Sunday, May 18, 2014

Hiking the Chimney Tops, Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Last winter, a friend said she was interested in hiking a very popular trail in the Smokies, the Chimney Tops, and we agreed to plan for around April or May. The Chimneys are a rare item for the Southern Appalachians, a craggy mountain peak. It's a very busy trail and features a short but steep hike up from the parking lot, typically done as an out-and-back from Newfound Gap Road. We planned for Sunday, April 27, and hoped for clear weather, which can be rare in spring for this part of the country.

The Chimney Tops from Newfound Gap Road. It's a rare craggy peak in the Southern Appalachians. Bad lighting for this photo, taken at the end of the day.

I ended up inviting a moderately large group, with the possibility of each person inviting additional people, with the attendant possibility of complications, but tried to emphasize that it was important to be on time. This was particularly true due to the nearly 3 hour drive and the possibility of thunderstorms in the afternoon. I have been on a mountaintop in a thunderstorm a couple of times in the past and it is not my idea of fun. In addition, two of my friends were paddling the whitewater of the Cheoah River the day before and would be camping in the area and meeting us at the trail head, so I really wanted to be on time. It was not to be, several people were late, and the schedule went completely to hell right from the start and we ended up an hour late (an HOUR). I love my friends but we are a bunch of slow people. Often I am the one making the group run late so I can't criticize others too severely but I have to say that the failure to keep the trip on time or anything resembling "on time" totally stressed me out. I know I shouldn't let something like that bother me but as the leader and organizer I felt the burden to keep things on time. I think I need a little time off from organizing a large group again.

After we got over our tardiness, we finally got to hiking. Within about 100 yards the group divided into two groups, one fast, one slow, and separated. The trail quickly crosses over the West Prong of the Little Pigeon River and a tributary, the Road Prong, within a short distance. These are tumbling, cascading creeks filled with giant boulders and clear water and are beautiful examples of the numerous flowing streams that drain the rainy Smokies. There are nice bridges to handle the heavy foot traffic to the Chimneys so no sketchy rock hopping is necessary.

This is either a higher section of the Road Prong or some other upper tributary. Beautiful streams like this one flow in every drainage of the Great Smoky Mountains.

A distant view of the Road Prong (I think) from the rapidly ascending trail.

I walked along for some distance with my friends Kenny and Lois until we got to the really steep parts and Lois advised Kenny and I to continue on so she could take her time. The trail is ridiculously steep but well maintained and features improved rock stairways and other features to prevent trail erosion and support the high traffic. The forest floor is carpeted with wildflowers and ferns throughout.

A carpet of spring wildflowers.
The trail is silly steep.

There are some gigantic old growth trees that date back to before the creation of the park,somehow having survived the frenzy of logging that occurred during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Of particular interest are giant Yellow Buckeye trees, with correspondingly giant shaggy bark. The trunks are pretty unique. As is usually the case in the Smokies, as you climb the under-story becomes increasingly dense and evergreen trees of every type become more frequent.

One of the earlier views from the trail. I love this part of the Smokies, where the mountains are steep and have the character of more western mountain ranges.
A different angle. I didn't have enough sense to use my new iPhone 5s to get a panoramic photo from this point.

The trail crosses a knife-back ridge on the approach to the Chimneys. Do not fall here or you will be lucky if you end up hanging from a sapling and not doing a "Wyle E. Coyote" off the mountain.

Finally the trail wraps around the side of a mountain and extends out onto the knife-back ridge that culminates in the Chimney Tops, a large outcropping of pre-cambrian rock that hangs in the open over valleys flanked with steep-sided mountains. I had both been looking forward to the hike and dreading the test of metal that I knew would come with the climb up the rock outcropping. I have some fear of heights, but more particularly I suffer from agoraphobia, the fear of wide open spaces. I often can walk right up to the edge of a high cliff, as I can at Sunset Rock on Lookout Mountain, as long as I can emerge from a forest onto the cliff, but if I have to actually climb up a sloping rock, then I feel incredibly dizzy and don't enjoy the view or the experience. It's very inconvenient but I have learned to push myself a little bit so I took it easy for a few minutes, encouraged Kenny to go on without me, and started climbing. I hit my limit about 50 yards or so up the rock face and found a convenient place to sit and eat my lunch, enjoying the cool breeze.

A view from somewhere near the end of the hike. As you can tell from the trees, I did not make it to the top.
Sick. I'm not going up there.

Kenny Warwick planning his ascent. Not pictured: the 2000 foot drop to either side of this rock formation.

Eventually my friend Don Fletcher came carefully back down from the crest. He had raced to the top with Stacy and Halle in the fast group. He chatted for a minute before saying that he was ready to get off the rock face and anyway the sun was getting hot and he wanted to get into the shade. I too was getting hot so as soon as I finished eating I pushed myself to climb up a few more feet to take a photo and then went back down to the shade at the base of the rock outcropping. I wish I had gone up further but that kind of thing can take time, and I had not gone on the hike expecting to make it all the way to the top. I may go back later and push myself to climb a little higher but I think I would prefer to do it solo. Peer pressure does not work with me and sometimes it's best for me to be by myself. I'm pretty sure I inherited my issues with wide open spaces so I try not to let it bring me down. I've occasionally been inappropriately brave in other situations in the past so I never think it signifies anything to not want to free climb to the top of a 4,600 foot crag.

The hike back down is a little hard on the quads but fortunately I had my trekking poles so that took some of the stress off my aging knees. Normally I cool off on a descent but due to the large difference in elevation between the top of the hike and the parking lot, the air temps got noticeably warmer as we descended. Lois took advantage of the descent to take a lot of wildflower photos and a beautiful groundhog (woodchuck) that was frolicking in a tiny branch. Normally I would be underwhelmed by such a common animal but this was the most beautiful groundhog I've ever seen, with highlighted fur. He was also exceedingly large and well fed for spring, one of the largest groundhogs I've ever seen. Funny little beast.

Didgeridon't. Some guy showed up with a didgeridoo and setup on the rocks of the West Prong for just about 10 or 15 minutes of playing. I kept thinking he was about to whip out some kind of anti-tank weapon until I saw it was made of wood.  It's a peculiar but interesting instrument from Australia that produces a hypnotic buzzing drone. What a strange dude.

We were glad to be back at the car. The trail itself is over 1400 feet of elevation gain just to the base of the rock outcropping but I did a little back-and-forth after we met up with Lois on the return and decided to accompany her to complete the hike to the top so I got over 1600 feet. That is a lot of hiking. It is a testament to my improving fitness that I didn't really feel all that bad at the end of the day.

We finished up with a large group meal at the Smoky Mountain Brewery in Maryville, Tennessee, where I had an amazing burger with a side of baked macaroni and cheese, not very healthy but sooo good, especially since I had survived the day on a granola bar and a small, healthy sandwich. I'm still trying to lose weight. My fitness level is pretty high but I can't seem to lose much weight despite working out about 5 days a week. It does not get any easier as you get older.

The Chimney Tops hike is a beautiful, though difficult hike. I would recommend it, even if you aren't into rock climbing.

Here is the GPS track from Strava.

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