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Backpacker Magazine – August 2008

Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Graze blueberry patches, explore swimming holes, and tag the South's high points on this sultry hike.

by: Elisabeth Kwak-Hefferan

6,595-foot Mt. Leconte (Steven McBride)
6,595-foot Mt. Leconte (Steven McBride)
Rainbow Falls (Kirkendall-Spring)
Rainbow Falls (Kirkendall-Spring)
Forney Green (Kevin Adams)
Forney Green (Kevin Adams)

The Trip

The South's best swimming-hole tour Hike from balsam-covered peaks to cascading creeks on the stop-and-dip Hazel Creek/Forney Creek Loop.

This challenging five-night, 56.7-mile loop packs in long days, steep climbs, and tricky creek crossings to bring you deep into the heart of the last true Eastern wilderness. Get ready to kiss civilization good-bye: The North Carolina side of the Smokies sees just 15 percent of the park's total visitors, and you'll be wandering the area's most remote miles, where red fox and bobcat linger beneath more than 100 different types of trees. Depart on a Sunday night for maximum solitude–and don't forget a quick-dry towel.

First stop: the Smokies' high point–6,643-foot Clingmans Dome. Park just shy of the summit and stroll up the Dome's observation tower for a stunning preview of the ridges and valleys to come, then pick up the Appalachian Trail and follow it west. Peek through the trees for a glimpse of row upon row of gently undulating, blue-tinged mountains, then turn to the trail's seasonal treats: an explosion of white spring beauty wildflowers in March, plump blackberries in late summer, and a palette of fiery-toned foliage come fall. The real solitude starts at mile five as you take the Welch Ridge Trail to the Hazel Creek Trail. Stride on under the stately hardwood canopy, dropping sharply to site 82 at mile 12. You're in primo trout territory here: Take a fly rod and wade about a mile upstream to reach a small cascade marking the boundary between native brookies and the more aggressive rainbow and brown trout downstream. (It's very unlikely that this site will be full, especially midweek. Even if you do have company, it's big enough for multiple parties to camp without being on top of each other.)

On day two, you'll descend 9.5 miles to the secluded shores of Fontana Lake. Believe it or not, this wilderness was a thriving community, complete with a sawmill and a movie theater, from the late 1800s until the 1940s. Stay straight when you come to the next junction past site 85 and detour .5 mile to a "no horses" sign, where a foot path leads to an old cemetery with gravestones dating to the mid-1800s. Return to the junction and veer right to camp beneath white pines at site 86. Take your pick of swimming spots: You'll be a quarter mile from the lake's rocky shore, and right beside A-1 splashing in the 10-foot-deep pools tucked in Hazel Creek. The next day's journey is an easy 12.3-mile cruise east on the Lakeshore Trail. Despite the name, this gentle roller coaster is more woods than water, leading through a pine-oak forest inhabited by scarlet tanagers and pileated woodpeckers, and 30 species of salamanders (look for them under rocks).

In July, compete with bears for the trail's juiciest blueberries. For the better of the two tent areas at site 76, turn right at the "no horses" sign and follow the spur to sleep near Fontana's lapping waves.

You'll want to spend the bulk of day four at campsite 70, 12.5 miles on, where one of the Smokies' sweetest swimming holes awaits. Take the Lakeshore Trail to Forney Creek, then head north beneath a hemlock canopy. There's a mellow climb once you pass site 71, but keep your eyes on the prize: Your site's rhododendron-shaded pool, a pocket where two small streams come together. Day five is only 5.5 miles, but they're burly ones–you'll ford six major creeks, which can reach waist-level in high water. March and April bring the peak flows, but summer cloudbursts can also make the streams impassable. Go for it if the water is knee-deep or lower: Pack sturdy sandals, grab a walking stick, and feel your way over the stream's moss-covered boulders. You'll pass a 15-foot waterfall at site 69 en route to your last night's rest–at site 68–where water cascades 40 feet over a giant, slanting rock beside a birch grove.

Your last day brings you back up to the high country–you'll gain nearly 2,000 feet in the first 2.5 miles. Hang a right on the Forney Ridge Trail and hike .7 mile south for one more iconic Smokies destination: Andrews Bald, a grassy, open patch with flame azaleas in late spring and abundant blueberries in August, plus killer views of the misty blue valleys you've just left. Backtrack to the junction and climb 1.5 miles back to Clingmans Dome on Forney Ridge for one last look at southern hospitality the hiker's way.

>> PLAN B: Jonas creek trail Filled-to-capacity campsites aren't likely to derail your trip (especially if you go midweek), but impassable stream crossings along Forney Creek in the spring might (see "Ace the Smokies," left). If the water's too high, don't despair–you can bypass the deep stuff by detouring west on the Jonas Creek Trail from site 70 and taking Welch Ridge back to the AT. It's a drier riverside route that climbs steeply to your final night's rest at the Silers Bald or Double Spring Gap shelters. Note: Last-minute AT shelter reservations are tough to get from March through May–which is also high-water season. Double Spring Gap is less crowded than Silers Bald, particularly during the week.

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Reader Rating: -


Star Star Star Star Star
Jul 06, 2014

We just completed a 70 mile thru-hike of the AT traversing the Smoky Mts from Davenport Gap to Fontana Dam in 6 days. Keep your eyes open for bears-a-plenty. In fact, be sure to check ahead of time because quite a few shelters and primitive campgrounds were closed due to bear activity (bears entering the shelters). We saw four bears (two cubs) in one day and another two sniffing around at nighttime. The Smoky Mountains have a great food cable system for hanging your food, however other hikers we met mentioned that the mice still got into their food bags that were hanging. Happy Trails!

Star Star Star Star Star
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Ric Brooks
Apr 27, 2012

This year the park service has started a reservation system for viewing the synchronous fireflies. $1.50 registration view gets you a parking spot at the visitors center and $1.00 gets you a round trip shuttle pass.

Apr 26, 2012

Hiked extensively in this area, the creek crossings become deadly fast and deep with the slightest rainfall. Especially Eagle Creek and Forney Creek Trails. Lost Cove Trail to AT is another good alternate route if the water is high.

Jan 23, 2011

The happy hiker is now closed due to multiple roof leaks but the nantahala great outpost is right around the block...has everything and more that happy hiker had, including guided rafting and hiking trips.

Jan 20, 2011

Hey mike sure take it with you I had 3G on my IPhone near the peaks top in a few areas on trails near Grand Father Mt. As for else where I am not sure. Just take it and see is the best bet

Jan 20, 2011

RE; Mike...

Yes, WASS will be helpful in the Smokies. There is a lot of tree cover there.

Jul 21, 2009

I will be visiting the Smokies in a couple of weeks and I just wanted to know if there is any value in turning on waas on my garmin handheld?


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