Sunday, October 05, 2008

Hiking all the trails in the Great Smoky Mountains national park

I have been systematically hiking the trails, manways and roadways in the Great Smoky Mountains National park for the past 12 years but last October I started to hike all of the trails again as day hikes in both directions in all 4 seasons and have completed them all this way within a year.

While first I thought this was going to be an easy task, as time went on I began to realize how difficult it would be to hike all the trails in the Great Smoky Mountains national park (GSMNP) this way without car shuttles or overnight stays.

First of all the GSMNP is huge - 800 square miles and since there are about 1,000 miles of maintained hiking trails, paved roads, gravel roads and major manways and that's just in 1 direction!

Because of the sheer size of the park, some hiking trails took me 5 hours to get to and from the trailhead parking areas even though my home in the Smoky Mountains is less than 5 miles from the Greenbrier National Park entrance.

Hiking all the trails in the Smokies during different seasons presents hikers with different challenges and rewards. For me, hiking the entire Great Smoky Mountains national park in the summer and winter presented me with the most hiking challenges.

Summers heat meant the constant risk of dehydration or overheating on the more extreme hikes, the extra effort required to carry much larger quantities of water along with more insects, stinging nettles, poisonous snakes and very frequent bear encounters.

While hiking in the summer in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park there are also more frequent thunderstorms which increase the risk of a hiker being struck by lightning and river, streams and creeks that previously had little or no water can become filled with swift running water and too dangerous to cross in minutes.

The summer heat can also create and issue where the air quality in the Smokies becomes poor or hazardous due to ozone created by coal burning power plants far away. Hiking when there is excessive ozone levels can be harmful or at least uncomfortable to hike in.

Hiking in winter also presented special challenges such as far shorter days making it impossible to complete some of the longer hikes without the aid of flashlights and headlamps, ice and snow on the trails and stream crossings increasing the chances of an injury from falling, and the risk of hypothermia from allowing my body core to get too cold.

To counter the risk of hypothermia my day pack had to include far more clothing that I could take on and off in layers as well as replacements in case I got wet. I also packed far more extensive overnight gear in case I was stranded for the night so I could survive safely in the GSMNP. All of this extra hiking gear added close to another 20 pounds to my backpack.

Hiking in the Great Smoky Mountains national park in the winter I could trekking for a week or more in deep backcountry and never see another hiker. No chance for a swift rescue - especially since cell phones don't work through much of the park!

In the winter fresh snow can completely obliterate any sign of where a trail is making navigating the trails in the national park difficult. The same can happen with fresh fallen leaves in the fall. Some trails which are used rarely can also be difficult to navigate in the winter when leaf litter on the trail floor is not broken down so it may be hard to find your way.

In the Smokies especially in higher elevations in the winter and spring it can be overcast for days on end making the best GPS unit worthless. Being overcast means you may not get a fix on any stars, the moon or the sun for days. A compass when hiking on the Smokies is a must!

The 2 most common questions I get from people about hiking all the trails in the Great Smoky Mountains is asking me what my favorite hiking trail in the park is and how they can get my job.

Since I have hiked all the trails in the GSMNP so many times you would think the first question about my favorite trail in the Great Smoky Mountains national park is easy. Well it isn't. Based upon the season, weather, time allotted to hike that day and even the day of the week the answer will change.

As for having my job, between running my business, gathering local information, studying and hiking I work harder than anyone can imagine 7 days a week but the rewards of this journey have been beyond my wildest dreams.

The past 3 years of intent concentration in the Great Smoky Mountains national park have taught me much. My next goal is to take the years of research and thousands upon thousands of photographs and make this available to everyone.

I see and read the hiking "experts" of the Great Smoky Mountains national park everyday. Few of the experts are in fact as really knowledgeable as they present themselves to be and often are just amateurs with an agenda to sell you what ever they can make the most money from.

If someone is trying to push you on a GPS unit to hike in the Smokies or other expensive electronic gadgets beware. The same for some hiking equipment as well. For example my $89 top end hiking boot inserts lasts only a month longer than the $8 inserts I got in Wal-Mart - though I am testing others.

For a casual hiker going up the Alum Cave Trail to Le Conte it might only be that you have wasted money on the wrong, inferior or overpriced equipment. For a camper or an extreme hiker in the real backcountry the wrong equipment or wrong advice can be disastrous - and deadly.

Rest assured that my information is thoroughly researched and accurate. Any personal recommendation of a product or service is because I am willing to trust my life with it. Hiking solo as I do for as much as 30 miles or more a day you better believe I have to trust my equipment - my life depends on it!

As the owner of the Your Smokies Information web site about the Great Smoky Mountains I will start adding more and more hiking and trails information as well as historical, biological and environmental information to this web site that already has 400 pages of Smokies Information.

My primary concerns are the protection of the Smoky Mountains and the education of those looking to experience the Smokies. Read my blogs and web sites and you will see what I mean. Join my adventure and please feel free to comment and contribute.

Nothing has ever been as difficult, gratifying, strengthening, exciting and informative to my mind, body and soul as hiking all of the trails in the Great Smoky Mountains national park.


smoky scout said...

Congratulations Chris! What an awesome accomplishment. I am very appreciative of your knowledge and expertise and your generosity in sharing it as I make my way. I thought about you this past week while I was hiking in the Smokies, and although I knew we would not cross paths, I knew you were enjoying the beautiful weather and temps and having a great time.

Alexander said...

Hiking in the Great Smoky Mountains national park in the winter would be a great fun.

Erica said...

Hi I was wondering if you could give a few recommedations for day hikes in the winter.

Smokies Hiker said...

No simple answer here!

1) How long (miles or hours) do you wish to hike and what experience level are you?
2) What do you wish to see or experience on this hike in the Smokies ?
3) Where are you staying and how far are you willing to drive (time or miles)
4) What type of weather do you want or wish to hike in? Hiking in snow and ice is very different from a clear dry trail. Higher elevations mat be far colder but have their own rewards etc…

You respond and I will make my recommendation as a full post and not a comment.

Erica said...

Wow that would be great! Any rec would be most appreciated!

1. Anywhere from 5-12ish miles. I'm looking for ideally roundtrip day-hikes. Pretty experienced hiker.

2. a view, a waterfall, evergreens... any or none of those, haha.

3. Haven't made definite plans on location to stay. Was thinking most likely in Gatlinburg since I'll be driving in from the Nashville area. I don't mind a bit of a drive, less than an hour to a trail head would be better.

4. I'll be there the last weekend in Jan, so whatever mother nature happens to give that day I guess. I'd like to avoid having to cross creeks/streams without a bridge and anything that may be too icy/steep for yak-tracks to handle. I've hiked in the cold and wet/snow before, but not sure what the conditions would be like there.

Thanks so much for going through the trouble!