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.
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.