Southern Exposure

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Destinations, June 1997

Southern Exposure

To find Smoky Mountain wilderness, follow the paths not taken. You'll know them. They're unpaved.
By Parke Puterbaugh

This is what often passes for a wilderness outing in the nation's most visited national park: Tourists cruise the paved roads, slowing to aim a point-and-shoot at a distant summit or a waterfall visible from a roadway turnout. Then, entranced by a sudden glimpse of wildlife, drivers leap from their cars, camcorders in hand, and dodge past RVs and over fences to get close to a few bewildered deer. Meanwhile, their cars idle, leaving traffic clotting behind them.

At such moments, Great Smoky Mountains National Park seems a far cry from the backwoods. Monumentally popular, the park, which straddles the TennesseeûNorth Carolina border, attracted 9.3 million visitors last year — twice as many as the Grand Canyon. During a typical summer afternoon, 30,000 tourists pack the park's few paved roads, contributing to the perception of noise, smog, and congestion that sometimes hangs over these mountains like the natural bluish haze from which they derive their name.

But appearances can be deceptive in the Smokies. It's still possible to find deep wilderness here. The secret is simply to avoid the main park entrances and paved roads, where more than 75 percent of all park visitors congregate. Head instead for the more remote entrances, where pavement has never arrived. Most of the peaks in these less-trafficked areas are blanketed with old-growth forest, a rarity on the heavily logged East Coast. Much of the landscape in fact has the dense, overgrown feel of rainforest, with warm, humid air from the Gulf of Mexico depositing 85 inches or so of annual rainfall on the region. The fruits of such lushness: Seventeen of the nation's "champion" trees — the largest of their species on record — grow inside the park, along with 2,000 types of mushrooms, more species of salamanders — 27 — than anywhere else on earth, and a black bear population estimated at upward of 600.

Crisscrossing this testament to biodiversity are about 850 miles of hiking trails, including 70 miles of the Appalachian Trail. Lengths and ruggedness vary, providing appropriate terrain for everything from a mild day hike to an extended stay in deep wilderness. Or you can alternate hiking with hours spent fishing or horsepacking or meditating on the resilience of these mountains, which have so sturdily resisted all attempts to civilize them.

Five of the park's most far-flung entrances will admit you to the Smokies' remaining untouched backcountry. But while you won't find RVs here, you also won't find amenities — only a road, a ranger station, a parking and picnic area, a campground, and usually restrooms. Trails fan off from here into the wilderness, and your chances of sharing the landscape with anyone else diminish with every step.

A mere six miles east of the tourist mecca of Gatlinburg, but millennia removed from it in mindset, Greenbrier is the most accessible of the Smokies' primitive pockets. Laced with trails that cut through deeply shadowed forest on their way to some of the park's premier high-country landmarks, Greenbrier seems as if it should be overrun with outdoor gawkers. But even its postcard-ready highlight, a steep four-mile trail that leads to the top of the spectacular, 100-foot Ramsey Cascade falls, is serenely deserted most days. So bring a lunch, settle by the pounding falls, then meander back downhill through the lacy sunlight admitted by immense old-growth poplars, chestnut oaks, and black cherries.

Other fine Greenbrier trails include the nine-mile Brushy Mountain route, which heads southwest to the summit of Mount LeConte (6,593 feet) and its omnidirectional views of the valleys and rocks hundreds of feet below. Porters Creek Trail proceeds on a more southerly course toward Charlie's Bunion, a sheer rock outcropping that sits on a knife-edged ridge overlooking a deep chasm.

One drawback of the Greenbrier area: Because of rugged geography, trails don't loop, reaching out instead like fingers into the surrounding ridges. Hikes here are typically out-and-back ventures. (Directions: Take U.S. 321 north from Gatlinburg six miles to the Greenbrier entrance. Greenbrier Ranger Station: 423-436-7777. If there is no answer at outlying stations, call the main park number: 423-436-1200.)

Big Creek
Straddling the TennesseeûNorth Carolina line in the northeastern corner of the park, Big Creek offers a hideaway within hollering distance of the interstate — which narrows to two lanes here to negotiate the steep mountain curves. Big Creek is navigable by kayak, but only after heavy rain.

On dry land, Big Creek Trail follows the boulder-strewn water up a gorge en route to a pair of backcountry camps at Walnut Bottoms. (Reservations are required for backcountry campsites. Call 423-436-1231.) At this juncture, you are encircled by richly forested peaks — Mount Sterling, Balsam Mountain, Mount Guyot, and Mount Cammerer — with a separate path snaking up the side of each. One of these, the Baxter Creek Trail, a 6.2-mile ascent through hemlock-fir forest, gains more than 4,000 feet in elevation before reaching its terminus atop Mount Sterling, site of a backcountry campsite. Pitch your tent here. This may be the best sunrise view in the Smokies. (Directions: From I-40, take Exit 451 into Waterville, North Carolina, and continue two miles to the park entrance. Big Creek Ranger Station: 704-486-5910.)

Bounded by imposing ridges to the north and south, this basin is one of the most remote areas in the park, its primary link to the rest being a twisting, pockmarked 16-mile dirt road from the Big Creek area. The scenery is considerably less brutal than the access road, however: The Cataloochee Valley, with its open meadows and clusters of long-abandoned pioneer houses, looks much like the better-known Cades Cove area. But whereas the loop road encircling Cades Cove is routinely jammed with Winnebagos, Cataloochee remains undiscovered. Partially for that reason, it's a backpacker's paradise, with four primitive campsites, including the Spruce Mountain camp, sited high at the end of the Rough ForkûPolls Gap Trail (11 miles one-way).

To immerse yourself even more thoroughly in the Cataloochee landscape, take the Caldwell Fork and Boogerman Trails. The 6.5-mile round-trip is a leisurely stroll through old farmland, gaps, coves, meadows, and stands of old-growth forest. (Directions: From Big Creek, follow Old North Carolina 284 for 16 miles to Cove Creek Gap and turn right on Cataloochee Road. From Interstate 40, take Exit 20, turn right onto Cove Creek Road, follow it to Cove Creek Gap, and turn left onto Cataloochee Road. There's no phone at the Cataloochee Ranger Station.)

Noland and Forney Creeks
These two creeks lie on opposite sides of Forney Ridge, burbling through gorgeous high country along the southern flank of the Smokies. Inaccessible except to the intrepid, they're reachable only on the Road to Nowhere, a nine-mile dirt spur that simply, suddenly ends. The road was begun in the 1940s to provide access to abandoned graves and homesites for locals displaced by construction of the nearby Fontana Dam. But decades later, the Road to Nowhere, known officially as Lakeview Drive, remains uncompleted — to the gratification of those wishing to find a landscape almost completely free of recent human invasion.

Of the many paths here, the Noland Divide and Forney Ridge Trails may be the prettiest; each ascends forested ridges to the top of Clingmans Dome (6,643 feet), highest point in the park. The similarly named but less steep Noland Creek and Forney Creek Trails are almost as alluring, following their respective waterways for miles, past fishing holes and birch groves before hooking up with the ridge paths. Backcountry camps line both creekside trails.

For those desiring a more marathon trek, this section of the park provides one of the best: the Lakeshore Trail. For 44 miles, it wanders through heavy woods and open meadows to a junction with the Appalachian Trail at the monolithic, 480-foot Fontana Dam. From here you can look out over the glittering, immense lake that the Road to Nowhere once threatened to open to regular traffic. Breathe a sigh of gratitude for engineering gridlock, which killed the road's construction and ensured your present solitude. (Directions: In Bryson City, North Carolina, go north on Everett Street, which becomes the Road to Nowhere. Follow until it ends. Deep Creek Ranger Station: 704-488-3184.)

Situated in a rough, far-removed pocket of the Smokies — at the opposite end of the park from Big Creek — the trails at Twentymile are sparse and the footing often wet. But the difficulties of maneuvering are overmatched by the rewards: The area's 15-mile Gregory Bald loop ranks as one of the most exceptional hikes in the whole of the Smokies range. The route involves four trails — Twentymile, Long Hungry Ridge, Gregory Bald, and Wolf Ridge — as well as three streamside camps. But if you're only spending one night, opt for the high, lonely campsite at Sheep Pen Gap (4,640 feet). Then rise early for the short trek to the top of Gregory Bald, a grassy dome overlooking Cades Cove. All here is quiet, a hundred-mile vista overlooking azure, haze-shrouded ridges, deep valleys, and forests seemingly empty of man. Come in June and the hills blaze with the orange and red of flame azaleas in full bloom. From such a vantage, even Winnebagos can seem beautiful. (Directions: Take North Carolina 28 north to the entrance. Twentymile Ranger Station: 704-498-2327.)

Parke Puterbaugh is a writer in Greensborough, North Carolina.

Illustration by Susan Saas

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