The Splendor of the Smokies

There is a rumor mill on trail the likes of which I haven’t seen since high school. Seriously, word gets around the trail, and it gets around fast. Some of the trail rumors are true, some are partially true, and some are just plain fake news.

As I was gearing up for my thru-hike, I was asked what parts of the trail I was most looking forward to. I said the Smokies, the Whites, and all of Maine. The Smokies, in particular, held a bit of unfinished business for me. I lived in Tennessee, not too far from the Smokies, for half a summer ten years ago. I left in a haste and therefore never got to experience them, even though I spent the rest of the summer bouncing from one wilderness area or national park to the next. So I was excited to redeem my ten-year-old mistake and truly dive into the Smokies experience while thru-hiking.

But once I got on trail, I started hearing horror stories about the Smokies. About how the weather is always awful in the spring and the peaks absolutely killer. How I’d probably hit feet of snow and would be crawling up the mountains. I met a man in Hiawassee, Ga., in a grocery store who told me my sleeping bag wouldn’t be warm enough and that “the Smokies will kick your ass!” He said it with such conviction; I believed him. He was wrong, though, at least in my case, and this was a good lesson in not believing everything you hear on trail.

The Smokies are incredible, and I got incredibly lucky here. Their forests are diverse and enchanting, their views unparalleled, and the weather has been an absolute dream. I ascended into the park in a cold fog, but it was quickly replaced with clear blue skies, which have stuck around for the remainder of my visit. And though no walk in the park, the terrain isn’t even the hardest I’ve tackled so far on the trail.

The climb to Clingmans Dome, the highest point on the AT, was my third day in the Smokies and probably my favorite day on trail so far, even though it was one of my longest-mileage days and steep uphill most of the way (I think my trail legs are finally coming in). The climb was challenging, but the views made it worth it a hundred times over. And shortly after the dome, I hit another trail milestone: the 200-mile marker. (Less than 2,000 miles to go.). Then, upon arriving at the shelter for the night, I was again greeted with superb mountain views, perfect for stargazing and witnessing the sunrise.

The next day, my tramily and I decided to take a shorter day to let our legs recover a bit, so we hiked on to Newfound Gap to catch a shuttle to Gatlinburg for a few hours to fill our bellies with town food. We were greeted with trail magic by the local Baptist church, which also ran a free shuttle to town. The friendly church members offered us ice-cold sodas, fresh fruit, candy bars, cookies, and more. And when I went up for seconds, they only smiled and invited me to take more. I have a feeling they’ve seen a few hungry hikers in their day.

If you’ve never been to Gatlinburg, the only way I can really describe it is to say it’s like a cross between a ski town and a carnival. And since thru-hikers tend to act like children with no parents around when they get to town (in the best way, of course. We’re just excitable, mostly about food), we fit right in. We stopped for a burger (of the veggie variety, in my case) and fries, a moonshine tasting (when in Tennessee!), and an iced coffee before grabbing our first hitch of the trail back to the gap to continue our hike. Ibex, Girl Scout, and I hitched together (Girl Scout doing most of the work to get us the ride, admittedly), and we were lucky enough to be picked up by a sweet man named AJ, who thought his lively, outdoorsy seven-year-old daughter would be entertained by tales of us. (She was not in the car; he just thinks she’ll one day hike the trail and would love to learn about us). And on the way up to the gap, we passed a “bear jam” – a bunch of tourists out of their cars with cameras to catch photos of a bear. Our first bear of the hike.

All in all, the Smokies have been just as lovely as I ever could have imagined. My heart is so full – of fresh air and sunshine, gorgeous pine forests, majestic mountain views, golden meadows, bright green moss, dainty spring flowers, and of adventure. I can’t wait to see what’s next.

By the way, I’m having some technical difficulties inserting some of my photos via my phone while on the trail, so if you’d like to see more, be sure to check out my Instagram page!

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Comments 2

  • Pony : Apr 14th

    The Smokys are challenging, to be sure, but conditions—as you’ve discovered—can vary from day to day, week to week.

    Having said that, I will add that New Hampshire and Maine are immeasurably more challenging than any other part of the trail, lest you think that all such warnings are bogus. Miss Janet told me in 2016 that “NOBOs all get to Hanover and they think they’re 10 feet tall. And then they enter the Whites….”

    Fortunately, NH and ME tend to be most hikers’ favorite states. No pain, no rain, no Maine!

    Enjoy your walk.

    • Audrey Payne : Apr 15th

      Oh I certainly don’t think all the various pieces of advice come from a bad place or are completely untrue by any means, but some tend to me exaggerated out here, so it’s sometimes hard to know what to believe! I think most of it comes from a good place and is meant to be helpful though. I’ve spent a bit of time (and looking forward to more!) in the Whites and they are no joke! Thanks for your feedback and well wishes! 🙂


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