If you read any of the Your Smokies web sites or the SmokiesHiker Twitter posts you will see that I have been speeding more time hiking off of designated hiking trails in the Great Smoky Mountains national park.
I have fielded many inquiries when I am in the GSMNP, emails and phone calls about off trail hiking and hiking on manways along with asking for recommendations, so here they are.
Never hike off trail without know what you are getting yourself in for. It is very easy to get lost off trail and you may never have another hiker pass by and guide you in the right direction. As I have posted before NEVER COUNT ON A GPS - especially on the GSMNP.
Besides getting disorientated and lost when hiking off trail in the Great Smoky Mountains national park another danger to hikers is the fact that the trail may not be safe due to hanging trees and limbs that may fall.
There may also be heavily eroded trails that can give way, unstable rocks and vegetation that can also fall upon unsuspecting hikers or collapse when someone is climbing upon them and holes that may be covered by leaves and vegetation trapping or injuring unsuspecting hikers.
Beside theses potential dangers to hikers, hiking off the beaten path will also expose you to a far greater chance of an encounter with one of the 2 venomous snakes in the GSMNP or one of the greatest annoyances to hikers: Yellow jackets and hornets that can have nests in rotting logs that you may step on making for a very miserable experience in the Smokies.
You may also have to climb over fallen trees and loose rocks that you would normally not encounter on a hiking trail maintained by the national park service.
Other hazards that can injure hikers off trail include broken glass, rusty barb wire hidden in vegetation and plenty of rusty metal objects left by the original inhabitants of the park and the Civilian conservation Corp (CCC).
Off trail the vegetation itself can also be a hazard to hikers. There are bushes with thorns and brier patches, stinging nettles and poison ivy which you should normally not encounter on a maintained hiking trail.
If all of this is not enough to keep you from hiking off trail and on unmaintained hiking trails in the Great Smoky Mountains national park, there is also a great risk of damage to the park that can be done hikers.
Off trail hikers in the GSMNP who are not careful can damage fragile plants some of which are quite rare if not endangered or destroy groundcover which can ultimately create a serious erosion problem.
To reduce the impact to plants, and lower the risk of rattlesnake, copperhead yellow jackets and hornets encounter, you should only off trail hike when they are all dormant in the winter. Unfortunately this is when you are at the greatest risk of hypothermia.
So with all these hazards to both yourself and the park, why hike off trail? Well a responsible, very well experienced hiker who goes out and hikes off trail in the winter when his or her impact to the environment is lessened, you can find solitude, historical artifacts and observe wildlife with fewer interruptions by other park visitors.
While you are "Walking softly while carrying your hiking stick" you can be going into places where no human has been for decades if not longer. Some of the areas deep inside the park may have never felt the footsteps of humans.
No matter how tempting, it is illegal to camp anywhere other than in designated campsites and campgrounds in the Great Smoky Mountains national park and other than in cases of extreme emergency you should never make a fire anywhere other than in a designated campsite or in a BBQ grill in the picnic areas.
With off trail hiking comes great responsibility. The responsibility to hike in a manor to not impact the park by protecting the plants and historical artifacts by not disturbing them and the responsibility to only hike off trail only when you are well enough trained and equipped so you will not get injured or lost and have to be rescued.
Want to know where the most endangered plants and animals are, where the caves that are not locked up are and where the most historical artifacts are just lying around in the Great Smoky Mountains national park? In order to protect the park my lips are sealed.
Looking for great panoramic views, huge stunning waterfalls, the best swimming holes, beautifully preserved historic buildings and the most impressive groves of trees in the Great Smoky Mountains national park? Stay on the designated GSMNP hiking trails!