Trails Damaged By F4 Tornado Reopened In Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Before and after photos show the damage and repairs to a section of the Abrams Falls Trail. NPS photo.

With 800 miles of trails in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, just keeping up with normal wear and tear in the heavily visited park is a challenge for park employees and volunteers. That job became much more difficult when an F4 tornado ripped a 17-mile-long swath through the park and adjacent areas back in 2011, toppling thousands of trees.

These mountains are no stranger to thunderstorms and high winds, but a tornado of this magnitude is rare here. The storm and path of destruction was so severe it was visible on photos taken by a Landsat satellite, and those images were so dramatic they were the subject of the keynote address at an international conference.

If the results of the storm were dramatic even from space, they were much more apparent on the ground, and following the storm about 50 miles of trails in the northwest corner of the park were initially closed for repairs and clearing of downed trees. Among the routes impacted were the Ace Gap Trail, Beard Cane Trail, Hatcher Mountain Trail, Little Bottoms Trail, Rabbit Creek Trail, Hannah Mountain Trail, Cooper Road Trail, Cane Creek Trail, Gold Mine Trail, and Abrams Falls Trail.

While some of those trails were reopened within weeks following the storm, repairs in other areas where damage was more severe have been a longer process. Now there's good news for hikers: the last of the work has been completed, just in time for this year's peak visitor season.

Members of the park's Trail Crew have recently completed rehabilitation work on the last major projects, on Beard Cane and Hatcher Mountain Trails. In addition to removing the downed trees, park crews had to rebuild the trail tread surface and construct multiple retaining walls where the trail had been completely destroyed after uprooted trees fell downslope—with sections of the trail attached.

The damage to trails was magnified by the combination of falling trees and runoff from torrential rains that accompanied the storm. An early estimate in the weeks after the incident was that over 1,000 sections of trail had been severely damaged or destroyed by the root balls of uprooted trees.

A hint of the scope of the work required is provided in the following YouTube video.

Twenty-four trail crew employees from across the park responded to the incident, but due to the scope of the workload, coupled with the responsibility to maintain the other 800 miles of trails in the Park, Smokies Trail Crew Supervisor Tobias Miller reached out to fellow NPS trail crews from across the country for help. Trail crews from Canyonlands National Park, Joshua Tree National Park, and Kings Canyon National Park responded to lend a hand.

“This was some of the most challenging work I have ever faced. I feel fortunate to have the opportunity to work with such hardworking professionals and the best trail crew in the NPS,” said Smokies Trail Crew Supervisor Tobias Miller. “It was clear from the first day after I crawled through only three of the damaged trails that we were in for some serious challenges to reopen these trails.”

Setting priorities for the work was sometimes a moving target, since Mother Nature hasn't given crews a pass on other problems in the time since that major tornado. Significant flooding this past winter also caused major damage to bridges and trails in other parts of the Smokies, including the popular Chimney Tops and Noland Creek Trails. Work is currently underway on those repairs.

According to a park spokesperson, all trails damaged by the 2011 tornado are now reopened for public use, along with Backcountry Campsite 3. However, Backcountry Campsite 11 will remain closed, because the damage to that site was so great from the storm that this location is no longer suitable for use as a campsite.

Additional information about trail conditions is available on the Park’s website; if you have specific questions about a particular trail, you can phone the park's Backcountry Information Office at 865-436-1297.

Comments

Very good article Jim. Thanks for this report.

Yet they choose to permanantly close yet another backcountry campsite because of "permanant damage". They sure didn't close Newfound Gap road because of permanant damage and fixed it in record time. That is because it involved casino traffic and flow of money. The NPS has closed now 3 campsites in that area within the last decade. Any opportunity to close a backcountry site is definitely jumped on by the Smokies Super. He wants people out of the backcountry.

SmokiesBackpacker –

You're welcome to your opinion that the superintendent "wants people out of the backcountry," but that doesn't match with the efforts being made on repairs and maintenance on trails in park, or the reopening of one of the two damaged backcountry campsites. For just a few examples, see the story above, and this one, and this one. As this story notes, storm damage and the resulting repairs are an on-going challenge.

I haven't seen the backcountry campsite that's been closed due to the storm, but if it was in the area with heavy tree damage, it's not likely to be either safe or attractive for camping, and future campers would be justified in complaining about such a site if it were left open.

You've complained about the time required for these repairs, but as the video clearly shows, this was expert-level chain saw work; it's dangerous and time-consuming.

Even at the height of the post-tornado closures, only about 6% of the park's trails (50 out of 800+ miles) were closed for repairs, and it sounds like the park did a good job in concentrating their first efforts on the most heavily used trails.

As pointed out in another recent post, the repairs for a major U.S. Highway came from non-park sources, including the Federal Highway Administration. That kind of "quick-fix" money isn't available for extensive trail repairs. Yes, US441 gets a lot more attention that backcountry trails, and that's a reality of life. Trails get only a fraction of the use as that major highway, and plenty of us who use that road to access the interior of the park have no interest in the Cherokee casinos.

The park has one of the most extensive trail systems in the entire national park system; more miles of trails that Glacier, which is one of the premier hiking parks in the nation (and which has over twice the acreage of the Smokies.) Great Smoky Mountains NP has more miles of backcountry trails than Yosemite, or Shenandoah. Keeping those trails open and safe is a huge job, and deserves more credit than you give.

(comment has been revised).

You forgot to add that the trail maintenance is largely funded by private donation from the Aslan corp, partner. Again, NPS folks have their opinions, we backcountry users and trail volunteers have ours. I sometimes wonder how much govt x is spent anonymously responding to this stuff..

You are absolutely correct that the volunteers and the private donations that help fund trail maintenance and many other park activities deserve tremendous credit.

I have no way of knowing, but I'd be surprised if private money covered all the cost of the NPS trail crews that came from distant parks, including Canyonlands, Joshua Tree and Kings Canyon to help with the huge job described in this story. This work would undoubtedly have taken a lot longer without their help.

Good question about "how much govt. time is spent anonymously responding to opinions" on the Traveler. In my case, none at all, since I don't work for the NPS or any branch of government.

However, since you've made some pretty serious allegations about some government employees on this site, one does have to wonder if they have the right or even responsibility to monitor that discussion, or even comment on it, while on duty.