When it was time for W- to go back home and Mom to arrive in Gatlinburg, that signaled a significant pivot in my vacation – from a run in the morning after sleeping in somewhat, with a lounging relaxing rest of the the day, to much earlier mornings with strenuous hiking and significant elevation changes followed by relaxing evenings, which, quite frankly, I find equally relaxing, but just in a different way.
The first hike Mom and I chose to tackle was Chimney Tops, which amazingly enough considering all of the years we’ve spent going to the Smokies, neither of us had ever done before. Named after the Chimney Tops is where the 2016 fire originated that decimated parts of Gatlinburg and Great Smoky Mountains National Park (GSMNP), so the trail was closed for approximately 10 months afterwards while the earth healed and rangers worked to rebuild the trail. The former trail terminus – one of the few bare rock summits in the Smokies – is still closed and may never reopen, but there’s a newly constructed platform approximately a quarter of a mile before the trail ends which still provides all of the great views that hikers come to expect of GSMNP.
The start of the trail itself is quite beautiful, with several streams and bridges that you cross over. Once you begin climbing stairs, however, you really don’t stop climbing until you’ve reached the top.
The hike was gorgeous, but also was quite steep and partially consisted of hundreds of rock and wood stairs, so I was glad I had thought to bring my trekking poles with me (stairs and switchbacks are not my friends). The good news is that any place we stopped to catch our breaths provided us with gorgeous views that made it feel less like a stop mandated by my exhausted lungs and more like a great photo op moment. There are also a couple of benches along the trail in case hikers need to sit and breathe for a bit before continuing on.
Amazingly enough despite being quite the popular hike, we had the trail almost completely to ourselves on the way up (only came across one other hiker), and really only encountered larger groups when we were almost back to the car. I really can’t recommend enough arriving early if you want to avoid a crowd. I have since done this hike again and time of day really plays a factor into whether you have to share the trail versus being able to have it all to yourself.
Although it may be tempting upon arrival at the new terminus to scoot around the imposing gate and continue on to the bare rocks at the top of the mountain which once signaled the end of the journey, please don’t. Rangers have worked very hard to rebuild Chimney Tops (as well as the rest of the fire-damaged Smokies) and there’s a reason that section has no been re-opened – it remains unsafe and is closed for the hikers’ protection. Additionally, the land will never fully recover if we hikers don’t give it time to heal, and that means respecting the boundaries put into place by the rangers and the park.