Hiking the Smokies

An Appalachian centerpiece in the southeastern United States

An Appalachian centerpiece in the southeastern United States

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Friends told me for years about the bounty and beauty of the “Smokies”, a.k.a the Great Smoky Mountains of Tennessee and North Carolina.

But it wasn’t until last summer that I had the chance to go poking through this amazing region. I wish I’d gone sooner, but it still made for a stunning, sunning summer.

Marvelous mountains

I’ve hiked all kinds of mountains around the world and compared to the soaring Rocky Mountains in the western US and the craggy, older mountains of the southwest, I had always seen the Smokies as a range of lesser stature. The Rockies’ younger geological formations are staggering, and you can’t beat the Old West’s gems, but I was pleased to find a special atmosphere in the Blue Ridge hills and rich old growth forests of the Smokies.

What makes the ancient, geological formations of this 187,000-acre International Biosphere Reserve and UNESCO World Heritage Site so special are the many backpacking trails, panoramic views of flower-studded hillsides and non-stop ridgelines they offer. The mountains are also full of wildlife fairly unique to the region. You can find huge swaths of virgin forest, notably in the eastern section of The Great Smoky Mountains National Park, which straddles the two states.

Hiking Essentials

Since the park is within a day’s drive for half of all Americans, it sees over 9 million visitors annually, but you don’t have to see them at all. An hour in, I was almost alone, bar the fellow serious hikers. I definitely recommend wearing strong, well worn hiking boots for the trails in the Smokies. The terrain shifts constantly between moss-covered rocks, soft earth along stream-beds, and tougher rocky areas here and there. There are also wet stream crossings, you’ll be more protected with at least over-ankle boots.

If you’re a “rock-hopper,” as I sometimes am, carry good non-slip “amphibious” sandals or water shoes to jump into; but be extra careful of slippery moss on rocks. Also carry plenty of liquids, some snacks, mosquito repellent and use a good sunhat. I also wore polarized sunglasses for crossing water, it helps you see stones better with no reflection.

Critter cautions

Black bears are common in this part of the USA, so be watchful at all times. You’ll enjoy watching them foraging at distance, but if you try and get too close or tempt them with snacks you can be heavily fined by rangers, or worse, risk being attacked by a “panhandler” bear. If you do encounter a bear on a trail, slowly back away, eyes on the animal at all times. Do Not Run. Bears can run faster than you so it’s better to shout or throw something at a more aggressive animal to deter it. The bear is likely smelling your food, hopefully not looking at you as prey.

Other wildlife to avoid are Northern copperhead and timber rattlesnakes – two poisonous snakes found in the Smokies. This means you need to be careful around old structures and stone fences, rock outcrops, hillsides (rattlers) and stream bank crevices (copperheads). I rounded a boulder to find myself facing a copperhead, but he was full of what appeared to be a gigantic
rodent, and seemed in torpor.

Get Hiking

Here are a few of the regularly travelled hiking trails for you to explore on a sojourn to the Smoky Mountains.

Big Creek to Mouse Creek Falls is good for beginners that don’t want to prepare ahead by working up to higher climbs. With an elevation gain of only 590 feet, its pathway along an aged railroad grade makes it a smooth advance to a charming waterfall. Other trails along streams include Cucumber Gap Loop, Huskey Gap, Kephart Prong, Little River, Meigs Creek, Oconoluftee River and Smokemont and smaller ones.

I love hiking alongside water. For almost the entire walk, you can either see or hear the creek nearby. Stop for pictures at Midnight Hole. This deep pool will do the posing, with rhododendron and various wildflowers as background. The waterfall tumbling into it doesn’t hit 7 feet in height, but the bubbling waters echo nicely around. I felt guilty about a prior dinner, seeing a trout scudding around in the pool, but carried on to my goal of the 45-foot Mouse Creek Falls.  Shedding my pack, I joined a small family to snap pix of their group and have a picnic.

Alum Cave Trail is accessed from Gatlinburg, via the Sugarlands Visitor Center, this trail is quite popular. With scenic points that include Arch Rock, which curves over the trail; Eye of the Needle, a hole in the rock at mountain top, visible from Inspiration Point, another great lookout; Alum Cave, an unusual formation found 2.2 miles in a concaved bluff over 75 feet high and 500 feet long.

Though I didn’t get up early enough to see it on my Spruce-Fir Trail hike, I’d noted the gentle fog that gave the mountains their name, on the drive from Knoxville. This fog comes from substances in the ground that escape to form the scenic haze. Along the trails of the Clingmans Dome area, you’re sure to see it as you hit higher ridges. Each peak along the state-line ridge affords stunning photo opportunities. It’s a gentle walk that includes boardwalk for a considerable stretch and this trail loops through some dense evergreen foliage. The best feature for me is the abundance of Fraser fir and red spruce trees, not to mention their rich scent.

Walk the Sugarland Mountain Trail a bit, from Newfound Gap, to enjoy a lush area filled with Fraser fir and red spruce trees and their rich aroma. You’ll pass through areas chock full of rhododendron, trout-lilies and natural beauty. This is a bit more of a challenging trail, with some rockier terrain at the outset. It is more solitude than scenic, but very enjoyable.

For serious hikers, there’s Mt. Sterling (via Baxter Creek) in the southwest corner of the park. It’s a long, tough trail, but you will certainly enjoy strolling through a deciduous forest, then old growth forests, before snapping pictures from the 60-foot fire tower on the summit, built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in 1935.

Summit Adventures

After hiking close to Sugarland Mountain’s summit, I climbed up to Clingmans Dome. This is the highest point in the park at 6,643 feet, with outlooks averaging 22 miles into seven states. You can even time it to catch sunset on the 54-foot observation tower, guaranteeing shots worthy of sharing, made even better if a few storms are happening in the distance.

There are so many more trails to hike in the Smokies, and that’s just in the Park alone. It’s a good idea to get hold of a trail map beforehand and plan your trip out, then spend anything from a week to a month there, to get your fix of splendid hiking.

Although avoiding hazards such as dangerous wildlife should be a priority when visiting the Smoky Mountains; there are also plenty of local attractions worth including in your itinerary. Here are some suggestions.

  • You have a vast selection of places to stay in the Smokies. North Carolina alone proudly touts wonderfully decorated chalets with fireplaces and massive screened porches to enjoy the birdsong and breezes with friends. Friends suggested that the cabins on Georgia’s Lake Blue Ridge were sweet, and I found them so.
  • Want a forest of foods to savor? Then hit Harrah’s Cherokee Casino Resort, where you’ll find some fun gambling and a ton of grub. Choose from The Food Court, The Lobby Café, the Noodle Bar for Asian fare, Chefs Stage Buffet’s incredible spreads or Ruth’s Chris Steak House for a mean slab of meat.
  • Honour the Cherokee people and invest in some crafts and arts made by these peaceful Native Americans at the Cherokee, NC Qualla Arts and Crafts Mutual, Inc. You can also visit Oconaluftee Indian Village, a wondrous recreation of an historic Cherokee village or attend the amazing outdoor dramatic work, “Unto These Hills”, beneath a star-filled sky.
  • Townsend offers Little River Tubing – for a fun float, tubing rocks, literally. You can also go hot air ballooning over this wonderful area, to take in a lot of country or catch the Tail of the Dragon, a winding biker’s fantasy, perfect for a Harley D tour through miles of woods on exciting curves.
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