Friday, May 29, 2015

Steep hike heads up to rare rock summit

Lower of the Chimney Tops' twin peaks, seen from the higher summit.
Photo courtesy of  Great Smoky Mountains NPS.
Topo map, Chimney Tops Trail.

Chimney Tops
Trail popular route
in Great Smoky

NOTE: Due to recent wildfires, the Chimney Tops Trail remains closed as of April 2017.

Day hikers can ascend to a rare rock summit in Great Smoky Mountains National Park and be rewarded with some of the best views around via the Chimney Tops Trail.

The 2-mile one-way trail includes a steep 1700-foot gain in elevation. The good news is that in December 2014 the National Park Service completed a major refurbishing of the trail that included adding 367 rock steps – each weighing 300 pounds – and 291 locust log steps – most of them weighing about 80 pounds – which ensure a stable route.

To reach the trailhead, from Gatlinburg, Tenn., take the Newfound Gap Road (aka U.S. Hwy. 441) south into the national park. Signs point to the Chimney Tops parking lot, which is more of a pullout; note that the trailhead’s parking lot actually is a few miles south of the Chimney Tops campground.

Stream valley
The hike begins on the lot’s northwest side, immediately entering the lush woodland at about 3490 feet elevation. In quick order, the dirt trail crosses the West Little Prong Pigeon River, whose boulders send the water churning and cascading. It then crosses the Road Prong, a small stream that flows into the aforementioned river.

For a while, the trail loosely parallels the Road Prong before crossing it again to the stream’s flatter and broader east side. After making one more crossing, at 0.9 miles, the Road Prong Trail intersects with the Chimney Tops Trail. Go right/north to stay on your trail.

From there, the trail ascends nonstop. In just half a mile, you’ll reach 4400 feet elevation.

The home stretch sometimes feels like more of a rock climb than a hike as the trail crosses open stone. The rocks were folded upward about 310 million years ago when the North American and African plates collided, a geological event that formed the entire Appalachian Mountain range. Since then, natural weathering has eroded the top soil and exposed the hard slate, phyllite and metasiltstone.

Grand vista
The Chimney Tops consist of twin peaks. The trail reaches the higher of the pair first. At a little over 4724 feet elevation, the views are impressive to say the least.

To the north is the river valley where you parked your vehicle with Balsam Point towering beyond at 5818 feet. The Sugarland Mountain massif (which the Chimney Tops are part of) rises in the west and south. To the southeast is Mt. Mingus at 5802 feet, and to the northeast is Peregrine Peak at 5375 feet. Directly north of Peregrine Peak and almost straight east from Balsam Point are the highest points in the region, the triple summits of Mount La Conte, the tallest of which is the easternmost at 6593 feet.

Chimney Tops’ second peak, only about 20 feet lower than the first, also offers great views, but the real exhilaration is reaching it by heading over the narrow rocks with the steep drops on either side.

Returning down the mountain to the parking lot can be tough. You may need to scoot down some of the rocks on your butt.

The hike can be difficult for younger children, who will find the steep climb taxing and likely will need to be carried at least part of the way. Teenagers, however, are capable of handling the hike and will find reaching the top a confidence-builder.

Learn about other great trails at this national park in Best Sights to See at Great Smoky Mountains National Park.