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Home » Adventures » Smoky Mountains

Great Smoky Mountain National Park


Location:Border of Tennessee and North Carolina
Dates Visited:April 5-7, 2004

Over spring break (even though I had already graduated) I visited Great Smoky Mountains National Park for a couple of days, sandwiched between Palm Sunday and Maundy Thursday.

The Campground

I stayed at Elkmont campground, which is pretty centrally located within the park (I do not quite trust myself backpacking alone in bear country…yet). It was a very nice campground, with a river running along one edge of it. I could not get a campsite adjacent to the river, but it was still only a stones throw away, and the gushing river was smoothing sound as I fell asleep each night. Even though I thought it was fairly early in the season (beginning of April) the campground was still pretty busy, with the open sections being almost entirely filled. I figured I would be one of the few loonies camping since it still got pretty cold at night, and the campground was entirely primitive. About the only downside was that it cost $14 a day, which seemed high for a slab of land to throw a tent on, but running water in the bathrooms was really nice and the fees support the park anyway.

Mount Le Conte

Map of the route I hiked my first day

Day 1 Route

My first hiking excursion was to the summit of Mount Le Conte, where there was a lodge which was only accessible via hiking. In fact, llamas were used to bring in all the supplies. I was not going to stay there, but it seemed like it still would be a good hike. My route would take me up the Rainbow Falls Trail, and back down Trillium Gap, a total distance of about fifteen miles with a several thousand foot climb and descent.

Rainbow Falls Trail went almost entirely uphill, crossing the same stream flowing down the mountain several times. The waterfall for which the trail was named though, was itself really impressive. It was not quite Niagara Falls, but the water tumbled about seventy feet to the rocks below, which was the highest waterfall in the park.

As I continued the climb, I noticed some white patches appearing along side the trail. Upon closer inspection I discovered that it was snow. I was ascending high enough that winter’s snowfall had not yet entirely melted. What started off as patches of snow turned into a ground covering, and eventually about 6-8″ of snow at the peak. Luckily the trail was pretty well packed down so it was not very strenuous or difficult hiking through the snow.

Along the way I also met someone else who was day hiking to the summit, and finished the climb with him. He was a local and eventually wanted to hike every trail in the park. It was nice to have a companion to hike and with which to speak. We also passed a decent number of other people on the trail, either going to and leaving the lodge. I must say I was a little surprised because it was at least a five mile hike to the lodge, with a climb of several thousand feet. There were both people in their sixties and people with children making the hike. I guess I was too used to lazy people who barely want to leave their car. Or probably it was just that so many people come through the Smoky Mountains that the people who visit Mount Le Conte was a horribly small percentage.

The lodge on top of Mount Le Conte was quaint. There were individual cabins and a common dining area. I could not image how difficult it must have been to haul up the materials and build it. After a short time reading, resting, and warming up I continued my trek down the mountain. The decent went fairly quickly (surprising, huh?). When I arrived at Grotto Falls, I was forced to share the trail with many people who were not on as long as expeditions as mine. They hiked out to Grotto Falls and back. Of course, Grotto Falls would make a fairly decent short hike, since it is a picturesque waterfall.

A bridge made out of a large log
A waterfall surrounded by snow covered rocks
Rainbow Falls
The lodge on top of Mount Le Conte


On my way back to the campground I passed through the town of Gatlinburg, so I stopped and wandered around in civilization some. It was a decent tourist trap town (unlike the nearby Pigeon Forge which is commercialized, tackiness central). The town was basically just the typical souvenir/specialty type stores. The only thing out of the ordinary I noticed were three different Christian bookstores along the main strip. Even being (or maybe especially being) a Christian, this arrangement surprised me. The south definitely is different than the north.

Scott Mountain

Map of the route I hiked my second day in the morning

Day 2 Morning Route

I am a semi-decent runner, and although hiking is good exercise, for me it really is not a substitute to running. So on the next day to keep up my running I decided to try my feet on some trails by Cades Cove (plus trail running much more enjoyable than roads). My route would take me from Crib Gap Trail, to Turkeypen Ridge, to Schoolhouse Gap Trail, to Scott Mountain Trail, to Crooked Arm Ridge Trail, which arrived back at the trailhead. My run started fairly decently, with a decent along Crib Gap trail, and some rolling elevation changes along Turkeypen Ridge. There were a couple of horses on the narrow trails I had to maneuver around though. The problem came, however, when I arrived at Scott Mountain Trail. Since in my infinite wisdom I had not purchased a contour map, I did not realize that the trail climbed…a lot. For about the entire three and a half miles the trail inclined steadily. So although it was a nice trail through the forest, I had to walk most of it since I was in no shape to run across that type of terrain. And of course what goes up must come down, so when I finally stepped onto Crooked Arm Ridge Trail, I was faced with the opposite problem, a steep decent. It would have been pretty easy to turn an ankle on that grade, plus there was almost no workout. But I made it down fine, very thirsty from the workout since I had not brought water along with me.

Tunnel on the road to Cades Cove

Tunnel on the road to Cades Cove

Chimney Tops Trail

Map of the route I hiked my second day in the evening

Day 2 Evening Route

Apparently trail running was not enough for me because later that evening I hiked to the top of Chimney Tops, a short (two miles) but very steep climb. I had hoped to catch part of a nice sunset there but was unable to since I had forgotten my flashlight at camp and did not want to push my luck with running out of sunlight. The trail was steep, but not very technically difficult (except at the very top). It was basically just climbing a steep grade for a pair of miles. The climb was worth it though, with nice views of the unadulterated forest below. It was not the highest point around, but there were still beautiful valleys on each side. Too bad I forgot my flashlight, and could not stay till the sun set. I did not quite make it the entire way to the summit either, because the last about 100 ft involved some some precarious climbing on rocks, which really scares the hell out of me. Still, a relaxing spot to look out from, and I made it back to my car before I ran out of daylight.

The view from the summit of Chimney Tops
The growing shadows creeping across the valley

Appalachian Trail

Map of the route I hiked my third day

Day 3 Route

For my final day, I had planned a marathon of hiking (quite literally as I would later bother to find out). Starting from my campground (my car needed a break anyway), I was going to head up Little River Trail, to Goshen Prong Trail, to the Appalachian Trail, to Miry Ridge Trail, to Jakes Creek Trail, which would take me back to camp. Little River Trail (surprisingly) followed Little River for a couple of miles. This was one of the more scenic rivers I have been to, with many rapids and small waterfalls along its entire length. Just hiking along the river and heading back would have made a great short hike. But silly me could make no such concessions and followed Goshen Prong Trail up the mountain.

After a pretty flat beginning, the trail began to climb after a sharp south-eastward turn. Up and up the mountain I went, at many points thinking I had to be at the top, but in reality still had a ways to go. There was a small cave along the trail which went about 40′ into the mountain, but I could not fully examine it since I had not brought a flashlight because my plans did not call for me being out after dark (Note to self: always be prepared for anything while hiking). I once again made my way above the snowline, but this trail was much less traveled than to the Mount Le Conte’s peak so the hiking was much more difficult than the day before. By the time I arrived at the Appalachian Trail, I was a bit tired.

Hiking along the AT was pretty invigorating, with all its history, even if I was only on it for five of its 2000 or so miles. And unlike the other trails I conquered that morning, there were actually other hikers on the AT. All of its permanent shelters were occupied, and I passed probably half a dozen other people. All of them were backpacking, but I do not believe any of them were undertaking the entire length. From the AT I was also able to spot the observation tower at Clingmans Dome, which I believe marked the first time that I successfully used a map and a compass to navigate (usually I end up making a wrong turn).

By the time I had turned from the AT, my legs were already getting tired. Unfortunately, I still had about 9 miles back to my campsite. As much as I was dreading it, I had no choice but to keep putting one leg in front of the other in the direction of camp. Also, I had only brought one liter of water with me, which was starting to run dry since that was not close to enough for that length hike. I was extremely thirsty since I did not have a water filter and I remembered the warnings not to drink untreated river water. So to appease my thirst and prevent dehydration in a way I convinced myself was semi-safe, I took some of the ample snow and melted in my Nalgene bottle. Although I did not get sick from it, I do not know if snow that was really safe or not, so I do not recommend anyone follow my lead.

After my twelve hours of self inflicted pain, I finally arrived back at camp, my legs throbbing and wanting only to lay down. One last item before I collapsed on my picnic table was some interesting history at the end of the trail. That area used to have towns and farms before the national park was created. All of the old, rundown, and abandoned houses were still there which created a ghost town. There were the big US government no trespassing signs (the same kind around military bases) on all the houses though. I did not feel like committing federal crimes by exploring the houses (plus I was way too tired), so I just stumbled through the deserted town glancing at the houses from the road.

Water runoff with a mossy log
One of the many small waterfalls along the Little River
Myself standing next to an Appalachian Trail sign


The most memorable (and oddest) part of the my entire trip occurred just after I had returned from my all day hike and collapsed on my picnic table. I heard someone call out my name. “What the heck?” I think, and I turned to see one of my Bible Study leaders from freshman year. He was staying with his fiance in the campsite right next to mine! Of all the places to vacation, of all the campgrounds in the Smoky Mountains, of all the campsites in Elkmont, they picked the one right next to mine. After driving all the way to the border of North Carolina, I still could not escape the clutches of Rose-Hulman. It was a very nice surprise to see them because, although I did not know them real well, I had some time to catch up with them and people to talk with that night.


This was a very fun trip even if I did hike too far, over fifty miles in three days. The time of the year I went happened to be about perfect too because the weather was really nice during the day (although a big chilly at night), and the winter snow was melting quite rapidly, filling the streams and making impressive waterfalls which are probably normally dry the rest of the year. Definitely a place I need to go back to.