Ski Mountaineering

Hiking on the Appalachian Trail in the Smokies

June 11-15, 2006

Reiner Stenzel

This is a short report of a private trip on hiking a section of the Appalachian Trail (AT) in the Great Smoky Mountains N.P. Something different from the usual Sierra ski trip reports, but maybe of interest to some who wish to broaden the mountain experience. I was in good company with my twin daughters Ana and Isa. Although far from a 2000-mile thru-hiking adventure, it nevertheless gave us a flavor of it. And it made reading Bill Bryson's book A Walk in the Woods even more fun.

The timing of our trip was just right since the azaleas and rhododendron were in full bloom. But it was beginning to get hot and humid. Luckily we had no rain. The trail is shown on the Park map in green coinciding with the boundary between Tennessee and North Carolina.

We started at the highest point of the AT, Clingmans Dome (6643'). It was foggy near the summit, which is not unusual. The area has widespread forest damage from beetles. Once on the trail we left behind the crowds of tourists who head mainly for the summit tower. We hiked west on the AT toward Double Spring Gap and Silers Bald. The trail follows the ridge and is well marked so that there is little chance to miss it. Besides, the whole terrain is below the treeline and the forest is mostly so dense that there the trail is the only way to walk through the terrain. It is easy hiking, but with a full pack.

As we descended from Clingmans Dome the clouds disappeared and on occasional forest openings there were fine views over the Smoky Mountains. In the hazy air one could see layer after layer of mountains, getting progressively lighter with distance. The humidity in the air creates the haze and not smoke, as the name might imply.

Due to frequent rain everything was fresh and green. The variety of plants is amazing and so different from the Sierras. Moss and fern were abundant, and so were butterflies and bugs. But we never encountered any black bears or boars which roam in these mountains.

Like everyone else we camped in the AT shelters, which are simple wooden cabins with bunkbeds. Two layers of beds hold perhaps two dozen people. One wall is open but sheltered by an overhanging roof. Some huts have a wire fence to cover the open wall, probably for protection from bears. Food has to be hung up on steel cables. The cooking is done outside on benches but under the roof. Restrooms are behind bushes.

There is usually some water supply near the huts but the supply at Siler Bald was meager and definitely needed pumping. We arrived first and thought to have the hut for ourselves, but in time more and more people showed up and it became a lively evening. Thru-hikers from Georgia told some interesting stories. Next a church youth group came and held their sermon at the hut. Then a Park Ranger with a shotgun showed up. His main duty was to hunt wild pigs at night since they multiply too fast and uproot many native plants. Just like on the JMT you meet many types of people.

On another day we day-hiked to Spence and Russell Field on the AT. It was a hot and humid day which took its toll after a 3000' climb. But we were rewarded with the most beautiful display of yellow flame azaleas and white-red mountain laurels. We rested at the grassy "balds" and enjoyed the views. Along the trails we found different orange azaleas.

Yet another day we explored the AT east of Newfound Gap toward "Charlies Bunion". The views from the ridge trail were superb and we found many blooming rhododendron bushes. Hiking along the AT in the Smoky Mountains was so different from hiking the JMT in the High Sierra. Maybe because of the timing, weather and location we experienced the best of the AT. If you have the opportunity, you must visit the Smokies.

Back to Trip Reports
Back to SMS Home Page