By Danny Bernstein
For the past year, I’ve kept a trail map of the Smokies and the trusted manual Hiking Trails of the Smokies, known affectionately as the brown book, stashed in the seat pocket of my car.
The telephone number for the road conditions is on my speed dial and I am on a first name basis with several rangers in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
With my all-consuming endeavor to hike every trail in the Smokies now complete, I have become the 248th member of the 900 Miler Club. Though the club is called 900 Miler, there are now only 800 miles of maintained trails in the park, as shown by the GSM Trail Map. But you need to walk a lot more than 800 miles to do them all — some say 1,500 miles.
For all that effort, I only got a patch to sew on my pack — and bragging rights, of course. Logistically, it’s the most complicated hiking challenge I’ve done but physically it was not difficult. The Smokies are so well maintained that you can get really spoiled. Mile for mile, the Smokies trails are easier than the surrounding national forests.
When I moved to WNC, I had already done the 71.4 miles of the Appalachian Trail that traverse the park and knew how beautiful the trails were. I was thrilled to live so close to the Smokies. I then hiked a lot of easy miles, most on the perimeter of the park — what I call the top of the pops: Ramsey Cascades, Little Cataloochee Trail, the Deep Creek/Martin Gap/Indian Creek loop, Hemphill Bald and all the Mt. LeConte Trails.
I then did some obscure and fascinating hikes that only a 900-mile aspirant would do, like Brushy Mountain with its good view of Gatlinburg, Grapeyard Trail with its train engine remains and up to Gregory Bald from Twentymile Ranger Station. About that time, I finished the South Beyond 6000 which gave me the Balsam Mountain Trail. I went to the Great Smoky Mountains Institute at Tremont several times and got a lot of pesky miles off Little River Road. One year, they organized a long shuttle from Clingmans Dome on the Sugarland Mountain Trail. Part of the challenge is to find other obsessed hikers so you can set up shuttles.
The two watershed backpacks were from the Fontana Marina, probably the most remote part of the park: the first was Eagle Creek and down Jenkins Creek. The second was a long loop involving Cold Spring Gap Trail, up Welch Ridge and down Hazel Creek. To me, those were the big challenges; I felt that if I could get those out of the way, I would finish.
But after those backpacks, I looked at the map yet again and the goal seemed even more impossible. I set up backpacking trips and people canceled. It rained and others canceled. Then I realized that I could do 18-plus miles a day by myself and it was no big deal. The last three months, I hiked 120 new miles. I had to repeat many more miles to reach the inner trails. For example, to reach Pole Road Creek Trail between Deep Creek and Noland Divide Trail, I had to rewalk seven miles.
I finished on the Indian Creek Motor Trail, a minor trail out of the Deep Creek entrance; it was important for me to finish on the North Carolina side. I will never know the park as well as I do now. So why did I do it?
• To really understand the park and how all the trails are connected. Before I moved to Western North Carolina, the Smokies to me was the Sugarlands entrance from Gatlinburg.
• Because it was there and the next obvious hiking challenge. It’s important to keep hiking little-known Smokies trails or the park may decommission them.
Like any challenge on the trail or in life, it’s not about physical strength or stamina. Hiking all the trails in the Smokies is all about perseverance, organizing and keeping your eye on the goal. But finishing any hiking challenge is bittersweet — grateful I’m done and sad that I don’t have to get out there anymore.
But now my husband caught the Smokies 900 bug and he has 200 miles to go. So I’m back in the park to help him.
What’s a hiking challenge?
There are a host of hiking challenges that trail hounds in WNC can tackle. The 900 Miler Club, the endeavor to hike every mile of trail in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, is one of the longest running. But there’s a few others.
• South Beyond 6,000, or SB6K: hike to the top of all 40 peaks in the Southern Appalachians that’s over 6,000 feet.
• Pisgah 400: hike all 400 miles of maintained trail in the Pisgah National Forest. About 120 trails.
• Lookout Tower Challenge: Hike to 24 fire towers in WNC.
• Waterfall 100: Hike to 100 predetermined waterfalls and cascades in WNC.
For details on the hiking challenges, go to carolinamtnclub.org and look for “challenges” on the left hand side.