by Julie Dodd
Hiking the Chimney Tops Trail certainly gives you an appreciation of the time, talent and resources involved in this major trail restoration project.
The restoration work on the Chimney Tops Trail is part of the Trails Forever program. Friends of the Smokies’ $4 million Trails Forever endowment funds a third permanent trail restoration crew for Great Smoky Mountains National Park – in addition to repair and maintenance work done by the two other GSMNP trail crews.
The Trails Forever crew also works alongside volunteers, who receive training that enables them to become assets in the progress.
Following the successful three-year Trails Forever transformation of the Forney Ridge Trail, the crew initiated, in 2012, the multi-year effort to restore the Chimney Tops Trail. Phase I, which was completed in 2012, concentrated on restoring the lower portion of the trail, creating rock staircases to fix the water damage to sections of the trail.
Work on Phase II of the three-phase project began in April 2013. The trail volunteers joined the work effort on Wednesdays beginning July 31. They harvested rock, helped move large rocks into place in staircases, and improved drainage along the trail.
The government shutdown that closed Great Smoky Mountains Park, from Oct. 1 to Oct.16, halted all work by the Trails Forever crew and the volunteers and contributed to Phase II not being completed as planned this fall. That work will continue in 2014.
So far, this labor-intensive trail restoration has cost $271,000 and benefited from more than a thousand hours of volunteer time.
My friend Kay Moss and I hiked to Chimney Tops last July (2013). A few days before my hike with Kay, I’d been on a Friends of the Smokies hike to Kephart Prong Trail and heard Sarah Weeks, Friends of the Smokies Director of Development, talk about the restoration work being done on the Chimney Tops Trail. I’d also learned that the trail had recently reopened for a few days each week.
The Chimney Tops Trail is one of the most popular destinations in the Smokies. The trailhead is easy to get to — only about seven miles from the Sugarlands Visitor Center. The hike is relatively short (four miles roundtrip) with great views.
For the first part of the trail you have views along prongs of the Little Pigeon River with rushing water and little waterfalls, with wildflowers and lush trees in season. At the top, you have a panoramic view of the surrounding mountains, including Mt. LeConte. Of course, to get to that great mountain-top view requires some upward hiking, which gives that trail a moderate to strenuous rating.
As frequent Smokies hikers, both Kay and I had hiked to the Chimneys many times before. (My first hikes there were with my family and with my Girl Scout troop.) So Kay and I were very interested in seeing the kind of trail improvements that were being made.
When we saw the Trails Forever trailers in the Chimney Tops Trail parking lot, we knew progress was in the works. The tool trailers, contributed to the Friends of the Smokies by grants from REI, Inc., provide storage for gear that is used for trail work and can then transport the equipment from one Trails Forever project to the next. These are big time savers for the crew and volunteers.
We crossed the pedestrian bridge at the beginning of the trail that had been constructed just a few months before to replace the 70-foot bridge that was destroyed by high flood waters in January. Costs for the major repairs to the pedestrian bridge, which included replacing the steel bridge beams and wooden decking and mending the stone pylon structures in the river, were covered by federal emergency construction funding, and the crew members that placed the bridge were GSMNP employees.
Damage to the bridge was one of the challenges for the Phase II work because the trail work that needed to be completed was beyond the bridge. The Trails Forever crew couldn’t get to the worksite until special rigging was set up to get across Walker Camp Prong, but the volunteer workdays had to be canceled until July 31.
When Kay and I arrived at the first set of wood and stone steps, we stopped to examine (and photograph) the construction work. We speculated on what it must have taken to drive in the large screws that secured each step.
According to Tobias Miller, who is the Supervisory Facility Operations Specialist for the trail work, “The rocks are all harvested from the area while the locust logs in this section we carried in. The screws are 8″ long 3/8″ diameter. We use a very large 1/2″ chuck gasoline-powered rotary hammer drill to put these screws in.”
Kay and I stopped for lunch in a section of the trail that was wide enough for us to find a spot to sit so that we weren’t blocking the trail. We were in a location where some of the locust logs had been stored for use in the trail work. As we ate, we watched dozens of hikers go by – small groups of hikers, families, couples, an adult leading a group of teens, and a mom carrying her 3-year-old daughter on her shoulders.
Shortly after lunch, we encountered two couples, using tool boxes as their picnic benches. We stopped to talk about what a great day this was for hiking. The two women were sisters — one living in Buffalo, N.Y., and one living in Melbourne, Fla. They and their husbands get together every summer, they said, most often in the Smokies so they could hike. They admired the trail work being done and wondered how those tool boxes got to that location on the trail.
When I asked Tobias that question, he explained that the tool boxes were flown in with a helicopter last spring to the general area and were then moved by hand the last couple hundred yards. Whew – The thought of being part of the team to carry one of those metal boxes up the trail made my pack seem so light in comparison.
After visiting with the couples, Kay and I arrived at the point of the trail that was under construction. The wood and rock stairs were partially completed, with construction tape indicating that they weren’t to be used. Beside the stairs was the well-worn trail that hikers used as the restoration of that section was completed.
Stairs of locust logs and stone
Tobias explained that part of the trail work. “The log staircase is now back on the original trail tread. The large crushed stone in the stairs and raised turnpike will allow for better drainage.”
He said that part of the challenge during the high traffic hiking time in the summer was allowing hikers to be on the trail but to have any trail work “stabilized” so that no hikers would get injured. Beginning in late July, the trail reopened Thursday through Sunday for hikers to use.
Tobias also provided insight into the philosophy the trail crew employs in their work: “As far as style of work we are always trying to find the best sustainable long-lasting solution for each unique area. We are also trying to use native materials to the area of either rock or locust timbers.”
Further up the trail, we arrived at a stone staircase. Each stone had been cut to stair shape, and then all these massive stones were assembled into the staircase. Kay and I discussed all that would have been involved in the process, which was part art, part puzzle, part strength, and lots of teamwork.
The last part of the trail is two different kinds of scrambles. The first is over roots and rocks to the bottom of the summit. The next scramble is up the rock face. I don’t know how the renovation will affect those two sections, although I think most hikers would agree that those obstacles are Nature’s contribution to the challenge of the hike.
Kay and I both enjoyed the view and the accomplishment of making the hike.
Admiring the craftsmanship
We admired the physical effort, planning, and skilled craftsmanship involved in restoring the trail. Hats off to the Trails Forever crew for their work and for training the dozens of volunteers who worked with them during the 2013 Phase II trail work.
How wonderful to have the funding of Trails Forever and other partners to provide the resources needed for such a big project.
Phase II didn’t get completed this year as planned due to the flooding that required rebuilding one of the bridges and due to the government shutdown in October. But much was accomplished. Work will continue in 2014 to complete Phase II and then the crew will begin to tackle Phase III.
The Chimney Tops Trail is open to the public for the rest of the fall and winter and the beginning of spring when the trail will be closed Monday through Thursday for the Trails Forever work to continue.