Chimney Tops is a steep four-mile hike that leads to great views from a pinnacle. Rock scrambling and climbing are required to reach the view.
After we made our hike to Laurel Falls, we decided to add another hike to Chimney Tops. There were signs up on both sides of the park stating that the Chimney Tops trail was closed on Monday-Thursday for trail maintenance from late April through Mid October. The Trails Forever crew (which is a partnership of the park and Friends of the Smokies) is working on improving the trail conditions. Read about their progress. Since it was a Friday and the first day that week the trail was open, we expected a lot of people on this trail.
The parking lot for the trail was full, so we had to drive further up the road until we reached an overlook that provided space to park. We made it back down to the trailhead and began our hike. At the entrance, there is a large sign that shows a description of the trail and also demonstrates the steepness of the climb at the top and that it will require rock scrambling. The sign is not a joke at all and should deter people that aren’t able to handle the steep incline of the trail.
The hike starts off going downhill and quickly comes to a wooden bridge over the West Prong of the Little Pigeon River. The first half mile of the trail gives you many spots to view the rapidly flowing waters of the Road Prong of the Little Pigeon River. The trail continues to ascend steadily and leads away from the Road Prong. At .9 miles, the trail intersects with the Road Prong trail. Take a right and head up the Chimney Tops trail. The trail will become very steep at this point and not stop until you are near the top. You will witness some very tough climbing for the next 1.1 miles that will have you taking regular breaks to keep your heart from pounding out of your chest as you navigate up a rocky slope up the mountain. You gain about 1000 feet of elevation in this distance. Eventually, the trail flattens at 1.8 miles and even goes slightly downhill before rising again to reach the slate pinnacles of Chimney Tops in 2.0 miles.
Signs warn visitors again to be cautious and not venture past the first pinnacle. You can only imagine how hazardous this rock scramble is, since it is a sheer drop if you make a mistake. The slate had a lot of handholds and footholds to grab onto and help propel yourself up the rock face. In the mid-day sun, the black surface was quite hot and I didn’t want to keep my hands in one place too long. We made our way up about 75% of the way and then felt that we didn’t want to risk things any further. The views were simply astounding though. We scooted back down on our butts very carefully. Most people decided on not going all the way to the top but there were a few brave souls that pushed themselves up to the peak.
I will say that this hike did have wonderful views and a fun rock scramble at the end. However, the Chimney Tops trail climb was quite brutal. I’m sure a lot of people are not able to make it all the way up due to the steep incline.
Chimney Tops is another trail that seemingly everyone visiting the Smokies wants to hike. Although it’s only four miles, the route to the top is deceptively steep and challenging.
The four-days-a-week closure of the trail definitely causes more people to queue up for the hike on Friday through Sunday. The parking lot was completely full when we arrived around 10:15. But it was well worth the wait and facing the crowds. The trail rehabilitation being done in the Smokies is amazing! We had seen the work done recently on Forney Ridge, and are sure Chimney Tops will be just as nice when it’s completed. Friends of the Smokies is a large part of the effort to maintain and rebuild trails. They are a non-profit organization to help protect and maintain the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
The trail starts off crossing a number of small bridges over rushing streams. The water in the Smokies is truly spectacular! I’ve never seen a place with so many cascades, rapids and waterfalls. I enjoyed stopping and photographing a few spots along the water. Whenever I found a spot in the shade, I got out my mini-tripod and played around with long exposures. We even spotted a newt/salamander on one of the footbridges. That was neat to see!
After a short descent from the parking lot, the first bit of the trail is uphill, but for the large part is gradual with decent trail conditions. The middle mile of the hike is pretty tough! Although this was one of the shortest hikes we did during our week in the Smokies, this section of climbing was doubtlessly the steepest. Much of it traversed wet, slick, muddy, rocky, rooty terrain and it was relentlessly uphill. Terrain like this is the reason I became a dedicated trekking pole user. Poles take so much strain off your knees and make traversing trail like this much safer and easier.
After a short section of tough climbing, the trail became more moderate and continued to climb uphill via a series of switchbacks. At the top of the ridge, the trail became nearly level and passed through gorgeous stands of blooming Catawba rhododendron. A warning sign threatening injury and/or death let us know that we had arrived at the pinnacles on Chimney Tops. This sign is 100% serious. The pinnacle of Chimney Tops is steep, slick and long enough for a fall to result in death.
We stashed our trekking poles behind a tree because we knew we’d need all four limbs free and available to climb the rock face. I looked at the pinnacle for a while, debating on whether or not I was going to climb up to the top. I knew if I didn’t climb up, I would miss the views and would have done all that uphill hiking for nothing. But, a view isn’t worth getting hurt (or worse). Some long-time readers of this blog might remember that I have vertigo and really struggle with maintaining my sense of balance and equilibrium on terrain like this.
In the end, I decided I was feeling pretty secure. The rock face, while steep and precipitous, had plenty of solid toe and hand holds. I climbed up the rocks, sticking close to the ground and testing every single toe and handhold before committing to my next move. Eventually, I reached a perch that offered a beautiful view of distant mountains and decided that I had climbed high enough. I probably stopped about three quarters of the way up.
I snapped a few photos and told Adam it was time for me to climb down. I was starting to feel dizzy and a little uneasy. I had been sitting facing downwards on the rock, and I think looking at the sheerness of the descent made my head spin a bit.
I sort of crab-crawled and slid down the pinnacle on my rear end, carefully placing my toes and hands into sturdy grips. After a minute, I realized that the downward going was actually pretty easy and secure. That allowed me to pick up my pace a bit.
At the bottom, we saw quite a few people who hiked up and then decided not to tackle the pinnacle. While they missed a spectacular view, it’s definitely smart to not push beyond what you feel is safe.
The hike downhill went pretty quickly – again, thanks to the trekking poles’ added support and balance. We saw so many people hiking up that were clearly not regular hikers – skinny jeans, sandals, no water, etc. A lot of people stopped us to ask ‘How much farther?’ I salute all of the hiking newbies who make it to the summit of Chimney Tops. While the hike is on the shorter side, it definitely provides some more technical terrain and some serious elevation gain over a short distance. If I were to recommend hikes for beginners, Chimney Tops would probably not be one of them.
Don’t get me wrong, it was a fun, rewarding hike with excellent views and beautiful streams and cascades, but I think there are probably better hikes for people just starting out. I think that newcomers often look at total distance and think ‘Oh… I can walk four miles’, when in reality an eight mile hike with easier terrain and less climbing would probably be more suitable and enjoyable.
- Distance – 4.0 miles
- Elevation Change – 1300 feet
- Difficulty – 4. The second mile of the hike is very steep.
- Trail Conditions – 3. There is some loose rock on the steep climb. Use caution on how secure your footing is going up and down. The trail is very worn due to its popularity.
- Views– 4. From the peak of Chimney Tops, you will get great views of mountains for miles.
- Streams/Waterfalls – 3.5. The prongs of the Little Pigeon River give you lots of opportunities to watch the water flow rapidly.
- Wildlife – 2.5. You will not see larger fauna up here normally due to the popularity of the trail, but we did see a cute red squirrel, heard the cackling of a pileated woodpecker, and many other birds.
- Ease to Navigate – 4. There is only one trail junction to turn, so this should be very easy to follow.
- Solitude – 0. One of the most popular trails in the Smokies. In 2012, with a limitation on the days it is open, it will likely be even more crowded.
Directions to trailhead: The parking lot is 6.7 miles south of the Sugarlands Visitor Center on Newfound Gap Road. Park in the large parking lot and you should see the opening to start the hike.