The Smokies are the salamander capital of the world, with more species than any other habitat. Slime-sleuths can seek out the hellbender, which grows up to 25 inches in length. One myth is that its bite is poisonous. Wrong. The beast just appears dangerous. Look for this nighttime creature feeding on crayfish and worms in low-elevation stream bottoms.
Tennessee's Goshen Prong Trail is so blissfully quiet you can hear twigs snap under your hiking boots and a creek, Goshen Prong, tumbling nearby. The leaves of the old-growth deciduous trees rustle softly; not another trekker is in sight. Ah, solitude. It's only after a smack of open palm to forehead that you remember that this is Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the most heavily visited of our national parks.
Despite the Smokies' bad rap (a daunting ten million visitors annually), most tourists are car-bound, leaving 512,000 acres of uncongested backcountry for hiking adventures. Vesna Plakanis, who owns the outfitter A Walk in the Woods with her husband, Erik, is a modern-day John Muir of the Smokiessmitten with the park and extremely knowledgeable about its ecology. Let her guide you on a hike; with a gifted naturalist on hand, the park's astounding biodiversity (Great Smoky Mountains National Park is richer in flora and fauna than any other national park) springs to life.
Here's an ideal two-and-a-half-day, 15-mile hike: Ditch the masses as they slog up the paved half-mile Clingmans Dome Trail, atop the park's highest peak (6,643 feet). Instead, take the Clingmans Dome Bypass Trail. Few people use it, because it's rocky, wet, and overgrown. Tread nimbly and enjoy the dearth of humanity and breathtaking views of North Carolina and Fontana Lake.
Watch for a rock outcropping where this path intersects the Appalachian Trail after a half-milelook for raptors coasting overhead. While it may be tempting to turn off onto the AT and skip Clingmans Dome, now a third of a mile away, gird yourself for the mob in order to take in the sweeping multistate views.
Then double back to the AT and the ridge that is the border between North Carolina and Tennessee. You'll see beech gaps, grassy balds, and some of the oldest trees east of the Mississippi River. You might also see some of the eccentrics who give the AT its personality. Vesna remembers one toting a large college flag on a mast and another packing his own Porta-Potti.
Go 2.5 miles along the AT and then peel off on the Goshen Prong Trail. A prong is a tributary, and this one is a delightful companionan Appalachian stream with small cascades. Pitch your tent at backcountry campsite 23 and fall asleep to the sound of water. Next morning, continue northeast on the trail for 3.3 miles to the turnoff at Little River Trail. After about a mile of flat hiking in dense forest, grab the Husky Gap Trail and head north 2.1 miles to the Sugarland Mountain Trail. Campsite 21, ideal for night two, is less than a mile down Sugarland. Your reward: an awesome swimming hole, with a huge slanting rock that serves as a slide. Wake up for a low-key four-miler out on the overlook-rich Sugarland Mountain Trail.
LODGING Great Smoky Mountains National Park (865-436-1200, www.nps.gov/grsm) requires free permits for its 114 backcountry camping sites. Reservations are required for campground 23 but not for campground 21. Call 865- 436-1231 to book.
OUTFITTER A Walk in the Woods (865-436-8283) leads guided walks starting at $20 per adult and $16 for kids; a guided trip for a family of five runs $250 per night and includes meals and cooking gear.