For Appalachian Trail hikers, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, or GSMNP, offers wonderful experiences, with a few logistical challenges. Following are my lessons learned from hiking through the park during mid-late April last year.
Basically, there’s the new requirement to purchase a permit. There’s a time limit on that permit. There’s only one significant road crossing in 71 miles from which one can resupply. You can’t camp just anywhere you want, you have to stay in shelters unless they’re full, and they ain’t spaced as well as most long-distance hikers would like. Nothing insurmountable, just stuff to consider.
Besides that, the hiking is beautiful. Details after the break …
Permits - When I was preparing for my section hike last spring, the GSMNP had just changed their permit requirements, with a significant change for thru-hikers.
(By the GSMP’s definition, a thru-hiker is one who begins 50 miles before, and continues 50 miles beyond the GSMP.)
Thru-hikers have to purchase a permit no more than 30 days in advance of their entrance into the park. A thru-hiker permit costs $20, and is valid for up to 38 days from the date you obtain it. Registration can be done online, and one has to have a paper copy in their possession.
Northbound hikers can choose to purchase their permits just before leaving home, as most would have sufficient time to get to Springer, hike to Fontana Dam, and get thru the GSMNP within the 38 day window the permit allows.
Those who don't want to commit $20 till they're sure they'll make it to the Smokies ,can find access to a computer with a printer in Franklin, the Nantahala Outdoor Center (NOC), and at the Fontana Village Inn.
The printed permit has two parts to it. The hiker annotates both parts with the date they are entering, places one part in the drop-box at the entrance to the park and retains the second part till they leave the park. This is what identifies you as a thru-hiker.
Camping Restrictions - In the GSMNP, hikers are not allowed to camp anyplace but at established campgrounds and shelters. This is to minimize impact in what is the most popular park in the country. With that, and the spacing between the shelters, some hikers will find times when hiking to the next shelter bags too few miles for the day, and the next one after that is too many.
We all need an easy day once and a while ...
Thru-hikers are required to stay inside shelters when there is space available. If one sets up camp when the shelter's not full, a Ranger or Ridge Runner may direct you to strike camp and sleep in the shelter. If a shelter's full, one may camp in the immediate vicinity. But what does "full" mean? A Ridge-Runner told me it was the published shelter occupancy. By that standard, if it’s a 12-person shelter, and there’s 12 hikers already in there, one is free to pitch a tent. Now, those 12-person shelters can hold a lot more than 12, and another Ridge Runner, or Park Ranger might have a different interpretation.
The rules also state that “Thru-Hikers must always give up bunk space in shelters to those with shelter reservations.” Those hikers that do not fit the thru-hiker designation must reserve shelter space in advance. They have reservations. Thru-hikers don't. The GSMP reservation system leaves four spaces open for thru-hikers.
On a very cold mid-April night, I saw 20 hikers filling 12 spaces, with hammocks hanging from the rafters*, and every decent tent site filled. At about 9:30 pm, after most hikers were already in their bags, four hikers who had reservations, (but no shelters) showed up. The last four thru-hikers who came in got up, and found a place to pitch their shelters in the dark.
The hikers were gracious, and defused what could have been a tense situation. Certainly, such a situation is not the norm, and is really only likely to occur during the thru-hiker season. With all that in mind, just make your assessment as to whether or not to take a shelter space, or to set up camp.
* Per GSMNP rules, hikers are not allowed to hang hammocks inside shelters.
Resupply - With only one significant road crossing within the park, the only real options are to either get off at Newfound Gap and go into either Gatlinburg or Cherokee, or to have enough food to hike thru. Both options have their pros and cons. If you choose to hike thru, you'll need to carry enough food for up to eight days. Otherwise, you'll just need enough to get to Newfound Gap (3-4 days).
The Fontana village store has enough stuff like summer sausage, cheese, pop tarts, knorr sides, rice and beans, etc to get you on your way. As long as you don’t get there after a big hiker bubble …
Some send a drop box. Or bounce one from Franklin. If you ship to a post office, be sure to check hours to avoid being stranded over a weekend. The Fontana Village hotel has accepted packages in the past - Call for information before shipping.
The Hike Inn will pick you up at the dam, wash your clothes, take you into town for resupply and dinner, and get you back to the dam the next morning. They accept drop boxes too.
Or, you can get off at Stecoah Gap, south of Fontana Dam, and get to a full grocery store in Robbinsville.
In Gatlinburg, there's a NOC right when you get into town, with typical backpacking food. Nearby shops carry odds and ends. The supermarket is on the other side of town, and there’s a trolley system that’ll get you there, but it's a long trip, and you may end up wishing you had taken a taxi …
The NOC provides a shuttle back to the trail. Sign up inside the day before as spaces fill fast.
On the north end of the GSMNP is Standing Bear Farm Hostel. It's an old tobacco farmstead with it's rustic buildings converted into bunkhouses, a communal kitchen & laundry, and a store. I limped in with a bum knee, took a couple of zeros, and the staff took care of me. I found it to be a magical place. Even if you choose not to stay there, they have a small, well-stocked store from which you can get enough to get to Hot Springs.
Weather - You'll spend a lot of time hiking between 5000 - 6600', and it can get real cold up there in the spring during the height of the thru-hiker season. I hiked thru in mid-April. Most of the snow and ice had melted off the trail, but we experienced a few sub-zero nights, some snow and ice. In early April, the forums were reporting icy trails, and a few hikers were extracted due to broken bones ...
The NOC has an outfitter where you can check on trail conditions, and purchase various kinds of microspikes if you decide they're required.
The Smokies are wonderful. There are beautiful views, abundant wildlife, plenty of water sources, the trail is well maintained, and most of the shelters have been nicely renovated. Be prepared for the weather and the rules, and you'll remember your passage as a highlight of your AT hiking experience.
"If you drive to, say, Shenandoah National Park, or the Great Smoky Mountains, you'll get some appreciation for the scale and beauty of the outdoors. When you walk into it, then you see it in a completely different way. You discover it in a much slower, more majestic sort of way."
- Bill Bryson