Monday, April 14, 2008

Backpacking in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park

One of our favorite places to go backpacking is the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. I suppose the primary reason for this is that it is our home state park, the one close at hand. But it does have some big drawing points of its own. Perhaps its biggest drawing point is the fact that the world famous Appalachian Trail runs longitudinally right through the middle of the Smokies. Beginning at Fontana Dam at the southern end of the Park, the AT extends 70 miles northward along the Tennessee-North Carolina border to exit the Park at Davenport Gap. In addition to the Appalachian Trail there are some 800 miles of maintained hiking trails in the Park. Another big draw, especially for me, is the Eastern temperate forest. At low elevations hardwoods thrive in the damp climate of east Tennessee. Spring is a wonderful time to experience nature’s magnificent beauty. Redbud and dogwood give the soft new green spots of radiant color. Wildflowers abound on the forest floor. As summer approaches, the mountains seem to explode with rhododendron, mountain laurel, and flame azalea. Fall brings the vibrant reds and yellows that signal the onset of winter. As the leaves fall, hikers are rewarded with spectacular views of range after range for as far as the eye can see. As awe-inspiring as the hardwood forest is, my personal favorite is the fur forest at high elevation. It is a lush place covered with moss and pine needles and there is a constant drip of water from tree limbs and rocks. I love the smell of evergreens and the cool feel of dampness in the air.

Within this magnificent setting, the Park Service offers two types of backpacking opportunities for hikers, equestrians, and fishermen. There are 88 backcountry camp sites and 15 backcountry shelters. Backcountry camping is free of charge but requires a backcountry permit.
A typical backcountry camp site
The pulley system for hanging food bags.

Backcountry campsites are typical of campsites in many other parks around the country. They consist of a water source, a fire ring, and a relatively flat place to pitch a tent. If you are lucky, there may be a log and a flat rock near the fire ring to facilitate cooking. At every backcountry campsite and shelter, there has been the installation of the backpackers most appreciated apparatus—the pulley system from which to hang your food bag. Few places offer this convenience. Our hats go off and our hearts go out to the ones responsible. No more hunting for the perfect tree limb and no more shoulder injuries trying to throw a rope.
Derrick Knob Shelter

The backcountry shelters are primarily located along the Appalachian Trail, with a few others scattered about the Park at popular destination sites. In the past, these structures were damp, dark, dreary places. Many of the shelters were built by CCC workers in the 30s and 40s. They consisted of either a stone or log three-sided structure with a sleeping platform and stone fireplace. Due to an increasing bear problem, the park service attached chain link fencing across the open side of the shelter. In recent years the park service with the help of the Smoky Mountain Hiking Club and other volunteers, has begun renovating the shelters. Leaking roofs have been replaced with skylights, general repairs made to the exterior structures and fireplaces, sleeping platforms have been redone, porches have been extended giving more “living” space inside the shelter, and cooking shelves and benches have been installed. These once dark, dreary places are now light, comfortable, and cozy places to enjoy a night in the backcountry.

1 comment:

  1. thank goodness for the shelters!!..a saving grace on a rainy day or night!!