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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)



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.

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.

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.

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 (

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

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