As some of you may know from previous posts, my Mom and I have a tradition where we go on a hiking trip every year. We’re usually only gone for a couple of days, but the hikes are much longer and more strenuous than we would normally attempt throughout the rest of the year. Last year our big hike was to Mt. Cammerer, which you can read about here. This year we planned a couple of different hikes, but our long one was to Charlie’s Bunion via the Appalachian Trail (“AT”).
Despite hiking in the Smokies practically every summer growing up, neither Mom nor I had heard of Charlie’s Bunion before. I found it by searching online for longer trails with great views, and then Mom looked up all of the details in her Hiking Trails of the Smokies book. **Side Plug: This book is amazing!! It gives turn-by-turn descriptions of every trail in the entire national park, including length and elevation details. We used it so many times during this trip and I recommend anyone who is planning on doing any hiking in the Smokies to check it out. You can purchase the book here. Charlie’s Bunion is, in fact, named after a man named Charlie (Charlie Conner), who had a bunion. The story goes that Charlie hiked to the rocky outcrop, then known as Fodderstack, with his friend Horace Kephart, who was one of the driving forces behind making the Smoky Mountains a national park. Supposedly Charlie took off his sock and his bunion looked so much like the rocks that Kephart said he would name the rocks after his friend.
The entire week was calling for rain on and off, so we checked the weather the night before and found it was calling for rain in the morning and possible hail around 6pm with some clearing mid-day. Knowing it was an 8.1-mi roundtrip with over 1600ft of elevation gain, we did some calculations and decided to leave Gatlinburg at 7am in order to try to time it just right to get the great views we had read about while getting back in plenty of time to miss any hail. Mom and I knew this would mean hiking in the rain, which isn’t exactly ideal, but we’ve done it before without melting, so we knew we’d be fine.
Arriving at Newfound Gap around 7:30am, the view of the mountains was foggy and the rain had already started. The normally packed parking lot only had 3 other cars sitting in it. We used the restrooms first, and then hit the trail. There’s something about seeing the AT sign at the trailhead that makes me giddy every time, like it’s the official start of an adventure.
The first two miles were a steady climb through mud and rain. Mom and I had on dollar ponchos, which were actually surprisingly effective. Me and the gear I had in my pack stayed completely dry. The trick was all of the water rushing downhill and trying to avoid wading in it so our feet would stay dry as long as possible. Even water-proof boots can only do much if you’re actively walking through water for hours. There were breaks in the trees periodically where I’m sure there would normally be gorgeous views of the surrounding mountains, but we could only see walls of fog.
After the initial two miles, we leveled off somewhat and the rain followed suit. At the 2.7-mi mark we saw a trail sign ahead with an orange sign (orange = the color the park uses to mark a closed trail), which made my stomach drop and my Mom to audibly exclaim “It had better not be closed!” Thankfully when we got closer, we read that the trail was actually splitting and the route to Rainbow Falls was closed for trail maintenance, but the AT, and therefore Charlie’s Bunion, was still open.
At mile 3 we came across, and stopped at, the Icewater Spring shelter, one of more than 250 shelters along the course of the AT. Due to the rain, we hadn’t been able to sit down or get to our packs for food, so a break was very appreciated. I had never stopped at one of these shelters before and was impressed with how nice they were. There was a giant hearth, which had a roaring fire while we were there, a long bench across the entire length, and then two very large bunks for people to sleep on. There were two through-hikers there, waiting out the rain before hitting the trail, as well as three siblings who were spending two weeks together on the trail, and two girls in their 20s who had crashed there for the night after visiting Charlie’s Bunion the day before.
During our short break, the rain had stopped completely and we could see blue sky for the very first time since setting out. We folded and put away our ponchos, and then, saying goodbye to the people we had met, trekked the additional mile to the Charlie’s Bunion spur, and then finally the additional .1-mi to Charlie’s Bunion itself. We timed it perfectly! The clouds had lifted completely and the view was to die for – a stunning panoramic scene of the Great Smoky Mountains. If you have the strength to do a strenuously ranked hike and only have one day in the Smokies, this hike should be at the top of your list, simply because of the payoff you get at the top. We had the whole place to ourselves for about 10min before other (more drenched) hikers began arriving, one of whom actually almost fell off the side of the mountain due to walking without paying attention.
Funny story about our trip back down: About 1.5-mi from the trailhead, the rain had begun again and Mom and I had busted out the ponchos once more. We came across a family of five hiking up the mountain, looking miserable and unprepared (minus the young son who looked like he was having the time of his life). They were wearing cotton, which was soaked all the way through, none of them had any food or water, and the mom was shivering. She asked us, “Are we almost there?” and when we said no, they turned around immediately and raced downhill so fast that they were out of sight in minutes. Mom then turned to me and said, “I wish I had asked where they were going, and then replied ‘You’re not close to anything’.” No idea where they thought they were going, but bless their hearts, they looked miserable and I can’t imagine how long they had hiked in their impractical footwear through the downpour, only to have to turn around.