by Lynda Doucette
The July Friends of the Smokies Classic Hike was Chimney Tops Trail. This is a very popular trail that truly showcases the work of the Trails Forever program. It was also one of the first trails completed in the Trails Forever program!
Anyone who hiked this trail prior to the rehabilitation that was completed in December 2014 can genuinely appreciate the amount of ingenuity, engineering, and hard labor that went into creating a trail that should last for a lifetime or two.
Twenty-one adventurous hikers met at the Chimney Tops trailhead at 8:30 a.m. with hopes that an earlier start time would mean there would be parking available (which there was!).
Since this is a very popular trail even on weekdays, we knew we had to start earlier than our normal 9 a.m. meeting time if we wanted to park near the trailhead. Since there was limited space in the parking area, a quick introduction to the hike was made (367 rock steps, 291 locust log stairs), and we hit the trail.
Rock and log staircases
After crossing the creeks over some beautiful footbridges, folks arrived at the first of many stone staircases that had been created. To truly appreciate the scope of work, hikers got to see a “before” picture that I had carried with me.
We also talked about one of the prominent summer plants along this trail that can create a painful experience. Hikers learned that stinging nettle is in the mint family, but you don’t want to feel the square stem lest you are injected with chemicals that burn and sting (sometimes for days). Those with shorts/skorts gave this plant a wide berth on the hike!
The only “trail break” area with some modicum of privacy is at the trail intersection with Road Prong Trail. While a nice trail to hike in winter when the vegetation is low, it is not a popular summer hike since it tends to be overgrown. The intersection is a nice wide area so it gave the group a chance to stop and introduce ourselves while “trail breaking.”
From there, we started the long ascent. Folks traversed the stairs/steps at their own pace with some at jackrabbit speed and others at turtle speed.
We occasionally gathered in wide spots between staircases to catch our breath and discover some of the wildflowers along the trail — crimson bee balm, green-headed coneflower (or Sochan as the Cherokee call it), and umbrella leaf, to name a few.
At a wide opening at the top of one of the staircases, folks were treated to some more “before” photos of the stretch they just traversed.
Volunteer with Trails Forever crew
Here they learned more about the Trails Forever program and how to participate as a volunteer. One of the hikers has been volunteering on the Ramsey Cascade project, so she was able to tell them what volunteering entails and how satisfying it is to know you are helping to maintain park trails for decades to come.
About 10:40 a.m., we reached the platform below Chimney Tops that was created after the 2016 fires. Participants learned about the damage the fire did to the last quarter mile of the trail and why that section of the trail still is closed at this time.
Hikers paused for a snack and to take in the view of the mountains and Chimney peaks. With disappointment, we watched a couple of folks who obviously went behind the gate to climb up the Chimney peaks.
After thanking folks for joining us and supporting the Trails Forever program, participants took their own time to hike back to the cars!
Many thanks go out to Adam Monroe for the “before” pictures and details on how to participate in helping create sustainable trails in the park. Contact him if you would like to volunteer with the Trails Forever Crew — firstname.lastname@example.org or 828-497-1949.
And special thanks to Julie Dodd at Friends of the Smokies for her past blogs that made it easier to remember trail statistics. [Posts: description of trail work, videos of time-lapse recording of trail work]
Lynda Doucette recently retired after a 30-year career with the National Park Service, spending the last 16 years at Great Smoky Mountains National Park. As an Interpretive Park Ranger, she focused on education and events that would help visitors appreciate all the Great Smoky Mountains National Park has to offer.
Register for Classic Hikes
Classic Hikes of the Smokies are the second Tuesday of the month, from March through December.
The cost is $20 per hike for current members of Friends of the Smokies, and $35 for new and renewing members of Friends of the Smokies (includes one-year membership and hike registration).
Many of the Classic Hikes are part of the 100 Favorite Trails Challenge. Twentymile Loop = #4, Lakeshore Loop = #5, Silers Bald to Clingmans Dome = #21, Chimney Tops = #22, Walker Sisters Cabin = #24, Porters Creek Trail = #25.
Trails Forever improves GSMNP trails
Proceeds from the Classic Hike series benefit Trails Forever.