The Appalachian Trail through the Great Smoky Mountains National Park sends shivers of dread through the minds of some thru-hikers as they sit at the Fontana Hilton and map out the days ahead. But it doesn't have to! By this time in your thru hike, you are stronger, mentally and physically. You are NOT one of the 45-50% who have already dropped off the trail, and you can SO do this! This stretch of the AT offers exquisite views, opportunities to commune a bit differently with your fellow hikers, the potential sightings of various wildlife you may not have yet encountered, and depending on the time of year, some of the most delicate and beautiful trail companions you will happen upon anywhere along your journey as you lower your gaze to the trail itself to make it up that next climb. Just don't forget to look a little to either side of the trail for the wildflowers that often grace its boundaries.
This post will not address things such as permits and regulations of the Smokies. Those can be found here. Instead, let's go through what to expect from the trail itself, what NOT to miss, and a bit about the specific shelters along the way. My hope is to help you plan this part of your trek with a little more insight than can be gathered from the AT Guide, to help you enjoy and experience the Smokies in all their grandeur, not to simply make it through them and get them behind you. You may never be back to this astonishingly beautiful place, and my hope is that you will savor your time here.
The Trail, Its Sights, and Its Shelters (from South to North)
Fontana Dam to Mollie's Ridge
The AT through the Smokies is impossible to get to from anywhere in the Park without a significant climb, and that certainly holds true for those who will enter the Smokies along the AT from Fontana Dam. The first three and a half miles is a slog up a 2000' elevation gain, but a relic-from-the-past metal fire tower rewards you for your efforts. Shuckstack Fire Tower, up a path to your right a scant 1/10 of a mile off the AT, provides the brave-at-heart with incredible views of the Nantahala range from which you have just come, looking down onto Fontana Lake with breathtaking fervor. Warning: Shuckstack "shimmies" in the winds that are prevalent on this ridge, but, take heart, it does not fall! It was designed to give a little in the winds that are seemingly always blowing here. The bottom section of the switchback stairs you will use to scale this tower is missing one handrail, but once you come to the first landing, both handrails are intact the rest of the way up.
The next section of trail takes out and up past the only tent-friendly campsite along the AT in the Smokies, Backcountry Campsite #113, or the Birch Spring Gap campsite. As is true of other sites close to a road, this site is used frequently by not-so-serious hikers and is often misused, trashed, and therefore, often closed due to bear activity. If you are hiking through the Smokies in the summer, this site is almost always closed.
The first shelter you will come to from the South is Mollie's Ridge, which sits at approximately 4600' and 10.1 miles from the Park boundary. This picture of the Mollie's Ridge shelter shows the tarps that are put up by the Park Service in the winter to protect hikers from the elements which can become severe. Inside, there are two levels of wood flooring on which hikers can lay out sleeping pads and bags. As you can see, there is a covered cooking/eating area outside the sleeping quarters. Please do NOT take food into the sleeping area so that bears are not tempted to enter because of the residual scent of the goodies they smell. Do all your food prep and eating outside under the cover if weather dictates it, or sitting on the logs by the fire if weather is good. This shelter has a nice, flat area where tents can be pitched if, and only if, the shelter is full. Ridgerunners do monitor the trail through the Smokies to make sure rules are followed and hikers are safe, and I have met a ridgerunner at Mollie's before. Ridgerunners are very nice folks full of insights and information about the area and good to have around in the event of a problem or emergency. You will also find bear cables at each of the shelters in the Smokies which make hanging your food and other items which give off scent easily at a high perch away from bears, raccoons, etc. One hint though: hang your WHOLE pack, leaving it open so mice don't chew through it to get to whatever goodies you might have inside. If possible, put your food into an Ursack or similar non-porous bag which eliminates odors so that mice are not attracted to your food. Also, every shelter is situated along a water source, and Mollie's is no exception with a good water source just a bit down a side trail from the shelter. There is, however, no privy at Mollie's.
Thru-hikers often complain about having to sleep in the shelters in the Smokies, but I can attest that some of the most fun I've had hiking has been meeting and socializing with other hikers in the shelters along the AT. Keep an open mind, have earplugs available, try to enjoy it, and pat yourself on the back for doing what it takes to keep the most visited National Park from being trampled to death under the overuse of tenting in undesignated areas. Short-term hikers are never allowed to camp outside of a shelter, so many do not carry tents at all. That is why thru-hikers are asked to make room for overnight hikers if the shelter fills up late in the day.
Mollie's Ridge to Spence Field
One of the main problems thru-hikers run into in the Smokies is that the shelters are not placed at
ideal distances from one another. By this time in your hike, you've increased mileage per day to 12 to 15 probably. Within less than 3.5 miles you will come to Russell Field shelter, pictured to the right. Most NOBO thru-hikers do not end up staying here, but if you left Mollie's early it does make for a nice stop for breakfast. Again, there is no privy at this shelter, but usually you will find a shovel and a sign to the bathroom area.
In only a little less than 3 more miles, you will come to the intersection with Eagle Creek trail and only .1 mile down Eagle Creek is a shelter with a privy and a nice water source except in the driest of summer situations. If that source does dry up, you can hike further down Eagle Creek trail approximately .7 miles to the first crossing of Eagle Creek itself which will never go dry. It is a tough climb back up to the shelter if you find yourself in that situation. However, in months of extreme drought, which do happen up here some years, that is an option.
Spence Field shelter is a favorite destination for short-term hikers who will stay here to climb up to Rocky Top and Thunderhead Mountain on their second day. However, they have had a pretty tough 5-miles of significant elevation gain to get here, so their schedules often closely mimic those of thru-hikers with a bedtime of the typical hiker midnight.
Spence Field itself lies .1 miles north on the AT from the intersection with Eagle Creek Trail, and is what is left of a much larger bald area once used by the early homesteaders of the Cades Cove area to graze cattle. Today, it is characterized by short serviceberry trees and long, luxuriant grasses swaying amiably in the breeze. Views here are wonderful and I suggest you take just a moment to soak them up if you are lucky enough to be here on a clear day.
This is the time for an important decision. The toughest climb in the Smokies lies ahead of you--up and over Rocky Top and Thunderhead Mountain. This climb, to me, is more difficult than the final ascent of Clingman's Dome. You must now decide whether to hike from here to Derrick's Knob or wait until tomorrow and start fresh. The choice is yours.
Spence Field to Silers Bald
The trail across Thunderhead Mountain is ripe with spectacular vistas to give that adrenaline rush that can help you up that next incline, provided of course that you are blessed to be here on a bluebird sky kind of day. If not, Thunderhead Mountain is not a place to be caught in a storm. They don't call it Thunderhead Mountain for no reason. (In all honesty, I think it gets its name from the Thunderhead sandstone of which the mountain is made.) Weather here is unpredictable and can turn vicious in a short period of time. Just keep that in mind, and if hiking in summer, I recommend you do that section early in the day before thunderstorms have time to build in the heat.
The real "Rocky Top, Tennessee"(made famous by the song played repeatedly on football Saturdays by the Pride of the Southland Marching Band of the University of Tennessee) is an outcropping of rock on Thunderhead Mountain. This particular rock has engravings made by the herders who once grazed their herds they had gathered from as far away as Maryville, Tennessee on these mountain peaks during the summer months of the late 1800s to early 1900s. Stop at that rock and enjoy the view, but also take a moment to ponder the history of this place as you read the etchings.
Silers Bald shelter is pretty typical with one important exception: I do not like its water source even in wet months. The times I've stayed there it seems you are drinking rainwater runoff, as opposed to a springlike source of water found at most of the other shelters. In the hot and dry months of summer, the water source can dry up to little more than a drip. The better water source lies ahead at the next shelter at Double Springs Gap.
Silers Bald to Newfound Gap
Only about 1.5 miles north of Silers Bald you will come to Double Springs Gap Shelter, an absolute delight in summer when the coneflowers and bee balm in the field between the shelter and the privy bloom prolifically. This is a lovely spot to stay or just to take lunch or a snack break. Enjoy your time here because from here to Clingman's Dome, the highest spot on the Appalachian Trail in any state, it is nothing but UP! A tough 2.8 miles separates you from the views which await you at Clingman's Dome, so eat something here that will give you the energy for the final difficult climb.
As you ascend the Dome, if you want to actually go up on the iconic spiral-shaped tower, you will have to look for a short side trail to the paved path. The overlook is only a short walk on the paved path from there. Go up on the paved path to get to the tower. The AT itself goes along underneath the tower and you might miss it altogether if you aren't careful. If it's a clear day, you will probably hear voices from the throngs who visit here daily and will definitely want to go up onto the overlook. If the weather isn't clear, you might as well walk on because you will be IN the clouds at this elevation. If you wish to get off the trail at Clingman's Dome to hitch a ride into Gatlinburg, look for the signs to the Parking Lot. On a fair weather day between April 1 and November 30, you should be able to catch a ride easily, but the road closes in the winter and you will have to hike on to Newfound Gap in order to hitchhike to Gatlinburg between December 1 and March 31, sometimes even a few days one way or the other of those dates if the weather is bad.
During the 7.9 miles between Clingman's Dome and Newfound Gap, there will be some ups and downs, but overall, you will be losing total elevation of about 1600 feet. This is a stretch of trail that proceeds primarily through forest with very few vistas, especially once you leave the flanks of Clingman's Dome. At one point along the trail, you will pass over a fence, on a switchbacked metal walkway, and into an "exclosure" built to keep wild hogs out of this pristine field of protected wildflowers. Wild non-native hogs can do irreparable damage to the biodiversity of the Park, and this section has been protected from their furrowing, digging, and devouring of the native wildflower populations found here. If you happen through this area in April or May, you will be blessed by millions of spring beauties, trout lilies, and other minute ephemeral lovelies. Count your blessings if you are here at the perfect time. Near the Newfound Gap end of this section, you will come to a stone wall which can also be lined with wildflowers later in the year, but this time the flower is jewelweed or touch-me-not. When you see that old wall, you will know you are nearing Newfound Gap.
There is one final option for a shelter stay before arriving at Newfound Gap, but it is .5 miles off of the AT. Sugarland Mountain Trail intersects with the AT 3.3 miles north of Clingman's Dome Tower. As of this writing, Sugarland Mountain Trail is open from the AT to the Mt. Collins shelter, but is closed beyond it due to the wildfires that devastated the slopes on and around Chimney Tops. But if you are not planning to get off the trail at Newfound Gap, this is a nice place to stay for the night.
Newfound Gap is another easy place to procure a ride to Gatlinburg as long as there has not been snow (the road closes at the first sign of snow because it becomes treacherous very quickly). Locals who frequent this road are used to seeing thru-hikers in spring and summer and many are happy to provide you a ride just to listen to the stories you have to tell. Many thru-hikers choose to leave the trail here to resupply and eat town food for a day or so. I will say that the hitch to Gatlinburg is easier to come by than the hitch back up to Newfound Gap or Clingman's Dome if you got off there. You may have to arrange a shuttle to get you back to the trail.
If you have found this information helpful, come back soon for Part Two: From Newfound Gap to Davenport Gap and read about my very favorite parts of the trail system within the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. In my opinion, the BEST of the AT in the Smokies still lies ahead!
***One thing I would be remiss if I failed to discuss would be the highly-variable winter weather that can slam into the Smokies at a moments' notice and later in the spring and earlier in the fall than one might think. Please be aware of the weather before entering the Smokies, but if you find yourself in the Smokies with weather presenting hazards that you cannot overcome, you might benefit from the trail map that you can find here. If things get rough and Newfound Gap Road is closed, this map will allow you to find a way down out of the highest elevations onto trails that can lead to roads where you can get help or at least find respite from the highest winds and coldest temperatures. Another good website to consult while you still have signal before entering the Smokies is here where you will find road and facility closures. Have a plan B if you are coming through this Park at a time of year when weather can take a nasty turn very quickly. This last site will also tell you which shelters are closed due to bear activity if you happen to traverse this Park in summer.