Upland Chronicles: Appalachian Trail beckons to backpackers, hikers

Apr. 05, 2014 @ 11:52 PM

Every April, hundreds of energetic hikers head north from a mountain in North Georgia called Springer to start an annual migration along a ribbon of trail marked by a distinctive white tree blaze. This trail covers some 2,180 miles as it passes through 14 states, including Tennessee, on its way to a rocky peak in Maine called Mt. Katahdin. It is a famous trail among backpackers and hikers. To hike this trail can be an “adventure of a lifetime,” as one writer called it. The trail is called the Appalachian Trail, and part of it passes along the border of Sevier County.

Many of the hikers heading north from Georgia have a big goal of getting all the way to Maine by fall, while others plan on completing the trail over multiple years by hiking sections at a time (it takes about six months of steady hiking to complete the trail in one year). But all who hike the whole trail ultimately find themselves in part of Sevier County inside Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

The Appalachian Trail runs 71 miles through the Smokies, and for approximately half that distance it shares space with Sevier County, from roughly one mile west of Derrick Knob shelter to one-half mile east of Mt. Guyot at Old Black, approximately. Along this section, which adjoins the North Carolina border, hikers and backpackers can access and experience many of the highest and most spectacular peaks and mountains in all of the Smokies. These include Mt. Buckley, Clingmans Dome (the highest peak in the Smokies at 6,643 feet above sea level), Mt. Love, Mt. Collins, Newfound Gap, Mt. Kephart, Charlies Bunion, Masa Knob, “The Sawteeth,” Mt. Sequoyah, Mt. Chapman, and Mt. Guyot (the second highest peak in the Smokies at 6,621 feet above sea level).

The Sevier County section also provides dramatic vistas of Mt. LeConte, the Greenbrier area, the Ridge and Valley Province, the adjoining North Carolina Smokies, and Pisgah and Nantahala National Forests. Interestingly, the elevation through the Sevier County section never drops below 5,000 feet above sea level. The county does indeed have a distinct and conspicuous association with this granddaddy of all the national trails in the U.S.

The development of the Appalachian Trail grew out of a proposal made in 1921 by a regional planner from “Up East” named Benton MacKaye. MacKaye became a proponent of getting the American public out into the nation’s Appalachian forests on a long-distance trail, for both exercise reasons and for economic development in a poor area of the nation. As part of his original vision, he foresaw a series of overnight camps, hostels and rustic inns which might develop along parts of the trail to provide services as needed.

MacKaye’s idea was broached in an article entitled “An Appalachian Trail: A Project in Regional Planning” in the October 1921 issue of The Journal of the American Institute of Architects. As his message was disseminated, it spurred much interest among hiking groups and outdoor adventurers in the 1920s and 1930s, and led to an effort to develop such a pathway.

Hikers who had already been using other trails in the East, such as Vermont’s Long Trail, came together to study the merits of a trail up and down the spine of the Appalachian Mountains. These folk ultimately came up with an organization called the Appalachian Trail Conference (now called Appalachian Trail Conservancy) in the mid-1920s to initiate and coordinate local efforts on behalf of constructing the trail.

The Great Smoky Mountains were being promoted for national park status prior to 1934, and various people suggested that the Appalachian Trail should be routed through its high ridges, which are some of the tallest in the eastern United States. To that end, such notable personalities in Smoky Mountains’ history as Horace Kephart of Bryson City, N.C.; George Masa of Asheville, N.C.; and Paul Fink of Jonesborough, Tenn., worked together on proposing a route for the trail through the Smokies.

Once the trail was initially routed in the Smokies after the park’s establishment, it had to be constructed up and down the ridges, saddles and balds of the mountains. During its time, the Civilian Conservation Corps played a role in the Appalachian Trail’s construction. National Park Service staff took over after the CCC days, and later, local volunteers from the Smoky Mountains Hiking Club took the lead in maintaining the trail. The club, a group of hardy hikers and backpackers, had been exploring the Smokies ever since it was established in Knoxville in 1924, a full decade before the national park came into being. To this day, members still play a pivotal role in maintaining the Appalachian Trail in the Smokies, continuing a longstanding tradition over many decades.

When the Appalachian Trail was finally completed in the park, it connected the Davenport Gap area on the northeast with present-day Fontana Dam to the southwest, providing a forested portal through the majestic Smoky Mountains.

Today, the Appalachian Trail is a National Scenic Trail administered by the National Park Service, which works with the Appalachian Trail Conservancy and 31 local trail clubs in maintaining the trail along its almost 2,200 miles through the eastern United States.

As the days warm up and lengthen and spring marches up the high ridges of the Smokies in Sevier County in April and May, the Appalachian Trail beckons both hardcore backpackers and day hikers with fascinating backcountry vistas. A good access point for hikers in the county is Newfound Gap.

The Appalachian Trail requires being in shape and having hiking experience, but those who acquire these qualities always find that an outing on this high-country trail that traverses Sevier County’s border is one filled with amazement and satisfaction.

Arthur “Butch” McDade is a retired Great Smoky Mountains National Park ranger with 30 years of service in the National Park Service.

The Upland Chronicles series celebrates the heritage and past of Sevier County. If you have suggestions for future topics, would like to submit a column or have comments; contact Carroll McMahan at 453-6411 or email to cmcmahan@scoc.org; or Ron Rader at 604-9161 or email to ron@ronraderproperties.com.