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.