Rip & Go: Thunderhead Loop

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

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DO IT

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; nps.gov/grsm

Gear up Smoky Mountain Outfitters, 206 Long Branch Rd., Gatlinburg. (828) 430-2267; smokymountainoutfitter.net

Trip databackpacker.com/hikes/946948


BUY THE PRO MAP

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KEY SKILL: Thwart rodents

Designated campsites in the Smokies concentrate the backcountry impact—and the critters who make their living off of camper leavings. Bear cables beat bruins, but mice, chipmunks, squirrels, and the park’s 24 other rodent species can climb the wires and chew through food bags and packs alike. The solution? Make a mouse hanger.

1. Thoroughly clean your chicken can from lunch, and punch a hole in its center u sing your multitool's awl.



2.
Knot the middle of a two-foot-long length of cord. Thread the cord through the can's hole, so the can rests on the knot and opens downward.



3.
Fasten the top end of the hanger to your bear-bag line, and the bottom to your food bag or pack.

SEE THIS: Hellbender Salamander

Growing up to 16 inches long and weighing nearly six pounds, the hellbender salamander is the third largest salamander in the world, and the amphibious king of the Smokies. Look for the hellbender year-round in the cavities under large, flat rocks in shallow rapids during the day, or on the move in the same areas at night. The Middle Prong of the Little River along both the Middle Prong Trail and Tremont Road offer prime viewing opportunities on this trip.


LOCALS KNOW

In summer, the Smokies hum with some one million monthly visitors, but in winter, the mountains are as quiet as a library. Take advantage of the off-season by strapping on a pair of XC skis and tackling seven-mile Clingman’s Dome Road (closed to cars December 1 to April 1). The route winds past 6,188-foot Mt. Collins, through fragrant coniferous rainforest, and along the southern edge of the Smokies’ crest. Take in views of Andrews and Newton Balds, and the sharp, spruce-fir-capped ridge of Nolan Divide. Herringbone, or unclip and hike, the final .5 mile up a steep, but wide, paved trail to the summit and its 55-foot observation tower featuring a five-state view of the Appalachians. Bundle up: You can’t escape the exposure on 6,643-foot Clingman’s Dome; 100-mph winds and temps as low as -23°F can occur. Rent planks at Skis and Tees in Maggie Valley, North Carolina (skisandtees.com).


TOPO TIP

From October to April, hurricane-force winds can precede storms. Cross ridges in rain, when gusts relent.

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ON THE MENU



Breakfast 1
On the road

Lunches 1 & 2 
Chicken, cheddar, and ranch wraps

Dinner 1 
Smokin' Smoky Jambalaya

Breakfast 2 & 3 
Cheese grits

Dinner 2 Cataloochee Quesadillas

Snacks
Dried fruit, honey on tortillas, and nuts


RECIPES

Smokin' Smoky Jambalaya

Set your tastebuds ablaze

1 pouch Knorr Sides Red Beans and Rice

1 summer sausage, sliced

4-5 fresh okra, sliced

Texas Pete hot sauce 

Cook rice in a pot according to package directions. With three minutes left, add sliced sausage and okra and cook until the rice is finished. Douse with hot sauce until your tongue burns—or to taste. Serves 2.

Cataloochee Quesadillas

Mexican-Italian Trail Food

1 yellow onion, diced

1 green bell pepper, diced

8 flour tortillas

Cheddar cheese (slices)

Olive oil

Pepperoni

Sauté veggies in olive oil, and set aside. Layer cheese, pepperoni, and veggies inside a folded tortilla and flavor with Texas Pete hot sauce to taste. Cook until cheese is melted and tortilla browned, flip, and repeat. Serves 2.

The Grocery List

[ ] okra (produce)

[ ] green pepper (produce)

[ ] yellow onion (produce)

[ ] cheddar (dairy)

[ ] pepperoni (meat)

[ ] summer sausage (meat)

[ ] ranch dressing (0)

[ ] hot sauce (0)

[ ] honey (1)

[ ] instant grits (1)

[ ] dried fruit (1)

[ ] 2 cans chicken (2)

[ ] Knorr Sides Red Beans and Rice (2)

[ ] flour tortillas (2)

[ ] nuts (6)

Pack Olive oil



NEAREST 

GROCERY STORE

IGA

7945 E. Lamar Alexander Pkwy., 

Townsend, TN; (865) 448-3010 

PIT STOP Refuel with an Ol’ Smoky Burger or a Brewmaster Pizza, then wash it down with an Appalachian Pale Ale (brewed on site) at Smoky Mountain Brewery. 1004 Parkway, Gatlinburg; 

(865) 436-4200; smoky-mtn-brewery.com