Hiking to Chimney Tops is an experience most visitors to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, rarely forget. From cascading mountain streams to fog covered peaks, this trail is filled with some of the most majestic scenery in the entire park. For hikers looking to challenge themselves, the 730 foot elevation gain over the course of a short 2/3 of a mile, will test the will of even the most experienced backpacker. Those whom chose to finish this trail, will be rewarded with a view that no pictures could ever do justice to, the fog covered summit of Chimney Top.
To reach the Chimney Tops Trailhead, you’ll have to drive along Newfound Gap Road to the pull-off halfway between the Sugarlands and Oconaluftee Visitors Center. As this is one of the most popular spots in the park, you’ll want to hit this trail early. It often fills up quick, leaving you with no place to park. Snatching up the last spot by doing a little bit of "imaginative parking,” I rushed past the hordes of people crowding the trailhead to begin our journey on one of the oldest trails in the Smoky Mountains.
The first 0.9 mile leg of this trail criss crosses the cascading waters of Road Prong Creek. Giant boulders crowd the shores of this creek, making them excellent spots for hikers to sun bathe on. Some even take to swimming in the gentler pools, away from the roaring rapids.
Its hard not to be drawn to this place. Its currently late July and the woodland wildflowers are in full bloom. From the star shaped flowers of mountain laurel, to the puffy white tufts of foamflowers that crowd the trails edge, this is truly a magical place.
With this being one of the more popular trails in the park, it was in dire need of a facelift after years of abuse and neglect. In 2012, the Trails Forever Crew began a 3 year trail improvement on Chimney Tops Trails, reconstructing the uphill stone and log steps, as well as revitalizing the half dozen wooden bridges along the
All of this was nearly lost just 2 years after its completion. In the early evening hours of November 23, 2016, park headquarters received a call about a fire raging in a remote area of Chimney Tops.
Due to the steep cliffs and vertical terrain of the area, efforts to contain the spreading wildfire early on failed. With the forest floor littered with debris in the midst of a severe drought and a weather inversion carrying embers further downhill, the mountain literally exploded.
By November 28, as much as 11,000 acres of the park had burned to the ground. It took nearly another month to fully contain and suppress the flames. Following the wildfire, a report by The Tennessee Bureau of Investigation revealed that 2 juveniles were arrested on charges of aggravated arson in connection with the fire.
After a peaceful hike through this serene woodland, you’ll reach the second leg of this trail, the 0.85 mile climb to the Chimney Tops Overlook. From this intersection, one could also connect to the Appalachian Trail via the 2.4 mile Road Prong Trail.
Although this uphill climb is rated to be moderate on most hiking trail sites, the truth is that it is one of the most strenuous hikes in the entire park. Reaching the summit from here will require us to climb a similar elevation gain to some of the highest peaks in Colorado.
To be perfectly honest, the going was beyond tough. We began measuring how close we were getting to the summit by the size of the sweat ring on our shirts. The beautiful scenery helped to distract us from our aching legs as we continued to push ourselves forward. There were colorful, intermingling plant communities of lush green ferns, bright yellow woodland sunflowers, and fire engine red monarda. As we gained elevation, the forest canopy began to open up, revealing views of the mountains surrounding us.
Right as we were about to sit down and take a much needed break, a fellow hiker on his way down, stopped to inform us that were actually just around the corner from the summit. Much to our surprise, hidden behind a dense hedge of rhododendrons, was the newly built Chimney Tops Overlook. Holy cow was it worth it. From here, the mountain scenery goes on for miles, eventually leading to the peak of Mount Le Conte.
Turning our gaze to the left, we finally catch our first glimpse of Chimney Top. First discovered by the Cherokees, they originally referred to this pinnacle as Duniskwalgunyi, or “forked antler.” It is one of the only bare rock summits in the Smoky Mountain Range. With its remote location in this secluded mountain valley, the area surrounding Chimney Top often experiences its own unique weather. In the span of the twenty minutes we spent sitting on the overlook, enjoying our lunch, a dense patch of clouds rolled in to completely block out the sun and bring visibility down to a mere five feet.
As the clouds cleared, we headed over to the last stretch of the trail, ending at the steel fence blocking off access to the Chimney Tops pinnacle. Due to the last wildfire here, the last 0.25 mile trail up to the base of the pinnacle remains unstable, with large mounds of earth occasionally sliding off the mountain. Still, hikers occasionally attempt to climb this last stretch in order to reach the summit.
We watched as a group made their way up the barren landscape around Chimney Top. Apparently, they had climbed over the steel barricade blocking the trail, which is essentially amounts to trespassing on federal lands, a big No No. We joined another group near the overlook to watch as one by one they began the dangerous scramble up the rocky slope. All looked to be going well until out of nowhere, the wind switched and a large swath of dense fog began to move into the valley. The climbers froze in place as visibility went down to near zero within a matter of a few minutes. From our location we lost sight of half the group.
Although I’m a rule bender by nature, I’ve come to realize that sometimes rules are set in place for a reason. Had I gone up to climb the summit with that group, not only would I be putting my own life at risk, but that of my own kids whom regularly hike with me. On top of that I would have been breaking the law, not something to be taken lightly. After a solid ten minutes of hanging on for dear life, the fog cleared and three of the hikers managed to ascend the summit.
As I get older, I keep finding myself becoming more risk averse than the previous year before. Long gone are the days where caution and comfort were thrown to the wind in the name of seeking adventure. Its a constant battle I believe a lot of us have to fight in order to breathe fresh air into our daily lives. Comfort and safety is great and all, but if we don’t step out of it from time to time and put ourselves out there, then what do we have to compare that against. With that in mind, we leave Chimney Top, headed down the mountain and towards the Alum Cave Trail. Stay tuned to see if we make it the 5.5 miles to Mount Le Conte and hope to see y’all on the trails!