Reader Essays: Great Smokies Solitude

Greg Hoover shares his secrets for finding quiet on the busiest trail in the country's busiest park.

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Spend 15 hours walking 32 miles on the Appalachian Trail, from Newfound Gap to Davenport Gap, and you should see a lot of people. It’s arguably one of the most popular stretches of trail in America. But on this particular day, the three of us didn’t meet another soul. The temperature was a crisp 33°F, the skies were clear (as usual for fall in the Smokies), and the parking lot was nearly empty when we left Newfound Gap at 5 a.m. Less than two hours later, we were sitting on Charlies Bunion, watching the sunrise. Alone.

Walking the first two hours in the dark was the key to our solitude. A waning half-moon provided enough light that we hardly needed headlamps, and hiking through moonshadows in the spruce-fir-beech forest was absolutely magical.

The other delights of the hike were the usual southern Appalachian highlights—spruce trees, beech gaps, a sharp sky, the lingering reds of oak forests in the valleys, soaring ravens and hawks, silence. And, of course, there was the sunset. Once again, timing was everything. We reached the Mt. Cammerer lookout tower mere minutes before the sun went down, and long after any other visitors that day had departed. After all, who in their right mind would watch the sun set from Mt. Cammerer and walk the remaining five miles to Davenport Gap in the dark? Only us.

A weekday. November. Darkness. The three ingredients for a great day in the Great Smokies. 

Hoover lives in Jefferson City, TN. Favorite hike: Alum Cave Trail, Great Smoky Mountains National Park. 

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