Challenging hikes in the Smokies

May 5, 2004
Outside Magazine
Week of May 29-June 5, 1996
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Challenging hikes in the Smokies

Challenging hikes in the Smokies
Question: I'm going to Great Smoky Mountains National Park and am looking for trail maps and some tips on how to find some challenging trails. Any ideas?

Detroit, MI
[email protected]

Beyond the quaint cabin lie the 900 miles of hiking trails of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Adventure Adviser: Well, Joe, if you're really gung ho, check out the Noland Divide Trail. It's one of the most challenging routes in the park's 900-mile trail system, thanks to its 4,149-foot elevation gain in 11.6 miles.

From its start on Clingman's Dome Road, it descends through a subalpine spruce-fir forest with rosebay rhododendrons, flame azaleas, and mountain laurel thickets, going along the crest of a razorback ridge that separates the drainages of Deep and Noland Creeks to Deep Creek Campground. Make it a one-way shuttle trip if you've got two cars, or retrace your steps north back to your start. In the summer, keep your eyes peeled for eastern timber rattlers and copperheads who like to warm themselves on sunny rocks. For a good overview of this hike, check out the North Carolina section of "America the Hoofable" in the Destinations section of our April 1996 issue

If you've got more time to kill, consider committing to a multiday trek. A particularly worthy one is a three-night, four-day hike that starts at the Big Creek Ranger Station, off the Waterville exit on I-40. From the trailhead, hike five miles along the Big Creek Trail and make a right onto the Low Gap Trail and another left onto the Appalachian Trail. Camp the first night at Cosby Knob Shelter, 8.5 miles from the parking area. Day two will take you 7.4 miles along the AT to your campsite at the Tricorner Knob Shelter. From there, take the Balsam Mountain Trail 5.8 miles to its intersection with Mount Sterling Ridge Trail and follow this trail 5.4 miles to the summit of 5,835-foot Mount Sterling. Sadly, there's no shelter here but there is a campsite (and an unmaintained fire tower--climb at your own risk), not to mention some of the best views in the park. On your last day, take the Baxter Creek Trail from the base of the fire tower 6.2 miles back to the parking area at Big Creek. There are no facilities at either of the shelters or the campsite; you'll need a no-fee permit, and rangers strongly suggest calling ahead of time (no more than 30 days) for reservations (423-436-1231).

For detailed trail information and maps, contact Park Headquarters at 423-436-1200. For the basic gotta-know visitor information, consult the National Park Foundation's guidebook page for Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

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