I wanted to start this off with a Tolkien quote from “Lord of the Rings” about stepping onto a road and being swept away if you’re not careful.
I’ve always liked the quote, it fits my romantic sensibilities. It gives the road agency and power. I like the idea that there’s a current to a road like a river.
But I’ve never felt that way about roads in the real world. Roads are smelly things of oils and asphalt, filled with 3,000 or so pounds of broiling, rolling metallic dangers.
I’m not romantic about roads.
But trails? Trails are romantic. The paths have an agency, a spirit, a calling. They’re carved into the earth and rock. They wind through ancient forests and make way for the roots and streams that carve deeper into the world.
Set foot on a trail and there is a current pulling you ahead to see the next sight, to walk around the next bend to find a river, rock or cave.
I’ll never walk the length of the Appalachian Trail, but I like to think about it. I like the romance of it. The times I’ve stood on it in various places, I’ve felt the pull – heard the call asking me to go “just a little further.”
I still find the idea that the Appalachian Trail exists – winding from Georgia up to Maine – insane.
That somebody in the world got the idea to create a nearly 2,200-mile hiking trail along the ridgebacks of the Appalachian Mountains and a bunch of other people were like, “Yeah. That needs to happen,” is mind-blowing.
But let’s get down to it and answer some frequently asked questions about the Appalachian Trail.
Are the Great Smoky Mountains part of the Appalachian Trail?
Yeah, buddy. The trailhead for the Smokies portion of the trail starts at the Fontana Dam in North Carolina – if you’re coming in from the south.
If you’re coming from the north, it’s near Hot Springs, North Carolina.
How long is the Appalachian Trail through the Great Smoky Mountains National Park?
The AT follows pretty closely along the Carolina-Tennessee state line for just over 70 miles.
The length of the entire Appalachian Trail is 2,200 miles.
How long does it take to hike the Appalachian Trail through the Smokies?
The consensus is about a week. If you’re into overnight backpacking but can’t commit to seven days, there are shorter versions you can do.
The trail cuts close to Clingmans Dome, which serves as a great place to begin an overnight hike or just explore the trail for the day.
How long does it take to walk the whole thing?
From Georgia to Mount Katahdin in Maine? You’re looking at five to seven months of your life.
Officials estimate that only about 25 percent of those who start finish the trip each year.
How many states does the trail go through?
A total of 14 states.
Going south to north, the trail passes through Georgia, North Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine.
How close is the Appalachian Trail to Gatlinburg?
Want the quickest way to the trail from Gatlinburg? Head for the Newfound Gap. It’s approximately a 30-minute drive to the spot where Newfound Gap Road – aka US 441 – intersects with the AT.
There is a nice parking lot where you can pretty safely leave your car – locked of course – if you want to go check out the trail.
It’s also where the Laura Spelman Rockefeller Memorial can be found. It marks the spot where FDR dedicated the park in 1940 in honor of John D. Rockefeller’s wife, Laura.
John D. Rockefeller donated about half the money – $5 million – to pay for land acquisition in memory of his wife.
Where are the best places in the region to see the trail?
The Newfound Gap parking lot is probably the easiest and is the only place – or so I’m told – that the trail crosses a road.
For a better trail experience, though, head up the Clingmans Dome Road. The AT cuts close to the Clingmans Dome parking area. And that portion of the trail – which is at a significantly higher elevation than at the Newfound Gap crossing – can offer a spectacular view.
At 6,643 feet, the dome represents the highest point along the entirety of the AT. Plus, you get a really great view of Fontana Lake.
If you want a less touristy spot to explore the trail, I recommend Max Patch, a bald that is outside the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Located at the border of Madison County, North Carolina, and Cocke County, Tennessee, Max Patch offers spectacular views, a less frequented trail experience and still relatively easy access.
Do you need permits or reservations to hike the trail in the Smokies?
It is entirely free to walk the trail. However, in the Smoky Mountains, there are fees and permits required for overnight camping and parking.
You must obtain your overnight permit prior to entering the park. At the Fontana Dam visitor center, there is a self-registration facility with forms and a deposit box for those heading north on the trail.
For those heading south, you can get a permit at Bluff Mountain Outfitters in Hot Springs, N.C. or at the Big Creek Ranger Station – a little more than a mile east from Davenport Gap on Tennessee 32.
Section hikers – anyone not beginning or ending a hike at least 50 miles outside the park – can make reservations by calling (865) 436-1231. Caught without a permit? It’s a $125 ticket. Learn more on the NPS website.
If you’re going to hike other portions of the trail, it’s a good idea to check for applicable fees and permits.
Are there places to stay if we do decide to hike overnight?
Yes, the GMSNP has backcountry shelters.
While other backpackers must make reservations to use backcountry shelters, thru-hikers – those trying to hike the whole trail – are allowed to tent next to shelters.
They are responsible for making room for those who have reservations.
With the exception of the thru-hikers, if you are staying overnight on the AT in the Smokies, you must stay in a shelter. For more, contact the backcountry office at (865) 436-1297.
Is hiking the Appalachian Trail safe?
There are two levels of safety to discuss, I suppose. First, we have the regular rigors and dangers of day hiking in the mountains.
Follow the regular wildlife precautions and take plenty of provisions and the right gear. Additionally, make sure people know where you’re going and when you should be back.
Overnight hiking on the AT? You should also be fine, but the safety page of the National Park Service website is a great resource and offers a detailed list of important tips and advice. In fact, fair warning, they’re pretty sobering safety tips.
The information, however, is vitally important.
To put it shortly, the AT hiking community is full of great people. There are far more stories of support and acts of kindness known as “trail magic” than there are of negative outcomes. Hikers tend to build strong bonds. The acts of kindness on the trail are legendary.
However, it is also true like in any community, there are some people on the trail you are better off not interacting with. If your instincts are telling you that someone is making you uneasy on the trail, it’s best to avoid them or get away from them.
On the populated areas of the trail, there are groups of people known as ridgerunners or caretakers who help manage the trail and also the people on it. They keep their eyes and ears open for signs of trouble. Some carry radios that allow them to make contact when cell phones won’t work.
The NPS recommends being aware, or to paraphrase Ron Burgandy, to keep your head on a swivel.
Use caution if hiking alone. The NPS recommends hiking with a buddy, but if you are alone, do not announce it. When talking to others, use words like “we” and “us” instead of “I” and “me”. Pretend you have a mouse in your pocket if you have to.
Finally, don’t camp or linger near roads or trailheads and make sure you have the proper gear.
Look, hiking the AT is not something to be taken lightly. This year, a hiker fell and did not survive. Another hiker drowned. A few years ago, a hiker passed after losing her way only a couple of miles off trail.
A couple more I know of had to be flown out for injury or illness.
Therefore, it is imperative that you hike prepared and follow all safety rules.
Have you hiked part or all of AT? Let us know in the comments.