NC/TN: The Smokies, An Honest Review

Davenport Gap, Northern End of Great Smoky Mountain National Park, Mile 239.2

8 days in the Smokies. Most visited National Park in the US. Fontana Dam to Standing Bear: 72 miles, 18,000 feet up, 18,000 feet down. Highest point on the entirety of the trail. One of the most renowned sections of the AT. Here are the highs and lows, as I experienced them:

 The Views

My first few days in the Smokies, it rained every day. The renowned views from 5,000+ feet were overcast as I walked through the clouds. The fog accentuated a stunning section of spruce trees, moss, and rocks from Silers Bald Shelter to Mt. Collins Shelter. It was like a storybook wonderland. Due to the high elevation, I also experienced rain, snow, and heavy winds. The weather got so intense that rangers were encouraging hikers to leave the trail. At the perfect time, my family drove from Indiana to meet my crew at Clingmans Dome. We took a few zero days off in Gatlinburg, and I enjoyed the park from lower, sunnier altitudes with my family. My grammy- whose dream it was to hike the Appalachian Trail years ago- even hiked a bit of the trail with us. 

Family Dinner!

By the time we got back on trail, the weather was absolutely beautiful. As a result, we were treated to a clear view from Clingmans Dome: the highest point on the Appalachian Trail at 6,643ft tall! Though quite a busy spot, this 360° view highlighted the expansiveness of the Smoky Mountain range. 

Snowy trees and clear skies at Clingmans Dome

My favorite view of the Smokies was without question Charlie’s Bunion. The rocky overlook juts out over a valley with mountains rising to the left and right. A friend and I had hiked out to see it just over a year ago. The view left me breathless. This time, I camped at a shelter only a mile away, so I woke and packed up to make it there before sunrise. As I perched on those rocks and watched the colors spread across the horizon, I felt so calm. The sun peeked its head above the mountain ridegeline, and I knew I was exactly where I wanted to be. It was clear, peaceful, and the most beautiful view I have seen on the trail thus far. I will never forget that moment. 

Sunrise from my solitary perch on Charlie’s Bunion

What am I paying for? 

Views aside- word on the trail is, hikers want to know where exactly the $40 thru-hiker permit money is going. For the first time since Springer Mountain, I at times found the trail difficult to follow. As I entered the national park, I noticed a significant decrease in white blazes, particularly through the southwestern half. As I neared Clingmans Dome and Newfound Gap, many blazes appeared and continued on with decent regularity throughout the rest of the park. The trail maintenance was also markedly different from what I had experienced in Georgia. There were downed trees everywhere. It was clear that some of them had been left across the trail for years, resulting in new paths formed to circumnavigate sprawling trunks and branches. This lack of maintenance is expanding the impact of foot traffic on forest ground – something I assumed a national park would be more concerned about. 

Foggy views

It is my understanding that the permit fees are likely intended to cover the cost of shelter use required by hikers in the national park. As Derek says, “More like Smokey and the Bandit” (not sure what that means- it’s probably to from a movie I haven’t seen.) Most of these shelters were likely built in the 1960s, and one must wonder if they have received any significant updates since. My crew and I hiked through the Smokies in mid-April, which is considered peak season, and found the shelters to be very crowded and unable to accommodate crowds of 30+ hikers. In the national park, hikers are (understandably so) not allowed to stealth camp, which means you must tent near shelters. Unfortunately, most shelters offer unreliable terrain for tent campers. Let’s just say hammockers will thrive in the Smokies. 

Okay, it wasn’t all bad. 

Though the shelters couldn’t protect all 30+ of us from the cold and rain, they were generally large, warm structures with tarps set up to the block the wind. Most had fireplaces inside and multiple benches outside for several individuals to share a cooking/eating space. Every shelter also had bear cables, which made it easy to safely store our food overnight. I was also pleased to find a few of the cleanest privies yet. Mulch was provided to speed up the moldering process. 

Tramily Dinner!

The Smokies are a fantastic spot to meet other hikers. I met many thru-hikers I had never crossed paths with before. I also loved hanging out with some section hikers working their way through the national park! We were all so grateful to find trail magic at Clingmans Dome (shoutout to my fam!!) and Newfound Gap (thank you, Noah’s Ark Widows Ministry!!).

As I climbed the peaks of this widely acclaimed region, my friends and I could not help but notice that this trail was carved through the mountains for us. The original path of the trail through the park shows genius design. We walked ridgelines with views of mountains sprawling for miles on either side. It is absolutely stunning. The sign at Newfound Gap reads, “for the permanent enjoyment of the people.” And oh how we enjoyed it. 

I could never get tired of this view.

Overall, the Smokies have earned their reputation for being some of the most rugged terrain you’ll encounter in the south. I believe your walk through these mountains is well worth the perpetual hills and rocky paths. The views are unmatched. 

The people who walked this land before us called it Shaconage, place of the blue smoke. What a wonder it is that the same God who created, loved, and provided for them here does the same for us. What a gift this land is to all who traverse it. If your spirit is willing, you will not leave unchanged. 

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Comments 8

  • ERIKA BUSSER : Apr 26th

    Emilia, your mom just let me know a couple of days ago that you’re hiking the AT! I’m so proud of you for taking this on. You are amazing! I’m following one of your friends on the trail as well who has been filming. When you sang Amazing Grace, I quite literally started crying. God bless you and your fellow hikers as you endeavor to hike the entire trail. You’ve got this, girl! 💪🥾

    • Emilia Grunden : Apr 29th

      Erika! I’m so happy to hear you’re following along and enjoying the updates. What a gift. Thank you for your encouragement!!

  • Stephen M : Apr 26th

    Nice post & perspective! Saunter on!

    • Emilia Grunden : Apr 29th

      Thanks, Stephen!

  • Lyn : Apr 26th

    I am glad that you were able to see the view from Clingman’s Dome in the Smokies as it is a special site. Due to the elevation and time of year being socked in by fog is typical. Please don’t take this personally but all of you thru hikers create your own jam at the shelters. This is a national park and the rules are a little different. As a former volunteer in the park ( and one who still does work with no recognition from time to time) the fees pay for the man hours worked to keep shelters and campsites ( all over the park) cleaned up and garbage free several times a month. Tourists tend to leave garbage at sites and volunteers and paid staff have to lug it all out. Tools have to be replaced from saws and hoes to items needed to replace bridges and shelters. As a trail volunteer we had to be trained and worked at least eight days in the year and only got a free outdoor dinner at the end of the year. Plus at a 5 year anniversary a thing to hold your glasses on your head and at 10 years a belt buckle. But volunteers are proud of their service to the hiking community. I spent whole days traveling, hiking/working and getting home exhausted to take care of a 4t mile trail which was mostly uphill and then downhill on the way back. Sometimes I walked out with two garbage bags full of garbage. The AT requires that some Rangers (or ridge runners) hike it due to the extended use and they have to be paid. Trails have to be repaired due to misuse and abuse as well as illegal campsites fixed back up. Sometimes it takes horses to get all of the garbage out as people leave gear and blankets too. Some folks don’t abide by the “Leave no trace” practice. So that $40 goes to good use. GSMNP just started a parking fee last year to help pay for the backlog of repairs and updates because federal funding for the USA’s most visited park at 13t million people was well behind what other parks get because they have charged entry fees for years. Last I knew volunteers racked up over 200,000 man hours in a year. Imagine what that would cost if they had to be paid staff. So, enjoy your experiences and remember that nothing in life is totally free.

    I wish you good health throughout your trek and many trail angels. Most of all, please enjoy your experience because it will change you and hopefully make you into a better person for having done so.

    • Emilia Grunden : Apr 29th

      Hi, Lyn! Thank you so much for your service to the park and all who walk these paths. I can tell you are proud of your involvement. I appreciate you sharing your perspective! There are many days that I think to myself how blessed I am by the countless hands that have maintained this trail. I am so grateful! I hope you are still enjoying the park!

  • Robert : Apr 28th

    Good luck on your journey Emilia. The shelters in the Smokies were constructed largely by the Civilian Conservation Corp in the late 1930s. They were updated in the late 90s and early 2000s with open porches, bear cables and Composting toilets . I recall backpacking in the 1980s as a teen having chain link fencing in the front and we would lock ourselves in at night to keep the bears out. There were no toilets or bear cables . They are so much better today. It’s my understanding the ATC maintains the trail through the park . And, yes, Smokey and the Bamdit was a hit movie from the 70s. 😆 again, good luck on your journey to Khatafin. Charlie’s Bunion is awesome for sure at sunrise.

    • Emilia Grunden : Apr 29th

      Hello, Robert! Thank you for the information. I love your perspective.


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