Inviting as the lushly vegetated landscape that wraps the trails that wind through Great Smoky Mountains National Park might be, heading off-trail can be incredibly dangerous, as two recent incidents in the park demonstrate.
Whether hoping to gain a different perspective, reach an outcrop, stream, or waterfall, or simply looking to challenge your skills by going cross-country, stepping off an established trail and into the "hells" of the Smokies can be a dicey proposition.
Were it not for trails, you likely wouldn’t move through this landscape at all. Two types of rhododendron (Catawba and rosebay), magnolia, three types of ferns, nine of trillium, holly, and mountain laurel and thousands of other plant and wildflower species conspire against you by forming a thick, leafy tangle of undergrowth. So thick and impenetrable can these thickets be that white settlers early on referred to them as “laurel slicks” and “hells,” and even questioned whether a dog could bore through the vegetation after a rabbit. The vegetative snarls can be claustrophobic, confining, and confusing.
Cindy Webster, a 26-year-old school teacher from Indiana who came to the national park in March 1974 to explore a route she planned to return to later that year with students from her outdoor education program, discovered that the hard way.
Though experienced with map and compass, Ms. Webster became disoriented on a cross-country jaunt from the backcountry campsite at Porters Flat at the head of the Porters Creek Trail to the Icewater Spring shelter on the Appalachian Trail, a distance of about 2 miles as the crow flies. At first struggling with the deep undergrowth, Ms. Webster’s problems soon became compounded by a developing snowstorm.
Forced at one point to make her way on hands and knees through the dense thickets and deepening snow, she was missing for five days before searchers found her atop Porters Mountain off to the east from her departure point. Icewater Spring, meanwhile, lay off to the south.
A somewhat similar incident happened just last month when searchers spent a week looking for Chad Hunter in the park's backcountry. Mr. Hunter started out on the Appalachian Trail and planned to head cross-country at one point. Unfortunately, the going quickly got tougher than he anticipated, according to an accounting from park officials.
Hunter told the rangers that he’d spent the night of Monday, March 14th, at Campsite 32 as scheduled and on Tuesday hiked into Greenbrier up the Ramsey Cascades Road to the Ramsay Cascades Trail to its end at the falls. He climbed past the falls and hiked cross-country along Ramsay Prong for about half a mile, but found the going very steep, rocky, and blocked by obstructions, so he decided to make his way up towards the ridgeline instead. By Tuesday night he realized that he was off course and he camped that night with his sleeping bag and other gear. On Wednesday, he made extremely slow progress due to dense rhododendron and estimated that it had taken him six to seven hours to cover just over a half mile. At that point he decided to abandon his pack because it was continually snagging on the heavy brush, slowing his progress. He hoped that without his pack he could make faster time and reach his goal of Tricorner Shelter more easily. On Wednesday evening, he reached a relatively flat and somewhat open area, where he stayed until Sunday morning. During this time, he had only the clothes he was wearing plus a fanny pack with a little food and a headlamp – but no sleeping bag or other overnight gear. He said that he melted snow for water until Sunday, but had no other food after his small supply ran out. On Sunday morning, he set out first light; he considered going back down, but chose to continue up to the AT instead, ending up at the shelter.
"Chad Hunter, grossly underestimated the terrain and the obstacles he would encounter to cover the 3 miles or so of off-trail hiking," said park spokesman Bob Miller. "He expected to hike 20+ miles in one day and instead spent about six days bush-whacking and sitting and waiting."
When other hikers notified park officials that Mr. Hunter had arrived at the Tricorner Knob Shelter, a three-person park team, including two medics, set out and reached the shelter at 2:30 a.m. After treating Mr. Hunter for dehydration and minor injuries, a decision was made to lift him out of the backcountry by helicopter rather than try to carry him out.
When the park's helicopter couldn't land nearby due to gusting winds, a Tennessee Highway Patrol helicopter with hoisting capabilities was summoned. Once over the site the helicopter lowered a rescuer, who helped strap Mr. Hunter in for the ride back into the whirlybird.
In the second search, during the weekend of March 27-28, a group of three adults in their 20s and a 3-year-old set out on a Saturday afternoon from the Sinks Parking Area off the Little River Road. They planned on a day hike, but it turned into a bit more than that.
"They hiked up the Meigs Creek Trail for a while then dropped down off the trail and went cross country down to the creek to take pictures," recounted Mr. Miller. "The woman fell and suffured some injuries that rendered her unable to hike back out. They spent the night huddled under a rock overhang - no jackets, no gear for the night and no fire.
"At about 8:30 Sunday morning the woman's fiance' hiked out and was able to contact the park. Three rangers, including a park medic, hiked back in with the reporting party and were with the group by about 11:00," the park spokesman continued. "They provided them with warm, dry clothes, hot coffee and food then walked them out to the trailhead by about 1:00 p.m. They left in their own vehicle.
"The woman was dressed in shorts, a swimsuit top and flip-flops, which she lost. Saturday's high was low 50s over night lows mid-40s. So they were not well-prepared to leave the car much less hike into the wilderness."
Tempting as it can be to follow your eyes off-trail, Great Smokies officials have strong reservations against doing so. In Mr. Hunter's case, the fact that he was traveling alone heightened the risks.
"Taking on something like that solo also increases the risk of getting injured and laying out there helpless for an undetermined period of time," said the park's Mr. Miller. "He also probably made a bad decision to jettison his pack - to help him slither more easily through the rhododendron. He'd have still been stuck but at least he could have been stuck in relative comfort. He was lucky that he had pretty good weather for the period when he was most ill-equipped. Had he had a week of more typical March weather he could have been in a bad way. On the other hand, he did provide his mom with a good detailed itinerary so that she could contact us if he did not emerge as expected."
If you are tempted to test your cross-country skills, or are simply heading out for a morning or afternoon hike, park officials recommend you pack some essentials with you.
"We recommend that even day hikers carry some drinking water, extra clothes and raingear, and wear good footwear," said Mr. Miller. "I never hike without a couple Bic lighters still in the shrink-wrap package. We also advise people to stay on established trails - partly to avoid getting lost ... but also because off-trail hiking opens you up to many hazards that can increase the chance of injury and make rescue much more problematic."
While the off-trail vegetation in Great Smoky makes this park's backcountry particularly tricky to navigate if you head cross-country, similar challenges can be found throughout the National Park System, whether they're tied to thick vegetation, open desert, or rugged canyons. The lessons offered by the two examples above should be remembered whenever you head down a trail.