Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Looking Towards the AT: Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Section: Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Region: South
Miles of trail: 70.1 
Highlights: Clingman's Dome, Spence Field, Charlie's Bunion, Mount Cammerer, Siler's Bald, bears, long periods in the rare spruce-fir zone of the southern Appalachians, salamanders

A bit more than 150 miles into the trail* hikers on the AT say goodbye to the Fontana Hilton, walk across the dam**, and go past a small sign welcoming you to the national park, with a white blaze on one of the posts telling you that you are heading the right direction. 

As you pause to take a picture of this momentous achievement in your fledgling hike, you also take out the AT guidebook of your choice. Looking at it's elevation chart, you notice that Fontana is a low point between the mountains you went through a few days ago, and the Smokies you are about to begin. If you are a fastidious planner (or a cheater, depending on your point of view), you've looked ahead and saw that the elevation doesn't dip close to where you are right now until Davenport Gap, about seventy miles to the northeast. You look ahead beyond the sign, and see the road you'll be following for a short distance goes up. You sigh, and mumble about how hiking in the mountains would be great if it wasn't for all the uphill climbs or downhill descents.

For much of its run through the Great Smoky Mountains, the Appalachian Trail is well above 5,000 feet in elevation. As such, it's one of the few places in the southeast that isn't oppressively warm in the summer. This also means it's one of the rawest environments during the winter, where snowfall and temperatures can be as treacherous as places well to the north. It is along this section of the trail that you will find the Spruce-Fir forest zone, an area with many animals and plants that are usually found hundreds of miles north in New England or Canada. Pollution and invasive species have killed off much of the mature fraser firs, but the remaining ones and the spruces still give these high mountains a different feel from the hardwood deciduous woods found all over the southeast, middle Atlantic, New England, and eastern Midwest.

Unlike other segments of the trail, Great Smoky Mountains has very few connections to the busy world butting up against the foothills on both sides of the Appalachians. Between Fontana and Davenport Gap, there is only one major road crossing (US 441 at Newfound Gap), with a couple parking areas along the Clingman's Dome road coming close to the trail. Once out of Fontana, the only places to get resupply until Davenport are Cherokee, NC, and Gatlinburg, TN, which are 15-20 miles from Newfound Gap. 

However, just because the trail in the park is relatively remote doesn't mean it is a secluded journey away from crowds. After all, Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the busiest park in the system, and thousands of people (and in some places their horses) tromp along portions of the trail. Because of the amount of use, hikers are limited to using only the shelters along the trail. If you're out for a weekend at only one shelter, you have to use an online reservation system to book your shelter. Through-hikers are giving a bit more of a leeway, requiring a flexible eight day permit and having the ability to find rest at any shelter that has room. 

As popular as the park is for humans, it is also popular for bears. There are about 2500 black bears that inhabit the park, and sightings are common along the Appalachian Trail. Like most places along the trail, bear bagging your food using the cables that are provided at several of the shelters is a wise idea. Unless your idea of a good hike is to have your pack demolished by a curious bear, which in that case you shouldn't be hiking.

While most people come to see the bears, the ones who really know what is going on in the park are here for the salamanders. Because of massive elevation changes in the park, and its location at the confluence of the subtropical southeast and the continental climates to the north, there is a wide variety of salamanders in the park. While most of them are found well below the elevations of the Appalachian Trail, some species do roam that far north. Although most people will be too tired from all the hiking to go salamander hunting at night, a curious hiker will likely be rewarded during the warmer months.

Needless to say, I look forward to hiking this portion of the trail. As much of a hassle hopping from overcrowded shelter to overcrowded shelter can be, the views and wildlife viewing opportunities will make up for it. I've only explored a tiny part of the trail in the park myself, hiking a little over a half mile along its NOBO climb out of Newfound Gap. While the trail wasn't empty, long stretches I was the only person around, despite being less than a half mile from one of the busiest parking lots in the park. It was all uphill going on (and thus all downhill coming back, which isn't always a good thing), but it wasn't too bad. I'm sure there are tougher areas to hike, just as there are more scenic areas in both directions. After all, it's the Smokies. You can't go too far in any direction without tripping over a scenic vista.

Up next: The Smokies may be done, but their sister mountains the Unakas are still to come. Also, we visit the first "true" trail town, in that the trail actually goes right through the town.

*Assuming you are northbound (NOBO)
**Protip: If heights make you nervous, don't look down into the spillways on the dam. That's worse than looking over the side of the dam, which is already pretty high. Fontana is the tallest concrete dam east of the Rockies, and you can tell. 

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