Classic Hike of the Smokies: Danny Bernstein leads group hike from Newfound Gap to Kephart Prong Trailhead

September 11, 2013

Our Class Hike of the Smokies started just a few yards from here -- where President Franklin D. Roosevelt dedicated the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in 1940. Photo by Julie Dodd

by Julie Dodd

On a hot afternoon in July, I was part of a group of 27, following master hiker Danny Bernstein, as we hiked down the Sweat Heifer Creek Trail.

Danny Bernstein
Danny Bernstein talks about trail maintenance as we take a break. Danny is the leader for the Classic Hikes of the Smokies series. Photos by Julie Dodd

This was the July edition of the Classic Hikes of the Smokies.

I’d found out about the hike thanks to Holly Scott’s email blast and was able to coordinate my vacation in the Smokies to join Danny and other Friends of the Smokies for the hike.

When I’d called the Waynesville, N.C., office of the Friends of the Smokies to find out more about the hike, I talked with Keith Hoffman, AmeriCoprs Outreach Associate. I realized in our conversation that part of his role was to make sure everyone was going to be ready for the hike. He asked about my recent hiking and also let me know that the group would be taking breaks but that this would not be a stop-and-take-photos pace.

We all met at the Kephart Prong Trailhead. We parked our cars, gathered our gear, and boarded a bus. The transportation to Newfound Gap was provided by Rocky Top Tours, which provides a free bus ride for a Friends of the Smokies hike twice a year. It was great to be able to have this shuttle setup so we could do a point-to-point hike.

Rocky Top Tour bus
The shuttle to the start of the hike was provided by Rocky Top Tours.

Before we started the hike, Danny assembled us in the Newfound Gap parking lot, near the location where President Franklin D. Roosevelt dedicated the Great Smoky Mountains National Park on Sept. 2, 1940.

Danny welcomed us and gave us an overview to the day’s hike. For the first part of the hike, we’d be hiking about two miles on the Appalachian Trail (A.T.). This would be the uphill part of the hike. We’d take a break when we came to the Sweat Heifer Creek Trail.

Danny would take the lead, and Keith would be the sweeper, the last person in the group. We were encouraged to hike with different groups throughout the day – and to stay with the group.

waterfall along Sweat Heifer Creek
We passed several little waterfalls while hiking the Sweat Heifer Creek Trail.

By about 10:45, we were hiking. I’d been on this trail several times previously – hiking to Charlie’s Bunion or to connect with the Boulevard Trail to hike to Mt. LeConte. From comments I heard, I could tell that some had hiked the trail before but some hadn’t.

We’d sometimes pull to the side to let hikers pass, and sometimes hikers would step aside for us.

“This is quite a group,” one hiker said as our group kept flowing past.

“We’re Friends of the Smokies,” one of us would say.

At one point, we were passed by three fellows in their 20s with large packs, who were completing the A.T. section in Tennessee.

We took our first break at the Sweat Heifer Creek Trail intersection.

As we ate a quick snack, Danny talked about the A.T. and the difference in who maintains the A.T. trails and who maintains the other trails in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. She told us that Sarah Weeks, Director for Development for the Friends of the Smokies, would talk with us at our lunch break about the work the Friends was doing to support trail work.

Sarah Weeks talks about Smokies Trails Forever program
We were eating lunch, but we were listening as Sarah Weeks, Development Director for Friends of the Smokies, talked about the Smokies Trails Forever program.

Danny passed around a bag of dark chocolate candies, and we were off.

The remaining 5.5 miles of the hike were either gradual downhill or flat.

The trail was mainly in the shade, and we saw quite a few wildflowers and mushrooms.

Our next stop was for lunch. As everyone ate, Sarah talked about the work of the Friends of the Smokies in raising funds to help in trail maintenance. The Smokies Trails Forever program funds an additional permanent trail maintenance work crew. Currently this crew is working on reconstructing the Chimney Tops Trail.

CCC camp

We were back on the trail and hiked until we reached the Kephart Shelter, at the junction of the Kaphart Prong Trail, Sweat Heifer Creek Trail and Grassy Branch Trail. This was our last break. We sat in the shelter, and Danny talked about what we’d be seeing next – the remainders of a Civilian Conservation Corps camp that operated from 1933 to 1942.

When Danny talked with us at the trail breaks, she pointed out that she had prepared for the hike, in part, by reading “Hiking Trails of the Smokies.” This publication is affectionately called “The Little Brown Book” and is sold by the Great Smoky Mountains Association.

Water fountain built by the Civilian Consertation Corps, Great Smoky Mountains National Park
This water fountain is an example of the long-lasting stoneworking skills employed by the CCC that is seen in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Danny’s reference to “The Little Brown Book” was a good reminder that we could do that kind of preparing ourselves – and several of us had. I’d read about the CCC camp, so I looked for the boxwoods that, now overgrown, had been part of a more landscaped area by the administration building. The stone water fountain was in such good condition that I almost stopped to get a drink of water.

By the end of the hike, I’d probably talked with about a dozen different people, taking Danny’s advice about hiking with different people during the hike. We’d talked about our favorite hikes, wildlife sightings, and Friends of the Smokies activities.

When hiking with Sarah, I’d learned about the hike the next day to celebrate what would have been legendary Mt. LeConte hiker Margaret Stevenson’s 101st birthday. (You can read my post about this hike in memory of Margaret Stevenson.)

We were back at our cars before 3:30 p.m. What a great way to get to hike a trail that I hadn’t hiked before, to learn more about the trails of the Smokies, and to visit with other enthusiastic hikers.

If you’re interested in hiking one of the Classic Hikes of the Smokies, check the Classic Hikes of the Smokies website.  Friends of the Smokies are asked to make a $10 donation for the hike, and non-members are asked to donate $35.

Rating the hike:

  • Trails – Moderate, accent of 900 ft., most of hike downhill
  • Getting to the trailhead – 8.8 miles Newfound Gap or 5.0 miles from Smokemont Campground.
  • Parking – At Kephart Prong Trailhead, parking for about 30 cars.