If you want to hike to the most pyramidal, inspiring peaks in Great Smoky Mountains National Park—Chimney Tops—don’t target the trail Monday through Thursday from May through October 18th. Park officials announced that the path will be closed those days during those months for a major rehabilitation of the steep, rocky trail. The park says the project will take two summer seasons.
The park’s news release painted a compelling verbal picture of the problem. “The combination of heavy use, abundant rainfall, and steep terrain has turned the Chimney Tops trail into a badly eroded obstacle course of slick, broken rock, exposed tree roots and mud.” The result—“hazards ... encourage hikers to pick their way across the uneven surface or to divert them off the edges of the trail, causing extensive soil erosion and resource damage.”
The work will involve some of the most intensive trail-taming techniques being practiced by the most expert trail crews. “Hardening” of the trail surface will include the building of major stone step systems and the construction of “turnpike,” where black locust logs are laid parallel in the soil and then packed with mineral soil and rock to deter erosion and to carry walkers above adjacent boggy areas. The technique essentially lifts and hardens the tread above surrounding softer soils and plants.
Extensive waterbars will also be constructed to quickly usher the Smokies torrential rains off the trail, further protecting the path. Much of this work will require moving and placing very big rocks, a process that requires the use of griphoist winches and pulley systems of suspended cables that require skill to safely use.
Tobias Miller, the Foreman of the Park’s Trails Forever Crew, says, “Much of the needed work ... will require extensive rigging of cable systems that will make the trail virtually impassable. Trying to accommodate hikers through the work zones with this type of work underway would be hazardous.”
According to park spokesman and Management Assistant Bob Miller, “this scale of work has never been done in the park before. There are other trails with major improvements but an entire trail with this level of intensive trail construction just doesn’t exist in the park.” Miller said the last time the Chimney Tops Trail received this kind of effort was “probably when the CCC built it! Imagine—this is going to keep 5 paid professional trail builders and a slew of volunteers busy from May to October for two years.”
To volunteer to help the Park’s professional Trails Forever crew, the public will need to sign up to work with the crew on scheduled workdays, as individuals or part of organized groups. Visit the Trails Forever website or contact Trails & Facilities Volunteer Coordinator at (828) 497-1949 for more information.
The trail will be re-opened for peak visitor use each Friday through Sunday. Miller says that Chimney Tops’ awesome views makes it “probably the park's most popular trail, which is another reason why the work needs to be done. Many novice hikers use the trail and they aren’t always the best-equipped as far as footwear is concerned.”
Miller says such work is possible because the Park’s Trails Forever Crew is funded through a partnership between the Park and the Friends of the Smokies. The Friends are donating $121,000 this year to support the program.
The Chimney Tops Trailhead is on Newfound Gap Road about 8 miles south of the Park’s Gatlinburg, TN entrance. The park urges hikers to try alternative trails during the closure, including Alum Cave Trail (two miles south of Chimney Tops along Newfound Gap Road), the Appalachian Trail north to Charlies Bunion, the Rainbow Falls Trail from the Cherokee Orchard Road to the falls, or the Forney Ridge Trail from the Clingmans Dome Parking Area two miles to Andrews Bald. Miller says, “Park managers are especially encouraging people to hike the Forney Ridge Trail, because until recently it had the same sort of problems as the Chimney Tops Trail and is now an example of the kind of work that is ongoing at Chimney Tops.”