It is perhaps the most famous footpath in the world, a single-track running along the spine of the Appalachians. From the alpine tundra of New Hampshire’s White Mountains to the verdant fir forests that crown the highest peaks of Tennessee, the Appalachian Trail passes through some of the country’s most astonishing landscapes. Throughout the summer months, thousands of hikers flock to see the amazing landmarks the trail has made famous: the Roan and Grayson Highlands, Charlie’s Bunion, Clingmans Dome, and Humpback Rocks. At times, the trail has suffered from overuse in these spots, and many areas have lost their ability to give visitors a true wilderness experience.
While many of the trail’s most famous stretches are truly inspiring and will no doubt be featured in future articles, we decided to give a little known and even lesser hiked portion of the trail a chance to show us what treasures it had to offer. Traversing the spine of the Great Smoky Mountains, the trail section between Indian Gap and Mount Collins wanders the evergreen forests and features wildflowers galore. It also is one of the least hiked trails in the park. To reach the start of this adventure, we pulled into the parking spot on the right side of Clingmans Dome Road, 1.5 miles away from Newfound Gap. You’ll find three different trails going various directions from the grassy field. If you go right the Appalachian Trail will take you back to Newfound Gap where you just came from. Straight ahead plunges down an old toll road to connect with the famous Chimney Tops Trail, passing waterfalls and cascades along the frolicking Road Prong. Our trail begins on the left hand side and begins a climb up the side of the mountain.
If you hike anytime within May, you’ll immediately be greeted by thousands of white blossoms carpeting the forest floor. White fringed phacelia and northern white violets make the forest look as if a fresh carpet of snow has fallen. Speaking of snow, don’t forget to bring an extra shirt or jacket-the trail never falls below a mile in elevation here, and cold winds, frost, and even snow can occur as late as June. The A.T., as many locals and hikers fondly call the trail, continues to climb and descend in bursts before starting a steadier grind up the flank of Mount Collins. While you’re never far from the road, much of the time you’ll be shielded from any noise pollution since you pass on the other side of the ridge.
Did I mention wildflowers? Yes, we may be overly zealous in our attraction to the plants growing along the trails we hike, however, one can’t help but stop and enjoy the beauty our amazing mountains nurture! Wood sorrel’s candy cane colored blooms smothered decaying logs as the speckled wood lilies were just beginning to bloom. Further along, the stalks of the towering turks cap lilies could be seen, which will eventually reach heights of 6 feet or more before blooming throughout June and July. Trout lilies also could be found with the last of their blooms, although in much fewer numbers. Soon you’ll want to turn your eyes up from the flowers and look to your right, as a wonderful view of Mount LeConte opens up to the north. Another thing you’re sure to notice will be the grey skeletons of hundreds of frasier fir trees. Most of them died in the 60’s due to an invasive, aphid-like insect known as the balsam woody adelgid. The park service is working to preserve the best stands of the endemic species, and there are promising signs that the younger trees have begun evolving a natural defense against the invaders. Not too much further along the trail you’ll forget all about the adelgid as the forest closes back in to darken the path. Here too the trail will level out, and the whir of traffic will become apparent as you once again approach Clingmans Dome Road. Be careful, as this area can be a bit muddy after it has rained. Try not to walk on the sides of the trail to avoid puddles as this erodes the trail’s banks while also destroying fragile alpine wildlife.
You’ll know you’ve completed this section of the hike once you reach a trail sign near the top of Mount Collins. A small access trail comes in on the left and leads to a parking area along the road. Here you have two options: one would be to follow the road back down to the parking area, enjoying the scenic views of the North Carolina side of the park (only recommended if you are not traveling with children and if traffic is not heavy), while the other option is to retrace your steps along the A.T., allowing the trail to show you the forest’s riches and vistas that you missed on your way up the mountain.
Directions: If approaching from Gatlinburg, follow Newfound Gap Road 15 miles to the intersection with Clingmans Dome Road at the state line. Turn right and follow Clingmans Dome Road 1.5 miles and park in the large parking area you will see on the right.