Backpacking Fifth Avenue style in Hazel Creek

By Al Smith • Guest Columnist

Hazel Creek Trail in the Great Smoky Mountain National Park is located in the middle of the most extensive roadless area in the eastern United States.


So what do most Hazel Creek Trail campsite squatters and New York City street vendors have in common? Answer: Those wheeled carts which carry everything, including the proverbial kitchen sink!

There oughta be a rule that says if you want to have it with you in a backcountry campsite in the Smokies, you have to pack it in on your own two feet. I’ve just come back from my second extended backpacking trip to the Hazel Creek area and feel more like I’ve visited a KOA Campground than a backcountry camping area.

There are only five backcountry sites along Hazel Creek Trail, and on my last trip in early October all but one looked like car-camping central. I was dismayed by the presence of all of the blue tarpaulins — each looking nearly large enough to cover a quarter acre lot.

Beneath most could be found an array of 8-person tents, pot racks, ice chests, deep fat fryers, lawn chairs, food prep tables, propane cylinders, gas-fired lanterns and battery-powered radios. Surrounding and adjacent to these Campground Central Monuments-to-Civilized-Living were small forest fires (disguised as campfires), multiple versions of two-wheeled carts, enough hanging laundry to start a department store and even more tents that for some reason didn’t rank high enough to rate a position under Tarp Central.

One set-up in the campsite where I’d made my reservation looked so extensive that I just had to inquire of its occupants how they lugged all that stuff into the backcountry, since the nearest mechanized transport system (boats) was some 6.5 miles down the trail.

They didn’t. The horses did it. Yep, this outfit had hired the services of a string of cart horses from Fontana to be led more than 11 miles to the boat docking area near the start of Hazel Creek Trail. This string of horses came in from Fontana via the Lakeshore Hiking Trail — further trampling an already overused hiking trail into a worse series of mud bogs and eroded slopes.

The horses were then hitched with harnesses and frames to two-wheeled trailers which had been brought in via pontoon boat from the Fontana Marina. The horse-drawn trailers packed to the gills with camping stuff were led up Hazel Creek Trail some 6.5 miles to campsite No. 83 where the happy horses-for-hire crew unhitched the animals and trailed them back to Fontana knowing they’d get to return one week later to haul all of the fishing expedition’s stuff back down to the boat docking area.

I’ll leave it to your individual imaginations to predict the type of folks who populated these encampments. They may all have been fishing aficionados, but in my view they were not backcountry hikers.

I’d like to say most campers I saw along Hazel Creek Trail this past week were backpackers, but I cannot. Most were being supported by their own little camping city which none of them had to tote in on their back.

Oh yeah, I watched one group fry more than three dozen lovely trout fresh just that day from the surrounding waters. That was just the first batch. More fish were in the cooler waiting for their turn in the fry pans. Now, what kind of math did they use to come up with their individual creel limits? Hmmm, six people multiplied by five fish per day equals ..... about three dozen? And that was just the first serving! Right. A law-abiding bunch, weren’t they?

You might think I was just jealous because I had to subsist on freeze-dried fare reconstituted with water boiled in a 6-ounce titanium pot atop my tiny one-burner backcountry stove. I sat on a nearby rock while waiting for the water to boil. The meal was washed-down with filtered water from the creek and dessert was yet another granola bar as I listened to my camping neighbors living it up on humor enhanced by several six-packs of beer and multiple bottles of tequila while their radio competed with the roar of the adjacent creek.

I then got to spend my nights in a one-person tent that was periodically engulfed by drifting smoke from my camping neighbors’ simulated forest fires. My morning meal was a couple of packs of instant oatmeal consumed while smelling the wafting aromas of frying bacon and eggs with hash brown potatoes washed down with fresh-brewed coffee and orange juice.

Of course when I departed I was reminded by my 40-pound pack of the reason I’d left the six-pack of beer and the cast iron skillet complete with a half-gallon bottle of cooking oil for fish frying at home. Those granola bars and instant oatmeal are heavy enough.

I believe the time has come for the National Park Service to re-look and re-define what constitutes an acceptable method of getting camping gear into the backcountry. In my view it should not be via horse-drawn trailers. I think that any type of mechanical conveyance should be prohibited. If they want to car camp then let them go someplace other than the backcountry. Those of us who hike into the backcountry have a reasonable expectation of a backcountry-esque experience — not something akin to Fifth Avenue in New York City during lunch hour.

(Al Smith is a retired environmental engineer who has become an avid hiker and amateur wildflower photographer. The Great Smoky Mountain National Park is one of his favorite areas to visit and since 1996 he has logged more than 2,200 miles along hiking trails in the Smokies. He lives in Maryville, Tenn., and can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

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