Monday, March 31, 2014

Journal of the Smokies: A Lack of Hiking Experience

Note: Journal of the Smokies is a new feature on this blog. The Great Smoky Mountains is one of the jewels of the National Park System, and the park visited by the most people each year. It's also the most visited park by Andrew, and one of Erin's most frequently visited. From visits long past and recent we'll be sharing some of our thoughts and pictures. This will be a cross platform feature, as we'll be sharing pictures and short posts in the series on our Walk With Nature tumblr as well.

Since I began hiking in earnest again in October of 2010, I've hiked hundreds of miles in states from Virginia to California, and Florida to Michigan. I've hiked to the top of the highest points in Georgia and Tennessee, hiked all 600 steps at Amicalola Falls, and went to the top of Blood Mountain along the Applachian Trail. I've a hiked a lot of miles, but very few of those have been in Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

There are over 800 miles of hiking trails in the park. All told, I've hiked about 12 or so of those miles*, plus the eleven miles of the Cades Cove Loop Road**. The longest of the hikes were the Gatlinburg and Oconaluftee trails, both of which are mostly flat trails between visitors centers and the towns at the edge of the park. The other trails range in difficulty from the flat paved 1/4 mile Sugarlands Nature Trail to the steep, if paved, .6 mile path to the top of Clingmans Dome and the somewhat steep 1.2 round trip I took on the AT at Newfound Gap. Beyond the endurance factor of hiking 11 miles along a busy one way road while wearing crappy shoes in Cades Cove, none of these hikes can be considered feats of note.

This wouldn't be a problem if I was talking about  one of the western parks, which I've only visited a few times in my life. It also wouldn't be a problem if my visits were confined solely to driving through on the way to other places, as most of my visits to Shenandoah have been. I've been to the Smokies almost twenty times in the past four years, and have spent days in the park. I've visited Fontana Dam (the southwestern entry/exit of the AT to the park) and driven by Davenport Gap (the northeastern exit/entry of the AT). I circumnavigated the park on roads. I've spent the night in Bryson City, Townsend, Gatlinburg, and Cherokee, and as of the latest trip in the park itself. To never have hiked at least one moderately challenging (and moderately lengthy) trail is inexcusable.

Part of the issue is time. Most of the time I've spent in the park has been spent driving. It takes almost an hour to go from Gatlinburg to Cades Cove. It also takes an hour to drive from Gatlinburg to Cherokee, assuming there isn't a construction delay on the road, or you don't stop for pictures. It's a good thirty minute round trip from Newfound Gap Road to the Clingmans Dome parking lot. And a round trip from Gatlinburg to Davenport Gap or Fontana can take upwards of four hours. Once I've driven everywhere I want to go in my limited time in the park, I don't have the time, daylight, or energy to do hiking.

Another problem is the popularity of the park. Hiking trails like Chimneytops***, Alum Cave Bluffs, or Laurel Falls is an exercise in communing with nature, if you hike overnight or when there is a foot of snow on the ground. The rest of the time it's more of a people watching exercise, as these trails can get busy. It isn't that I prefer the trail to be empty, I just don't like having a trail resemble a queue for a ride at Walt Disney World.****

This is a problem that I intend on rectifying, starting with the next trip I take there*****. Of course, it's also a problem I'll take care of next year, as 70 miles of those 800 will go down as I hike the Appalachian Trail. From here on, I pledge to hike at least one trail longer than two miles, and with a elevation change greater than 100 feet. Given the Smokies, that last part shouldn't be an issue.

* This doesn't include hikes done before October of 2010, of which there were a few during family trips. None of these were very long either, but their mileages are lost to time.
** I doubt this is included in the trail mileage for the park, as it is a road. It was a hike by the definition that I was wearing a pack as I walked around the road. Therefore it was a hike, albeit a road hike.
*** Of course, now that spring is upon us, I wouldn't likely be able to hike this one this year even if I tried, as it is closed for repairs.
****Which makes perfect sense we'll be hiking the AT during its Spring busy season. I suppose with a long hike like that you have the ticking clock of Katahdin to consider.
***** Sometime late spring/early summer

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