GREAT SMOKY MOUNTAINS + THE APPALACHIAN TRAIL: Friend or Foe?
“If you drive to, say, Shenandoah National Park, or the Great Smoky Mountains, you’ll get some appreciation for the scale and beauty of the outdoors. When you walk into it, then you see it in a completely different way. You discover it in a much slower, more majestic sort of way.” ~Bill Bryson
I’m currently reading Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods, so the Appalachian Trail was at the front of my mind even before entering Great Smoky Mountain National Park.
As we drove to the park and made a plan for our five days there, the AT tugged at the back of our minds, begging to be put on the list. (It didn’t need to; it was on the list all along)
Mega-trails like the AT are enticing to me in a lot of ways. I just started backpacking, but I already love the idea of stretching an overnight trip into more like ten. Getting totally emerged in wilderness. Walking 9-to-5.
I think the sheer 2,100+mile hugeness of the AT is maybe too much for me, but we’ll see 😉
Regardless, we knew we had to dabble. So we plotted out a 27-mile loop that included about 15 miles of the AT, reserved nights at two shelters, and paid for our permit at the Great Smoky Mountain backcountry office.
Our experience was not anything like that of a “thru” hiker (a hiker completing the whole trail at once) or even a “section” hiker (a hiker completing the trail in chunks with the intention of finishing it) but we chatted with quite a few of these hikers along our route.
Below is what we gathered from them, from a few other accounts online, and from our own foray into hiking along the Appalachian Trail.
We quickly discovered that hiking the 72 miles through the National Park presents itself with major treats and major challenges.
Are the Appalachian Trail and Great Smoky Mountain National Park friend or foe? Read our breakdown below and decide for yourself. Or talk to a seasoned AT hiker. Or become an AT hiker! Either way, it’s certainly a topic that is worth discussing.
Terrain & Climate:
The Smokies are beautiful. It’s a fact. Walking through them is magical. Specifically, AT hikers get to experience the highest point along the whole trail at the park’s Clingman’s Dome (6,644′). Huge stretches of the trail include sweeping vistas (on both sides where we hiked!) and thick woods. Fall in the Smokies presents its own colorful treat: stunning orange and yellow fall foliage, peaking at high elevation around the end of September. The trail, because many ordinary tourists like us traverse it, leads to awesome lookouts like Charlie’s Bunion. The views are amazing… If you are lucky enough to catch a clear day.
Catching a clear day isn’t always easy, as the high-elevation areas of the National Park gather up to 120″ of precipitation per year. The park is known for sporadic thunderstorms in summer and namesake “smoky” thick fog (which we were stuck with). And, the high elevations and position along the AT (about 200 miles from the southern end) make it hard to avoid cold weather. As a “northbounder,” you’d hit this area in snowy spring, and as a “southbounder” in late fall.
Thankfully, weather can be tamed in the form of shelters, or “huts” (in trail lingo.) Three-sided wooden shelters are a staple of the AT, located an average of 8 miles apart throughout the entire trek. There are 25 shelters in the National Park. These were known by thru-hikers we met as the “Taj Mahal” of AT huts. They are bigger, well-maintained, and located near reliable water sources and sustainable compost privies.
Unfortunately, the shelters have to be kept up because they are packed. Each shelter has a max capacity of 8-12 reservable spots, and reservations are required for non-thru-hikers. If a shelter is full, thru-hikers must give up their spots for those who have reservations. For our particular off-peak Thursday night, we shared a shelter with about 14 other hikers. (All boys, I might add. Snoring boys. Snoring, smelly boys.) As two thru-hikers noted, they’d rather be in their hammocks or tents or “cowboy camping” out in the woods somewhere. Alas, this is against regulations. Ah, regulations.
…..Permit money goes to trail maintenance? Hopefully?…………..
We know about permits and regulations from all the National Parks we’ve visited. But the regulations for thru-hikers seem especially strict. First, hikers must obtain a $20 permit. This is the only permit money they must dish out along the whole AT, and they aren’t happy about it. This permit must be printed and in hand, with a possible $125 fee looming if this doesn’t happen. This permit requires the thru-hiker to traverse the 72-mile National Park section in eight days. That’s not a huge feat for a long-distance hiker, but many stop in nearby Gatlinburg for resupply and rest. A group of southbounders we met were worried about this eight-day deadline because they were meeting a friend in Gatlinburg and planned to take two or three days off. In addition, thru-hikers must camp in shelters. If shelters are full, they may pitch a tent at the shelter, but nowhere else along the trail. They are also prohibited from detouring for a night off the AT to other shelters in the park. Rules, amirite?
With rules also come perks. Great Smoky Mountain National Park is the most visited of the 59 National Parks in the system. Because of this, nearby Gatlinburg provides restaurants, gift shops, lodging, and bright neon weirdos, a sight to be seen for brown-and-green accustomed AT hikers. Personally, I wanted to stay as far away from that town as I could. But here, thru-hikers can easily buy food and supplies. And indulge, as our new friends did, in all-you-can-eat buffets.
Of course, these amenities come with a price. Literally. Gatlinburg prices are not normal prices. Parking? Coffee? Ripley’s Believe-It-Or-Not museum? Dang expensive. And everyone falls for it. Touristy towns like this (very similar to our home state’s Branson) are usually okay for a night, but the gaudiness gets to you after that. Good thing the National Park is only about two minutes away.
Once you peel away from Gatlinburg and jump back on the trail, wilderness takes you over almost immediately. If you are paying attention, you’ll probably see deer, turkey, squirrels, and other woodland creatures. If you’re really lucky, you’ll see black bears. Or is that unlucky?
You might see a black bear! Black bears are dense in the National Park, and roughly 1,500 of them roam the woods. Due to stupidity and downright visitor negligence, many have become habituated to human food and will seek it out at picnic areas and campgrounds. Hanging food and odorous items at shelter cable systems is a must. Although attacks are infrequent, wild animals are unpredictable. We saw a black bear from the safety of our car, but hikers may have to scare away a bear or two along the AT.
Bears, rules, and weather, oh my! Like any National Park, or any well-traveled trail, Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the Appalachian Trail have their positives and negatives. Especially when it comes to getting along.
Hikers seem to have a love-hate relationship with the Smokies. And when we were among them both, we felt this too. It’s a funny thing, when people put rules on how you can engage with nature. But it might be worse to leave the trail and it’s hikers totally in nature’s hands.
What is known is that the Smokies are awesome. As long as you follow the rules.