By Michael Lanza
Late-afternoon sunlight tilts golden beams through the low canopy of spruce and fir trees as I hike alone up the Welch Ridge Trail, deep in the backcountry of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. I haven’t seen another person all day. Solitude in the mountains exerts many effects, small and large, on us, including that we instinctively listen more attentively. Our rational minds cannot erase from primal memory the instinctive knowledge that, in the primitive brains of some woodland creatures, we represent a boatload of calories.
I stop abruptly and stand perfectly still—listening intently, waiting. And then I hear it.
Nothing, that is—well, nothing at first, anyway, because that’s how a quiet forest sounds to ears calibrated to the noisescape of civilization. But as the seconds of standing still expand into a minute and more, my ears stitch together the melodies of birdsong overlaid on the trickle of a breeze sifting through the trees, their leaves shivering and glowing in the sunlight. I hear the crackling of a small animal dashing across dry leaves on the ground that amplify its footsteps. Listen closely enough and this soundtrack builds into a kind of subdued symphony.
I eventually move on—hoping to reach my shelter before night draws the curtain on this short autumn day. But the little happiness high induced by forest silence proves habit forming: I will stop just to listen a couple more times on this trail.
It’s the first afternoon of a solo overnight hike I’m making on the east side of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the culmination of a week of exploring the mountains of western North Carolina. My 34-mile loop from the end of Lakeview Drive East, outside the nice little gateway town of Bryson City, N.C., began this morning, hiking uphill in a chilly fog—and not even breaking a sweat (I love this time of year). Within an hour, the fog burned off, unveiling a bluebird, mid-October day in the Southern Appalachian Mountains.
Wrapping up my trip with this hike in the Smokies didn’t happen by design; shelter availability when I reserved a backcountry permit dictated my schedule. But now it feels right to conclude my tour of North Carolina trails here, amid more than a half-million acres of the best-protected and most biodiverse wild lands in the East—and by at least one measure, the most biodiverse of all U.S. national parks.
Hiking up the Welch Ridge Trail, I walk face first into nearly invisible spider webs spanning the trail, suggesting I’m the first animal walking upright on this path today. The sound of my boots crunching through dry leaves startles three large birds; they launch noisily from a tree and flap away. Wild turkeys. I’ll see a couple dozen or more of them out here over these two days.
Around 5:30 p.m., I walk up to the stone and wood Silers Bald shelter on the Appalachian Trail, where 10 or more backpackers have already settled in, including one southbound AT thru-hiker and one school-age girl with her dad. In a national park famous for its huge visitation—more than 11 million people a year—they are the only people I’ve seen all day; but the AT draws much of the backpacker traffic in the Smokies, so it’s no shock to find the shelter full after having spent my day in complete solitude on trails other than the AT. The shelter conversations ring with that familiar excitement tinged with weariness that follows a good day on the trail.
A few hours later, before curling up in my sleeping bag for the night, I stand outside the shelter, gazing quietly up a sky shot full of stars.
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The Appalachian Trail
Great Smoky Mountains gets a crazy number of visitors annually, over 11.3 million—more than twice the number of visitors to Yosemite, and almost twice as many as the Grand Canyon. Think about it: That’s almost three million more people than live in New York City and nearly equals the population of Ohio. But the vast majority of those people are windshield tourists. Walk a few hours into the backcountry and you’ll see a very different park, where nature’s abundance far overshadows humanity’s footprint.
Exactly none of those visitors are anywhere within sight as I depart the dark and quiet Silers Bald shelter at 6:30 a.m., an hour before daylight on my second morning, hiking by headlamp north on the Appalachian Trail. It’s breezy and in the 40s Fahrenheit, not as cold as I’d expected. I like hiking at this time of day: I can have one of the busiest trails in the United States, the AT through the Great Smokies, all to myself.
And again, I’m hardly breaking a sweat. I’ve learned that knocking off trail mileage in cool temps rather than heat goes a long way in reducing fatigue, which is one reason I enjoy hiking early. But mostly it’s just really pleasant to walk through mountains at this time of day.
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Before long, bands of red, orange, and yellow begin to glow over the eastern horizon. The sun’s appearance casts light and shadows over the rolling, green mountains to either side of me. The AT follows the narrow crest of the Great Smokies, arching like a crooked spine into the sky. At rocky ledges jutting above the trees, I gaze down on a tortured landscape sculpted by the forces of moving water and erosion working patiently across unfathomable breadths of time, and a forest nurtured by the same moisture. To my left, Tennessee; to my right, North Carolina. The perspective gives me a powerful visual representation of the park’s considerable elevation gradient, which spans more than a vertical mile, from 876 feet to over 6,600 feet.
Hiking in the Appalachian woods, without having to think much about what you’re doing, is surprisingly calming; it feels like all of your concerns have been flushed from your brain. That and the stripped-down simplicity of one’s day-to-day existence—wake, eat, pack, walk, eat, unpack, eat, sleep—must explain much of the appeal of thru-hiking the AT, a trail that resides mostly in ubiquitous forest with little change of scenery.
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Like many parts of the East, where the geography bears the weight of extensive and intensive human intrusion, places names densely cover my map of the Smokies. And as with any other region, these names record indelibly the people who, in one way or another, left some pieces of personal history on the regional history. But names on the Smokies map also speak to the early settlers’ experience with the natural world here. Bearwallow Bald. Rattlesnake Ridge. Hawk Knob. Panther Den Ridge. Bear Creek. Chestnut Ridge. Turkey Flyup. Assemble all the stories behind those names and I suspect you’d have a local history book.
The lights of towns far below flicker off. I pass the shelter at Double Spring Gap, where backpackers are firing up stoves for breakfast. I glance over but none of them appear to notice me.
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Humans have lived in the Great Smokies for thousands of years, going back to prehistoric Paleo Indians; a stone projectile point estimated at 9,000 years old was found in the park. The Cherokee Indians lived throughout what’s now the Southeast United States, including in the river valleys of the Great Smokies, until President Andrew Jackson instigated the series of horrible injustices against the Cherokee that led to the infamous “Trail of Tears,” when nearly 14,000 Cherokee, forced to relocate to Arkansas and Oklahoma, undertook a six-month journey there through the winter of 1838-1839. More than 4,000 people died from hunger, cold, and disease.
The idea of creating a national park in the Southern Appalachians emerged as early as 1885, credited to a Dr. Chase Ambler of Asheville, N.C. Supporters longed for an Eastern equivalent of Yellowstone National Park, America’s and the world’s first national park, which had been designated only 13 years earlier. Almost four decades later, in 1923, Tennessean Ann Davis returned from a trip with her husband to several Western national parks and began campaigning in earnest for creating a national park in the Great Smoky Mountains. Davis—who became known as the “mother of the park”—and her husband, Willis Davis, co-founded the Great Smoky Mountains Conservation Association, one of the most influential organizations supporting the park concept. One of the first women elected to the Tennessee House of Representatives, she sponsored the legislation that resulted in the first large land purchase set aside for the park.
Great Smoky Mountains became a national park in 1934, cobbled together from 6,600 separate tracts of private land.
Clingmans Dome to Andrews Bald
After two-and-a-half hours of enjoying my own private Appalachian Trail, I reach the crown of the Great Smokies: Clingmans Dome. It’s mid-morning, and all traces of solitude evaporate the moment I step out of the woods onto the wide, paved, half-mile-long sidewalk leading to the summit from the parking area at the end of the Clingmans Dome Road. Wearing my pack and my eau de backpacker, I join a parade of dozens of people trudging toward the top of the Smokies.
A bracing wind pounds the observation tower at the 6,643-foot summit of Clingmans, highest point in the park and in Tennessee and on the AT, and only 41 feet shorter than the highest peak east of the Mississippi, North Carolina’s 6,684-foot Mount Mitchell.
Rising above the stunted trees, the tower offers a 360-degree panorama of the park and the Southern Appalachians stretching for dozens of miles. Blue ridges fade one after another into the distance. It’s easy to imagine being an AT thru-hiker heading northbound, facing the bulk of a five-month journey still ahead of you, finding inspiration and strength in this view to keep on walking.
If you live within about a 500-mile radius, the Great Smokies comprise one of the prime destinations for a multi-day hike. The park has over 800 miles of trails and marks the confluence of three long-distance trails. Besides the 2,190-mile AT surfing the crest of the Smokies, the 1,175-mile Mountains to the Sea Trail begins—or ends, if you will—at Clingmans Dome and crosses North Carolina to the Outer Banks. The nearly 300-mile Benton MacKaye Trail, which, like the AT, begins at Springer Mountain in Georgia, but does not completely overlap the AT, traverses the park to the trail’s northern terminus at Big Creek Campground in the park’s northeast corner. At various times on my loop hike, I’ll walk on all three of those trails.\
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About an hour beyond Clingmans, I stroll onto the sprawling, grassy meadow at 5,920 feet known as Andrews Bald. The highest bald in the park, named for a herder named Andres Thompson who grazed cattle up here in the 1840s, it looks out over a sweeping array of mountains and valleys to the east.
Maybe a dozen other hikers sit around the meadow. I linger for a bit. But now I’m eager to move on—to descend back to where I’ve already decided the quiet soul of the Great Smokies resides.
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See all my stories about Great Smoky Mountains National Park and hiking and backpacking in western North Carolina, including “The 12 Best Dayhikes Along North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Parkway” and “Roof of the East: Hiking North Carolina’s Mount Mitchell,” and all of my stories about adventures in national parks at The Big Outside.