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Do it From Newfound Gap Road, the twin-humped spire of Chimney Tops—rising 1,800 feet from the West Prong Little Pigeon River valley—beckons you (and countless others) to summit its slabs. But rather than taking the shorter, conga-line trail from the valley floor, start up on the Appalachian Crest, from Newfound Gap itself: This 10.5-mile round-trip lets you load up on solitude in both directions.
From the Gap (1), head west on the AT as it straddles the North Carolina/Tennessee border. In .9 mile, dense spruce and fir cling to the knob at Indian Gap (2), once the high camp for local Cherokee patrols. Rounding the ridgecrest of Mingus Lead, pause for views stretching to Mt. LeConte through a frame of patchy balsams. In .3 mile, cross a fence (3) built to keep feral hogs out, then descend into the buckeye- and birch-lined confines of the Road Prong drainage (4). Watch your footing on slick rocks and logs when crossing the stream (5). Undulate along the creek, briefly rising up and away before returning along a stretch lined with carpet-like moss and an array of ferns that provide a land-before-time primordial feel.
Drop steeply to the top of a small, tranquil set of falls (6) where you can scramble to the base (pack a suit or strip down to your skivvies for a dip in the pool). Contour west around 5,802-foot Mt. Mingus, then pass below Indian Grave Flats (7), .3 mile uphill from the trail’s intersection with an unnamed creek on the 4,200-foot contour line. Legend has it that this marks the location where, in 1864, an unwilling Cherokee scout who disobeyed Union soldiers was shot and left to die. Pursuing Confederate troops found him and buried him on the spot. Continue down the prong along the old Oconolueftee Turnpike, an early route over the Smokies. At mile 3.9, bear left (8) to start climbing a rocky trail toward the ridge’s open spine. This unofficial path follows a tangle of roots before turning into a class 3, hand-over-hand scramble up bare rock.
You’ll gain nearly 1,100 feet of elevation in the final 1.4-mile stretch to the summit. Near the top, a 100-foot, nontechnical slab is all that separates you from the 4,840-foot cap of Chimney Tops (9). Gaze over Sugarland Mountain to Mt. LeConte and, on clear days, Clingmans Dome. Backtrack to the trailhead. April and May bring wildflower blooms, while autumn offers brilliant colors, drier rock, and less traffic. Trip ID32357
Permit Backcountry permit required (currently free; $4/person/night starting in 2013); available at Sugarlands Visitors Center
Reservations Required for most campsites and all shelters. Call 30 days in advance.
Gear up Nantahala Outdoor Center, 1138 Parkway, Gatlinburg, TN; (865) 277-8209; noc.com
Local flavor Après hike, stop just outside the park at Smokey’s Sports Pub & Grub for the plate-size Mountain Burger. (865) 436-4220; smokyspubandgrub.com
Season May-June to avoid thru-hikers; September to miss high season on Clingmans Dome Contact (865) 436-1297; nps.gov/grsm