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Yeah, right. How can a place that sees 9 million visitors a year still have secrets? We didn’t believe it either, until we checked out a few little-known gems recommended by locals who’ve hiked every inch of America’s most popular national park. Turns out these ancient, green mountains that rise and roll through Tennessee and western North Carolina hold plenty of surprises. Like pockets of virgin forest untouched since the days when Davy Crockett lived here, with trees so tall you’ll want to check your map to see if you’re really in the Southeast. Like sheer cliffs dropping 2,000 feet into misty valleys. Like 4,000 kinds of plants, trees, and wildflowers, many that don’t exist anywhere else this far south, plus black bears, bobcats, and wild boar. Even the remains of the Parton settlement–that’s right, Dolly’s ancestors. The park has all this and nearly 900 miles of trail. Here are three quiet hikes where surprises still abound.
Welch Ridge Loop
This 31-mile route begins at a park hot spot, 6,643-foot Clingmans Dome, the highest point along the entire Appalachian Trail. Fight the crowds to the top of the firetower for a view that’s classic Smokies: ridge after ridge rising in the hazy blue distance as if there were no end to these mountains. Then enjoy more sublime scenery as you ramble down 4 miles of open ridgeline, following the AT south to its junction with the Welch Ridge Trail. Named for a family that settled here in the early 1800s, Welch Ridge separates two major drainages, Hazel and Forney Creeks. Your trail descends the long spine through stands of yellow birch, American beech, and blackberry tangles, amid evidence of a mountain culture that once thrived here. Look for cabin ruins and mining prospects. Just below its connection with the Bear Creek Trail, the route reaches High Rocks, a 5,188-foot bluff with sweeping views and a lookout cabin. Stay for sunset, and you’ll also see the cabin’s current residents, little brown bats, as they emerge for their nightly feeding.
From High Rocks, backtrack to the Bear Creek Trail and follow it 3.8 miles to campsite 75. Continue to the junction with Forney Creek Trail, where you can detour (turn right) to 29-mile-long Fontana Lake and another campsite. Complete the loop by taking the Forney Creek Trail 11.4 miles back to Clingmans. Cascades and creek crossings are plentiful and can be hazardous after heavy rain. For the most solitude, avoid campsites 70 and 71, which are used heavily as horse camps.
Mt. Sterling/Big Creek
The lumber companies that logged the Smokies in the 19th century hated the steep slopes and boulder fields that line the eastern edge of the park, so they left the area alone. The result? Sterling Ridge holds some of the last virgin forest in the park, not to mention some of the best views from its rocky bluffs.
For a 22-mile loop, start up the Baxter Creek Trail from Big Creek Campground toward Mt. Sterling. You’ll climb through thick rhododendron tunnels and by rock slabs with pink and green lichens, sweet-smelling sassafras, and putty-root orchids with light-purple flowers as you ascend a boulder-strewn cliff toward the 5,842-foot summit. This bald is known for being one of the coldest places in the park. Climb the firetower for sweeping views of Mt. Cammerer, Clingmans Dome, Max Patch, Mt. Pisgah, and 6,684-foot Mt. Mitchell, the tallest peak in North Carolina. The summit is also home to a reservation-required campsite. Then pick up the Mt. Sterling Ridge Trail, one of the best high-level treks in the Smokies. More rare trees, including red spruce, which was used to build World War I airplanes, grow here. To complete the loop, follow the Balsam Mountain Trail, Gunter Fork Trail (hazardous in wet weather), and Big Creek Trail back to your starting point.
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.
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; www.backpacker.com/mapstore; $10).
Contact Great Smoky Mountains National Park: backcountry information, (865) 436-1297; backcountry reservation office, (865) 436-1231; www.nps.gov/grsm.