Great Smoky Mountains National Park: Charlies Bunion Loop

Get away for a night or three on this 12.8-mile lasso loop that delivers you to the high reaches of the Great Smoky Mountains.
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Get away for a night or three on this 12.8-mile lasso loop that delivers you to the high reaches of the Great Smoky Mountains.

A mere footnote in the geologic record, Charlies Bunion may lack the fame other Smoky Mountain hikes. But stand on this weatherworn promontory and peer past the dizzying 1,000-foot dropoffs to a quintessential Smokies skyline, and there's no doubt: This is a destination worth getting up early for.

In fact, a predawn alarm isn't a bad idea, since you'll be bagging the standout summit in the most visited U.S. national park. There's a reason the softshell-clad masses trek through an evergreen tunnel along the spine of the Appalachians: A jaw-dropping panorama stretches from Mt. LeConte eastward to the jagged peaks of the Sawteeth Range. A 1925 wildfire that incinerated the slopes of this 5,565-foot knob is responsible for the exceptional view—and the peculiar name. Noted outdoorsman Horace Kephart named the bulbous peak in 1929 after observing its resemblance to his hiking companion's inflamed big toe.

TIPS TO DO IT RIGHT
* Spring brings the thru-hikers, and summer and fall bring everyone else. Visit the Bunion in winter, and you'll enjoy even better views through the leaf-bare trees, plus likely avoid a bottleneck at the outcrop. A bonus: The low humidity and cool, dense air help confine that famous Smoky Mountain fog to the valleys.
* Take a short detour from the Appalachian Trail onto the Boulevard Trail, 2.7 miles from the Newfound Gap trailhead, to reach The Jumpoff, an overlook with a great view of the Bunion.

-Text by Thomas Wilmes. Mapped by Tim Johnson

PLAN IT

MAP

  • Trails llustrated Clingmans Dome/Cataloochee/Great Smoky Mountains NP ($10, natgeomaps.com)
  • View a map of the park at the Great Smoky Mountains National Park website.
  • Order the USGS topo quads listed above at store.usgs.gov.
  • Order a custom map of this route at MyTopo.com.

GUIDEBOOK Hiking Trails of the Smokies ($21, smokiesstore.org) details all 150 maintained trails within the park.

PERMITS Required when camping at a backcountry campsite or shelter (free, reserve up to one month before your trip and pick up in person). Backcountry reservation office: (865) 436-1231, nps.gov/grsm/planyourvisit/backcountry-camping.htm

CONDITIONS Check weather at Gatlinburg, TN (37738) Weather

SEASON The park is open year-round, and our trail scouts have hiked this route in every season. Check for road, trail, and camping closures at nps.gov/grsm/planyourvisit/temproadclose.htm. Curious about fall foliage? Check nps.gov/grsm/planyourvisit/fallcolor.htm.

PARK INFO Great Smoky Mountains National Park, (865) 436-1200; nps.gov/grsm

SMOKIES TRIP PLANNERnps.gov/grsm/planyourvisit/trip-planner.htm

GAS

Shell Super Mart
376 Parkway
Gatlinburg, TN 37738
(865) 430-2161

Texaco
799 Tsali Blvd.
Cherokee, NC 28719
(828) 497-4539

GEAR

Nantahala Outdoor Center
13077 Highway 19 W
Bryson City, NC 28713
(888) 905-7238

Blackrock Outdoor Co.
570 West Main St.
Sylva, NC
(828) 631-4453

Mast General Store
63 N. Main St.
Waynesville, NC 28786
(828) 452-2101

Smoky Mountain Outfitters
469 Brookside Village Way
Gatlinburg, TN
(865) 430-2267

GROCERIES

Food City
1219 East Parkway
Gatlinburg, TN 37738
(865) 430-3116

Bearland General Store
305 Historic Nature Trail
Gatlinburg, TN
(865) 436-4565

Bradley's Grocery‎
1699 Paint Town Rd.
Cherokee, NC 28719
(828) 497-9132

RESTAURANTS

Smoky Mountain Brewery
1004 Parkway # 501
Gatlinburg, TN 37738

Best Italian Cafe & Pizzeria
968 Parkway # 9
Gatlinburg, TN 37738
(865) 430-4090

Granny's Kitchen
1098 Paint Town Rd.
Cherokee, NC 28719
(828) 497-5010

Peter's Pancakes and Waffles
1384 Tsali Blvd.
Cherokee, NC
(828) 497-5116

Trail Facts

  • Distance: 20.6

Waypoints

CBL001

Location: 35.610933, -83.425219

Hike northeast from Newfound Gap.

CBL002

Location: 35.621109, -83.403801

Turn R @ T onto Sweat Heifer Creek Trail

CBL003

Location: 35.61367, -83.386253

Trail cuts to NE @ old logging landing; continue descent to creekbed

CBL004

Location: 35.618881, -83.380814

Cross Sweat Heifer Creek, a sun-dappled stream with rippling cascades and a swimming hole

CBL005

Location: 35.610229, -83.368683

Pass Kephart Prong Shelter, a large stone hut tucked into a glade. Turn L @ T; follow Grassy Branch Trail to N

CBL006

Location: 35.626019, -83.35759

Turn L @ T for steady ascent up Dry Sluice Gap Trail

CBL007

Location: 35.63813, -83.369133

Turn L @ T onto Appalachian Trail

CBL008

Location: 35.638405, -83.372253

Traverse S edge of Charlies Bunion, a bare, rocky bluff with 1,000-ft. drop-offs to N

CBL009

Location: 35.637497, -83.376785

Rock outcrop provides views of layered Smoky Mountain ridgelines; traverse ridgecrest to SW

CBL010

Location: 35.630009, -83.386368

Pass Icewater Spring Shelter (one of the finest on the AT; sleeps 12 and has a privy)

CBL011

Location: 35.62838, -83.390671

Stay straight on AT @ 3-way with Boulevard Trail. Follow NC/TN state line for SW descent on lush ridgeline back to WPT 2. Return to car.

Kephart Prong Shelter

Location: 35.610226, -83.368378

The Kephart Prong Shelter is a large stone hut tucked into a glade. Look for non-native Norway Spruce along this trail, planted by Champion Fibre Company in pre-park days. ©Tim Johnson

Dry Sluice Gap Trail

Location: 35.62603, -83.357263

Trails are typically well-signed in the park. ©Tim Johnson

View from Bunion

Location: 35.638395, -83.372047

The view from Charlies Bunion. The outcrop was originally cleared by a fire in 1925. ©Tim Johnson

Smokies vista

Location: 35.637501, -83.376698

Outcrop provides views of layered Smoky Mountain ridgelines ©Tim Johnson

Sweat Heifer Creek

Location: 35.619282, -83.380867

Cross Sweat Heifer Creek in a forest of Eastern Hemlock, Yellow Birch, and Rosebay Rhododendron; Watch for Rattlesnake Plantain, a member of the orchid family named for its distinctively veined evergreen basal leaves. ©Tim Johnson