top of Mt. Le Conte; you won’t regret it!
Myrtle Point and Cliff Top both feature postcard-worthy views of the surrounding Smokies, but Cliff Top has a slightly more accessible and wide-angle shot opportunity. No self-respecting hiker should, under good hiking conditions, reach Alum Cave without continuing further up Mt. Le Conte to one or both of these viewpoints. JR and I were both struck by two photos in the Mt. Le Conte Lodge, situated close to Cliff Top. The first photo was of a rugged gentleman who, in the 1920s, carried his 70-year-old mother up to the top of the mountain – on his back – in a rocking chair. The second photo was of a woman who had completed the hike we’d just proudly accomplished not once, as we had, but 700 times. Both of these individuals put us flabby suburban Yankees to shame…
Our third and final hike in the Park was another somewhat quick jaunt – 5.5 to 6 miles. Nearly three miles up the trail from our campsite ran the Appalachian Trail, 1300 miles of backwoods hiking from Georgia to Maine. Though the hike up to the AT was particularly steep, and a very helpful and chatty Park Ranger warned us of bear encounters, we quickly reached the junction and hiked for a bit on that section of the trail. To put the scope of the AT in perspective for those unfamiliar with its breadth, the trip I am currently undertaking (of which you are reading an excerpt) will last me 131 days in total. Were I to have dedicated the entire 4+ months to the Appalachian Trail alone, an average of 10 miles a day, without taking a single day off due to weather, fatigue, illness, etc., would have been necessary. While I am glad to have had the opportunity to have seen and hiked part of the famous trail, the opportunity to see 30 National Parks across the country (and Canada) far exceeds the draw to remain on one path for that period of time.
One final word on the area of Tennessee in which we enjoyed the Smokies: Gatlinburg, TN is a hackneyed, festering tourist trap and a microcosm of everything wrong with the accepted perception of the American South. I implore you, from one traveler to another – do not eat at the Gatlinburg TGI Friday’s. You’re in Appalachia; get out of your comfort zone and find a rickety Moonshine & Possum Jerky shop off the side of the road somewhere.