Welcome to the Great Smoky Mountain National Park, home to some of the world’s most beautiful and spectacular mountain ranges. Over 200 million years ago these breathtaking peaks and ridges were formed when the North American and African Plates collided creating what is now known as the Appalachian Mountain Range. This area was first purchased and owned by the Champion Fibre Company for logging in the early 1900s, but in the 1930s this vast and wild land was saved and the majestic forests of hardwood and spruce became part of the National Park Service.
Have you ever looked at a map from the Great Smoky Mountains and thought to yourself, where did they come up with such unique names? Well from the Indians and their legends mostly. One of these legends is the Cherokee story of “Aganunitsi and Uktena”. Aganunitsi was a Shawano Indian shaman or medicine man. This tribe was the most hated enemy of the Cherokee. Ukenta was a great horned snaked with a large, splendid jewel called a ‘transparent’ on its forehead between its eyes. The snake was said to be able to mimic the voices of man and the sounds of nature. The jewel was believed to give its owner special powers over nature and the ability to cure the sick. When the Cherokee Tribe captured the great Shawano shaman he promised that if they would spare his life he would hunt down this giant snake and bring them back this precious stone. Believing he would fail as all the others had failed before, they released him, but he did not fail. He found Uktena sleeping and put an arrow through the seventh spot, splitting his heart and returned the jewel proudly to the Cherokee Tribe. There he was heralded as the greatest of shamans and was looked upon with great fear and respect for the rest of his life.
This legendary location is now a favorite hiking trail located 6.7 miles from the Sugarlands Visitor Center on Newfound Gap Road. “Chimney Tops” or ‘Duniskwalgunyi’ as it is known by the Cherokee Indians has one of the most sought after and inspiring views. With a top elevation of 4,800 feet, the double-capstone knob on the eastern slope of the Sugarland Mountain Massif stretches north-to-south across the north-central section of the Smokys. So even with a 360 degree panoramic view of all the surrounding mountains, including Mount LeConte to the east and Mount Mingus to the North, Chimney Top is practically ‘ walled- in’ on three sides.
This trail isn’t very long, a little over four miles round trip, but in just under two miles it climbs in elevation over 1300 feet making it comparable to some of the 14,000-foot peak gains found in the Colorado Rockies. If you are looking for a quiet, easy trail you might want to look elsewhere. This is one of the parks most popular trails, being used by visitors looking to enjoy both the beautiful views and the fantastic array of plants and animal life. The first half of the trail is relatively easy, however, during the last mile hikers must climb a staggering 960 feet to the summit! The climb is so steep in fact that many never make it to the pinnacle to see that glorious, open view, so remember to wear good shoes and bring lots of water. Be careful and watch your footing. Although this trail is considered child friendly, please be aware that these are natural settings with rocks, slides, exposed tree roots, and dangerous drop-offs so be sure to keep an eye on the little ones and please remember that pets are not allowed on the trails for their own safety.
During the warmer spring and summer months the Eastern Hemlocks, Yellow Buckeyes, and Fraser Magnolias, are the perfect backdrop to the many colorful wildflowers that can be seen growing in abundance alongside this historic and scenic trail. Some of which might include the purple violet, bee-balm, jewel-weed, foam-flower, and the ever popular rhododendron. Hidden in among this vast array of colorful variations is a cove in the midst of a hardwood forest where the Trailhead and picnic area may be found with the Little Pigeon River bubbling close by. So take a rest and enjoy the beautiful day. Let the kids play and use your camera for some one-of-a-kind photo opportunities. It’s truly a once in a life time chance. Please remember that it is against park rules to feed any wildlife. This is for your safety and the health of the park animals as human feeding considerably shortens their natural life span. Pictures-yes / food-no.
After following the waters of Road Prong Creek and crossing several small footbridges during the first 0.9 miles of the hike you will reach Beech Flats, the approximate half-way point. Here the trail branches off to the left toward Indian Gap. To reach Chimney Tops you must continue on to the right. Prepare to climb as the trail rises 730 feet over rough terrain during the next two-thirds of a mile, before turning north toward the summit giving hikers their first views of the mountains to the east. 1.9 miles from the trailhead the National Park Service has posted a sign just before reaching the first pinnacle warning hikers that they should climb at their own risk, thereby, officially ending the hike. Although no equipment is needed to make the rest of the climb it is a very steep scramble to the top fifty feet above your head, and many serious injuries have been reported. Children and persons with a fear of heights should not attempt to make this climb. Although this trail is rated as moderate, due to the low miles, beginners should consider that it is actually much more difficult due to the extreme rate of elevation gain. So consider this when making your hiking plans. Always stay in a group and use the buddy system. Helping each other will make the hike more fun and much safer.
So you made it to the top of this really, really tall mountain, how do you feel? Alive, inspired, or are you hungry, tired, dirty and sore? Time to head to Gatlinburg and one of the many rental cabins that are available; no matter your budget you will be able to find one that fits you and your family perfectly. After that long hike wouldn’t a hot tub or a pool feel good on sore muscles? And don’t forget to check out the local food, it’s sure to replace those sluggish energies. Sit back, relax and give yourself a well deserved pat on the back. The hard part is over and as you just found out, there’s something for everyone in the Great Smoky Mountains.