Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee
The Smoky Mountains are an excellent example of eastern vegetation, and one of the best ways to view the mountains' glory is on the Chimney Tops Trail. The trail climbs up to a height of 4,840 feet to a 360 degree view of the park, which has been designated an International Biosphere Reserve. For these reasons, this trail would have to be considered a favorite of the Natural Born Hikers, and it has the honor of being the first major hike accomplished by each original crew member. In addition, it doesn't matter how many times we hike this trail, it still keeps us coming back for more.
If you are planning a vacation to the Great Smoky Mountains, you are in luck, because the Chimney Tops are an all season destination, one that has much to offer the outdoor enthusiast regardless of the time of year in which they visit.
Spring is a spectacular time in the Smoky Mountains, especially if you time your hike to coincide with the blooming of the rhododendron, azalea, and mountain laurel. In fact, we have hiked the Chimney Tops and the trail to Alum Cave Bluffs many times in the spring, right when the pink blooms of the rhododendron had fallen to blanket the trail with a carpet of petals. Not to be outdone, the bright orange blooms of the azalea and the delicate white blooms of the mountain laurel were also on display, providing the hiker with colorful scenery.
Autumn brings its own special beauty to the Smokies, as it is the time when the trees change to their brilliant shades of fall, painting the mountains with red, yellow, and orange. If you hike in the autumn months, you will find that the trails are ablaze with colorful leaves that have gently floated to the ground on the wind, covering the quiet walkways with rustling debris.
Winter and summer are equally beautiful, offering some extreme temperatures for the Great Smoky Mountains hiker—regardless of the season, you can be sure that you will have an unforgettable time in the Smokies.
The hike to the summit of the Chimney Tops is accomplished in just a few miles, measuring in at just 2.0 miles one way, but it still presents quite a challenge. The first mile up is relatively easy, but the last mile, particularly the last section on the Chimneys themselves, can be taxing for some hikers—especially those with a fear of heights.
In order to find the Chimney Tops Trailhead, look for the Chimney Tops parking lot, which is off Newfound Gap Road—from the parking lot, the trail leaves the road, crosses a stream, and begins to climb. For the most part, the trail consists of loose rocks, which makes it easy to twist an ankle or fall, so in order to help eliminate these possibilities it is important to wear proper shoes and mind your footing. The trail climbs up through the forest, following and crossing a cascading mountain stream via several bridges. The stream is a delight for hikers, especially in the warm months, because it flows forcefully over boulders forming pools that are perfect for a refreshing dip on a hot summer day. As mentioned before, the trail to the summit is 2 miles long, 4 miles roundtrip, and it climbs 1335 feet—it is considered a strenuous hike that requires caution and strength, so pace yourself.
When you reach the halfway point of the trail, you will get your first view of the Chimney Tops proper—a rock outcrop that you must climb in order to reach the true summit and the best views. The trail to the base of the rock outcropping is a tangled web of roots, roots that are very easy to trip over, or get your foot caught in, so just be careful and don’t give up. On several occasions, we have seen hikers climb the root section, only to "chicken out" at the base of the rocks, since this last portion of the trail can be very intimidating. It is true, that the drop off from this part of the trail is very steep—it is not somewhere that you want to slip and fall, however, if you are brave enough, and cautious enough, you will make it to the top with no problems. Once on the summit, the panorama will take your breath away, this is also a great place for a picnic, so remember to bring some snacks to munch on while you rest and enjoy the well-deserved view!
We first hiked the Chimney Tops in 1989, it was our first mountain summit, and our first major hike and we carried way too much (like every piece of camera equipment that we owned). In our youthful enthusiasm (I was 21 years old and Pick was 19 years old) we made many mistakes, but we had a great time and we couldn't wait to share the hike with our friends. I remember the sense of pride that we had after the hike, it was such a great feeling to know that we had successfully climbed a mountain and stood on its summit—we were hooked on mountain hiking from that day forward.
Our second visit to the Great Smoky Mountains was in the year 1990, and we once again set out for the Chimney Tops, only this time we brought more friends. Joining Pick and I on the hike were Lulu and Cupcake—who was only 8 years old at the time, and he remains the youngest Natural Born Hiker to have climbed the Chimney Tops! Despite his young age, he managed to hike the trail with relative ease, reaching the summit with youthful enthusiasm and excitement. I remember how excited he was to get to the top, but then once he was on the summit it was a slightly different story—he was pretty scared by the height, and he made sure that he stayed as flat to the ground as possible, but he loved every minute of the adventure!
We love the Great Smoky Mountains so much, that we find ourselves longing to visit after a few years absence, so in 1994, we returned once more, and of course, we climbed the Chimney Tops again. This time we brought Kat along for the ride, and even though she was only 12 years old, she couldn’t wait to tackle the Chimney Tops Trail. It was Kat's first hike, and she and Cupcake were both 12 years old at the time—they are exactly three weeks apart in age, making them rather competitive cousins. Therefore, Kat was ready to even the score on the hiking card and add the Chimney Tops to her resume as well, and she did so with flying colors. In fact, both Kat and Cuppy hiked the trail like pros, and they did a great job of keeping up with Pick, Lulu and I. Fortunately, the summit was less intimidating for Cuppy on this trek, and Kat was not scared at all, so the five of us had a great time sitting on the top and taking in the view.
In 1996, we went back to "the chimneys" for yet another hike, this time Zakamondie and Sully joined Pick and I for the adventure. It was, once again, a springtime endeavor—seems to be our favorite season in the Smokies, with our trip being in the month of May. Unfortunately, the pink and orange blossoms of the rhododendron and azalea had yet to peak, but the green leaves of spring were starting to return the forest to its colorful glory. The four of us marveled at the beauty of the national park, enjoying many of the park's trails during our stay—especially the Chimney Tops, and on that trip, Sully and Zakamondie fell in love with the Great Smoky Mountains too.
Many hikers share our love for this trail, and proof of this can be found on the summit where the rough exposed rock has been worn smooth by millions of hands and feet. Despite the treacherous nature of this trail, hundreds of people make this climb every year, and each one is a testament to the beauty and adventure found on not only the Chimney Tops Trail, but also everywhere you look in our Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Note: After so many hikes to the top, it can be said that climbing the Chimney Tops is quickly becoming a Natural Born Hikers tradition—one that we continue to this day! Our latest trip, in June 2003, introduced Dauster, The Berg and Pacer to the Chimney Tops—just click this link to read about our adventure.