There are over 800 miles of trails in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and the Chimney Tops Trail is one of the most popular'for good reason. Although the route is steep, it's only a two-mile hike to a rock outcropping that provides spectacular views of the Smokies.
Unfortunately, serious problems had developed along this little slice of mountain paradise.
Years of heavy foot traffic, combined with steep terrain and heavy annual precipitation, had resulted in major resource damage and safety concerns, and the trail, as originally constructed, simply wasn't sustainable. Tree roots were exposed and sections of trail had been worn down to bedrock, causing poor footing and tripping hazards. Photos at this link illustrate the extent of the problem.
There's good news for hikers, however, and phase one of a project to rehabilitate the Chimney Tops Trail has just been completed. The work was made possible by "Trails Forever," a partnership between the non-profit Friends of the Smokies and Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Work by the six-person trail crew, aided by volunteers, began in April, and focused on a one-mile section of the trail. Over the years, hikers have picked their way around exposed rock and wet areas where water cascades down the steep slope, resulting in an ever-widening muddy and eroding route.
The trail crew used local rock to create an "aesthetically pleasing, easily walkable, sustainable staircase with integrated drainage. Thanks to the design of the staircase and revegetation efforts, what formally was a ten-foot impact corridor has become a solid, four-foot wide trail."
It was necessary to close the Chimney Tops Trail Mondays through Thursdays from the end of April until early October, to allow the crew to work without worrying about the safety of visitors moving through confined areas during some tricky rock work. The photo below offers just one example of the challenges involved in moving large rocks with an ingenious system of ropes and pulleys...and lots of muscle power.
A similar project was completed from 2008 to 2011 on the Forney Ridge Trail, another popular route in the park which runs between Clingmans Dome and Andrews Bald. You can view before and after photos of that work at this link.
The Trails Forever partnership provides an important opportunity for a highly skilled trail crew to focus on reconstruction efforts on the high use and high priority trails in the park. That's in contrast to most of the work by other park trail crews, which have plenty of challenges simply keeping up with cyclic maintenance such as clearing windfalls, pruning and dealing with drainage issues on the park's 848 miles of trails.
According to a park spokesperson, "The Trails Forever crew produces high quality, sustainable trail solutions to some of the most challenging erosion issues on the trail system. These sustainable trail improvements include redefining sections of trail that have become unsafe or unwalkable, improving drainage by modifying water bars or constructing other types of drainage structures, and building staircases or raised turnpike structures out of sustainable materials to prevent further erosion."
"The program also provides a mechanism for volunteers to work alongside the trail crew on these complex trail projects to assist in making lasting improvements to preserve the trails for future generations."
If you're interested in volunteer opportunities for future trail projects in the park or would like more information about the Trails Forever program, you'll find details here.