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Hiking in the Smokies for New Englanders

  • Above: The view from Mount LeConte, the third-highest peak in Great Smoky Mountains National Park at an elevation of 6,593 feet. Top right: A blanket of crested dwarf iris, one of the more than 1,500 flowering plants that grow in the national park. Bottom right: The trout lily can be found mostly in the Smokies lower elevations. Ford Von Reyn photographs

  • Hiking through rhododendrons.

  • Rhododendrons can be found in ravines and next to streams like this one.

Special to the Valley News
Published: 5/15/2021 10:59:32 PM
Modified: 5/15/2021 10:59:31 PM

For Upper Valley hiking enthusiasts looking to break out on a COVID-19 era adventure, now might be the time to think big. Exploring a designated “national park” along the lines of the Grand Canyon, Glacier, Yellowstone or maybe Grand Teton could be just what you’re looking for, if you don’t mind multiple days of driving or a masked flight out West.

But here’s another idea: Turn your compass south and head to Great Smoky Mountains National Park, a Southern gem with 16 peaks over 6,000 feet in elevation It’s half the drive — roughly 13 hours from the Upper Valley — or a shorter flight than to Western U.S. Parks for the COVID-19 vaccinated.

Great Smoky, which straddles the border between North Carolina and Tennessee, encompasses 800 square miles of misty mountainous terrain and hiking trails. In 1926, Vermont’s own favorite son, President Calvin Coolidge, signed a bill that established the national park. But it wasn’t until 1940 that President Franklin D. Roosevelt formally dedicated the park “for the permanent enjoyment of the people.”

The driving force behind the park, literally, was the rise of the automobile. Auto clubs were eager to develop scenic roads to make the mountains more accessible. The Civilian Conservation Corps, created during the Great Depression to provide young men with meaningful work and a wage, built many of the park’s trails, buildings and campgrounds.

In mid-April, our group of eight hikers met at the northern entrance to the park in Gatlinburg, Tenn. We stayed at a five-bedroom rustic cabin on the hillside above Gatlinburg (, which is a convenient location for hikes in the park’s northern region, and we found preferable to the hotels and motels in the busy town.

We’d heard the Smoky Mountains’ spring wildflower system was without compare. We weren’t disappointed. Springtime hiking in the Smoky Mountains also offers two other advantages: No mud or bugs.

Ellen, our trip organizer and knowledgeable Smokies enthusiast, selected day hikes that fell into two categories: moderate stream/waterfall treks and more strenuous mountain ascents.

Trails in the Smokies are well-marked and exceptionally maintained, which made them manageable for our group that featured hikers of various ages and body types.

The stream-side trails follow former logging roads and railroad beds. The trails are wide, generally flat with soft earth under foot, and virtually free of large rocks. Ascents often have stone steps or cribbed gravel risers. Even the steeper mountain ascents have paths that are 4 to 5 feet wide with only small rocks under foot and no boulder-hopping required, but hiking poles are still helpful.

The overstory is almost exclusively second-growth hardwood with many massive maples, oaks, yellow birch and ash clinging to steep hillsides. We also came across occasional “camo-bark” sycamore, the endangered towering hemlock (wooly algid) and rotting chestnut stumps. These are the highest-elevation deciduous forests in the Eastern U.S.

In mid-late April most of the hardwoods were just beginning to bud, allowing an unobstructed view of the understory. At most points on any hike your gaze is drawn to one or two flowering dogwoods in the distance whose parallel lateral layers of white blossoms seem to be floating under the taller trees. On the stream hikes, the understory is thick with 10- to 15-foot rhododendrons, budding during our visit and in full radiant bloom each June.

But what we came here for is for what covers the ground — blankets of single species flowers or spectacular quilts of two or three varieties mixed together in patches. Spring beauty wildflowers feature a half-inch white blossom that opens in the sun to reveal radiating pink stripes.

We have this early wildflower in the Northeast, but not expansive, softening white blankets that line both sides of the trail for hundreds of feet, running up and down the steep slopes as far as you can see. Blankets of bold blue-purple crested dwarf iris are abundant as well. The eye-catching stars are the three varieties of trillium (three leaves, three flower petals). The “quilts” are seen all along the trails with several varieties of trillium and trout lilies mixed with spring beauty or another small white flower, fringed Phacelia, seen at mid- or high elevations. Our easier hikes would not have had the same allure without this botanical show.

Here are five recommended day hikes from the Gatlinburg area. The indicated times were averages for our group, all seniors and regular hikers. An early start is always recommended since parking on many of the single-lane roads is limited and the lots can fill quickly.

Little River — Cucumber Gap (11 miles, 1078 feet vertical, 4 to 5 hours). A moderate loop along a rather large, cascading “little” river from Elkmont trailhead with budding rhododendron and hardwood. A show of wildflowers all along the route. Extend a mile or two beyond the junction of these two trails for some extra conditioning mileage. The Little River arm is wide and almost flat. The narrower Cucumber Gap return has you hiking over roots and takes you up over a rise back to the trailhead.

Rainbow Falls — Trillium Gap/Gatto Falls. (10 miles, 2300 feet, 6 hours). Waterfalls galore on these two out-and-back hikes accessed from the one-way Cherokee Orchard Road. Walk under the falls, if you don’t mind some splashes of mountain water. Wildflowers in abundance on this route.

Big Creek (11 miles, 1300 feet, 5 hours). For access, drive east to the North Carolina side of the park to Big Creek, a tributary of the Pigeon River, famous for its whitewater rafting. The trail is an old railroad bed with excellent footing along many small and medium waterfalls. Birdsong abounds, including a black-throated green warbler identified on the Cornell BirdNet app; a perfect tool for the novice to record what you hear and analyze later without having to stop hiking to identify the bird.

Low Gap — Mount Cammerer (11 miles, 3300 feet, 7 hours ). Access the Low Gap trail from the Cosby trailhead. One of the most popular hikes in the park is to a rock and wooden tower at the summit built in the late 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps. Distant views of farming country and the meandering Pigeon River. Climb steadily to an intersection with the Appalachian Trail, then continue 2 miles before taking a short spur to the summit. Hiking north on this section means your right foot is in North Carolina and left foot in Tennessee. The friendly AT thru-hikers who had started at Springer Mountain, Ga., looked much better nourished than the gaunt hikers we encounter in late summer in Vermont and New Hampshire.

Alum Cave — Mount LeConte (11 miles, 3000 feet, 6 hours). Access this spectacular hike early from the Newfound Gap Road, where roadside parking can be limited. After starting alongside the stream bed, the trail tunnels through a large rock formation and then rises up to the dramatic Alum Cave Bluffs. The minerals in the dusty underfoot of this massive overhang were used in the manufacture of gun powder, which led a Confederate general to direct a group of largely Cherokee soldiers to develop a trail to this site. This is the halfway point on the hike. The climb continues along an impressive trail cleaved from rock ledge and slabs across steep slopes with northwest views of ridge after high ridge of uninhabited park terrain. Steel cable handrails offer extra security. The summit features a mountaintop lodge at 6,593 feet. Cabins can be reserved at the lodge, which is served by pack llamas.

Countless other trails are available throughout the park. The “brown bible” with an enclosed map is the standard reference for hikers (Hiking Trails of the Smokies, Great Smoky Mountain Association).

Ford von Reyn is a professor at Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth and specializes in infectious diseases. He lives in Thetford.

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