WNC Travel Guide

out frIts bolts are rusting, floor planks are rotting, and its windowpanes shattered. The roof is pocked with holes that let in the rain and snow. Even the some of the guardrails have gone missing from the 60-foot-tall lookout tower — an unnerving thought for any person daring enough to climb it.

coverAs Don Casada veered off-trail and began bushwhacking his way over fallen logs and through overgrown shrubs along the shore of Lake Fontana, he barely glanced at the trusty GPS unit in his hand.

He’d been this way before, many times, and knew just where he was going. Casada finally stopped at a clearing marked by a looming stone chimney, all that is left of a cabin that early Appalachian settlers had once called home.

out frBy George Ivey • Contributing writer

What in the world would bring together the Great Smoky Mountains and the country of Iceland way up there in the cold waters of the North Atlantic?

Things weren’t looking good. After five days of searching and zero clues, a massive search for a missing man in the Great Smoky Mountain National Park was at a critical juncture.

“Let’s try to make another hard push for this guy today,” Joe Ponds, a supervisory park ranger, told a group of about 60 search-and-rescuers gathered near a makeshift command center last Thursday morning, March 22.

Searchers were upbeat that today would be the day — the day they would get a break in the search, that they would find their guy or at the very least, a sign that he was still out there.

Marching orders were clear. Check all natural or manmade shelters. Talk to anyone and everyone they saw. Keep their eyes peeled for any leads — such as a reported sighting or a Camel Crush cigarette butt, the brand Derek Lueking smoked.

Following the daily pep talk, nearly three dozen searchers split into 14 teams to begin the sixth day of combing through the densely forested national park where Lueking, 24, of Louisville, Tenn., disappeared that previous Saturday morning.

Hope was still alive that Lueking would be found. The unseasonably warm weather has given him a better chance at survival than typically afforded lost hikers this time of year.

SEE ALSO: Motives of missing man remain a mystery

But, one cannot ignore the fact that by day six, most lost hikers would have already been found. Searchers believed Lueking was ill prepared for an extended trip into the woods, taking nothing more than a daypack with him.

At this point, about 90 percent of missing hiker cases have resolved themselves — either the search team finds the person or they emerge from the woods on their own, said Bob Miller, a spokesman for the Great Smoky Mountain National Park.

There is no set number of days, however, when search crews decide it’s time to pull the plug. As long as there are leads, the park rangers would keep at it.

The search employed both human and dog trackers. The human trackers look for broken branches, footprints or any other signs that indicate that someone had recently traveled through the area.

The rangers gave the dog trackers a whiff of Lueking’s clothing at the start of every day to ingrain them with his scent, which the canines attempted to ferret out in the woods.

But ultimately, the search would be called off the next day, with Lueking still missing.

“It is very disheartening for the searchers to work so hard for so long to find a missing individual without success,” said Dale Ditmanson, superintendent at the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

As of Friday afternoon, March 23, searchers had not found a single clue, beyond Lueking’s vehicle, that it could conclusively tie to the missing man.

“Without clues, you are just kind of searching in the woods,” said Molly Schroer, a spokeswoman for the park.

 

Going off-trail

Contrary to searches dramatized on television, rangers don’t walk side-by-side in a chain calling the missing person’s name. They have a deliberate road map for how and where they will look.

In most cases, people lost in the woods stay on the trail. It is only a matter of time before park rangers catch up to them, or they find their way to a trailhead.

During the Lueking search, teams hiked about 55 miles of trails that radiate from Newfound Gap, including parts of the Appalachian Trail. Once they checked all the obvious places, the search moved off-trail — making it trickier and more difficult.

Finding a person in a wilderness of half a million acres, steep slopes, thick ravines and rugged rock outcrops is like trying to find a needle in haystack.

The searchers look for “places where it would be appealing to get off-trail,” Miller said. When they see one of those alluring spots, the hikers walk “until it becomes really unpleasant” or rather, reach an area where no human could safely traverse.

As they travel each unmarked route, the rangers denote it on a GIS-based map so the other teams don’t waste time surveying the same area. The maps of where they have been and where they still need to go allow the teams to systematically search the dense forest and ensure that they are doing their best to locate a missing person.

And, rain or shine, the manhunt continues until all the clues dry up. But, even after an official search concludes, rangers will still keep an eye out.

“You never really give up,” Miller said. “People are pretty resourceful.”

SEE ALSO: Macon familiar with missing hiker searches

When a search is in full swing, the search teams convene every morning at 8 a.m. sharp to review a game plan for the day. Operations are coordinated from makeshift command post set-up at the trailhead where the person was last seen — in this case, the Newfound Gap parking lot on U.S. 441.

In addition to personnel from the national park, searchers from the Blue Ridge Parkway, Cherokee Tribal EMS and the North Carolina and South Carolina search and rescue dog associations, among others, joined the hunt for Lueking. The North Carolina and Tennessee highway patrols offered helicopter services for several days at no cost to the national park service.

Every day, rangers survey maps to see what areas they have covered and which they haven’t. Tasks are numbered in order of importance and slowly whittled down during the day and in some cases, added to as searchers uncover possible clues.

“Each day, you look at the intelligence and the personal information that the family and others might provide on his behavior,” Miller said.

What land is traversed is just as important to the search as what areas are not. Some parts of the national park are too unpleasant for anyone to hike and get eliminated as a possible route of the missing person.

“You are not searching 90 percent of the land in this situation,” Miller said.

Still, the remaining thousands of acres of wilderness are daunting enough. Given the terrain, a voice hollering for help carries a quarter-mile at best. If the missing person is unconscious, hurt or unable to call for help, it takes a lot of instinct and some luck to stagger upon someone in the vast Smokies.

Each new day gives park rangers an opportunity to follow up on leads that they did not get to the previous day because they had other duties to fulfill. On occasion, rangers will report back a fresh lead or dog hit, when a canine latches on to a scent.

Leaders at the command center will decide if a lead is strong enough to be investigated immediately. In those cases, a group of unassigned rangers will “hot foot” it out to the site of the clue and follow it until it leads to another clue or goes cold, Miller said.

During the Lueking search, a helicopter spotted a tarp near Deep Creek, and a team was quickly dispatched to check it out. But, the equipment looked as if it had been in place for a long time, and there were no signs linking it to Lueking.

If a clue is found, searchers must then put themselves into the lost individual’s boots.

“Where would I go?” Miller said. “A lot of it goes down to looking at the terrain.”

An elderly man is most likely going to travel downhill, taking the path of least resistance, rather battle his way through brush and thicket uphill, the route a younger hiker would likely choose.

“A 14-year-old boy is more likely to bushwhack straight up hill rather than a 60-year-old man,” Miller said.

During the Thursday morning briefing, each speaker emphasized two things — their gratitude to all the searchers and safety first.

“The very first priority in this search is the safety of your searchers,” Miller said.

Everyone was encouraged to partner with someone whom he or she would be responsible for keeping tabs on during the day.

After a full day of hiking without results, the teams return to home base, in this case Newfound Gap, between 5:30 and 6 p.m. The search parties, tired and ragged, are debriefed while the day’s events are still fresh in their minds.

“The result of one day’s activities is the foundation of the next day’s search plans,” Miller said.

 

One of many searches

The national park conducts anywhere from 80 to 100 searches each year — most of which end happily.

It is unknown how much money was spent searching for Lueking, but $25,000 to $50,000 is not uncommon, Miller said. A three-day, 300-person search for a South Florida boy nearly a decade ago cost $300,000.

Each national park has money set aside for such operations. However, once the cost exceeds $500 per searcher, the park kicks its future costs up the chain to its regional office in Atlanta. For particularly expensive and extensive searches, the Atlanta office will pass costs to a contingency fund dedicated especially for search and rescue operations that can be tapped by any of the U.S. national parks.

The search for Lueking is larger than the average search conducted by the park. A search of this scale only comes around once every three years or so, Miller said.

About 45 national park employees played a part in the Lueking search, along with roughly 15 volunteers. Most of the volunteers spent their time passing out flyers and talking to hikers emerging from or entering trailheads. Volunteers do not usually have the experience required to hike off-trail, which is unmarked, heavily thicketed and sometimes treacherous.

Nearly a decade ago, a 6-year-old boy from South Florida was walking to Clingmans Dome with his family. When he walked off, his family initially assumed that the child was answering the call of nature. But, when he did not return soon after, the park rangers issued an alert and quickly began looking high and low for him.

During the three-day search, some sheriff deputies from South Florida came up to North Carolina to help. Although all the men were strong and fit, they did not last more than an hour on the trails before returning to the command center. Hiking takes a different kind of strength that the deputies did not have had.

“You can’t just take anybody who comes in off the street,” Miller said.

Turns out the young boy had hiked more than 10 miles on the nearby Appalachian Trail before wandering off trail. He was found three days later eating blueberries and drinking water from a stream.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park got an early Holiday gift on Dec. 14 when the Friends of the Smokies officially transferred 20 acres of new land to the national park.

The land lies along Soak Ash Creek in the Pittman Center, Tenn., community just east of Gatlinburg.

The Friends purchased the tract at auction in the summer of 2010 at a cost of $775,500, sparing the park from encroaching private development.

“We had been interested in acquiring that property for many years if it ever came on the market because it is surrounded by park land on three sides and is ripe for development,” Park Superintendent Dale Ditmanson said. “We are very happy to be able to prevent potentially intensive development right on the park’s boundary, and it also protects an intact wetland.”

The park, as part of the gift, also inherited a five-bedroom house that it intends to make available to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy. The house includes a large conference space which might host some park field trips when foul weather forces participants indoors.

The annual “Picnics in Pittman for the Park” at the Emerts Cove home raised more than $500,000, which became the core of the Friends’ purchase price. Other significant support included a $25,000 grant from the Foothills Land Conservancy.

A bad year for acorns in the higher elevations, coupled with a poor berry crop region wide, has resulted in an influx of black bears into areas where the majority of mountain residents live: the cities, towns and mountainside developments of Western North Carolina.

Hungry bears are looking for acorns, moving into lower elevations in their hunt for food before hibernating for the winter. This has bear and human encounters in WNC tracking on a record pace this year.

“This year is an anomaly because of the acorn crop. There almost none (high) in the mountains,” said biologist Mike Carraway of the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission. “The bears are looking for food.”

SEE ALSO: Forget the birdfeeders and dog bowls, this bear went straight for the kitchen cupboard

As hungry bears descend from the highlands, motorists are hitting and killing bears on the highway more than ever, particularly in such traditional bear habitat as the Pigeon River Gorge where Interstate 40 cuts through national forest lands.

The Wildlife Resources Commission reports cars have hit and killed more than a dozen black bears in WNC in the last couple of weeks alone. In all 12 months of last year, 10 bears were killed after being struck by motorists.

Additionally, phone calls about “nuisance” bears to North Carolina’s wildlife offices are numbering in the hundreds, well above what’s usually received, Carraway said. The state has received 300 calls so far this year, with the previous high for an entire year standing at about 400, he said.

SEE ALSO: Close encounters of the bear kind

The state does not capture and remove bears anymore: there’s simply nowhere to put them. Additionally, “we can’t catch hundreds of bears,” Carraway said.

The bottom-line on the issue, at least according to the state biologist and the region’s other bear experts? We’ve got to learn how to live with black bears. And to not feed them, to put up bird food and dog food as needed, to slow down and watch out for bears on the highway, and do those other easy, sensible things that will allow bears and humans to peacefully coexist.

 

Why so many?

The sheer numbers of bears now in the mountains are compounding the problem. Conservation efforts to help black bears in WNC thrive have proven successful, which is terrific, except that right now all of them are converging into the lower elevations in a desperate hunt for food.

“There’s a lot of mobility in and out of the park,” said Bob Miller of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. “It’s the fall shuffle. But, normally this time of year, there would have been a good acorn crop (in the Smokies) they could have camped out on. They are headed to apple orchards, and so on.”

There have been the same issues, an increase in human and bear encounters, in east Tennessee, Miller said. Camper and bear encounters are down in the Smokies, because the bears have moved on — two backcountry campsites were closed because of bear activity, but park officials probably will reopen those soon, Miller said.

Plus, mother bears responded to a great acorn crop last year by having more cubs than normal this spring. Which is likely why so many local newspapers in recent days are running reader-donated photographs of a mother bears and their young — the mothers are trying to find food to save the cubs from starvation.

The Great Smoky Mountains National Park might finally get a place to store its sizeable cache of historical artifacts, but it almost certainly won’t be in Swain County.

Earlier this year, when the park broke the news about what it’s calling a curatorial collections facility to be built in Townsend, Tenn., Swain County residents were unimpressed.

They packed a Swain County commissioners meeting to vent their spleen, asking why such a trove of historical treasures weren’t going to be located in the county that claims the lion’s share of the parkland.

“Was any consideration given to the fact that Swain County gave more land and our people were given more broken promises than any other county in the park?” Linda Hogue wondered rhetorically. She and others asked commissioners to pitch Swain County as a better location for the place. They pointed out that Swain residents, when displaced by the park’s creation, donated many of the artifacts that would be housed in such a facility and wanted them to be housed locally rather than in Tennessee.

“I’m weary and I’m sure you are, too, of singing a same song, different verse. I’m asking you to go to bat for us. We have land right here close to Bryson City for such a facility,” said Hogue.

Park brass, however, have said that a venue change is unlikely, especially since Swain County already has the park’s only cultural museum at the newly christened Oconaluftee Visitors’ Center at the Smokies’ main North Carolina entrance outside Cherokee.

That, said Swain County Manager Kevin King, is a misconception that has been circling around the project since its announcement. And indeed, many who voiced opposition to a Tennessee location cited the economic benefits of having an added visitor attraction in the county.

But even if the center were located in Swain County, the artifacts in question wouldn’t be set up for public viewing anyway, said Park Superintendent Dale Ditmanson in a letter to commissioners.

“What is proposed is a storage facility not a museum,” said Ditmanson, in the letter.

Currently, the Native American spear points, logging equipment, farm implements, period clothes, weaving looms, moonshine stills and various other relics from the area’s pre-park days are scattered around. Most live in a hard-to-reach facility in Oak Ridge, Tenn. The new facility would bring them together and provide a safer home that would keep them in better shape for longer, and avoid paying rent on a place to house them in off-site.

The real reason the storage house is staying in Tennessee, however, is financial. The park is partnering with four other national parks in that state to split the costs and the space, and a donation of 1.6 acres has already been made for the facility’s footprint. Plus, money was allocated in 2009 and 2010 to build a facility in Tennessee.

“This would be really convenient for us to be able to operate and manage and work with the other parks,” said Nancy Gray, a spokesperson from the Great Smoky Mountains National Park’s public affairs arm. “It would benefit everybody to get all of the artifacts into a central location.”

King agreed, saying that if and when Swain County gets a museum up and running in the historic courthouse — as is on the long-term to-do list for the county — getting some items on loan from the park would be a lot easier, were they in one locale.

Still, said Hogue, having the county’s historical assets in Tennessee is a travesty in the first place.

“A facility of this type would mean so much more to our people than just a building with old things cataloged in it,” said Hogue. “I have talked with many elderly Swain County citizens and they relayed to me that they had donated items to the park with the assurance that they would remain in Swain County.”

The park is still awaiting federal funds for construction, and it was missed out in this year’s allocation. So central storage is still a good few years away. But when it comes, Swain County probably won’t be its final destination.

I recently wrote in the Swain County newspaper about a singularly misguided proposal by Great Smoky Mountains National Park leadership to transfer their archives and artifacts to Townsend, Tenn. A Swain County site makes more sense, and full marks to county commissioners for becoming actively involved in this issue.  

Beyond that, any resident in Swain County who gives a fig for the future or cares about our rich role in the Park’s past should speak out as well. The comment period remains open, and I’d strongly encourage readers to make their feelings known to the Park (www.nps.gov/grsm) and Swain native Rep. Heath Shuler (www.shuler.house.gov).

Incidentally, although I have asked specific questions and offered comments on the issue to Park officials, the only response I have had came in a testy conversation with a spokesman, Bob Miller. When I pointed out, repeatedly, inconsistencies between the comments period cited in his press release and what appeared on the Park’s web site (the latter was changed multiple times, with one comment period closing almost as soon as it opened), he said:  “We’ll change it on the web site.”

What I could not get him to understand was that saying one thing in a printed press release and subsequently changing the rules of the game was confusing, and in my view disingenuous.

As if that situation wasn’t vexatious enough, close on the heels of the archives/artifacts proposal comes another which is, if anything, more convoluted and ill-conceived. A recent press release proposes changes in regulations governing backcountry camping in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Park leadership tells us that backcountry “site capacities are frequently exceeded.” In addition, according to their statement, “once backpackers obtain their reservations and arrive at their campsite, they often find the area filled by people without permits.” In the same release they also complain of lack of staff to patrol the backcountry.  

Staff issues are matters for Park management, but they are missing in action in the backcountry. Personally I haven’t seen a ranger in the backcountry for decades, and I’ve only been checked while fishing once in the last quarter century.

The release raises questions.  “How, other than hearsay, do officials know capacities are exceeded?” “If there are significant problems, why aren’t they addressing the situation with patrols?” “Does hard statistical evidence support changes?” “If problems exist to such a significant degree, hasn’t the Park been guilty of neglect?”  

No doubt Park answers will plead budgetary constraints and more urgent frontcountry needs. There is validity to both, notwithstanding troubling examples of Park employee “do nothingness” alongside stellar work by others.  

Or to view matters another way, if plans involve demands on Park staff, let’s handle matters proportionally.  Look at the ceaseless “circlers” in Cades Cove, asphalt-bound flocks of buzzards filling the air with exhaust fumes.  

Closer to home, what about the unending tube brigade parading up Deep Creek? They degrade banks between trail and stream; leave a noxious, never-ending legacy of litter in their wake; and channel the creek with habitat harming “engineering” projects.  

Yet it seems such folks, like those breaking dog walking regulations, picking flowers, and much more, are studiously ignored while Park officials focus their fiscal laser beam on the tiny minority — probably less than one-tenth of 1 percent of all Park visitors — who camp in the backcountry. If they are serious about making folks pay as they go or want a fair distribution of what a friend has nicely styled “ranger impact,” let’s bring some balance to the user equation.   

Perhaps more to the point, it seems logical to believe that active backcountry patrolling, along with meaningful fines for angling violations, ginseng poaching, illegal camping, and the like, would accomplish two things. It would provide money to justify the manhours involved and would dramatically curtail such activities.

Interestingly, another recent Park press release says that there has been a steady decline in Park visitation over the past several years. Logically, if that is the case, backcountry usage should also be down. The most recent statistics I could find, from a detailed 2008 study out of the University of Tennessee, bear that out and make Park statements seem ludicrous. According to the study, with the notable exception of the shelters along the Appalachian Trail, campsite usage is anything but heavy.    

Take Deep Creek as one example. None of the seven streamside campsites had heavy usage. Only Poke Patch and Bumgardner Branch, the most easily reached of the lot, averaged more than one camper a night for the year (375 and 526 campers, respectively).

Indeed, if you look at campsites from Cataloochee to Twentymile Creek, only two other than Appalachian Trail shelters — Lost Cove on Eagle Creek and Proctor on Hazel Creek — totaled more than a thousand camper nights. That scarcely sounds like overcrowding, when most campsites are suitable for anywhere from 8 to 20 campers per night. Some accommodate appreciably larger numbers.

Additional evidence suggesting misrepresentation of the backcountry situation comes from conversations with hikers and campers as well as my personal observations.   My brother, who has hiked thousands of Park miles in recent years, says he has encountered precisely one ranger more than a mile from a trailhead. He also notes, in sharp contradiction to what Park management would have us believe, that he seldom sees backpackers and that most of the campsites he walks by are empty or sparsely populated.

Even easily accessible sites seldom have more than a couple of tents except on weekends and perhaps during peak months (May and October). Take the storied Bryson Place, for example, where you might think crowded conditions often exist. Not so. The 2008 study showed 158 camper nights for the entire year.

A key part of the proposal is that Park management wants to charge a user fee. Putting aside all the considerations addressed above for a moment, I would simply remind Park officials, from Superintendent Dale Ditmanson down, that charging a backcountry fee would break a solemn pledge made at the Park’s founding. Namely, that there would be no access fees for the Smokies. Also, I suspect this is a “foot in the door” kind of thing that could lead to other user and even entrance fees.

As the poet of the Yukon, Robert Service, once wrote, “A promise made is a debt unpaid.” Sadly, Park officials have often broken promises, and here we seem to have a case of where a promise made bids fair to turn into a situation where the Park must be paid. That’s how I see this proposal – as a money grab.

If I believed that there was overcrowding, if I believed that the current reservation system didn’t work, if I believed the fees collected would be used exclusively for backcountry-related matters such as maintenance and a meaningful ranger presence, and if I believed it would stop here, I would tolerate a modest fee. Alas, I think the likelihood of such monies being used exclusively for their proclaimed purposes about the same as thistle seeds being unaffected by dust devils dancing across fields in August.

Even as I urge readers to be heard, I’ll close by confessing cynicism. Past experience suggests that these comment periods and informational sessions are often mere façades, not serious factors in ultimate decisions.  Nonetheless, I think anyone who cares should make their voice heard. Sufficient, strident opposition just might have an impact.

(Jim Casada is a writer, an editor and a retired professor from Bryson City. His most recent book is Fly Fishing in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park: An Insiders Guide to a Pursuit of Passion.)

 

Comment on Proposals

Send comments to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or mail the Superintendent, GSMNP, 107 Park Headquarters Road, Gatlinburg, Tenn., 37738.

The Great Smoky Mountains National Park boasts the largest backcountry in the Eastern United States, yet for backpackers hoping to take in a slice of that wilderness with an overnight trip, finding a park ranger to help with logistics can be elusive.

Even seasoned backpackers tackling new terrain in the Smokies are bound to have questions. Where’s the closest water source? What’s the elevation gain? How likely is snow in April?

Yet the so-called Backcountry Information Desk is staffed for only three to four hours a day, and by volunteers at that.

“That phone is constantly busy,” said Melissa Cobern, backcountry manangement specialist with the Smokies. “That’s where we get a lot of complaints, where people have to call and call and call to try to get through.”

Cobern said the Smokies needs to beef up the backcountry desk with fulltime rangers, whose sole job is to help backpackers plan their routes.

It’s not that the volunteers don’t know their stuff. Most are members of the 900 Miler Club, an elite group who have hiked all 900 miles of the park’s trails.

“You are going to get good information when you get on the phone with them,” Cobern said.

But there just aren’t enough of them to keep the desk staffed all day long or handle the volume of calls, not when you consider each call takes 10 to 30 minutes.

The park hopes to hire rangers to staff at the backcountry information desk, as well as hire more rangers to patrol the backcountry. But to do so will take more money, and that has prompted the park to consider charging backpackers for overnight camping.

A meeting to hear from the public on the plan will be held from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. on Tuesday, August 16, at the Old Oconaluftee Visitor Center at the park’s main entrance outside Cherokee.

Unlike front country campgrounds with picnic tables, bathrooms and running water, backcountry sites are usually miles from nowhere, scattered across the park’s vast half a million acres and some embedded so deeply in the wilderness it takes three days to reach them from the closest trailhead.

Backpackers in the park have to camp at one of 100 designated backcountry sites, intended to limit impacts on the wilderness.

“The rest of the park is so dense and so steep, you can’t just throw down anywhere. The park would be a mess if people did that,” said Bob Miller, a spokesperson for the Smokies.

The backcountry sites have no amenities other than a fire ring and cables to hang food out of reach of bears.

The Smokies is hardly plowing new ground. All the big parks out West — Glacier, Yellowstone, Zion, Yosemite, Denali and so on — charge a fee for backcountry camping.

But the plan to charge for backpacking here could hurt “the common man,” said Tom Massie, a fisherman who frequents the Smokies.

“In these tough economic times there are families that can’t afford to go to Myrtle Beach or a big vacation somewhere else, so they take their vacations fishing or camping in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park,” Massie said. “The park systems have already been bought and paid for by the citizens of this country, particularly this park. What we are doing is making people pay to use their own national park.”

Whether to charge, and, if so, how much, is one thing the Smokies rangers want to hear from the public.

The park has floated a few options to jumpstart discussion. At the high end: $5 per person per night plus a $10 reservation fee covering the entire group no matter how large or how many nights. At the low end: just $4 per person per night with no reservation fee.

Unless the fee plan goes through, the park isn’t willing to reallocate existing rangers to backcountry assignments.

“Front country has always gotten more attention than the backcountry,” Miller said of the Smokies.

While the Smokies is the most visited national park in the county with around 9 million visitors, only a small fraction come to backpack.

In 2010, there were 33,000 backpackers and a total of 79,480 backcountry nights — meaning each of the 33,000 backpackers averaged 2.5 nights in the woods.

Overnight backpacking is down from 20 years ago, but has started to climb back up in the past five. There were 92,000 backcountry nights in 1994. It dropped to a low of 70,00 backcountry nights in 2006, and is now back up to 79,480.

All the park’s backcountry sites have limits on how many people are supposed to camp at them a given night, ensuring the wilderness experience backpackers are expecting and limiting human impact.

About one-third of the park’s more popular backcountry sites already require reservations to prevent overcrowding. Those are currently taken over the phone, and can be equally frustrating for backpackers trying to get through.

The rest of the park’s backcountry sites require simple self-registration. Backpackers pause at a registration box found at each trailhead, fill out a slip and drop it in the slot before being on their way.

There’s no way for park rangers or other backpackers to know how many people ahead of them or behind them might also have plans to camp at that site.

“A lot of those self registration sites aren’t that popular, but you could certainly end up in the situation where there are a lot of people at that site and there would be more people than you find comfortable,” Miller said.

A more formal reservation system would solve that problem. But it could also complicate matters for the last-minute backpackers, those who live in nearby communities and want to make an overnight jaunt to their favorite trout stream.

Under the new system, they would either have to go online before leaving the house and print out their permit, or get in the habit of planning trips in advance so the permit can be mailed to them.

Their only other option is make a trip to a staffed visitor center that can issue backcountry permits, which would be out of the way for backpackers heading into outlying areas like Cataloochee or Fontana.

Along with beefing up the backcountry information desk, Cobern said the park equally needs more backcountry presence and ranger enforcement.

While backpackers are supposed to get reservations for the more popular sites, some don’t with little threat of being caught.

This frustrates those who have actual reservations, who arrive at the site to find there isn’t enough room, Cobern said.

The most serious problem, however, is there aren’t enough bear cables for everyone to hoist their food off the ground, and that leads to bear problems, Miller said.

(Editor’s note: This column first appeared in The Smoky Mountain News in July 2005.)

Are you by chance looking for a high-elevation day-hike that embodies quite a bit of the region’s human history? If so, try the moderate to steep portion of the Appalachian Trail that leads from the Newfound Gap parking area in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park to Charlies Bunion.

Murlless and Stallings in Hiker’s Guide to the Smokies (1973) designated Charlies Bunion to be “probably the most spectacular view in the park. Almost sheer cliffs drop more than 1,000 ft. into Greenbriar section.” Located on the Tennessee-North Carolina border 4.0 miles north of Newfound Gap, this bare rock outcrop is situated at 5,375 feet. The narrow, cliff-hugging trail affords breathtaking views not only down into the abyss but far westward out beyond Mt. Le Conte into Tennessee. It’s not the Grand Canyon by any means, but the site can give you a touch of vertigo in a heartbeat.

The rocky outcrops of Charlie’s Bunion (formerly called Fodderstack) were created in the mid-1920s when a fire swept over the crest. The exposed humus was washed completely away shortly thereafter in a deluge. The curious place name dates to 1929 when Swain County native Charlie Conner was hiking with outdoorsman Horace Kephart, photographer George Masa, and others along the high divide. When they paused for a rest on the rocks, Conner took his boots and socks off, exposing a bunion or two that rivaled the surrounding stones. Eying Conner’s feet, Kephart remarked, “Charlie, I’m going to get this place put on a government map for you.” And he did.

As exciting as the views from Charlie’s Bunion are, the walk from Newfound Gap up over Mt. Kephart and down around Masa Knob is equally interesting. It’s a stroll through the early history of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Newfound Gap (5,040 feet)is situated 16 miles from the Oconaluftee Visitor Center on the North Carolina side of the GSMNP. The site came by its name when it was discovered (perhaps as early as the 1850s) by surveyors to be a lower pass through the high Smokies than Indian Gap two miles to the west. In 1928, when funds to acquire national park lands were proving hard to come by, John D. Rockefeller donated over $5 million as a memorial to his mother.  In 1940, President Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882-1945) dedicated the GSMNP — which had been officially founded in 1934 — in ceremonies at the gap.

At 1.7 miles, the AT leads to a gap and an intersection with Sweat Heifer Creek Trail. According to Allen R. Coggins in Place Names of the Smokies (1999), this name “goes back to a time when cattle (including young, virgin female cows called heifers) were driven up the strenuous pathway along this stream to summer pasture.”  One supposes that this sort of rugged terrain made the virgin heifers sweat.

At 2.7 miles, the AT reaches the intersection with the Boulevard Trail, which leads 5.3 miles to Mt. Le Conte, named for John Le Conte, a scientist, not for his older brother, Joseph Le Conte, as is often supposed.  

About 100 yards from the AT, a spur trail off the Boulevard Trail leads 0.8 miles to Mt. Kephart (6,217 feet) and the Jump-Off (6,100 feet), which also has truly spectacular views. The mountain is named for Bryson City writer Horace Kephart (1862-1931), author of the classics Camping and Woodcraft (1906) and Our Southern Highlanders (1913). Kephart was a force in the movement that helped establish the GSMNP and was nominated to have a mountain named after him in the late 1920s while still living.  

This story is told in full for the first time in a Web site titled “Horace Kephart: Revealing an Enigma” www.library.wcu.edu/digitalcoll/kephart/), which was completed about six years ago by the Special Collections division of Hunter Library at Western Carolina University. Using a variety of media, the library has built an in-depth archive around the life and times of Kephart that presents photos, artifacts, documents, writing, maps, and links to other sources of information.

In the section of this Web site devoted to the naming of Mt. Kephart, it’s noted that, “The life of Horace Kephart ended unexpectedly in a 1931 automobile accident. While the National Park he campaigned to create was not yet a reality, it was already clear that despite the obstacles to its founding, the park would come to the mountains he had grown to love. Of the many individuals involved in creating the park, Kephart was already recognized as a leader in the movement during his later years …The North Carolina Literary and Historical Commission urged that a mountain in the coming park be named after Kephart. In 1928 [a peak] in the proposed park was officially named [for him], an honor rarely given to living individuals.

At 2.9 miles along the AT you will reach Icewater Spring and shelter (5,900 feet) after swinging around the North Carolina side of Mt. Kephart. From Icewater Springs, the trail drops down through slate outcrops and across Masa Knob.

George Masa (1881-1933) was the well-known Japanese photographer whose Japanese name was Masahara Iisuka. Masa had a commercial studio in Asheville, but he spent as much time in the Smokies with his dearest friend (who he called “Kep”) as he could. His magnificent photographs of the Smokies often illustrated the articles Kephart wrote in support of the park movement. Masa was so distraught when Kephart was killed in the automobile accident that he petitioned the government with a barrage of letters requesting that he be buried with “Kep” at a site in the Smokies. This was not to be. Masa is buried in Asheville.

But it is absolutely appropriate that their names be linked in this way via natural monuments in the high Smokies along that portion of the AT leading from Newfound Gap to Charlies Bunion.

George Ellison wrote the biographical introductions for the reissues of two Appalachian classics: Horace Kephart’s Our Southern Highlanders and James Mooney’s History, Myths, and Sacred Formulas of the Cherokees. In June 2005, a selection of his Back Then columns was published by The History Press in Charleston as Mountain Passages: Natural and Cultural History of Western North Carolina and the Great Smoky Mountains. Readers can contact him at P.O. Box 1262, Bryson City, N.C., 28713, or at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Page 6 of 13
Go to top