5 Reasons Why I Love (and Hate) the Smokies

The Great (and Miserable) Smoky Mountains

Let’s Start at the Beginning…

I realize that it’s been quite a while since my last update. I’ve been just a little busy doing this whole hiking thing. That being said, I thought it best to pick up where I last left off sharing my journey with you: Fontana, NC. The tramily and I were really looking forward to hiking the Great Smoky Mountains, but we had heard mixed reviews: some hikers claim the Smokies as their favorite section of trail while others would rather forget them. We decided to go into the Smokies with open minds, and here is my personal opinion of them (you all, of course, should hike them and develop your own opinions).

The Great Smoky Miseries: Why I Would Never Go Back

The Fontana Road Walk

Everyone is familiar with the epic walk across Fontana Dam and the famous green and black “AT Thru Hikers Deposit Permits Here” box, but what you never seem to see is the nearly two mile road walk after Fontana Dam. As soon as you cross the Dam, a standard National Parks Service sign welcomes you to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Being the naive thru hiker hopefuls we are, we hiked on past the sign expecting to instantly see the box to deposit our permits. We were incorrect. For the next nearly two miles, we walked on pavement through the Park before finally finding a box so crammed full of permits that we could barely deposit ours into it. And thus, we entered the mountains part of the Smokies.

The Weather

Before we ever reached the Smokies, people were talking about the weather. It’s not uncommon for hikers in the Smokies to get snow in late April. Hikers who were in the Smokies during my start week on trail when it was in the teens in Georgia were being carried and helicoptered off the mountains due to hypothermia. Every year, we hear reports of hikers being snowed into shelters and unable to move for days. Lucky was the most optimistic of the group that we would have good weather through the Smokies. When we started our eight day trek through, we did indeed start with sunshine. And then it rained…torrentially. Views disappeared, the temperatures dropped, and hypothermia became a real concern quickly for us over two days early in our journey. It was a dangerous combination of wet, cold, and stuck on trail. One of the days, we thanked God that Mountain Crusher knew how to bring a dying ember back to life because otherwise, we could have easily graduated from being wet and cold to being hypothermic. Needless to say, camping in a cold, wet forest where nothing dries is not an ideal way to warm up. On our second morning of cold rain, we left camp with absolutely nothing dry (including our down sleeping bags). It was not ideal.

The Permit Price

This year, the price for a Smokies permit doubled from $20 to $40 for thru hikers. What does $40 buy you in the Smokies? Not happiness. All hikers (section and thru) are required to stay in or around the shelters. This rule clusters a large number of hikers in the same place. The bear cables rapidly fill up, and what limited (and always slanted or rocky) tenting space there is available is overrun. On the North Carolina side where there are privies, privies quickly become full. The Tennessee side of the Smokies does not have any privies, so everyone has to dig a cat hole in order to do their business. This means that you are more than likely to find both surface poop and previously used cat holes when trying to dig your own. It also means that water sources (which were commonly rusted pipes or barely flowing puddles) are more likely to be contaminated with something your filter cannot get out. Blowdowns were also a big issue for us during our hike. One blowdown was huge and completely blocked the narrow, cliff-hugging trail to the point where the only way to get around it was to precariously climb over the many branches and hope you didn’t fall over the side. I understand that the Smokies only has one ridge runner to manage all of the shelters and a volunteer horse brigade to maintain the trails, but if you are going to double the price of a permit, you need to maintain the spaces used by your paying patrons.

The Great Smoky Majestics: Why I Can’t Dismiss Them

The 200

Hitting mileage milestones is always exciting, and we hit the 200 on a rainy, cold day. We were soaked to the bone, had been borderline hypothermic, and had not had a single view the entire day. As luck would have it, the 200 falls at the base of the Smokies’ most epic view: Clingman’s Dome. Our friend Wings had earlier created a 200 out of sticks at the base of the tower, and emerging from the woods dripping and cold, we were instantly uplifted by seeing her trail art. Expecting to see only clouds, we trudged up the Dome’s iconic circling ramp…and I nearly cried. The clouds had parted to reveal a 360* view of the surrounding, deep blue mountains lined with clouds. It was the most breathtaking view we saw in the entire park. What a way to celebrate 200 miles!

The Views

As much as I want to dislike the Smokies for the above reasons, I cannot write them off because of one thing: the views. On the good days, the Smokies were a joy to hike. Dense, mossy pine forests, fields of flowers stretching as far as the eye could see, and epic ridge walks were a daily occurrence. We received glorious views from Charlie’s Bunion, Newfound Gap, Clingman’s Dome, Shuckstack Firetower, and Mt. Cammerer Fire Tower. Every day, we walked through trail sections reminiscent of scenery from Lord of the Rings. Hiking the actual trail in the Smokies was incredible, like hiking in a dream.

My Opinion

Honestly, I cannot help but to love and hate the Smokies at the same time. The views were so good that I cannot forget the Smokies. However, the camping made sleeping miserable, and the weather made staying warm and dry impossible. I will settle on staying lukewarm in my feelings towards the Smokies, but I encourage all of you to hike the Smokies for yourselves before forming an opinion.

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Comments 1

  • Dogwood : May 31st

    We hike the smokies (not just AT) 200mi each year on both NC and TN sides. It is the most beautiful, rewarding hikes….BUT the Smokies makes you earn it. I have been humbled by those mountains numerous times. Good luck on your travels to Maine!!!!


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