2 Free Issues and 3 Free Gifts!
Full Name:
Address 1:
Address 2:
Zip Code:
Email: (required)
If I like it and decide to continue, I'll pay just $12.00, and receive a full one-year subscription (9 issues in all), a 73% savings off the newsstand price! If for any reason I decide not to continue, I'll write "cancel" on the invoice and owe nothing.
Your subscription includes 3 FREE downloadable booklets.
Or click here to pay now and get 2 extra issues
Offer valid in US only.

Backpacker Magazine – March 2011

Rip & Go: Thunderhead Loop

Hike from forest floor to a rocky ridge linking twin summits in Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

by: Peter Rives

Middle Prong (Pat & Chuck Blackley)
Middle Prong (Pat & Chuck Blackley)

Take it With You
Download a printable PDF of this entire weekend.

GPS-Enabled Trip Report
See this trip on a map, download it to your phone, GPS, or computer, and more.


Tiptoe across airy ridgelines, spot resident black bears, and take in the best of the Smokies on this three-day, 27.9-mile loop. Begin at the Great Smoky Mountains Tremont Institute (1) on Middle Prong Road near Townsend, Tennessee. Ascend the West Prong Trail through hardwood forest peppered with mountain laurel thickets—in June, their branches are hung with white and red “peppermint” blossoms. Continue on to the Bote Mountain Trail (2), climbing more than 3,000 feet over nine miles. Head past Cold Water Knob (3), with northwest vistas into the rolling meadows of Cades Cove. Near the top of the climb, the trail enters tunnels of rhododendron. As you emerge onto the crest of the ridge, turn right onto the Appalachian Trail (4), then take an immediate right toward the stone Spence Field Shelter (5). Complete with a fireplace and spring, the shelter sleeps 12 (reserve up to a month in advance) and is equipped with cables to hang your food out of reach of black bears—just don’t forget about smaller pests (see next page). Next day, follow the AT over some of the Smokies’ best known peaks: 5,441-foot Rocky Top (6) and 5,527-foot Thunderhead (flip for map). Take in long-distance views of the Blue Ridge, then dip into a saddle before ascending through wind-stunted trees to Thunderhead (7). Climb the summit cairn for views over neck-high vegetation, then reenter the beeches. Tank up at the spring at Derrick Knob Shelter (8). Turn left and descend via the well-graded Greenbrier Ridge Trail. Turn right onto Lynn Camp Prong Trail (9), looking for tracks of reintroduced elk, and continue 1.5 miles to secluded Campsite 28 (10). Next morning, backtrack to the last intersection and turn right onto Middle Prong Trail (11), showcasing the emerald-green pools below Lynn Camp Falls (12). Gradually descend along the river for 1.4 miles to Tremont Road (13) (gravel), and road-walk the final 3.1 miles to close the loop.

Trip Planner
Get there From Townsend, take E. Lamar Alexander Pkwy. 3.5 miles and turn right onto Laurel Creek Rd. Pick up permits at the Tremont Institute.
Permit  Required; free. (865) 436-1231;
Gear up Smoky Mountain Outfitters, 206 Long Branch Rd., Gatlinburg. (828) 430-2267;

Subscribe to Backpacker magazine
Sign up for our free weekly e-newsletter
Address 1:
Address 2:
Email (req):

Reader Rating: -


Aug 02, 2011

The link to the pdf printable version of this article seems to be broken. Possible to provide a fix?


Your rating:
Your Name:


My Profile Join Now

Most recent threads

Health and Fitness
2014 fitness updates
Posted On: Aug 21, 2014
Submitted By: RebeccaD
MYOG Alcohol Stoves
Posted On: Aug 21, 2014
Submitted By: Tigger
View all Gear
Find a retailer

Special sections - Expert handbooks for key trails, techniques and gear

Check out Montana in Warren Miller's Ticket to Ride
Warren Miller athletes charge hard and reflect on Big Sky country, their love for this space and the immense energy allotted to the people who reside in Montana.

Boost Your Apps
Add powerful tools and exclusive maps to your BACKPACKER apps through our partnership with Trimble Outdoors.

Carry the Best Maps
With BACKPACKER PRO Maps, get life-list destinations and local trips on adventure-ready waterproof myTopo paper.

FREE Rocky Mountain Trip Planner
Sign up for a free Rocky Mountain National Park trip planning kit from our sister site

Follow BackpackerMag on Twitter Follow Backpacker on Facebook
Get 2 FREE Trial Issues and 3 FREE GIFTS
Survival Skills 101 • Eat Better
The Best Trails in America
YES! Please send me my FREE trial issues of Backpacker
and my 3 FREE downloadable booklets.
Full Name:
Address 1:
Zip Code:
Address 2:
Email (required):
Free trial offer valid for US subscribers only. Canadian subscriptions | International subscriptions