Outdoors: Getting to know the Smokies up close

I recently finished hiking all the trails in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. That makes me the 248th member of the 900 Miler Club.

The finish line: It took a few years, but author Danny Bernstein hiked every maintained trail in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park—gaining her a place in the 900 Miler Club. Photo by Sharon McCarthy

There are actually only about 800 miles of maintained trails in the park. But you have to hike some trails many times in order to get to the ones in the interior. Some folks say you end up hiking 1,500 miles to hit all the Smokies trails.

Either way, it’s the most complicated hiking challenge I’ve ever tackled.

Getting started

When I moved to Asheville in 2001, I’d already walked the 71.4-mile section of the Appalachian Trail that bisects the park. I soon added some trails on the perimeter—Ramsey Cascades, Porter Creek, Deep Creek/Indian Creek loop, Hemphill Bald and Mount LeConte.

I tracked it all on a spreadsheet, discovering several less-well-known but still rewarding routes in the process: Brushy Mountain, with its good view of Gatlinburg; Grapeyard Ridge, with its train-engine remains; and the climb from Twentymile Ranger Station to Gregory Bald.

I also regularly attended Naturalist Hiking Week at the Great Smoky Mountains Institute at Tremont, just inside the park’s western entrance. Those outings enabled me to reach lots of pesky miles off Little River Road.

But every hiking challenge I’ve ever encountered seems to have a section that’s such a psychological stumbling block, I want to get through it as soon as possible. On the A.T., the biggie was the last 100 miles of Maine wilderness. On the Smokies 900, my two toughest legs both began near Fontana Village Marina in the park’s southwest corner—a trek on the Eagle Creek and Jenkins Creek trails (see “Backpacking the Back of Beyond,” Aug. 22, 2007 Xpress), and a trip along the full length of Hazel Creek.

Most casual backpackers forgo these trails in favor of someplace that’s easier to get to: A scarcity of trailheads makes it hard to do day hikes. You also have to cross Fontana Lake.

Neither rain nor…

I’ve walked part of Hazel Creek Trail many times. But this was a mega backpacking trip with six hikers as obsessed as I was about racking up new Smokies miles. The forecast had been awful for a week with more rain, thunderstorms and freezing weather to come, yet no one seemed concerned. I called the marina and asked if they took people across the lake in a thunderstorm (they said yes.)

On Friday, we met at the marina and took a ferry across the lake. After stopping for a photo, we walked through the remnants of the town of Proctor. In the early 1900s, Ritter Lumber Co. established a sawmill there, upgrading the small settlement to a swinging place that had electricity, telephones and a movie theater. All that’s left are the old kiln, cemetery and various railroad paraphernalia.

Our walk to campsite No. 82 on Hazel Creek was such an easy nine miles that I’d even packed a few hefty luxuries: cooked chicken and rice. It did rain that evening but stayed dry the rest of the weekend.

The next day, we hiked 18 miles on a loop consisting of Cold Spring Trail, a long climb up Welch Ridge and the descent down Hazel Creek—with 23 water crossings (my friend Sharon counted). While the others took off their boots for each crossing, my husband, Lenny, and I simply sloshed across. Sunday turned cold, making us want to just stay in our tents. But we had to hurry to catch the ferry by noon.

After that, my goal seemed elusive: I would arrange backpacking trips, and people would cancel—especially when it rained. I learned that it’s important to find other hikers who share your obsession; others will back out when the weather turns sour.

Then I figured out that I could do 18-plus miles a day on my own. The last three months, I hiked 120 new miles, finishing with the Indian Creek Motor Trail, a minor trek outside Bryson City.

Completing any challenge is bittersweet. I’m grateful it’s done, but sad because I haven’t yet found my next hiking challenge—and because I’ll never again know the park as well as I do now. Like hiking the Appalachian Trail or any other challenge in life, it’s not about physical strength or stamina. It’s all about perseverance, organization and keeping your eye on the goal—and, in this case, the map.

Hike leader and outdoors writer Danny Bernstein is the author of the forthcoming Hiking North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Heritage. She can be reached at danny@hikertohiker.com.

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2 thoughts on “Outdoors: Getting to know the Smokies up close

  1. nuvue

    Do you stop and smell the roses? Look at the cemataries? There are interesting people buried there. Can you spot a splash dam? Baby tears? Foxfire? Horace Kephart lived up Sugar Creek, He wrote a wonderful book about his stay there.
    I hope to some day hike all those miles. I have a small start.

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