It was late November 2016 when a pair of teens climbed the Chimney Tops Trail in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and started a fire that burned for days.
Because of the elevation and difficulty of access, the National Park Service let the fire burn. And with the help of an exceptional drought, it grew to about 500 acres.
Then, on November 28th, a massive windstorm whipped up across the mountains. The flames were carried due to the massive amount of dry leaves, branches and underbrush across the forest floor.
The ensuing hours were a hell of swiftly moving flames and mass confusion. In all, 14 people died, millions of dollars in property was destroyed and the two youths were arrested.
They, however, eventually had those charges dropped for a variety of reasons, not the least of which the high winds knocked down power lines which sparked more fires amongst the dry underbrush. It would have been almost impossible to identify which damage the teens were responsible for.
As a result, the Chimney Tops Trail was closed for about a year. During that time, it was rehabilitated.
Is the Chimney Tops Trail open? 
And today, Chimney Tops Trail, once again, is open and one of the most popular hikes in the park. However, like Gatlinburg and the Smoky Mountains, it is also forever changed by the wildfires.
The wounds from that day remain fairly fresh amongst the region. And so, when the Chimney Tops Trail is mentioned, the fires are often right there at the top of mind.
How long of a hike is Chimney Tops?
The trail is four miles, roundtrip.
It’s important to remember the reasons why the Chimney Tops was among the park’s most popular trails before the fires. And also why it was worth rebuilding after.
Offering a reasonable length and spectacular panoramic views, the trail is steep, gaining 1,400 feet in elevation over two miles. The trail crosses streams and can be quite slick.
Proper hiking boots and plenty of water are highly recommended for the more than four-mile hike.
One of the few rocky peaks in the Smokies, the Chimney Tops were named Duniskwalgunyi, or “forked antler,” by the Cherokee. The name is a reference to its resemblance to the antlers of a deer.
Can you hike to the summit of the Chimney Tops?
The summit of the trail remains off-limits following the fire. It is unsafe to try to reach the summit. A gate is there to remind hikers to not risk the ascension. The area around the pinnacles was completely destroyed.
Instead, there is a new overlook – a quarter-mile under the actual summit – that offers excellent views of Mt. Le Conte and the Pinnacles worthy of the arduous hike to get up there in the first place.
The Park Service has said that if at some date in the future, the steep terrain around the summit of Chimney Tops is determined to be safe, it could reopen access to the Chimney Tops Pinnacle and those spectacular views of Mt. LeConte and beyond.
The Chimney Tops Trailhead is located nearly 7 miles south of the Sugarlands Visitor Center on Newfound Gap Road.
Don’t be confused by the Chimney Tops Picnic area – which is one of the best picnic areas in the Smokies. The trailhead is marked by a large parking area on the west side of the road between the lower tunnel and “the loop.”
How hard is the Chimney Tops hike?
Experienced hikers consider it a moderately difficult climb due to its short distance.
If, however, you’re not a frequent hiker, leave yourself plenty of time to stop and rest along the way. Again, this is a steep climb that ends with a series of stone steps that ascend rapidly over a relatively short distance. And there are a lot of people who begin the trail and find out – at some point – that it is far more than they bargained for.
As with the vast majority of trails in the Smokies, pets are not allowed. You should, however, bring standard hiking gear for serious mountain treks.
No real hike in the Smokies should take place without proper gear. Always bring rain gear, water and high-energy snacks, a flashlight, waterproof matches and a whistle.
It’s also a good idea to bring warm clothing. There can be a significant temperature change from the trailhead to the overlook near the summit. The elevation is 4,724 feet.
The trail begins fairly level, crossing rushing streams three times as the hike lulls you into possibly a false sense of confidence.
If you’re hiking in the spring, the Park Service says you’re likely to see rhododendron, mountain laurel and many other abundant wildflowers blooming along the trailside as you approach Beech Flats.
The Road Prong, Indian Gap Trail
After the first section of the trail, the Road Prong Trail branches towards the Appalachian Trail at Indian Gap, 2.4 miles away.
The Road Prong Trail, which continues to follow the stream of the same name, is one of the oldest trails in the Smokies. In the 18th and 19th centuries, this ancient path was commonly known as the Indian Gap Trail, according to the Park Service.
Stay on the main path for Chimney Tops Trail.
Here, a rocky and slippery climb is ahead, rising 730 feet over less than a mile. The trail runs along the side of Sugarland Mountain, where the ridge offers great views of Mount Leconte.
The trail descends for a bit before it reaches the rocky pinnacle, the top of the first “chimney”.
Where do you park for Chimney Tops Trail?
To reach the trail, drive 6.7 miles south from Sugarlands Visitor Center on Newfound Gap Road. There will be a large parking area on the west side of the road.
Remember, between the elevation gain, the slippery rocks and tree roots along the way, the strenuous hike to the Chimney Tops isn’t for the faint of heart.
But from the parking lot area to the new observation point, it’s a great hike with some of the best views in the Smokies. This includes the cascading waters of Road Prong Creek. And on a clear day, you can see across the valleys of the Great Smoky Mountain National Park into North Carolina.
This popular destination is a relatively short hike in distance reaching up to the park’s higher elevations. But it’s one you’ll remember for a long time.
Have you hiked the Chimney Tops Trail? What did you think? Let us know in the comments!