Fact: Almost 9.5 million people visited the Smokies last year, making it by far the most popular park in the country. Fiction: You can’t find wilderness solitude among the crowds. Even in summer, you can avoid the highest concentrations of dayhikers—who mass at some of the best-known mountain swimming holes and azalea-covered balds—by simply traveling just a few miles from the trailhead. But I wanted more than uncrowded. I wanted to prove that real solitude—I-could-be-the-last-person-on-Earth solitude—exists in America’s busiest national park. My friends were skeptical when I told them of my quest, so I wish they could see me now—with my girlfriend, Anna—on Gregory Bald at dusk. We’re the only people standing at this prized overlook, and we haven’t seen another human for the last two days.
Of course, this kind of solitude doesn’t happen by accident. We scoped one of the park’s quietest corners and planned our trek for the slowest season, winter. Our planned two-day, 15.5-mile loop links four trails (the Twentymile Loop, Long Hungry Ridge, Gregory Bald, and Wolf Ridge Trails) and tops out on 4,949-foot Gregory Bald, one of the Smokies’ most spectacular highpoints. We arrived at the Twentymile trailhead just as the sky darkened, the temperature dropped into the 40s, and it stopped threatening to rain and just did. Our spirits remained high, though: We’re both longtime backpackers, but this was our first trip together as a couple.
The Twentymile Trail—actually five miles long—leads us north on faded logging roads fringed by rhododendron, mountain laurel, and its namesake creek. Two miles in, the rain relents. We stop for the night at Campsite 93 and pitch our tent beneath a leaden sky tickled by tall hardwoods. Rushing water lulls us to sleep. We wake to a dusting of snow and a slowly clearing sky, then continue north, crossing Twentymile Creek back and forth on bridges, rocks, and logs as it cascades over small drops into deep pools. Anna spies one of the park’s 30 species of salamanders, a pencil-length, salmon-red Gyrinophilus porphyriticus, the spring salamander, whose courtship season is underway.
Farther up the trail, we find flipped mats of forest floor, a telltale sign of wild hogs rooting around the dense understory. There are bear tracks, too, etched into the snow. But none from boots. The rigorous, more-than-2,000-foot climb to Gregory Bald begins on the Long Hungry Ridge Trail just past mile four. It’s a circuitous path that crests its namesake ridge before jogging northwest toward the 4,949-foot bald. Soon we’ll break through the trees to the open summit.
Gregory Bald is well-known for its electric displays of flame azaleas that peak in late June, but it’s equally stunning covered in a snowy meringue at dusk. As we emerge into the silent, ridgetop meadow, we could be on another planet, if not for the faint, flickering lights of Gatlinburg, 24 miles to the northeast. We spend our last night camped just below the summit. The temperature drops into the low teens, and Anna and I joke nervously about getting stuck here. Later, as we zip up our bags, I resist telling her that being marooned—in our very own national park—actually sounds pretty good.