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Rip & Go: Thunderhead Loop

Hike from forest floor to a rocky ridge linking twin summits in Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Blackley_MiddleProng_445x260Middle Prong (Pat & Chuck Blackley)
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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
 
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