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April 2003

Secrets Hikes Of Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Can a place that sees 9 million visitors a year really have any surprises? You bet. We found three hikes full of unexpected history, scenery, and solitude.

Gabes Mountain Loop

In the Smokies, there are trails that take you high and trails that take you low. There are trails that pass raging waterfalls, 360-degree summit views, rocky ledges, wildflowers, giant trees, and artifacts from early settlers. For the greedy, this 19-mile loop delivers it all, and you won’t have to share the treasures with tourists.

Start down the Maddron Bald Trail from Laurel Springs Road. The trail follows an old settlement road, and in less than a mile you’ll pass a restored cabin built in 1889. Wildflowers, such as the tiny clusters of white foamflower, violets, and blue cohosh with its clusters of blue berries, line parts of the trail. A short side trip to Albright Grove reveals old-growth forest with impossibly fat trees up to 30 feet in circumference. Atop Maddron Bald, enjoy panoramic views of jagged green ridgelines. If you want to go higher, take a side trip down the AT to 6,621-foot Mt. Guyot, the second-tallest peak in the park (about 5 miles round-trip). Complete the loop by following Snake Den Ridge Trail past a 100-year-old cemetery to Cosby Campground, then pick up the Gabes Mountain Trail and follow it about 6.5 miles back to your starting point.

Expedition Planner


The Welch Ridge loop begins at the parking lot at the end of Clingmans Dome Road (closed in winter). A half-mile hike on a connector trail will take you to the summit firetower. Big Creek campground is in Waterville (take exit 451 off I-40 on the Tennessee/North Carolina state line). The Gabes Mountain loop starts at the Maddron Bald trailhead, on Laurel Springs Road, off US 321 near Cosby. For extra security, pay a fee to park your car at a local business along US 321.


A free backcountry permit is required for all overnight camping. You may self-register for a permit at any ranger station and most campgrounds. Reservations are required for all AT shelters and a handful of rationed backcountry sites. Shelters fill quickly in the summer, so reserve at least a month in advance.


Black bears in the Smokies are notoriously unpredictable. Keep cooking and sleeping areas separate, and use the bear cables provided at each campsite to hang all food, trash, and toiletries.


Hiking Trails Of The Smokies ($18; available from Contact below). Trails Illustrated’s Great Smoky Mountains National Park #229 map (800-962-1643;; $10).


Great Smoky Mountains National Park: backcountry information, (865) 436-1297; backcountry reservation office, (865) 436-1231;

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