Alum Cave to Mount LeConte (TN)

Special: Smokies Edition

Introductory Guide to Visiting Great Smoky Mountains National Park

This eleven mile hike of Mount LeConte is beautiful and lots of fun!  The scenery is diverse – streams, views, towering bluffs, an arched rock that you get to climb through, and a visit to the famous LeConte Lodge.

View the full album of photos from this hike

View from LeConte Summit
LeConte provides great vistas from the Cliff Tops viewpoint, located about .2 miles above the lodge. Below: The Walker Camp Prong at the very beginning of the hike; A lot of the hike had views; The famous LeConte llamas.

Pretty Stream Open Views LeConte Llamas

Adam Says…

When we were planning our trip to Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the hike that we were most excited to do was the hike up Mount LeConte.  We hiked this trail last year by taking the Trillium Gap Trail, so it was time to try an alternate route.  Last time we had talked to several people that had taken the Alum Cave trail, so we thought it may be a good option.

The weather was gorgeous this day, but we knew we had a chance for thunderstorms in the afternoon, so we decided to get as early of a start as we could.  When we had hiked up via the Trillium Gap Trail, we didn’t run into a lot of hikers; however, it was evident early on this route was going to be a different story.  While Christine was taking advantage of the facilities near the trailhead, I was getting nervous as I saw large groups of people starting the trail.  We’re fairly fast hikers and I was worried we were going to get stuck in a jam behind families with small kids that would slow us down.  Christine arrived and we got on our way.

We both jumped into the hiking and started hiking at a frenetic pace.  We wanted to get in a spot that was far enough ahead of others where we could stop periodically and snap some photos.  It took us a while to get separated from the larger groups, so we didn’t take as much time to enjoy the scenery in the first mile.  We convinced ourselves that we could have more time to amble along on the return trip.

Waiting to Pass Through Arch Rock
Adam waits his turn to pass through Arch Rock.  Below: Early parts of the hike have gentle elevation gain and lots of roots; Christine crosses a foot bridge; The trail was extremely crowded.

Rooty Trail Christine Crossing Hiking with Crowds

The trailhead starts from the Alum Cave Bluff parking lot on US-441.  At the trailhead, there is a larger map and some trail information guides you can purchase for $ .50.  You will immediately cross a bridge over the Walker Camp Prong stream.  The trail starts off very flat, but you know you’ll have lots of climbing to do later on in the hike.  The first mile of the hike goes along the Alum Cave Creek.  There are several options to jump slightly off the main trail to take in the scenes of the cascading creek.  At 1.4 miles, you will reach a footbridge to cross Styx Branch before you reach the interesting geological feature known as Arch Rock.  Arch Rock is basically a hollowed-out rock tunnel.  You will climb up some steep stairs with a guideline as you go through to the top.  Once you emerge out of the top, you go a little further and then reach another footbridge to cross Styx Branch one more time.

The trail begins to climb more steeply at this point as you make your way to Alum Cave Bluffs.  At 2.4 miles, you start to come across a larger rock outcropping.  As the trail starts to climb around this, you behold the enormous Alum Cave Bluffs.  With the word “cave” being in the title, your initial expectations would be a large cave would be here.  However, the cave bluffs are basically a humongous rock overhang.  It is still jaw-dropping impressive and unlike anything I’ve seen.  The ground underneath is dry and dusty.  We saw a few drops of moisture come over the edge, but the overhang reaches out about 60 feet.  Standing at one end of the outcrop looking at people at the other end, gives you a perspective of how large of an area this is.

Alum Cave Bluffs
The Bluffs are impressive! Below: The beautiful, rugged terrain of the Smokies.

Beautiful, rugged Smokies

From the Alum Cave Bluffs, you will see a sign that shows the direction to continue up Mount LeConte.   The trail climbs steeply for the next .4 miles, passing some views of Little Duck Hawk Ridge.  The trail reaches a peak and then descends into a saddle for another .4 miles.  The trail begins to climb again rather steeply for a good portion of the remainder of the hike as you make your way up the mountain.  Along the way, you will pass by a rock slide, which opens up to some gorgeous views with nothing but layers of mountain ridges to see.  At 3.8 miles, you reach a set of stairs on a switchback to continue your climb.  The trail eventually comes into a steep, rocky climb with cables put in to use as handrails (since this trail gets very icy with little sun in the winter).

The trail finally starts to level off at mile 4.75 as you enter into a tunnel of fraser fir trees.  Continue on a short distance and then you’ll reach a junction with the Rainbow Falls Trail.  Continue a few hundred feet and you’ll reach the LeConte lodge.

Getting a spot at the LeConte Lodge is competitive and highly coveted by Smokies visitors.  Reservations are made by lottery and typically start booking in early October for the following year, so it takes some planning and a little luck to be able to stay in one of these spots on top of the mountain.  We were lucky enough to get a spot here last year and we hope that we’ll do it again in the future.

Great Views
The Alum Cave Bluffs trail had lots of nice views along the way. Below: Some slick, rocky areas along the trail had cables to provide assistance with staying upright; Parts of the trail were quite narrow; The last stretch toward the lodge is flat and passes through evergreens.

Cable Assist Narrow Trail Nearing the Summit

From the cabin area, we wanted to get some nice views and headed up the main path until we reached a junction.  Hang to the right to go to the Cliff Top trail. This trail is rocky and quite steep.  The sign says that it is .2 miles to the top, but it feels longer than that.  However, when you get to the Cliff Top area, you will have great views for miles on a clear day.  After taking in the views, we grabbed a sack lunch from the dining room to refuel for our trip back down.  We talked with some fellow hikers at the top and relaxed for a while.  After staying up there a previous year, it was hard to motivate ourselves to head back down.

On our way back down, the trip went by fairly quickly since everything was downhill.  It’s always interesting when you see people hiking uphill that look like they are in complete misery.  We spotted one woman, who was staring daggers at her husband (who I’m guessing convinced her to go hiking).  Her daughter was hanging back with her and said, “I love you, mom”.  The mother’s response was, “That’s nice”.  She was definitely not having a good time hiking.  We imagined how the father was going to get an earful for the rest of day.

If you are interested in geocaching, there are not a lot that are available in Great Smoky Mountains National Park since the national park prevents physical caches from being placed.  However, there is a virtual cache on the trail to find – Alum Cave Bluff.

Christine Says…

Monday morning dawned in spectacular fashion. It was cool, sunny and crystal clear. Even the typical haze that makes the Smokies seem smoky was absent. That was such a treat, because clear air really lets you appreciate the magnificent, green, lushness of the mountains in this area.

We kicked off our morning with breakfast at Mountain Perks – a little café and espresso bar across from the train depot in Bryson City. The owners, Jeff and Pam Pulley are so friendly and are ready to serve local tips alongside their tasty breakfast and even better coffee. I left there with a pound of their ‘Black Widow’ roast coffee to enjoy at home after the trip.

Fully fed and caffeinated, we made our way into the park. On the way to the Alum Cave Bluff trailhead, we spotted a couple elk grazing in a pasture just north of the Occonaluftee visitor center. What a treat!

Llama
We were happily surprised to find the llamas still at camp! Below: Adam arrives at LeConte lodge; The obligatory pose with the elevation sign; We purchased bag lunches from the lodge for $10.00. Lunch came with bottomless lemonade -of which we took full advantage.

Arriving Obligatory Pose Bag Lunch

We got to the Alum Cave Bluff parking area around 9:30, and found that it was already 100% full. We had to park a ways up the road on a pullout. We geared up, and hit the trail – along with dozens and dozens and dozens of other people. I’ve rarely hiked with so many people on the trail at the same time – even on Old Rag. I’ll admit, it made me a little stressed. As you might have guessed, I stop frequently to take photos along the way. Also, Adam and I are relatively fast hikers. So, when I stop to take photos, we end up leap-frogging the same people over and over again. That’s not a problem when there are only a few groups on a trail, but coming up on the heels of large multi-generational families time after time makes me feel bad. It’s easy to pass a couple, it’s more disruptive to squeeze past ten people, six of them kids under the age of ten. I probably didn’t take as many photos early in the hike as usual so that I could avoid being disruptive.

The first couple miles of the hike were relatively easy, following a stream and climbing very gently through the moss covered forest. The terrain changed when we reached Arch Rock. After crossing a log footbridge, stone steps led uphill steeply through an arch of stone. Very cool!

After the arch, the trail began to climb more steeply. In several places, wire was affixed to the rocky side of the trail to help you keep your footing over narrow, slick areas. We climbed uphill for about .7 of a mile before reaching the famous Alum Cave Bluff. Along the way, the trail alternated between rocky and forested. There was even one nice view on a rocky, sand myrtle-covered turn in the trail.

WOW! I had seen photos of the Bluffs, but they were even more impressive in person. The rock wall soared and arched overhead, forming an immense overhang. The terrain beneath the arch was dry and silty. It was tough to walk on and I imagine this area is tough to traverse when it’s wet and rainy.

Cliff Tops View
The nice view from Cliff Tops.  Below:  Time to leave the lodge; Adam walks along the trunk of a fallen giant; The steep and rocky descent.

Leaving the Lodge Huge Fallen Tree  Steep Going Down

I think a good number of people stop at the Bluff and then return to the parking area, so the trail traffic was much lighter after passing that area. We pressed on toward the summit of LeConte.

After the Bluff, the climbing is serious and steady. There are also a number of great views along the way. The Smokies really take my breath away. I kept thinking about how lucky and blessed I am to visit such places and have the physical capability to enjoy the tough climbs.

Eventually the trail turned a corner and leveled out and passed arrow-straight through an evergreen forest. The trail bed looked almost like cobblestones – white, round, smooth rocks. From that point, we had an easy .75 mile walk until we arrived at LeConte lodge.

At LeConte, we did all the obligatory things – took our photo in front of the dining hall with the elevation marker/date, said hello to the llamas, visited the office to get our exclusive summit-shop-only 2013 shirts, sat on rocking chairs, drank copious amounts of LeConte lemonade with our bagged lunches and made the .2 mile climb to enjoy the view from Cliff Tops.

Being at the top on a nice day was such a different experience than our 2012 visit in the rain! However, as the afternoon wore on, we noticed that some darker clouds were starting to build in the sky. We headed back down after about an hour at the summit.

The hike down went very quickly – all downhill! It’s amazing how much faster you can descend 2700 feet than you can climb it! We saw several cute red squirrels that took the time to chatter loudly at us. We scared a grouse from it’s resting spot – and the grouse scared us equally back! They really explode out of the brush when they startle!

Adam at the Bluffs
Adam rests at Alum Cave Bluffs. Below: Climbing back down through Arch Rock. Notice the tiny people waiting at the bottom; Painted trillium; This pretty stream follows the beginning and end of the hike.

Climbing Down Through the Arch Painted Trillium Pretty Stream

We enjoyed passing back under Arch Rock and taking some time to enjoy the beautiful stream beside the trail. We were back at the car before 3:00, tired but really happy with our day.

That evening for dinner, we rewarded ourselves with a feast at the Smoky Mountain Brewery. I got the Brewery Ale Steak, which might be one of the tastiest steaks I’ve ever eaten. I also really liked their Tuckaleechee Porter.

Trail Notes

  • Distance11 miles + a little extra for walking around the lodge grounds and up to the Cliff Tops Viewpoint
    (Check out the stats from MapMyHike)*
  • Elevation Change – About 2650 ft.
  • Difficulty –  4.  The hike up Mount LeConte is a steady uphill.
  • Trail Conditions – 4.  The trail is well-used and maintained, so we didn’t find much difficulty.  During heavy times of rain or ice, parts of the rocky areas could be incredibly slick.
  • Views – 4. The best views are along the hike up to Mount LeConte and at the Cliff Top overlook.
  • Streams/Waterfalls – 3.  Early in the hike, you do get some nice views of Alum Cave Creek and Styx Branch.
  • Wildlife – 2.  We did see some cute red squirrels, but last year people had seen a bear.  There were some nice spots for birdwatching though.
  • Ease to Navigate – 4.  There are not many places to get steered wrong based on signage and the trail was always clear.
  • Solitude – 0.  On a nice day, expect heavy crowds on the way up to Alum Cave Bluffs.  After that point, there should be fewer people on the way up Mount LeConte; however, this is definitely the most popular way up Mount LeConte.

Directions to trailhead:  From Gatlinburg, TN take US 441-S into Great Smoky Mountains National Park.  Go 11 miles.  Parking is available in a large lot on the left or alongside the road.  The trailhead starts near an opening on the southern side of the parking lot.

* MapMyHike is not necessarily accurate, as the GPS signal fades in and out – but it still provides some fun and interesting information.

Kephart Prong (NC)

Special: Smokies Edition

Introductory Guide to Visiting Great Smoky Mountains National Park

The 4-mile Kephart Prong hike ascends gently along a beautiful stream and end at the backcountry campsite – Kephart Shelter. This hike offers lovely cascades, wildflowers and history.

View the full album of photos from this hike

Adam Crossing Foot Log
Adam crosses one of several log bridges over Kephart Prong. Below: The trailhead is located on the side of Rt.441.  The first bridge takes you across the Oconaluftee River; The Oconaluftee is beautiful and cascading; So much of the Smokies seems to be wet, green and covered with moss.

Trailhead Oconaluftee River Mushrooms and Mosses

Christine Says…

Our second day in the Smokies was earmarked for a hike to the summit of Mount LeConte, but we woke to gloomy weather. We decided that we didn’t want to hike ten tough miles and not even get payoffs in terms of views, so we devised a new plan!  After redoing our Deep Creek Waterfall Loop Hike to get better photos, we were still ready for more hiking.

I perused our hiking guide and found a trail called Kephart Prong. It sounded interesting – remnants of an old railroad and a CCC camp, a backcountry camping shelter and the trail followed a (possibly pretty) stream. After redoing the earlier hike, the 4-mile length of the Kephart Prong was appealing, too – short and sweet! Also, it had the benefit of being closer to the Bryson City side of the park where we were staying for the early part of our trip.

It was still morning, so we grabbed a snack and made our way to the trail. What we found exceeded my expectations. The stream was incredibly beautiful – rapids and small waterfalls tumbling over mossy rocks and fallen hemlocks. In at least four places, rough, hewn log bridges traversed the stream. The sounds of running water carried through the entire hike. We saw lots of wildflowers – pink lady slippers, wild geranium, ragwort and many others I couldn’t name.

Wildflower
There were many kinds of wildflowers along the trail.  This might be a wild geranium?  Below: Adam explores the ruins of the old CCC camp in the area. This chimney was supposedly located in the barracks; There was once a railroad and a trout hatchery in this part of the Smokies, so look for abandoned rails, train parts and pipes from the hatchery. The item below appears to be an old pipe joint possibly; Another beautiful, mossy, log bridge over the stream.

CCC Camp Ruins Railroad Parts Mossy Bridge

The hike climbed gently the entire two miles until eventually arriving at the Kephart shelter – a sturdy stone and timber hut intended for backcountry camping. We chatted with other dayhikers using the hut for a lunch stop and one man who was there for an overnight stay.

Signs near the shelter showed that the Kephart Trail connects to the Sweat Heifer and Appalachian Trails. If we had continued to climb past the shelter, we would have arrived at Charlie’s Bunion in several miles.

Despite the draw of the Bunion, lunch was a higher calling, so we made our way back down the trail. It’s amazing how much faster the climb down always goes! We got back to the car around 1:00 and were back in Cherokee by 1:30. We couldn’t find anything that sounded good and was actually open on Sunday, so we pressed on back to Bryson City and ended up at a place we found on Yelp – The Bar-B-Que Wagon. They served great, traditional Carolina style pit barbecue with all the expected sides. We sat at a picnic table by the river and enjoyed an enormous, late lunch.

After lunch, we thought about going back to the hotel to shower, but instead we pushed on to visit the NOC (Nantahala Outdoor Center). The complex has a fantastic outdoor outfitter and a super cool riverside patio bar (Big Wesser BBQ + Brew). We got a few drinks and watched rafters and kayakers working the rapids. So relaxing! What a great day!

Adam Says…

The Kephart Prong Trail is one of the most definitive picturesque, riverside trails you’ll find.  The lush forests surround you in a sea of green in every direction you turn.

The trail starts off by crossing a large bridge, giving you great views of the Oconaluftee River. Once you cross the bridge, the trail starts off as wide and gravel-covered. At .2 miles, you will come across the remnants of the Civilian Conservation Corps camp that was here from 1933-1942.  You’ll see signs of a stone plaque and a tall chimney, among other partial walls.

At the .5 mile mark, you’ll reach your first footbridge over the stream.  As you continue further, the trail continues a slow, gradual ascent to the end. You’ll cross three other footbridges, but these consist of narrow, split logs with wood handrails. The last of these was the only one I was a little concerned with crossing, since the handrail required you to stoop to be able to touch it and the log bounced some in the middle.  The trail leads to the Kephart shelter, which was well-constructed.  From the shelter, you can proceed on the Sweet Heifer Creek Trail which joins the Appalachian Trail in 3.7 miles or take the Grassy Branch Trail to the Sluice Gap Trail for a total of 3.8 miles to reach Charlies Bunion.  Since this is a nice junction for an overnight trip, expect other people staying at the shelter in the nice summer-fall weekends.  Backcountry reservations for overnight campers is $4/night and is required to be made in advance.  See here for further regulations regarding backpacking permits.

Kephart Shelter
Kephart Shelter sits under the shady evergreens. You must have a permit to stay the night in this shelter.  The stream runs behind/left of the shelter.  There used to be a logging camp where the shelter now stands.  Below: Most of the trail follows the stream closely; Adam makes his way across the bridge; A trail sign near the shelter shows the directions to other trails higher up the mountain.

Walking Along the Stream Another Crossing of Kephart Prong Kephart Prong Trail Sign

The Kephart Prong is named after Horace Kephart, who was instrumental in the establishment of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.  He was an extremely intelligent man, enrolling in graduate school at Cornell University at the age of 17.  He became the head of the St. Louis Mercantile Libray, but he lost his job.   He had turned to drinking and his wife and family left him for New York.  He decided he wanted to  re-establish himself in the wilderness of western North Carolina and Tennessee.  There he wrote the book Camping and Wildlife, which was considered the “bible” of camping.  When he became concerned that the Smoky Mountains were going to be heavily logged, he started writing letters to advocate for the establishment of this area as a national park.  He soon became friends with a photographer, George Masa and together they started photographing and mapping this area.  It was the partnering of Kephart’s words with Masa’s pictures that caught John D. Rockefeller Jr.’s attention, who donated $5 million to help purchase the lands to help secure the area to become a park.  Kephart died in a car crash before the park was to be established, but Mount Collins was renamed Mount Kephart in his honor.

The Nantahala Outdoor Center
Big Wesser BBQ + Brew at the Nantahala Outdoor Center is a great place to enjoy drinks after a day on the trails.  You can see the canoe/kayak course gates in the river.  It’s fun to watch people coming down the rapids.  Below: Carolina-style BBQ in Bryson City.

Carolina 'Cue

Another interesting spot almost immediately on the trail are the remnants of the site of the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) camp 411 here.  You can see the large chimney and camp signboard on the side of the trail.  This group of nearly 200 built rock walls, roads, trails, and footbridges that are still in use today.  There is an interesting history of this from one of the leaders, James William Biggs.

We enjoyed this beautiful trail and I can see incorporating this trail as part of a backpacking trip in the future.

Trail Notes

  • Distance4 miles
    (Check out the stats from MapMyHike)*
  • Elevation Change – About 770 ft.
  • Difficulty –  1.5. The ascent on this hike is very gradual and easy.
  • Trail Conditions – 4.  The trail is well-graded and in great condition.
  • Views – 0.  No scenic views.
  • Streams/Waterfalls – 5.  Very beautiful!
  • Wildlife – 2.  We didn’t see anything other than chipmunks and squirrels.
  • Ease to Navigate – 4.  The trail is very easy to follow to the shelter.  Once you reach the Kephart Shelter, you may decide to continue on.
  • Solitude – 2.  Because of the relatively short length and easiness of this hike, you will probably see a fair number of people.

Directions to trailhead:  Head north on US-441 N from Cherokee, NC.  Head 4 miles north of the Smokemont Campground.  Parking is available on the shoulder of the road and the trail starts after crossing the bridge over the Oconaluftee River.

* MapMyHike is not necessarily accurate, as the GPS signal fades in and out – but it still provides some fun and interesting information.

Deep Creek Area Waterfall Loop (NC)

Special: Smokies Edition

Introductory Guide to Visiting Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Deep Creek is an area of the Smokies popular with tubers, bikers, horseback riders and hikers. This (roughly) 5.4 mile hiking route provides spectacular views of three waterfalls and the beautiful streams that feed them. We ended up hiking this trail twice on our trip – the second time was mostly to get better photos. 🙂

View the full album of photos from this hike

Toms Branch Falls
Toms Branch Falls is the first waterfall you’ll come to on the loop. It’s only about a quarter mile from the parking area. Below: Another angle of Toms Branch Falls; Horseback riders love the Deep Creek area; Tubers on Deep Creek; Christine enjoys stream scenery.

Toms Branch Falls Horseback Riders
Tubers Christine on Deep Creek

Adam Says…

We rolled into Bryson City, NC around 2:15 and almost immediately headed out for a hike.  We were tired but our hotel wouldn’t let us check in even 45 minutes early. Evidently, the Microtel in Bryson City is very strict with their policies! We decided to do something close by, so we headed to Deep Creek campground for this hike with three waterfalls.

We knew we were getting close to the campground when we saw tons of “TUBES” signs. People were waving as we drove by, hoping that we would stop and rent tubes from them for floating down the river.

We arrived and got changed in the parking lot and made our way to the trailhead.  The parking lot was crowded, mainly for tubing people.  We followed the masses heading out carrying their inner tubes to their drop-in spots.

We started on the Deep Creek trail and soon passed the junction with the Juney Whank trail on the left. In just about .25 miles, we came across the first waterfall on the right, Toms Branch falls.  This is a gorgeous waterfall that drops about 60 feet over several different rock shelves before plummeting into Deep Creek.  We saw several people floating down the creek as we stopped for some photographs.

Indian Creek Falls
Adam enjoys beautiful Indian Creek Falls. Below: We spotted pink lady’s slippers along the trail. They were a little tattered at the end of their blooming season; Adam climbs the trail.

Pink Lady Slipper Climbing the Trail

At .75 miles, we reached the junction with the Indian Creek Trail. This is actually the last spot where people can drop their tubes into the creek, but we continued on the Deep Creek trail.  At 1.75 miles, this trail intersects with the Loop Trail.  We took a right on to the Loop Trail which starts a steep ascent.  At 2.4 miles, the trail reaches its peak and intersects with the Sunkota Ridge Trail. Continue on the Loop Trail which now descends at about the same rate as it ascended.  At 3.0 miles, you reach the junction with the Indian Creek Trail.  Take a right here.

At 3.8 miles, you’ll see a side trail that descends to  Indian Creek Falls.  Indian Creek Falls is a wide waterfall that has a gradual, sliding cascade into the water.  After taking in the sight, head back to the trail and continue to the right.  Shortly after passing the waterfall, you will reach the junction again with the Deep Creek Trail.  Take a left here to retrace your steps.  You could make this a shorter trip by initially taking a right at the junction, but we enjoyed putting a little extra effort to earn all three waterfalls.

Right before you reach the parking lot, you’ll see the junction trail again with the Juney Whank trail at 4.5 miles. Take the steep trail to the right up for .3 miles. Once you reach the top, you’ll see Asian which points you to the next waterfall. Descend down a short path and you’ll reach a footbridge and the waterfall.  Juney Whank Falls is another great waterfall that plunges down after about a 80 foot cascade.

Continue to the other side of the footbridge and continue on the trail, heading left at the first junction.  The trail descends rather steeply.  You’ll see signs that lead you to the parking lot and back to your car.

Deep Creek
The streams in the Smokies are so beautiful! Below: Since the trail is popular with horseback riders, there is a lot of manure along the way.  Butterflies apparently love manure!; Beautiful Deep Creek; Adam on the loop portion of the trail.

Butterflies on Manure Deep Creek Loop Trail

We had a great time on this trail that maximizes your waterfall experience.  The Deep Creek Trail and Indian Creek Trail both gave you great creek views almost the entire walk and it was fun to watch everyone float by us.  I can see why this is such a popular place to hike and tube for families.  We saw one person with a foot cast and met one woman with a pacemaker along the way, so most people should be able to handle this.  If you want to see some great Smokies waterfalls, this is a hike for you!

Christine Says…

We wanted to do this hike last year when we visited Bryson City, but with so much to do in the Smokies, we just ran out of time. This year, we knew the lay of the land a bit better, and we ready to hit the ground running (or hiking, so to speak!)

We arrived to the area mid-afternoon on the Saturday of Memorial Day weekend. We tried to get into our hotel one before official check-in, but the desk clerk turned us away. We decided to drive over to the Deep Creek Campground, and check out an easy loop hike that took us by a couple waterfalls – Toms Branch Falls and Indian Creek Falls.

I changed clothes in the crowded parking lot. Let me tell you… switching from jeans and a shirt into shorts, wicking shirt and sports bra without flashing anyone is quite a feat!

We started off along a wide, road-like trail that followed parallel to Indian Creek. It was packed with people out enjoying the warm, sunny weather. Apparently, the Smokies have had an exceedingly cold and wet spring, so the bright, 80-degree Memorial Day weekend was a great chance for everyone in eastern Tennessee to go outside. Deep Creek is very popular with tubers. All up and down the road leading to the campground, various vendors have set up shop renting tubes for roughly $5 a day. Once you have a tube, you walk about a mile up the trail, and then bob and bump along the shallow, but rapid-y river. It looks like a lot of fun! As hikers, we were in the definite minority.

Juney Whank Falls
Juney Whank may be the prettiest waterfall on the loop. Below: Adam enjoys the falls from the bridge; Juney Whank is beautiful from every angle; Below the falls.

Adam at Juney Whank Juney Whank Juney Whank

Walking along the Deep Creek Trail for about .25 miles, we came to the lovely Toms Branch Falls. It’s a tall waterfall that enters Deep Creek from the bank opposite the trail. Very impressive!

We walked along the creek until reaching a junction that makes a lollipop loop on the route. We decided to follow the longer arm of the loop so that we could visit Indian Creek Falls closer to the end of our hike. The trail mostly followed the stream before turning and climbing steadily uphill for about half a mile. At the highest point, the trail met the Sunkota Ridge Trail, which leads to higher elevations and a larger trail system. We remained on the loop and descended another half mile to meet another trail junction.

At this junction, we met a group of horseback riders. One rider was really struggling with her mule. She had dismounted because he had become so skittish. When we passed, he was bellowing and dancing around. She eventually got him under control and was able to ride on. He looked like quite a handful though!

In a few more tenths of a mile, we came upon Indian Creek Falls. These falls are not as steep, and are made up of a couple of small ‘shelf-drops’ before falling into one larger fall. Very beautiful!

About a tenth of a mile past the falls, you join back up with the beginning of the lollipop loop. From there, just follow the trail and the tubers back to the parking area.

Nantahala Brewing Company
The Nantahala Brewing Company – a good post-hike stop in Bryson City.

To be honest, I was really unhappy with my photos from this hike. Waterfalls, sunny conditions and photography simply don’t go together. So, I left this hike feeling a little disappointed with the photos I had to share. That regret quickly faded after a few beers at the Nantahala Brewing Company. What an awesome place! If you like craft beer, don’t miss a visit. After beers, we went for pizza at Anthony’s. It hit the spot and we loved our outdoor table facing the train depot.

I thought our experience with the waterfall hike was over, but the next morning we woke to gloomy, drizzly weather. Since it was such an easy hike, we went back and did it again so I could get better photos. And the second time, we added the .6 mile loop to visit Juney Whank Falls to the trip. These falls required a short, but steep climb, but may have been the prettiest of the three! And the better photos gained from a second trip around made this hike twice as nice!

Trail Notes

  • Distance5.4 miles
    (Check out the stats from MapMyHike)*
    These stats are from the first time we hiked the loop, so Juney Whank Falls are not included in the MapMyHike mileage or elevation.
  • Elevation Change – About 630 ft.
  • Difficulty –  2.  The only tough parts of this hike are the steep trail on the Loop Trail and the side trail to the Juney Whank falls
  • Trail Conditions – 4.  Most of the trail is gravel except for the Loop Trail.  This is a multi-use trail and you will see hikers, bikers, and horses on this trail.  The trails were in great shape with no blowdowns or rough footing.
  • Views – 0.  No scenic views from the trail, but this is more for the waterfalls.
  • Streams/Waterfalls – 5.  You’ll have the best stream views along Deep Creek and three gorgeous waterfalls.
  • Wildlife – 2.  Don’t expect larger wildlife due to the crowds of people on this trail.  We did hear lots of pretty warblers in the tree.
  • Ease to Navigate – 4.  Good signage at the trail junctions for the most part except for coming off the Juney Whank falls trail.
  • Solitude – 1.  Expect to see lots of people for most of the trail.  A lot of people choose not to do the Loop Trail.  

Directions to trailhead:  Take exit 67 off of NC-74 towards Veterans Blvd.  Go .6 miles and take a right on Main Street/NC-19.  Take the second left on to Everett Street.  You’ll see signs directing you to Deep Creek Campground.   Go .3 miles and take a right on Depot Street.  This road makes a quick left on Collins Street and then a quick right to continue on to Depot Street.   This becomes Deep Creek Road.  Go .3 miles and take a left on to West Deep Creek Road.   Continue 2.4 miles until you enter the Great Smoky Mountains National Park – Deep Creek campground.  A parking lot is on the left.  The trailhead starts near the drop-off roundabout next to this parking lot.

* MapMyHike is not necessarily accurate, as the GPS signal fades in and out – but it still provides some fun and interesting information.

Cades Cove Loop by Bike (TN)

Special: Smokies Edition

Introductory Guide to Visiting Great Smoky Mountains National Park

On Wednesday and Saturday mornings from May through late September, the eleven-mile Cades Cove Loop Road is closed to vehicles until 10:00 a.m.  Don’t miss the opportunity to rent a bike and tour this scenic area without the nuisance of heavy car traffic!

Cyclists in Cades Cove
Biking the Cades Cove Loop is a popular activity on Wednesday and Saturday morning when the road is closed to vehicle traffic. Below: The Cades Cove visitor center; Horses heading from the paddocks back to the barn; A distant view of a homestead.

Horses Headed In Homestead

Christine Says…

On the Saturday we were due to drive home from vacation, we woke up a few minutes before 5:00 a.m.  I was comfortable – the room was pleasantly cool, the bed was soft and I felt relaxed and still pretty sleepy.   Adam rolled over and asked me ‘So… are we going or not?’  The issue at hand was whether we should sleep in, have a leisurely breakfast and then drive home or if we should get up, grab something quick to eat and make the hour long drive into Cades Cove to rent bikes and ride the eleven-mile scenic loop on one of the mornings it’s closed to vehicle traffic.  My inner dialogue went something like this…

‘Stay in bed, Christine!  You can go to Pancake Pantry again! You love crepes!’

‘Nooo… this is your last day in the Smokies – you must pack in more fun activities.’

‘If you go biking, you’ll have to ride in the car for almost seven hours all sweaty and dirty.  You can come back to the Smokies another year and ride the loop then.’

‘But Adam already bought a collectible patch that says we biked the Cades Cove Loop.  You can’t have a patch for something you didn’t do.  That would make you a liar!’

‘But I’m tired. We’ve already been on six hikes! I just want to take a shower and eat breakfast’

‘Get your butt out of bed and onto that bike! It will be fun and I bet you’ll see cool stuff.  Eleven miles of biking is nothing!’

‘Alright…  let’s go do this thing!’

With that discussion done, we got up, packed the rest of the stuff in our room, checked out and headed toward Cades Cove.  As I mentioned before, Gatlinburg starts breakfast late – even our hotel didn’t put the complimentary breakfast out until 7:00 a.m.  The only choice we found for breakfast (other than gas station food) was ‘The Donut Friar.’   That turned out to be quite fortuitous! I’ve never eaten such delicious donuts.  Even now… the thought of those donuts makes me feel a wistful sense of longing.   I could write an entire post about those donuts, but I’ll move on to the biking.

Mountain View in Cades Cove
Cades Cove offers beautiful mountain and meadow views. Below:  One horse (Ted) got loose and walked outside the fenceline; Christine coasting along; Three does make a run for it!

Ted Christine Biking Running Deer

When we had initially inquired about bike rentals, the attendant told us that the rental shop opened at 7:00, but that we should plan on getting there about 15 minutes early. Since it was Memorial Day weekend and the campground was full, they expected rentals to sell out quickly.  For almost three quarters of the drive into Cades Cove, we didn’t see a single car.  But at the junction with incoming cars from Townsend, we started seeing many.  It was a line of moderate traffic rolling toward the cove.  We were anxious enough that we didn’t even stop when we spotted a bear climbing a tree alongside the road.  No way was I going to miss the chance to rent a bike after giving up my leisurely morning!

Ironically, we ended up first in line at the bike rental shop.  They opened promptly at 7:00 and we were on our way with bikes and helmets by 7:15.

The one-way road through Cades Cove is normally a real log jam of cars.  It can be maddening to go so slowly.  So, breezing along on a bike was a true treat.  While there aren’t bike jams, do be prepared to share the road with lots of other bikes.  Biking the loop is very popular!

When we first entered the Cove, it was a beautiful misty morning.  A thin veil of low fog was floating across the open meadow.  The rising sun made everything look golden and shimmery.  One of the first stops we made was to watch all the horses being herded from the field up to the barn for the day.  One horse, a big draft-cross named Ted, decided to take an alternate route.  Instead of following his buddies through the field, he walked right out the gate and headed up the road.  One of the volunteers who help keep the road safe radioed back to let others know a horse was on the loose.  Ted didn’t look like much trouble though.  I’m sure someone caught him and ushered him back to where he belonged.  I sort of gathered from the conversation that this was not Ted’s first foray out onto the road.

Along the way, we passed old churches, old homesteads, and old barns.  Normally, I’m pretty interested in history and park-lore, but on this particular morning I was in the mood to keep biking.  I was having fun coasting down the steeper hills.  It felt great to pick up some speed and feel the wind against my face.

Homestead
There are lots of old homesteads in the Cove.  Below: There are also lots of churches;  And evidently, lots of invasive wild hogs!

Church Another Church Wild Hog Trap

We also saw lots of turkeys and deer.  The turkeys were especially impressive putting on their mating displays.  Most of the time, turkeys aren’t what you would call ‘beautiful’, but a Tom turkey all puffed up and putting on a show is truly something to behold.  You can almost understand why Benjamin Franklin put the turkey forth as a candidate for our national bird. (Though, I think the bald eagle was still probably the better choice.)

We had hoped to see more bears on this ride around Cades Cove, but we struck out.  Thankfully, we had already seen seven bears during our week, so we didn’t feel too disappointed.

The one thing that surprised me about biking through Cades Cove was that some of the hills were actually pretty challenging.  When you drive around the cove, it seems mostly flat or perhaps ‘rolling’.  While none of the hills are long, there are a number that are quite steep and require some power-pedaling.  The rental bike I used didn’t have quite as many gears as my normal bike, so that made things a bit tougher.  We biked most of the hills without stopping or getting off, but there were two hills near the end where it just seemed more efficient to dismount and walk our bikes up the hill.  When you can’t shift your gears anymore, and people are walking by while you valiantly pedal, it’s time to revisit your pride!  Besides, it seems that the majority of people walk their bikes a little bit in Cades Cove, so I didn’t feel too bad.

The whole loop took us less than two hours to bike – even with plentiful stops for scenery and wildlife.  It was really a nice way to spend our final morning in the park, and I’m glad we made time to do it!  Although, I was too exhausted to help with the drive home.  I ended up sleeping in the car about half the way home – which is very unusual for me!

Adam Says…

Some of you may have thought we were done with our Smokies Edition posts and based on Christine’s inner-dialogue you can see that was almost true.  But, we thought this opportunity was too good to pass up.  We have always treated our vacations as days that we should run ourselves ragged.  You can always be exhausted when you’re sitting behind your desk at work.

At 7:15 when we started off, there were already plenty of bikes on the road.  Since we didn’t have the foresight to bring our own bikes along, we had to rent them.  The bike shop opened promptly and was very well-organized.  The shop requires you to either put down a $50 cash deposit or leave your car keys.  You pay for the first hour in advance and then pay the rest when you check back in.  We ended up paying less than $30 for less than two hours, so it is quite affordable.

We left the campstore and biked up to the Orientation shelter to start our loop ride.  The road starts off fairly flat with large views of open farms.  At 1.1 miles shortly after passing the intersection with Sparks Lane , you come across the John Oliver cabin on the right.  Built in the early 1820s, this is the oldest building along the loop.  The road becomes more like rolling hills at this point and some of the hills can be steep going up or down.  Around the 2 mile marker, you come to the Primitive Baptist Church on your left, shortly followed by the Methodist Church on your right.  The Primitive Baptist Church was first established in 1827 as a log building, but the building that is there now replaced it in 1887.  During the Civil War, this church closed since the church officials were Union supporters amidst a land filled with Confederate supporters.  The Methodist Church was established in the 1820s as log building but was replaced by this building in 1902.  Baptists outnumbered the Methodists in this area, but the populations were enough to keep many churches around.  At 2.75 miles, you reach an intersection with Hyatt Lane, which does allow you to shorten the loop.  A short distance later, you come to the Missionary Baptist Church on the left.  Continuing on, the road begins to lead out of the woods again into more open areas.  At 4.25 miles, you do reach a trailhead on the right of the road that leads to the Elijah Oliver Place.  Elijah Oliver was the son of John Oliver, whose cabin you saw first.  At 5.0 miles, you reach a junction with a road that leads down to the parking lot for the Abrams Falls trail.

Solo Buck
This solo buck enjoyed grazing in a misty meadow. Below:  Some of the downhills are steep and curvy, so warnings are posted;  Old cabins are abundant in the cove.

Peril Cabin Another Cabin

Within another half mile, you reach the large Cable Mill Historic Area and Visitor Center.  You can take a while to walk around the many buildings that are here including the Visitor Center, Gregg Cable House, grist mill, and LeQuire Cantilever Barn.  Leaving the Visitor Center and rejoining the road, the trail becomes much steeper for a good portion of the remaining ride.  At 7.0 miles, you will pass the Dan Lawson Place.  At 7.5 miles, you reach the Tipton Place, a home built by a colonel in the Mexican War that housed his two daughters and was later rented out to others.  At 8.25 miles, you will see the Carter Shield cabin on your right, one of my favorite buildings to see on the ride.  This cabin was built by George Washington Shields, who was wounded at the Battle of Shiloh.  Continue your ride which re-enters the forest for the remaining trip until you reach the junction that leads back to the campstore at 11.0 miles.

Tom Turkeys
The male turkeys were putting on quite a show!  Below: Bikers are treated to many open views – perfect for wildlife watching; Christine and her rented bike after the ride.

Pretty Meadow View Christine and Her Rented Bike

One thing that makes this part of Great Smoky Mountain National Park so popular is the ability to see wildlife.  Due to the large open areas here, wildlife viewing is prime.  We had driven through the area an earlier day and we did see lots of deer, a few bears, and wild turkeys.  When the road is open to cars, you should expect a slow drive around the loop.  We even had people in a truck in front of us sitting in lawn chairs in the back creeping along to try and spot wildlife.

I would strongly recommend if you want to avoid some crowds on the road normally, get up early and get here to bike the loop.  You’ll be able to take in all the beauty and hopefully see some wildlife along the way before the crowds descend.  When we were leaving, we were already seeing cars lining up to get ready to drive the loop.

After we left the loop, we headed back to Virginia passing through Townsend and Pigeon Forge, TN.  It is amazing that such a commercialized area is so close to such a gorgeous national park.  I’m just glad that the National Park Service protected this land before it became overrun with visitors.  Like Shenandoah National Park, some of the people in Cades Cove were displaced by the national park service as they bought their land.  Some were given the option to stay in their houses until they died, but their offspring were not allowed to live there.

Trail Notes

  • Distance11 miles
  • Elevation Change – lots of rolling terrain
  • Difficulty –  3.5.  There are many flat sections and downhills. The uphill sections are short, but quite steep.
  • Trail Conditions – 5. The road is paved and in great condition.
  • Views4.  Lot of open meadows and views looking up to the mountains.
  • Streams/Waterfalls – 1.  There are a few small streams along the route.  Nothing amazing or photo-worthy, though.
  • Wildlife – 5.  This is a great place to see all kinds of Smokies wildlife.
  • Ease to Navigate – 5.   Very simple – just follow the road and all the other bikers!
  • Solitude – 0.  Expect to see lots of other folks.

Directions to trailhead:  The Cades Cove loop is located on Laurel Creek road, 7.5 miles west of the junction of Little River Road and Tennessee Route 73 (leading to Townsend).   Once you approach the main entrance, you will see a road leading to the campstore if you are renting bikes.  Start the loop at the main entrance, near the Orientation shelter.

Chimney Tops (TN)

Special: Smokies Edition

Introductory Guide to Visiting Great Smoky Mountains National Park

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.

The Climb Up Chimney Tops
Photos don’t do the steepness of Chimney Tops justice. If you look closely, you’ll see tiny people about two-thirds of the way up. Below: The parking lots was overflowing. We had to park at an overlook further up Newfound Gap Road and walk back to the trail; When we visited, the trail up Chimney Tops was undergoing rehabilitation; A bridge over the river -much of this hike followed flowing water.

Crowded Lot Trails Forever Initiative Bridge Over the River

Adam Says…

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. 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.

Pretty Cascades
There were lots of pretty cascades to view along the hike. Below: Another pretty, tiny waterfall; Adam spotted this newt/salamander on the bridge.  We nudged him to safety so he wouldn’t get stepped on; The trail was very rocky and steep (although this photo doesn’t look it)

Tiny Waterfall A Newt Rocky Trail to Chimney Tops

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.

Christine Says…

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!

The View from Chimney Tops
The view from the pinnacle on Chimney Tops. Below: We saw a few red squirrels in the Smokies.  They are way cuter than our grey squirrels; Adam carefully climbs the pinnacle;  People scoot back down on their rear ends.  Falling here could possibly be fatal.

A Boomer or Red Squirrel Adam Climbs the Pinnacle at Chimney Tops People Carefully Climb Down Chimney Tops

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.

A View of Chimney Tops from the Road
A view of Chimney Tops from the road.

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.

Trail Notes

  • Distance4.0 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.

Laurel Falls (TN)

Special: Smokies Edition

Introductory Guide to Visiting Great Smoky Mountains National Park

This paved, easy 2.6 mile (round-trip) walk leads to Laurel Falls.  The 80-foot tall cascade is one of the Smokies most popular waterfalls.

Laurel Falls
Laurel Falls is easily accessed and one of the park’s prettiest waterfalls.

Christine Says…

If there is a trail most everyone does when visiting the Smokies,  it’s Laurel Falls.  This hike is popular for a number of reasons: 1) the falls are gorgeous 2) the trail is short, paved and not very steep and 3) the trailhead is close and easily accessed from Gatlinburg.

Adam and I always enjoy solitude when we hike, so we cooked up a plan to eat breakfast early and get to the falls before the crowds.  However, it turns out it’s very hard to find breakfast in Gatlinburg that starts serving before 7:00 a.m.  Even the free breakfast at our hotel wasn’t put out until 7:00.

We decided we would have to go with the flow and hope that most people would have a 9:00 a.m. breakfast and take their time starting their activities for the day. It turned out to be a great decision because we had an amazing breakfast at the Pancake Pantry.  Let’s just say, I was still very full on strawberry crepes and bacon when we got to the Laurel Falls trailhead.

I guess most people do prefer a more leisurely start to their day, because there were only a few cars in the lot when we arrived.  The trail climbs several hundred feet over the course of 1.3 miles.  The entire path is paved, making this trail ideal for families with children in strollers.  A person might be able to get a wheelchair up the trail, but the paving is not smooth and while the grade is gentle, it’s still all uphill until the very end.

Laurel Falls Trailhead
The hike begins with distance markers, interpretive brochures and bear warnings. Below: These Pancake Pantry pancakes are too yummy not to share, and they made a perfect pre-hike breakfast!

Pancake Pantry

There really isn’t much to say about the actual hike to the falls.  It was typical Smoky Mountain forest with a few glimpses of bigger mountains through the trees.  I imagine most people would be able to cover the distance in about 30 minutes.

The falls are spectacular and tumble down over several rocky tiers.  The upper falls are accessed directly by the trail.  Viewing the lower half of the falls requires a short boulder hop downhill off the trail.  Both parts of the falls are well worth visiting up close, so if you feel confident doing a little rock scrambling, do take the time to climb down.

We were lucky enough to have the falls mostly to ourselves.  A few people came by while we were there, but no one stayed long.  The heavier traffic started rolling in on our walk back down.  We passed so many people – dozens and dozens – making their way up the trail by 9:00 a.m.

In short, Laurel Falls is definitely worth a visit, but I recommend arriving early.  If you’re a photographer and want to take long exposures on the waterfall, the area is completely in the shade in the early morning, but I’m pretty sure sun would hit the falls by mid-day.

Adam Says…

We have just started to purchase art prints from all of the national parks we have visited.  The ones we have been buying are produced by Lantern Press and are for sale in the national park visitors centers.  We are hoping to one day frame and hang them in an area of our house.  When we were deciding which one we would get to represent the Smokies, we decided on the Laurel Falls print.  So, we definitely had to hike this one since we had the iconic image.

Christine Hiking the Paved Trail
Christine hikes along the paved path to Laurel Falls. She carried her big, heavy-duty tripod on this outing. Below: Christine jumped in the photo to add a sense of scale to Laurel Falls.

Laurel Falls and Christine

As Christine said, the hike just to the waterfall stays on the concrete path and it is uphill almost all of the way.  We saw several families on the way back that were not in the best of shape that were huffing and puffing their way to the falls and asking how much further.  However, I do think that most people should be able to make the hike.

If you are interested in making this a longer hike, you can continue past the falls to the top of Cove Mountain, making it a 8.0 mile out-and-back hike.  The trail after the falls isn’t paved and you would be looking at 2300 feet of elevation gain in the remaining 2.7 miles.  At the top of the mountain is a tower, but from what I have read part of the tower has been blocked off for a weather station and the views are not that remarkable.

Lower Laurel Falls
Accessing the lower falls requires a short, simple scramble from the trail.

There is a reason that this waterfall is so popular – it is one of the prettiest you will see.  The upper falls drop down 75 feet over three tiers.  The water running down is the Laurel Branch that is coming down from Cove Mountain and it will eventually feed into Little River.  I would encourage you to go after some rain has hit the Smokies to get the most water flowing through.  The lower part of the falls does take careful navigation to get down to the bottom, but if you want to venture down below, backtrack about 50 feet and you will see a common path to reach the bottom.  We witnessed a couple that tried to hike down to the bottom another way and the man fell hard on his way back up.

We had the falls for a few minutes by ourselves (it does pay to start early), but we soon met a newlywed couple.  Christine showed the wife how to do some long exposure pictures and then we went on our way.  We saw the hoards of visitors coming up the path and I could tell it was going to be a busy day at this popular spot.

Trail Notes

  • Distance2.6 miles
  • Elevation Change – about 300 feet
  • Difficulty –  1.  This is a short, easy hike with not much elevation change.
  • Trail Conditions – 5. The trail is paved and is suitable for strollers.
  • Views1.  A couple peeks through the trees.
  • Streams/Waterfalls – 5.  The falls are gorgeous!
  • Wildlife – 2.  Because of the popularity of this hike, I would guess a lot of animals are scared away.  Although… bear warnings are posted in the area.
  • Ease to Navigate – 5.   Very simple – just follow the path and you can’t get lost.  The trail continues past the falls, but we didn’t go that far.
  • Solitude – 0.  Expect to see masses of people!

Directions to trailhead:  Past the Sugarlands Visitor Center, take the Little River Road for 3.5 miles until you see signs for the falls.  Parking was available on both sides of the road.

Trillium Gap Trail to Mount LeConte (TN)

Special: Smokies Edition

Introductory Guide to Visiting Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Mount LeConte is the third highest peak in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.  This 13.4 mile hike takes you past Grotto Falls and up to LeConte Lodge.

Adam Walks Behind Grotto Falls
One of the early highlights from the hike up was a walk behind Grotto Falls. Below: Christine at the trailhead; Adam starts the hike up the Trillium Gap Trail; The higher we got on the mountain, the thicker the fog became;  LeConte was enshrouded in fog and rain when we arrived; We had queen-sized bunk beds in our room; Near sunset, sky conditions began to clear up.

Trailhead Sign Start of the Hike Foggy Trail
LeConte in the Fog Our Bunks Starting to Clear Up

Adam Says…

When we were first thinking about going to the Smokies, we learned that the only lodging in the park was a rustic place atop Mount LeConte.  After doing some research, I found out it was very difficult to get a reservation.  LeConte Lodge does reservations by a lottery system.  Rooms are typically available March-November, but weather occasionally dictates a shorter season. When entering the lottery, you can submit three dates you would like to stay.  Then they do a drawing to determine if you have spot.  The lottery drawing happened in October (the year before our proposed stay).  We were really disappointed when we didn’t get a spot for any of the three dates we requested.  I kept calling daily to see if a spot had opened up.  I finally asked when the deposits to hold the reservation were due.  Once I got that information, I called the very next day and a spot had luckily opened up on one of the original dates we had selected.  We were thrilled and got started planning the rest of our Smokies trip around our stay at LeConte.

We chose to the hike up the Trillium Gap Trail for a couple of reasons.  First,  it’s path that the llamas use to bring up supplies and food to LeConte Lodge.  Due to the remoteness of the lodge, a team of eight pack llamas is led up the mountain three times a week (Monday, Wednesday, and Friday).  They bring up supplies and clean linens and carry out used linens and other refuse.  The second reason we chose Trillium Gap was the more gradual elevation gain.  Mount LeConte has several different routes to hike up with the others being the Bull Head Trail, Rainbow Falls Trail, Alum Cave Trail, and The Boulevard Trail.  Most people seem to choose Alum Cave – it’s the shortest route (5.5 miles) and has a bit less elevation gain (2700 ft).

We started on the trail around 8:00 a.m.  We noticed the llama trailer was sitting empty in the parking lot, so we didn’t get to see them packed for the hike up.  Later, when we talked with the handler, he told us he normally starts around 6:00 a.m. or sunrise – whichever comes first.  We headed up the trail to try and make the lodge by lunchtime.  The trail begins through thick hemlock forest.  The hike continues up (and is uphill just about the entire way to the top) and at 1.3 miles, you will reach Grotto Falls.  Grotto Falls is a gorgeous waterfall and the interesting thing is that you get to walk behind it as you continue along the trail.  We stopped for some photos of the waterfall, but due to the early start we had it completely to ourselves.  We continued past the waterfall and continued the climb.  The trail becomes rockier and more narrow at this point on.  The trail continues to round the mountainside.  At 3.1 miles, you reach the junction with the Brushy Mountain Trail.  Hang a right to stay on the Trillium Gap Trail.  The trail seems to be relatively level for about .25 miles, but then begins some switchbacks that lead you up the mountain.  The trail continues to climb for the rest of the hike.  You will eventually come to some areas with steps through a tunnel of fir trees.  At this point, you are nearing the end of your journey and will pass a horse hitch.  You will finally reach the lodge at 6.7 miles.

Adam Walks the Trail Up to Grotto Falls
Adam approaches Grotto Falls.  Below: We saw lots of llama prints and boot prints on the trail; The damp conditions were perfect for snails – we saw so many along the hike; Adam checks out the other side of Grotto Falls; Christine passes beneath the falls, All the vegetation along the trail was so lush and green;  Catawba rhododendrons were in full bloom; Our legs and boots got really muddy on the hike up.

Llama Prints and Boot Prints Snail A Look at Grotto Falls from the Other Side
Christine Walking Under the Falls So Green Christine Looks at Rhododendron Muddy

We came up behind the dining room and saw the llamas getting a few last minutes of relaxation before their hike back down.  We talked to the handler and watched as they loaded up the llamas, who didn’t seem happy to be standing in the drizzling rain.  We went into the dining room and sat down for lunch.  Lunch is served at the lodge from 12-2 and needs to be reserved two days in advance.  We then made our way to the lodge office/gift shop to get checked in.

The rest of the afternoon, we hung out in the lodge office and played cards and watched as other guests arrived.  I picked up a guitar and played a bit while Christine went to get some more photos of the lodge.  We took a short nap, tired from our uphill climb, and met some of the people that would share our cabin with us for the evening.  The dinner bell rang at 6:00 p.m.  Dinner is served family style and there was plenty of food to go around.  Christine had opted for the bottomless wine glass to accompany dinner and we stuffed ourselves on delicious food.  After a few hours, the rain was stopping and the clouds were breaking enough to give us a little sunshine.  We decided to hike up .25 miles to Cliff Tops to try and catch a view of sunset.  The view was still completely in fog.  We headed back to the lodge for a while and continued to play cards before we made our way back to the cabin to read by and headlamp.  After a little while, we snuffed the lamp and went to sleep in the highest elevation cabin east of the Mississippi River.

Hiking Up Log Stairs
Adam hikes up log stairs along one of the steeper sections of trail. If you look closely, you can see another hiker a little bit ahead of Adam.  Upon chatting with him we learned that he’s hiked all but 30 miles of trail in the Smokies. Impressive!  Below: Trail junction; Another waterfall hidden in the woods.  We could hear larger falls somewhere in the gorge below; Places that should have offered views were nothing but fog; Everything was moss-covered; Some interesting cliffsides on the hike up.

First Trail Junction Slide Waterfall Fog and Firs
Green and Mossy Water Cliffside

The next morning, we noticed that the clouds had moved out, so we made our way back up to Cliff Tops to finally get some great views from the top of the mountain.  We were very impressed by the scenery around us.  We made our way back down the mountain after quickly packing up.  When we reached Grotto Falls, there were lots of families there.  We made our way back to the car and then headed off to Gatlinburg, TN for the remainder of our stay.

While visiting,  you can learn a lot about the history of the lodge.  It started off as a large tent camp in 1925.  Jack Huff started building the cabins in 1926.  There are some amusing pictures in the lodge office of some of those early days of building, including a picture of Jack Huff carrying his mother on his back up the mountain with a chair strapped onto his back.  Jack Huff was married up there in 1934.  It is said the wedding party started their hike up the mountain at 10:00 the previous night.  There are also several records that are kept of hiking up the mountain.

  • Most round-trip hikes in one day: 4 by Bill Sharp
  • Hiked up each trail in one day – Lee Lewis and Mike Povia
  • Most recreational hikes up the mountain – 1301 by Ed Wright (check out his hiking log)
  • Quickest ascent – 45 minutes  (whoa!)
  • Quickest descent – 33 minutes by Tim Line (once lodge manager)
  • Oldest hiker to ascend – Rufus Morgan on his 93rd birthday

There are two geocaches on this trail.  Since they are within the boundary of a national park, they are both virtual caches.

Our hike up to Mt. LeConte is one that we will remember for the rest of our lives.  We definitely plan to make the trip up again in the future, but we’ll probably try a different route to be able to have a different experience.  Try to book a room at the lodge and you won’t regret it.

Christine Says…

The hike up LeConte is something we started planning last October.  With some good luck, our date with the mountain was set – Wednesday, May 23, 2012.

As the day approached, we anxiously watched the weather.  What had started out as a forecast for pleasant sunny weather slowly changed to a 30% chance of afternoon thunderstorms; then a 50/50 chance of morning rain showers.  The morning of the hike dawned with nearly 100% chance of rain and storms.  I checked the High on LeConte blog to see if there were any differing reports from the mountain-top (there weren’t).  We were none too pleased, but when you have a special date with LeConte – you hike regardless of the weather – rain, wind or snow!  The only thing that would have kept us off the mountain would have been dangerous weather like tornadoes or flooding rain.

We decided our best bet to beat the weather was to start off early.  We got up at 5:15 a.m. to make the hour-long drive from Bryson City over to Gatlinburg and the Roaring Forks Nature Loop area.  The drive took about a half hour longer due to road construction near Newfound Gap.

The LeConte Llamas
The LeConte llamas were just as adorable as we expected. Below: The llamas are tied behind the dining room.  They get rest and snacks while the outgoing trash and linens are packed; The handler leads the llamas down the mountain; One last look at the llamas – so cute!; The classic LeConte arrival shot (although our trail actually arrived on the other side of camp); The common room of our bunkhouse; As people arrived the common room was used to hang sodden clothes to dry.

Packing the Llamas Handler Leading the Llamas Llamas on the Move
We Made It Common Room in Our Bunkhouse Wet Gear

We finally got to the trailhead around 8:00 a.m.  We had several trails to choose from when selecting a route up LeConte.  In the end, we decided on the Trillium Gap Trail.  Adam had initially suggested Boulevard (less drive-time from Bryson City), but I really wanted to see the llamas.  Additionally, the Trillium Trail includes lovely Grotto Falls – a waterfall that you get to walk behind!  It didn’t hurt that the trail also had a more gradual elevation change than other routes up to the summit.  Personally, I’d rather hike a longer distance with a more gradual climb than steeper over a shorter path.

We started hiking around 8:15 and quickly covered the short distance to Grotto Falls.  We had the falls all to ourselves, so we enjoyed taking a few photos and climbing around on the rocks around the falls.  For this Smokies trip, I invested in a Joby Gorillapod.  I’ve been super-impressed with its stability and weightlessness.  It’s great to have a functional tripod that doesn’t even weigh a pound!

After the falls, the climbing becomes a bit steeper, but the trail is still relatively smooth and well graded.  On the climb up, we saw tons of llama footprints (and llama droppings… which look strikingly like Raisinettes or Goobers.) So far, we’d been relatively lucky with weather.  It was thin overcast and looked like the sun might actually burn through.  But within the next mile, we stepped into the clouds.  The way up wouldn’t be clear for the remainder of the hike.  Nevertheless, the forest looked beautiful in the mist.  Everything looks greener and more lush under cloudy skies.  We crossed a number of small streams and waterfalls by traversing rock hops.  We saw tons of blooming Catawba rhododendron.  There were snails everywhere along the way.  The damp, mossy environment must be perfect for them.

Lunch at Lecont
Lunch was a hot bowl of soup, a huge (and delicious) chicken salad sandwich and a no-bake chocolate oatmeal cookie.

After almost three miles of climbing, we reached the junction with the Brushy Mountain trail.  To reach LeConte, we stayed on Trillium Gap.  At the junction, a sign indicated that we had 3.6 miles to reach the summit.

The trail became trickier and steeper for the rest of the hike around this point.  There was poison ivy to dodge.  There were thick swamps of mud to traverse.  There were slick rocks and roots to negotiate.  With every step, I could feel mud splashing up the backs of my legs, making me wish I’d remembered to pack my gaiters.  Even though the trail was slippery and sloppy, I was still having the time of my life.  It was such a gorgeous trail.  And honestly, the fog and mist made it even more lovely.  The green, mysterious forest around us made up for what we lost in missing the views from the trail.

Around 5,500 feet, we caught up with a hiker that had left the parking lot just about 10-15 minutes ahead of us.  I had noticed him when we were packing up our bags.  We stopped to chat with him.  It turned out that he has hiked almost every single mile of trail in the Smokies.  Of the nearly 900 trail miles, he only has about 35 miles to go.  He had been up LeConte numerous times and we really enjoyed chatting with him about the different routes and about hiking GSMNP in general.

We hiked close to one another the rest of the way up the mountain.  Occasionally he would give us altitude updates.  At around 5,900 feet, the rain finally started in earnest.  After fog and occasional light drizzle, this was the first real rain of the hike.  We only had about half a mile left to go, so we were pretty pleased with how well the weather held up.  Hiking a half mile in rain is nothing.

The rooftops of LeConte lodge soon came into view.  The Trillium Gap Trail comes up right behind the dining room.  We were met by the eight llamas, who were all tied up to a hitching line right outside the lodge.  They were adorable and I’m so glad we got to see them!  They had just finished a snack of leftover pancakes and were resting up for the hike back down the mountain.

It turned out that we were the first of the overnight guests to arrive for the night.  A couple folks who had come up for a two-night stay were already there, too.  It took us about 3.5 hours to hike up, including generous stops for photography, water and snacks.  It’s amazing how fast you can hike when you know bad weather is right on your heels!

Adam Plays Guitar
We were the first guests to arrive for the day, so we had some quiet time in the main lodge/office. Adam enjoyed playing one of the guitars provided for guests. Below: One corner was filled with memorabilia and information; Christine and Adam enjoy rocking chairs on their porch; Christine on the porch swing; It was a very rainy afternoon/evening; Dinner was served at 6:00; After dinner card game.

Memories Rockers on the Porch Porch Swing
Wet Evening Dining Room
Cards

After spending a bit more time with the llamas, we said hello to the cook, Chrissy.  We had made reservations for lunch at the lodge because we knew we’d probably be arriving sometime between 11:30 and 2:00 and would want something hearty to eat.  Lunch was a steaming bowl of vegetable-noodle soup, a huge chicken-salad sandwich on the sweetest, softest wheat bread I’ve ever eaten, and an enormous no-bake chocolate-oatmeal cookie.  The dining room also provides unlimited hot tea, coffee, cocoa and lemonade. Since I was cold and wet, I drank two mugs of cocoa with lunch.  The literature about hiking LeConte tells you to wear wool layers, gloves and a hat – even in the summer.  I was comfortable hiking up in shorts, a wicking tank top and a light jacket.  I brought rain gear, but never used it.  And honestly, I was not the least bit cold until I stopped hiking after arriving at the lodge.

After lunch, we headed up to the office/main lodge to check in.  Staff member Bonnie led us to our room in the bunkhouse right next to the main lodge.  We scored a prime location – right in the middle of a triangle of buildings made up of the bathrooms, the dining room and the main lodge.  She went over how the heaters and kerosene lanterns worked, provided a pail to use for sponge baths and gave us some general need-to-know information. For example, when visiting LeConte, you have to store all of your personal food items/snacks in a metal can in the main lodge.  This keeps mice (and bears!) away from the bunks.

Adam decided to go back over to the main lodge to poke around and I decided to change into dry clothes and take a nap.  I was really glad I had packed long pants and a fleece to wear at night.  Top of the mountain temperatures at night ranged around 45-50 degrees, so it was nice to be cozy and dry.  Our room had a set of queen-sized bunk beds, a chair and a small table.  A kerosene lamp was provided for light, but even when it was lit, we still needed headlamps to see well.  Our bunkhouse was made up of three private rooms surround a common area.  LeConte has a couple bunkhouses like this in addition to the smaller cabins that house just a single party of hikers.

Adam eventually came back and we napped on the bottom bunk in our room, with me splayed across the bed sideways so my feet could be close to the heater.  I listened to rain hitting the roof of the bunkhouse – quite a serious downpour! As the afternoon progressed, other hikers began arriving at the lodge.  A group of four women from Wisconsin were assigned to one of the other rooms in our bunkhouse.  The third group in our bunkhouse didn’t arrive until much later – one of them, a woman who had suffered a 35’ fall on the trail earlier that day.  She was scraped up and dirty, but unhurt.  She was lucky to escape serious injury.  Everyone who came in later was soaking wet!

After resting a while, Adam and I headed back over to the main lodge.  We bought LeConte souvenirs, which you can’t buy anywhere else in the park.  I also wrote a postcard to my parents, which was stamped ‘lugged by llamas’ and will be sent by post from LeConte.  The main lodge is comfortable and rustic – with a stove, a worn leather couch, tons of rocking chairs, historic memorabilia on the walls, a couple guitars and a generous collection of games and books.  Adam and I settled into a game of gin rummy followed by a (new to us) game called ‘Clever Endeavor’.  It was fun!  We read through several books about the Smokies and learned more about George Huff who originally built the lodge.

Sunset on LeConte
The clouds cleared off enough for us to enjoy a sunset! Below: Sunrise was pretty, too; Our little cabin on a sunny morning; We pose on our front porch; Adam takes in the view from Clifftops; Pancake breakfast; The main lodge under nicer weather.

Sunrise on LeConte Our Cabin Posing on the Porch
Clifftops View Pancake Breakfast Main Le Conte Lodge in the Sun

At 6:00, the dinner bell rang.  We were ushered into the dining room and seated at assigned tables.  Our tablemates were lovely people and we spent most of the evening chatting with a mother and her two adult daughters who had hiked up the Alum Cave trail.  Dinner was fantastic – hot soup, pot roast with gravy, mashed potatoes, green beans, spiced apples, cornbread and chocolate chip cookie bars for dessert.  I opted to take advantage of the ‘bottomless wine glass’, too!  They weren’t kidding about the bottomless part.  As soon as my glass was half empty, one of the crew members would sweep by with a refill.  I forced myself to stop at two glasses because I wanted to make sure I didn’t feel the least bit hung-over for the hike down.

At dinner, staff member Nathan made announcements about where we could see sunset and sunrise and thanked everyone for hiking up.  After dinner, Adam and I walked the .25 miles up to Cliff Tops to see if there was any chance of clearing below for sunset. The view was nothing but a wall of fog, so we hiked back down again and headed back to the main lodge to play more games – Phase 10 and another round of rummy.  As soon as we got settled in, it started to rain again.  Fortunately, after this band of showers, the sky started clearing up.  We could see the faint outlines of mountains through the mist.

As sunset approached, we put the games away and found a place on the back porch of the dining area to see if a colorful sunset would turn up after all.  We were treated to shades of red, purple and blue across the sky.  The fir trees looked especially pretty as silhouettes.

When dark fell, Adam and I went back to our room and settled in for the evening.  Hikers seem to prefer going to bed early! I think a lot of people jokingly call 9 o’clock ‘hiker midnight’.

I woke up to make a bathroom run around 2:00 a.m. I put on my headlamp and horrid green Crocs and made my way over to the restrooms.  As I walked, I noticed the sky was clear as a bell and I could see all the city lights of Gatlinburg or Pigeon Forge (not sure which) twinkling below in the valley.  I was so distracted by the nice view, that I stepped in a deep puddle and soaked my socks.  Oops!

The next time I woke up was around 5:30 when I heard voices outside the bunkhouse.  One group of people decided to hike the .75 miles up to Myrtle Point to watch for sunrise.  I decided to stay in my cozy bunk and wait for breakfast.

Morning View from Clifftops
We enjoyed a clear view from Clifftops in the morning. This is the spot people normally watch sunset, but it had been covered with fog the evening before. Below: A parting look at LeConte Lodge; Deer peek at us from the woods.

A Last Look at LeConte Lodge Deer in the Woods

Around 6:30, I got up for good and enjoyed sunrise right from the lodge.  I may not have seen the actual sun peek over the horizon, but I enjoyed the soft, pastel-colored sky and the cloak of low fog in the valley below.  At 7:00, I walked back over to the main lodge and had a couple cups of coffee.  Before the breakfast bell rang, we decided to make a quick hike back up to Cliff Tops to see if there was a view.  And boy, was there!  The air was clear and crisp, and we enjoyed seeing majestic mountains rolled our before us.  Cliff Tops was such a different place under sunshine than it had been in fog the evening before.  I’m so glad we took the time to walk back up!

Breakfast was served right at 8:00 – pancakes, Canadian bacon, biscuits, eggs, apple butter, grits and Tang.  I had some more coffee; figuring four cups would give me lots of energy for the hike back down.

With full stomachs, we bid farewell to our tablemates, and headed back to our bunkhouse to pack for our hike down.  We were back on the trail by 8:40.  We made great time back down the mountain, not surprising since it was all downhill this time!

By the time we passed Grotto Falls, it was crawling with people who had made the brief 1.2 mile walk up to see the waterfall.  Places like that always seem strikingly different when they’re busy with tourists.

We were back at the car shortly after 11:00 and eating lunch in Gatlinburg a half hour later.  Gatlinburg felt so busy and overwhelming after experiencing the peacefulness of LeConte.  If you ever have the opportunity to stay at the lodge, I can’t recommend it enough!  It was such a memorable part of our first visit to the Smokies.

Trail Notes

  • Distance13.4 miles to hike up to LeConte Lodge and back.
  • Elevation Change – about 3400 feet
  • Difficulty – 4.  Due to the elevation gain and the constant ascent, this is tough and you will need to take your time.
  • Trail Conditions – 3.  The trail becomes rockier past Grotto Falls.  With recent rain, rocks can be slippery.
  • Views– 4. Even though we didn’t see a lot the first day, we can tell there are great views.
  • Streams/Waterfalls – 4.  Grotto Falls on the hike is the highlight in this area.  It isn’t often that you get to hike behind a waterfall.
  • Wildlife – 3.  Someone who hiked up after us said they spotted a bear on the trail just ahead of them.  We also saw deer near the junction with Brushy Mountain.  There were plenty of juncos nesting near the trail.
  • Ease to Navigate – 4.5.  There is really only one turn at the junction with the Brushy Mountain Trail.  The trail is well-defined.
  • Solitude – 2.5.  Expect to see lots of people at Grotto Falls and close to 50 on most days at the top of the lodge.  

Directions to trailhead:  From Gatlinburg, TN turn at traffic light #8 and stay straight on Historic Nature Trail-Airport Road to head into the National Park.  Continue on Cherokee Orchard Road and turn onto the one-way Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail.  Follow this for 1.7 miles, until you reach the large parking area for Grotto Falls.  The trailhead is at the far end of the parking lot.

Abrams Falls (TN)

Special: Smokies Edition

Introductory Guide to Visiting Great Smoky Mountains National Park

This popular five mile hike follows a beautiful stream for most of the route and ends with a visit to lovely Abrams Falls.

Abrams Falls
Abrams Falls pours out into a large, rock-surrounded pool. Below:  Beautiful stream scenery was abundant on this hike.

Slide Falls Abrams Creek

Christine Says…

Tuesday morning dawned thick with clouds and fog… a perfect day for a waterfall hike.  Although there were plenty of waterfalls near the Cherokee side of the Smokies, we decided to take a ride over to Cades Cove to hike the exceedingly popular Abrams Falls trail.

The easy five-mile hike is one of the top five trafficked trails in the park.  Since we had an early start on the day, we decided we could probably beat the worst of the crowds and enjoy seeing the falls with some semblance of solitude.

Getting to the trailhead took longer than we expected.  The drive along the Little River into Cades Cove was so pretty, I had to stop and take lots of photos.  Once we got into the cove, grazing horses, wild turkeys showing off their plumage, and abundant whitetail deer distracted us.  I wanted to stop at a few of the old cabins, churches and farms, but we decided that would have to wait for another day.

Adam on the Abrams Falls Trail
Adam enjoys the green vista along the Abrams Falls Trail. Below: Trail marker at the start; Bridges cross the stream multiple times along the trail.  This was the only full bridge.  The rest were hewn logs with rails on one side; Trail conditions were mostly smooth and gentle.

Trail Marker Bridge Near Beginning of Abrams Hike Adam on the Abrams Falls Trail

The Abrams Falls trailhead was at the end of an unpaved, muddy road.  (restroom facilities were available) The trail marker at the beginning indicated that the trail was moderately strenuous and would take 4-5 hours.  The sign also warned that no water or restrooms would be found at the falls.  I suppose this is a clear indicator that hikers of all experience levels and abilities use the trail.  And indeed this turned out to be true – I even saw a hiker wearing black pantyhose under a pair of denim shorts. That was a first for me!

The hike began by crossing a bridge over Abrams Creek.  All along the river, we saw fly fishermen.  The stream looked ideal for brook trout.  The trail runs parallel to the creek for much of the hike – sometimes at stream level, sometimes high above.

The trail is mostly flat with several short, but steep, climbs.  It mostly passes through thick green forest, with one exception.  Near the top of the steepest climb, the trail becomes rocky and almost barren, with many dead and toppled trees.  Maybe a fire or storm damaged the trail in this area, because it was nothing else like the rest of the hike.

A steep downhill climb and a walk across two log bridges empties you out into a grotto with Abrams Falls at the end.  When we visited, the falls were gushing!  The water was so powerful; I couldn’t take a long exposure of the waterfall without the water turning into a solid wave of white.

As expected, many people were enjoying the falls. Families picnicked, couples posed for photos and kids caught tadpoles in the pools of water between the rocks.  One of the notable features near the waterfall was a large glacial pothole.  It looked really similar to features I’ve seen in New Hampshire.

Christine Crosses the Log Bridge
Christine crosses a log bridge. Below:  A perfect round ‘pothole’ formed by the forces of nature; Blooming rhododendron.

Pothole Blooming Rhododendron

We didn’t spend long at the falls because we wanted to get back before it started raining.  The return leg of the hike just retraced our steps. On the way back, we passed even more people on their way to the falls.  This is definitely one of the Smokies most popular spots.  Understandably – such beautiful falls, and so easily reached (by most)!

Adam Says…

When we were thinking of some hikes we wanted to accomplish in the Smokies, we wanted to hike to a bald, a nice hike with views, and some waterfalls.  After accomplishing the first two items the first two days, it was time to do a waterfall.  We started fairly early in the morning knowing that we would have a longer drive to get to Cades Cove from our takeoff point of Bryson City.  When we had been driving on 441 to Newfound Gap, we had heard about construction but had never quite reached it.  When we crossed over Newfound Gap, we quickly ran into some construction as they were working on repaving the road.  Bringing the two-way road to a one-way road required us to wait about 20 minutes before the lead car allowed us to go further.  We finally got through the construction and made our way towards Cades Cove.   When driving on the one-way Cades Cove road, you should also expect to go very slow on this 11 mile road.  Cars creep along, hoping to see wildlife.  We were shocked to see so many cars stopped to a halt to take a picture of a deer.  I guess we feel a little spoiled in Virginia with all the deer we see regularly.  We typically have a yard full of deer every morning.

The hike to Abrams Falls starts off with an informational sign.  Soon you will cross a bridge and begin to see fly fisherman in Abrams Creek.  Abrams Creek is a great spot for fishing brook trout.  Rainbow trout tend to be found in higher elevations in the Smokies.  The trail has a slight incline with a few areas of steep climbs.  At .8 miles, you cross over the Arbutus Ridge, which changes the hike from being largely uphill to being more downhill.  At 2.25 miles, the trail then begins to take a steeper descent until you reach Abrams Falls at 2.5 miles.

Adam at Abrams Falls
Adam enjoys Abrams Falls.  Below: More lovely views of the stream along the trail; Adam crosses another log bridge.  There were probably four or five like this on the trail.

Stream on the Hike Another log bridge

Abrams Creek and Abrams Falls were named after Chief Abram (previously known as Chief Oskuah and also known as Old Abraham), the Cherokee Chief of Chilhowie nearby.  Chief Abram and a war chief known as Dragging Canoe were aligned with the British during the outbreak of the Revolutionary War and led an attack on Fort Watauga.  In 1788, Chief Abram was killed by tomahawks by the son of John Kirk, seeking vengeance for his family that had been massacred by Cherokees on Nine Mile Creek.

This hike was a little humbling to me.  As I was hiking early on uphill, I started feeling very weak and hot.  I was carrying Christine’s heavy tripod for a while, but I was surprised if this was the reason I was feeling so fatigued.  I had to stop for about 15 minutes and ate several hand-fulls of trail mix.  My blood sugar was quite low from not eating a huge breakfast before hiking.  As we rested, I felt lame for having to take a break and let other people pass us, but I know we made the right decision.  Within about 25 minutes, I felt more like myself as we continued hiking.

There are a number of log bridges on the trail, which have handrails around thigh or waist level on one side.  I’m not a big fan of heights or water (since I can’t swim), so these log bridges can feel a little unnerving for people like me.

As soon as we reached the falls, we set up the tripod and took some nice photos of the falls.  You should expect to see a lot of people at the falls and you will likely have to wait to get pictures of the falls that don’t have strangers in them.  The water does come out in a powerful force as it plunges about 20 feet into the pool below.  We spotted some crayfish moving from rock to rock near the shoreline.   We refueled with some very disappointing Kashi granola bars to make our hike up the steep section and returned to our car.

Trail Notes

  • Distance5.0 miles
  • Elevation Change – about 600 feet
  • Difficulty –  2.  There is a little bit of climbing on this hike, but most people will find the terrain fairly easy.
  • Trail Conditions – 4. The trail is well maintained and easy to walk.  It’s much less rocky and rooty than other trails in the Smokies.
  • Views0.  None on this hike.
  • Streams/Waterfalls – 5.  The stream and the falls are both spectacularly pretty!
  • Wildlife – 2.  Because of the popularity of this hike, don’t expect to see too many animals hanging out.  Although… we did see a turkey and a deer.  Otters have been spotted in Abrams Creek.
  • Ease to Navigate – 5.   Very simple – just follow the path and you can’t get lost.  There is one trail junction near the falls, but if you read the trail marker, you’ll stay the course.
  • Solitude – 0.  Lots of hikers, lots of fly fishermen.

Directions to trailhead:  Past the Sugarlands Visitor Center, take the Little River Road until you reach the Cades Cove Loop Road.  The Cades Cove Loop Road is closed until 10AM on Wednesdays and Saturdays to car traffic.  Follow the Cades Cove Loop Road 4.9 miles.  Take a right on the gravel road that leads to the Abrams Falls parking lot.  The trail starts at the end of the lot.

Andrews Bald and Clingmans Dome (TN)

Special: Smokies Edition

Introductory Guide to Visiting Great Smoky Mountains National Park

The 4.8 mile Andrews Bald and Clingmans Dome hike leads to a grassy bald and offers 360-degree views from an observation tower on the tallest mountain in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Andrew's Bald
The view was nice from Andrew’s Bald, but the weather changed fast. Below: Adam checks out the trail marker at the beginning of the hike; Rhododendron were not yet blooming, but the buds were evident; The view from the Clingman’s Dome Observatory before the hike.

Start of Hike Rhododendron About to Open View From Clingmans Dome

Adam Says…

One of the things that we wanted to accomplish on our trip to the Smokies was a hike to one of the many balds in the park.  After a long day of hiking the day before to Charlies Bunion and The Jumpoff, we decided on a shorter hike to a bald, but we also wanted to include a visit to the famous viewpoint, Clingmans Dome.

We started off early in the morning and it looked like decent weather.  On our way down Clingmans Dome Road, we saw that clouds were beginning to roll in.  When we arrived in the parking lot, there wasn’t a lot of nearby views as clouds were beginning to roll in.  During the early part of this week, I kept thinking of the Mark Twain quote about New England – “If you don’t like the weather in New England, wait a minute.”  I felt the same about the Smoky Mountains.  The clouds rolled away during our trip to Charlies Bunion, so I was hoping the same would hold true at Clingmans Dome.

We made a quick trip to the top of Clingmans Dome first and the views were completely covered in clouds.  There were a couple of Appalachian Trail thru-hikers that were actually camped overnight at the top of the dome.  We were surprised to see hikers that had just started a few weeks ago, compared to March or April when most will get started.  I wondered if they would make it to the northern terminus of Mount Katahdin in Maine before it closed off due to winter snow.  The weather looked like it may change, so we headed down to decide if we should attempt the hike to Andrews Bald.

We talked to a few park rangers about what they thought the weather would do based on their experience up here and if we should expect rain.  They said that it was expected to clear up later in the morning, but we would probably have some storms in the afternoon.  We gathered our gear and decided to hit the trails.

Boardwalks on the Forney Ridge Trail
Potentially muddy areas on the Forney Ridge trail were traversed by boardwalks. Below: Adam hikes down the Forney Ridge Trail.  Extensive work has been done on this trail in recent years; Trail marker on Andrews Bald; Another view of the mountains from the bald.

The Forest Was Deep and Green Forney Ridge Trail Andrews Bald View

The trail to Andrews Bald starts from the large Clingmans Dome parking lot.  As you’re walking past the bathrooms and towards the paved trail to Clingmans Dome, you will see a sign to the left marking a few trails.  You head down a few stairs and start the hike to Andrews Bald.   The trail starts off as a steep downhill.  At .2 miles, you reach the junction with the Forney Ridge Trail.  Bear left continue your descent on the Forney Ridge Trail.  The trail is quite rocky in the beginning and can be slick if there has been recent rain, but the trail is well-constructed through this area.  At 1.1 miles, the trail reaches another junction with the Forney Creek Trail, branching off to the right.  Just stay on the Forney Ridge Trail and follow the sign towards Andrews Bald.  The trail begins to be through dense forest and there are a series of strategically-placed, wooden planks that help provide footing on a sometimes-muddy trail.   At 1.8 miles, the forest opens up and you reach the Andrews Bald area.  Enjoy the views and then head back the way you came.

When you reach the first junction at 3.4 miles with the trail back to the parking lot, just stay straight on the Forney Ridge Trail.  You will immediately begin to see the difference in how the trail is maintained as this is a steady uphill through some loose rocky areas.  The trail continues to climb for another half mile; at 3.9 miles, you reach the junction with the Appalachian Trail.  Take a right on the white-blazed AT heading North.  You will be walking along the ridge which will open up views on both sides almost instantly.  At 4.2 miles, you will come out to the paved trail for Clingmans Dome.  Head to the left and climb up the winding path of the observation tower at Clingmans Dome.  Once reaching the top, wind back down but take the paved path down which leads past a gift shop and then to the parking lot which should bring your trip total to 4.8 miles.

When we reached the top of the tower the second time, the clouds were covering most of the area again.  We were able to get a few views, but I can only imagine how beautiful this could be on a clear day.  This is the highest point in the Smokies (and also the entire state of Tennessee), reaching 6643 feet.  Since this area is home to the Cherokee, this mountain is known to this Native American tribe as Kuwahii, meaning “Mulberry Place” and is considered sacred.  Cherokee legend believes this mountaintop to be a place where the bears danced before hibernation.  The clouds that often lie in the valleys between the mountains were seen as lakes where sick bears would go to heal themselves.

The trip to Clingmans Dome is a must when you visit the park.  You can do this as a short but steep .5 mile walk up the paved path to Clingmans Dome, but I’m glad we did a hike that made you feel like you earned the views.  While this hike did meet our goal to visit one of the balds, I’ve heard that Andrews Bald pales in comparison to Gregory Bald or Silers Bald.  On our next trip, we definitely plan to visit one of those.

Christine on Andrews Bald
Christine watches storm clouds roll in. Below: After leaving the bald, the trail goes back into the forest; This area branches off into many other trails.

Stepping Out of the Woods Onto the Bald Trail Signs Along Forney Ridge

Christine Says…

We got up on Monday morning, still undecided about what hike we wanted to do that day.  We knew we wanted to see one of the Smokies’ famous balds, we just weren’t sure which one would fit best into our plans for the week.  We also knew we wanted to visit the observatory atop Clingmans Dome, so we narrowed it down to two balds – Silers or Andrews.

Andrews was a significantly shorter hike – 3.6 miles (4.8 with the Clingmans Dome add-on) compared to 10.  But, Silers was larger and had a more interesting ridge hike with most of the hike staying about 6,000 ft.  In the end, the weather made the decision for us.  When we arrived at Clingmans Dome – the starting point for both hikes – the clouds were thick and dark. In the end, we decided to go for the shorter hike to Andrews Bald.  Balds and high ridges are not where you want to be stuck when a thunderstorm rolls through!

View from the Appalachian Trail
A nice view from the Appalachian Trail near Clingmans Dome. Below: Adam makes his way up to meet the AT; The ridge leading to Clingmans Dome is very rocky.

Hike Up to Meet the AT Along the Ridge Trail to Clingmans Dome

The hike to the bald was mostly downhill.  It followed an elaborately constructed trail of stone slabs, timber-blocked steps, water bars, and plank board walks.  It passed through dense, mossy forests – thick with rhododendrons, ferns and fir trees.  Again, it was so breathtakingly beautiful and different from hiking in Virginia.  As we walked, the sun made an effort to burn through the clouds and fog.

The trail passed a couple junctions to other trails, but to reach Andrews Bald, we just stayed on the Forney Ridge trail.  Eventually, the trail passed through a thick tunnel of rhododendron and opened out onto the bald.

Andrews Bald is not very large.  It consists of a small grassy/shrubby field, peppered with rhododendron, azalea and other low-lying plants.  When we visited, the rhododendrons were just about to open.  There were lots of bright pink buds on the branches, but no open flowers.  I bet the scene will be even prettier in early to mid June when everything is flowering.

The view from the bald was lovely and expansive – though the sky was quite hazy.  We sat for a few minutes and had a quick snack.  While we relaxed, we noticed darker clouds were rolling in again, so we decided to make our way back.

The return trip retraced our steps most of the way.  However, about .1 miles from the Clingman’s Dome parking area, we decided to skip the spur trail to the car and continue uphill along Forney Ridge to its junction with the Appalachian Trail.  This half mile segment was steep and rocky and passed through a stand of huge dead fir trees.

Walkway to the Observatory
The walkway to the Clingmans Dome Observatory. Below: Another view from the observatory; The tower looks like a spaceship;  The summit is covered with many dead fir trees destroyed by an insect called the wooly adelgid;  The walkway down to the parking area was covered with fog; A view opened up from the parking lot.

Another View from Clingmans Dome The Observatory Dead Fir Trees
Foggy Walkway View from the Clingmans Dome Parking Area

Once we gained the ridge, we took a right and headed north for .3 miles along the Appalachian Trail.  There were a couple nice views along the way and even a glimpse of the parking area through the trees.

The trail came out close to the base of the observatory.  We made a second climb up the tower to see if the view was any clearer.  It wasn’t – in fact; within a few moments a giant bank of fog rolled in and covered the view completely.  We ate some lunch on the bench in the tower and did a little people watching.  Eavesdropping on conversation, I was amazed to hear so many people had never heard of the Appalachian Trail. They were stunned, upon reading the plaque at the summit, that there was an actual walking trail from Georgia to Maine.

After we finished eating, we walked the half-mile paved trail back down to the parking area.  Several people stopped us to ask if we were thru-hikers or if we were ‘headed to Maine.’  I guess trekking poles and wicking shirts  make us look very serious about the outdoors. We politely replied that we were mere dayhikers, but it would have been funny to tell people that we expect to be in Maine by mid-August.  Technically…  that is true – only we’ll be arriving by car for a week-long vacation in Acadia.  🙂

After wrapping up our hike, we drove into Cherokee and visited the Museum of the Cherokee Indian and the Qualla Arts & Crafts Mutual.  Both places were beautiful, fascinating and informative.  And, by the time we came out of the museum, it was thundering, lightning and pouring down rain.  We definitely made the right choice, but next time we’ll visit Silers Bald!

Trail Notes

  • Distance4.8 miles
  • Elevation Change – about 1200 feet
  • Difficulty – 3.  The trail from Andrews Bald to the AT is mostly uphill with a few steep sections.
  • Trail Conditions –3.5.  The upper part of the Forney Ridge Trail has loose rock, but the trail is generally well-maintained.  The hike down from Clingmans Dome is paved, but steep.
  • Views– 5. Expansive views from Andrews Bald and 360-degree views from Clingmans Dome.  On a very clear day, you could see for 100 miles in all directions.
  • Streams/Waterfalls – 0. Non-existent.
  • Wildlife – 1.5 Other than birds and maybe an occasional squirrel, I wouldn’t expect a lot of wildlife here due to the popularity of the trail.
  • Ease to Navigate – 4. Signs at junctions are well-labeled and stand out, but make sure you stay on the correct trail.
  • Solitude –1. The hike to Andrews Bald is one of the most-traveled trails in the park, and expect crowds at Clingmans Dome most days.

Directions to trailhead:  From December 1st through March 31st (and some other days based on weather), the road to Clingmans Dome is closed.  From Newfound Gap Road/441 take the Clingmans Dome road (south of the Newfound Gap parking area).  The road continues for seven miles until it reaches the large parking area.  Past the bathrooms and to the left of the paved path up to the gift shop and Clingmans Dome, take the marked trail down the steps that leads to Andrews Bald.

Charlies Bunion and The Jumpoff (TN/NC)

Special: Smokies Edition

Introductory Guide to Visiting Great Smoky Mountains National Park

This 9.5 mile hike, mostly along the Appalachian Trail, starts out from Newfound Gap. The route offers several places to take in magnificent vistas of the Smoky Mountains.

Adam on Charlie's Bunion
Adam enjoys the view from Charlies Bunion. Below: The trail starts out from Newfound Gap. The area has the Rockefeller Memorial (pictured), plenty of parking and restrooms; Christine at the start of the hike; The forests in the Smokies are so dense and green.

Newfound Gap Christine at the Trail's Start Everything Was So Green

Christine Says…

We knew this hike was one of the most popular in the Smokies, so we got off to an early start – breakfast at the hotel, in the car by 7:15 and on the trail around 8:00.  We were one of the first cars in the Newfound Gap parking lot, which is always very busy.

We headed north along the Appalachian Trail.  Immediately, we began to marvel at how different the Smokies are from Shenandoah.  I’ll admit, I sort of expected this park to be similar to Shenandoah – kind of like an older sister – bigger and taller, but still similar in looks and personality.  But, the trail was strikingly different – more evergreens, wetter, mossier, greener, more rugged – I might even say ‘more alive’.

I’d heard and read plenty about the extensive biodiversity of the Smokies before, but wasn’t really prepared by how awestruck the park would make me feel. This park has dramatically more plant and animal species than almost any other place on earth. During the last ice age, plants and animals were pushed into the Southern Appalachians as glaciers advanced. When the glaciers retreated, species were left behind – almost stranded in the Smokies.

The trail climbed gradually uphill over the first couple miles, climbing over rocks and roots and mud.  Little rivulets of water were running down the mountainside all over the place and filling the woods with the sound of dripping and trickling.  Every now and then, we got a view of mountains in the distance.  Everything was still partly cloaked with fog and clouds, but it was evident that the sun was making a full effort to burn through.

Hiking Up the Appalachian Trail
Christine makes her way up the trail. Below: One of the first nice views came at the junction of the AT and the Sweat Heifer Creek trail;  Trail junctions were well-marked; There were plenty of wildflowers along the trail.  We even spotted a few fading trillium, but they were all pretty tattered and not photo-worthy.

View From the Trail Junction With Sweat Heifer Creek Trail Wildflowers in the Smokies

At the junction of the AT and the Sweat Heifer Creek Trail (isn’t that a funny name?), we diverted a short distance off the AT to take in the view.  Almost immediately after turning onto Sweat Heifer, there is a bench and a marvelous open view of the mountains.  After a few minutes, we proceeded along the trail which had become more level as it followed a ridgeline.  We saw a couple trillium still in bloom – one bright purple and one white, but most were far past their peak.

Eventually we reached the junction with the Boulevard trail.  This is the spot where you can take a detour to another viewpoint – the Jumpoff.  We decided to press on toward Charlies Bunion, in hopes of having the spot to ourselves a while before the crowds materialized. About .3 of a mile past the junction, we reached the Icewater Shelter.  It was still full of weekend backpackers, some making breakfast and some still in their sleeping bags.  We didn’t want to disturb them, so after a brief hello, we moved on.  Shortly after leaving the shelter, we stepped over Icewater Spring, which is the water source for this area.  The piped spring seemed to be running nicely.

The trail climbed steeply downward over slick, wet trail.  The forest around us was extremely dense evergreen.  It was quite beautiful and different!  As we made our way along, thick, cottony fog started to roll in.  We passed one hiker marching south – tripod in hand and a disgusted look on his face.  I can only gather that he went to Charlies Bunion for the view and saw nothing.  The next hiker we encountered pretty much confirmed the sky conditions.  We asked how the view looked and he said ‘No view – unless you like fog, but it looks pretty cool blowing up the sides of the mountains.’

I felt a little disappointed about the prospect of missing out on the view, but we stayed optimistic and hoped that the fog would burn off within the next fifteen minutes.  When we first spotted Charlies Bunion from a distance, the fog was swirling around and covering the rocky outcropping almost completely.  But, by the time we reached the bunion, conditions were clearly improving.

What a spectacular place!  The mountains are so craggy and ragged and sharp around the bunion.  The rocks were covered with sand myrtle and a few rhododendron were about to bloom.  The fog was whipping by, rolling up the sides of the mountains in giant waves.  Every now and then, a thin spot would give us a glimpse of distant mountains and not even a hint of civilization.  We sat on the rocks, enjoying the solitude.  We were absolutely thrilled to enjoy this special place without the company of other park visitors.  As the minutes passed, the view became more and more clear.   It was everything I imagined the Smokies would be!

Christine Checks Out the View from the Bunion
Christine checks out the view from the Bunion.  Below:  Adam walks through the cool, dense evergreen forest as we cover the last mile toward Charlies Bunion; Some sections of trail were covered with this smooth, slate-like rock; Many high, rocky places in the Smokies (including Charlies Bunion) are covered with sand myrtle.

Evergreen Trees Slate Trail Sand Myrtle

Shortly before we were ready to head back, another couple from Michigan joined us at the rock.  We chatted a while and took photos for one another.  We decided to head on out and let them enjoy a bit of solitude, too.

On the hike back, we planned on eating lunch at the Icewater Shelter, but found it still loaded with people – and not very friendly ones at that.  So we pressed on, with plans to eat lunch at our next stop – a viewpoint called ‘The Jumpoff.’

The side trip to the Jumpoff required about an extra ¾ mile of hiking along the Boulevard Trail and a small side spur trail.  The climb up to this view was our toughest climbing of the day.  It was steep and very slippery and root-covered.  Once we got to the view, it was quite evident why the spot garnered the name ‘jump off’.  It has an extremely precipitous drop from the edge!  We ate lunch on the rocks and enjoyed the view.

On the hike back down to the junction, we passed a huge hiking party and were thankful that we had once again dodged sharing a nice viewpoint with crowds.

The rest of the hike back down went quickly and was mostly downhill.  We saw dozens and dozens of backpackers and dayhikers making their way up the trail. When we got back to the parking lot, it was full of people taking in the view from Newfound Gap.  Most of them will probably never set foot on the trail, and maybe with so many people already out there… that’s just fine!

Adam Says…

This was a great first hike in the Smokies for us.  We had driven up to Newfound Gap the previous day and saw a ton of cars.  We knew it would be a great idea to start off on this trail as early as possible.  The view from Newfound Gap is absolutely gorgeous, but you’re in for a treat if you continue on to Charlies Bunion and The Jumpoff.

When you park in the large lot, you will see a terraced memorial for Laura Spelman Rockefeller, the wife of John D. Rockefeller.  It is amazing the impact that Rockefeller family’s philanthropy has had on our national parks.  In addition to the Great Smoky Mountain National Park, the Rockefeller family’s donations have given land and money to help establish Acadia, Grand Teton, Yosemite, and Shenandoah national parks.

The origin of the rock outcropping being called Charlies Bunion is amusing.  A mountain guide named Charlie Conner had a large bunion on his foot and Horace Kephart named it in honor of him and his foot affliction stating “That sticks out like Charlie’s bunion”.  Horace Kephart was one of the people that helped get the Great Smoky National Park established and plotted the Appalachian Trail path through the Smokies.

This rock outcropping was created through a combination of logging, fire, and flooding.  This area was heavily logged in the early 20th century, leaving behind lots of dried debris.  A large forest fire came through this area known as The Sawteeth in 1925, destroying much of the vegetation and sterilizing the soil.  A torrential cloudburst in 1929 washed away the soil and left this as a rocky outcropping.

View Through the Smoke
A view through the ‘smoke’ at Charlies Bunion. Below: The quickly changing clouds and fog opened up new views depending on how the wind blew; The Icewater Shelter.

Another View from the Bunion Another Bunion View The Icewater Shelter

For trail directions, the hike started with an uphill climb just right of the memorial (there is also a small bathroom to the right of the trail) on the white-blazed Appalachian Trail.  At 1.7 miles, you will reach the junction with the Sweat Heifer Creek Trail.  Continue straight on the AT.  At 2.7 miles, you will reach another junction with the Boulevard Trail to the left.  You will use this trail to get to The Jumpoff, but we continued straight on the AT.  At mile 3.0, we reached the Icewater Spring cabin, which serves as an overnight cabin for any backpackers.  On the trail shortly after the shelter, you will see a pipe that serves as a water source if you need water, but you should treat any water before drinking.  The trail then begins to go downhill steeply at this point as you make your way to Charlies Bunion.  You will reach Charlies Bunion at mile 4.4.  After visiting the Bunion, go back the way that you came.  At mile 6.1, you will reach the junction with the Boulevard Trail again.  Take a right on this trail and after a very short distance, you will see a wooden sign that points up to The Jumpoff.  This trail was definitely the most strenuous of the entire hike.  The trail is about .4 miles to reach the end at 6.5 miles.  Take a minute to enjoy the view and then head back down the way you came to rejoin the Boulevard Trail and take a right at the junction to rejoin the Appalachian Trail.  You should reach the parking lot at 9.5 miles.

The Appalachian Trail is relatively smooth up to the junction with the Boulevard Trail, but gets rougher, rockier and more slippery as you descend down to Charlies Bunion.   The trail up The Jumpoff is the toughest climbing of the day – quite steep and treacherous, so it will take a while to reach the viewpoint.

View from the Jump Off
The view from the Jumpoff was pretty impressive! Below: To reach the Jumpoff, follow a short spur from the Boulevard Trail; Adam gets ready to eat lunch with a view; By the time we passed back by early spots on the trail, the view had cleared up significantly.

The Jump Off Junction Lunch on the Jump Off View at the End

When Christine and I were hiking up past the junction with the Sweat Heifer Creek Trail, the strangest thing happened.  We both felt that we had a drumming noise inside our heads that was beating rapidly for a few seconds.  I said to Christine, “That was weird” and she asked what I felt.  It turns out that she had the same sensation happen at the exact same spot.  I’m not sure if it was an adjustment to the altitude, a pulse increase, or an alien scanning us, but it was quite odd.

The highlight of this hike is definitely the views.  From the Bunion, you can see steep, mountain peaks all around.  We were so glad that we stayed around a while to be able to watch the “smoke” rise up and blow over the Smokies.  We really felt like we were up in the clouds as the wind blew the fog around quickly.  We stayed around at this viewpoint for longer than we normally stay because it was so entertaining to get different glimpses of the mountains.  The Jumpoff trail gives you similar views, but you can also see Charlies Bunyon from afar.  The Jumpoff did seem a lot more treacherous.  The soil is eroding off this viewpoint and you just think if you take a wrong step you could plummet.  When we were leaving the area, a large group of older adults were on their way to The Jumpoff.  There is not a lot of room at the viewpoint, which made us both wonder how they were going to be able to take the views in.  We found someone’s driver’s license at the top of this point and we were just hoping that he has survived.  We took it to mail it off to him, but we did check the news to see if anyone was missing.

Trail Notes

  • Distance 9.5 miles if you go to The Jumpoff, 8.2 miles if you just do Charlies Bunion
  • Elevation Change – about 1600 feet for the complete hike
  • Difficulty – 3.  There are several moderate climbs on this hike.  The only truly steep climbing is the short spur trail to The Jumpoff
  • Trail Conditions – 3.  The trail is in good condition, but you can expect to hike over lots of mud, loose rocks and roots. It’s just the way the Smokies are made.
  • Views – 5.  Spectacular!
  • Streams/Waterfalls – 0.  There are no streams or waterfalls along this trail, as it follows mostly ridgeline.
  • Wildlife – 1.  Lots of juncos darting underfoot from low-lying plants.  We didn’t see anything else, but the  Icewater Shelter was closed during fall 2011 for an aggressive bear, so there is undoubtedly other wildlife in the area.
  • Ease to Navigate – 4.  Trails are well-marked and blazed.  There are several turns, but it would be tough to get lost on this trail.
  • Solitude – 2.  This trail is one of the top five most popular hikes in the Smokies.  Hike early if you want to avoid crowds.

Directions to trailhead:  Take 441 through Great Smoky National Park to reach the large Newfound Gap parking lot.  Park in the lot and head towards the memorial.  The trail starts off just to the right of the memorial.