Hiking all the Trails in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Grapeyard TrailSmokies 900 patch

Railroad artifact on the Grapeyard Trail, an obscure trail in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Patch from the Smokies 900Miler Club. Photos by Danny Bernstein

We're the Smoky Mountains hikers,
We have nothing else to do
We spend our spare time hiking
Like others seldom do.

This song, to the tune of Yellow Rose of Texas, was written by Carolyn Ebel, one of the first people to hike all the trails in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. For many years, those who had hiked all of the marked trails in the Smokies sought some type of recognition for their accomplishment. Finally, in 1995, Lou Murray designed a patch and a certificate and launched a spin-off club from the Smoky Mountain Hiking Club that became the 900 Miler Association. Her son, Andy, at age 14, became the association’s youngest member.

The challenge is called the Smokies 900M because, when the idea of the challenge was first floated, the park said that it had "about" 900 miles of trails. The park now has 803 miles of maintained trails, which proves that many trail miles have been decommissioned in the last 15 years.

Each year, the Great Smoky Mountains Association publishes a trail map, sold for a dollar. To get the patch, you must have walked all the trails drawn on the map. You have a lifetime to do the trails. Since all the trails form a network, you need to repeat some trails in the periphery of the park to get to the internal trails. You end up walking a lot more than 800 miles to do them all – some say 1,500 miles.

While hiking all the trails in the Smokies, I kept a trail map of the Smokies and Hiking Trails of the Smokies (the brown book) in my car and the telephone number for the road conditions in the park on my speed dial.

For all that effort, I only got a patch to sew on my pack - but also bragging rights.

Because the trails intersect and many trails start from other trails and not from a trailhead, it’s the most complicated hiking challenge I’ve done. Physically it's not difficult. The Smokies' trails are so well-maintained and marked that I can get really spoiled. Mile for mile, Smokies trails are easier than those in the surrounding national forests. But like any trail challenge or in life, success doesn't depend just on physical strength or stamina. Hiking all the trails in the Smokies is much more about perseverance, organization, and keeping your eye on the goal.

This challenge doesn't attract the 20- to 30-year-old set. Jennie Whited, one of the original Smokies 900M completers, finished all the trails for her fifth time after her 65th birthday.

When I moved to Asheville, North Carolina, I had already done the 71.4 miles of the Appalachian Trail that traverse the park. I then hiked a lot of easy miles on the perimeter of the park - what I call the top of the pops: Ramsey Cascades, Little Cataloochee Trail, the Deep Creek/Martin Gap/Indian Creek Loop, Hemphill Bald, the Smokemont Loop, and all the trails that go up to Mt. LeConte.

I then did some obscure and fascinating hikes that only a 900-mile aspirant would hike, including Brushy Mountain with its good view of Gatlinburg, Grapeyard Trail with its train engine remains, and up to Gregory Bald from Twentymile Ranger Station. For several years, I attended Hiking Week at the Great Smoky Mountains Institute at Tremont and finished a lot of pesky miles off Little River Road. One year, they organized a long shuttle from Clingmans Dome on the Sugarland Mountain Trail. (Part of the challenge is to find other obsessed hikers so you can set up shuttles.)

The two watershed backpacks were from the Fontana Marina, probably the most remote part of the park: the first was Eagle Creek and down Jenkins Creek. The second was a long loop involving Cold Spring Gap Trail, up Welch Ridge and down Hazel Creek. These were my big challenges; I felt that if I could get those out of the way, I would finish.

But after those backpacks, I looked at the map yet again and the goal seemed even more elusive. I set up backpacks and people canceled. It rained and others canceled. Then I realized that I could do over 19 miles a day by myself and it was no big deal. I finished on the Indian Creek Motor Trail, a minor trail out of the Deep Creek entrance; it was important for me to finish on the North Carolina side. I will never know the park as well as I did when I finished in 2009.

I did ten backpacks as part of this project. Others are willing to hike very long distances, over 30 miles to not have to spend a night in the woods. And some have the luxury of having a spouse drop them off in the morning; they'll hike to another section of the park and get picked up again.

So why did I do it?

• To really understand the park and how all the trails are connected. Before I moved to western North Carolina, the Smokies to me was the Sugarlands entrance from Gatlinburg, Tennessee.

• It’s important to keep hiking little-known Smokies trails or the park may decommission them, and

• Because it's there.

I know that Mt. Everest or even Mt. Kilimanjaro would be probably beyond my reach physically. It also costs a bundle. But hiking challenges like the Smokies 900M can be done by most healthy people who want to put in the time and effort.

Once I finished all the trails in the Smokies, I started looking for similar organizations in other parks. First I requested a list of trail miles within each park from National Park Service statisticians. After the Appalachian Trail, Yellowstone and Sequoia and Kings Canyon have the most miles, followed by the Smokies. (See the attached spreadsheet.)

My hiking colleagues and I sent out dozens of emails to hiking clubs around the country asking for information about similar "mileage clubs" without luck.

There's no shortage of hiking challenges. The Appalachian Mountain Club administers the New Hampshire 4000 and the New England 4000 footers. Many try to do all the mountains over 14,000 feet in Colorado, the Colorado 14ers. But these challenges are not all in one national park. The High Pointers club encourages members to reach the highest point in each state. Hundreds of hikers finish the Appalachian Trail each year, but the A.T. is a linear park.

I'm sure that hikers have finished all the trails within a particular national park. But I would like to find similar hiking organizations in other national parks that recognize these hikers. So, if you have information about groups that give out a patch or certificate to hikers who have walked every trail in a particular national park, please comment with your details. I'd love to hear from you.

Resources

Hiking Trails of the Smokies (4th edition), published by the Great Smoky Mountains Association

Day Hiker's Guide to all the Trails in the Smoky Mountains, by Elizabeth Etnier, 2010.

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National Park Trail Mileages.pdf28.06 KB

Comments

We have a "Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore Hikers Challenge - 95 Miles of Superior Hiking". Registration, maps, list of trail segments and miles to check off are available at the Falling Rock Cafe and Bookstore in Munising, MI. A certificate from the park will be awarded to those who finish. Our trails are just beautiful, through the northwoods and along Lake Superior and inland lakes, past a historic lighthouse, 200 foot sand dunes, waterfalls and more! The program was started in 2005-2006 and has been completed by approximately 12 - 20 people, with many more working on it at their leisure. We have hiking groups, individuals, and families that are participating. Come and enjoy our trails!!

It helps to get the names right. That's the Grapeyard Ridge trail mentioned above. And it's not particularly obscure unless you consider anything other than the AT as obscure. Oh, and that's not a railroad artifact; it's the ruin of a self-propelled steam engine of the type used to power farm equipment, saw mills, etc. The story is widely published.

When I worked for the park concessionaire in Yellowstone, I know that there were a couple of people that had "750-miler" and "1000-miler" patches...but I am not sure if this is a sanctioned thing or just something they did on their own. I was in Yellowstone for a summer and only managed a little over 200 miles on my days off....so I was sufficiently impressed to say the least.


Anonymous is correct. On Grapeyard Ridge Trail, the artifacts are from a steam engine used to power farm equipment. Thanks for catching that, Anomymous!

Danny Bernstein
www.hikertohiker.com

Danny talks the walk and walks the talk. If you’re in western North Carolina next week, come out and get the scoop from her and 4 other Smokies 900 milers about their favorite hikes in the Smokies. Wednesday, March 9, 7pm, REI Asheville http://www.rei.com/event/17760/session/21782

Great online resource for learning how to get involved in supporting the trails of the Smokies through donating resources of time, treasure, or talent/hands on the ground: http://smokiestrailsforever.org/

It's great to read such a well-written and straightforward article that really emphasizes the connection between a goal and one's personal desire to tackle it. Thank you for being such a great steward of the resource, Danny. Your love for the Smokies comes through loud & clear!

I enjoyed reading your commentary on becoming "hooked" on hiking all the trails in the Smokies. As a 900-miler, I appreciate the organization and angst it takes to schedule, cancel, reschedule, etc, a hike before actually getting to complete the hike. I appreciate, and thank you, for your listing my "Day Hiker's Guide" as a resource. I would like to point out that I published a 3rd edition in 2010, and it is no longer available from my original publisher. It can be purchased from my web site, and is available at most local (Knoxville) outfitters and bookstores.

I had the pleasure of working with Liz Etnier during much of my career at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory. It is with great pride to learn that she's not only become a Great Smoky Mts. 900 miler, but has teamed with her son to publish a fine book about her adventures so that others may plan to hike, one, several, or all of the trails. I highly recommend her "Day Hiker's Guide to all the Trails in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park." http://www.yoursmokies.com/hikersguideday.html

I was pleased when I saw your write-up with my name spelled correctly. Your information about when I hiked the trails was incorrect. I started hiking in 1993 and finished my 1st map in 1995. I finished my 5th and last map in 2004 when I was 64. It was a wonderful journey but I started having knee problems and wanted to hike on the AT after I retired in 2005. Needless to say, I had knee replacement in 2009 and still lack about 600 miles to finish. Thank you for your nice article about the 900. I was lucky to be a part of the original group and had a great time.

Danny, If all you got was a patch, you need to go back and do it again. It will all look different if you go the opposite way. A lot different if you don't use shuttles, and go it alone, no help. After completing the 900 Miler challenge you have to know that your lifetime job is to help preserve and protect this unique ecosystem.

Joe,
I got a lot more than a patch. I got to understand the park in detail.
Yes, I could do it again. Don't tempt me!!

Danny Bernstein
www.hikertohiker.com

My family and I hiked the Grapeyard Ridge Trail today from the trailheadIto the steam engine wreckage. We cannot for the life of us figure out how many miles we hiked! Our 9yo son was a champ and he is dying to know what kind of bragging rights he has. Do you happen to know how many miles in that wreckage is? Thanks!

Signed,

Eager Texans who are In love with GSMNP!