Ramsey Cascades Trail is located just minutes from downtown Gatlinburg, in the Greenbrier area of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park (GSMNP) on the Tennessee side. This trail has five major things going for it.
(1.) It’s considered the “quieter” side of the Smokies. With it being off the beaten path, most tourists are unaware of its existence. Therefore making this hidden gem less crowded. You still have the day hikers and tourists, but not as bad as Cade’s Cove or Newfound Gap.
(2.) Ramsey Cascades Trail is only 4 miles in length, but plan to hike 8 miles (in and back out). And with an elevation gain of 2,200′, it’s a slight steady climb. The last 3 miles the trail becomes more rugged, but still considered as a moderately difficult hike.
(3.) Ramsey Cascades Trail is home to some of the largest Tulip Popular Trees in the Park. Measured as the largest Tulip Popular trees on the Tennessee side of the Smokies. These majestic trees tower over the surrounding hardwoods. You will find these trees around 3 miles into your hike.
(4.) Ramsey Cascades Trail has a couple unique footlog bridges that make for a beautiful and natural way to cross the stream without looking out of place. These footlog bridges are designed and hand built by park employees. The logs used to make these bridges are recovered from naturally downed trees due to storms or high winds.
(5.) Ramsey Cascades Trail has a destination like no other. Once you get to the end of the 4 mile long trail, you’ll get to one of the most beautiful waterfalls/cascades in the park, Ramsey Cascades. At around 100′ high, Ramsey Cascades is also the tallest waterfall in the park.
Things you should know
When planning your trip, give yourself plenty of time to hike in and hike back out. It takes the typical hiker 5 to 7 hours to hike in and back out to your car. Obviously weather and trail conditions can effect this timing.
Expect to see other hikers. Even though Ramsey Cascades Trail is “off the beaten path”. You will more than likely see day hikers and some tourists. During Spring and Autumn expect to see more people due to the wildflowers and fall colors.
Be sure to wear sturdy footwear and dress appropriately. Weather conditions can change on a moments notice in the Smokies. You can check for weather conditions on the GSMNP Weather website. Current weather forecasts for the park are available by phone at(865) 436-1200 extension 630.
Also check with the GSMNP Temporary Road Closures website during wintery weather since the park does close both main and secondary roads in the park if snow is forecasted. You you can also call (865) 436-1200 to receive updated road conditions and temporary closures.
•Do not attempt to climb to the top of the falls. Several people have been killed trying to do so.
•Pets and bicycles are prohibited on the trail.
•Pets are not allowed on this trail.The only two trails in the park that allow pets are theGatlinburg Trailnear the Sugarlands Visitor Center and theOconaluftee River Trailnear the Oconaluftee Visitor Center. Learn more aboutpet restrictionsin the park.
I was recently inspired to start a NEW VIDEO SERIES on Day Hikes of the Smokies by my good friend Will “Redbeard” Wood. I wanted to highlight what I thought were the BEST day hikes and I wanted them to vary in length and difficulty.
As you all know already, Mount LeConte is near and dear to my heart. There is just so much that I love about that mountain. The trails, the views and the altitude simply “do it” for me. And it’s not even a seasonal thing for me. LeConte feels like home no matter what the weather is or time of season. I also know I’m not the only one that feels this way. Many of you, my friends and followers have expressed the same sentiments.
But my favorite route to this magnificent mountain is hands down Alum Cave Trail. I began both #fastestgsmnp900miler and #fastestgsmnp900miler2 with this trail to the LeConte Lodge. To say this trail is as special as the mountain itself would be correct. I personally feel like I’m not hiking alone when I’m on that trail. And I’m not talking about the other tourist or day hikers either.
So the other day my buddy Dewey Slusher asked if I wanted to get a hike in together. Of course I said yes. It had been a while since we had logged some trail miles together. I consider Dewey as one of my closest friends. We share the same passion for the Smokies and hike about the same pace. Important qualities in a hiking partner. Plus there’s no one that knows LeConte better than Dewey. He has logged over 300 trips to the LeConte Lodge. Now that’s impressive!!
On your trip to LeConte there are some locations that you need to know about. On Alum Cave Trail you will pass Arch Rock, Alum Cave Bluff and the Slide. These locations are worthy of a photo opp. Once you’re up on the mountain the LeConte Lodge, Myrtle Point and Cliff Tops are definitely MUST SEE locations. Myrtle Point is the best spot to view a sunrise and Cliff Tops is the best location to view a sunset.
If you plan to camp on the mountain, you will need a backcountry permit to stay at the LeConte Shelter. It’s a very popular shelter so make sure you reserve your permits early, but not more than 30 days out. Also keep in mine the the Great Smoky Mountains National Park may temporarily close US 441 aka Newfound Gap Road if winter weather is forecasted. Also the Lodge itself is usually closed from November through Mid March or April.
There’s a parking area on US 441 aka Newfound Gap Road that is used for hikers and lodge guest. This parking area can get very congested so I would get there early. There’s also a restroom there, but it is closed November through March. You can find the Trailhead is located behind the parking area near the stream.
At Alum Cave Trailhead you’ll start out at an elevation of 3,800′ and begin a slight ascent through a mix of eastern hemlocks and hardwoods. Coupled with rhododendrons, this area is very thick and dense. This section of trail also follows along side of Alum Cave Creek which offers the soothing sounds from the stream.
Roughly about 1.4 miles up trail you reach Styx Branch and Arch Rock which is one of the most unique locations on this trail. You will cross two footlog bridges then follow the trail as it passes through Arch Rock like a tunnel. This can get very congested here as there is not a lot of room on the trail as it passes through Arch Rock.
At mile 2.0, the forest opens up to a rocky spur. This location is called Inspiration Point. From this spot you can see down the valley and see other points of interest such as Chimney Tops, Little Duck Hawk Ridge and Alum Cave Bluffs. When hiking up during early morning hours before sunrise. This is a great place to star gaze.
Not far past Inspiration Point you’ll come to a set of wooden steps. This is just a small taste of what you are about to encounter. Just .2 miles up you hit the mother of all stairs on this trail, Stairway to Heaven. For the next .1 of a mile it is nothing but steps. It slows things down here and the congestion of day hikers and tourists can get a little overwhelming at times.
Once you are at Alum Cave Bluff, you’ve made it 2.3 miles from the parking lot. This is a great place to take a break and take in the view. The Cave will be very dusty, almost like a “moon dust”. The climate here at the Cave is very arid and creates the perfect environment for dusty soil that contains an abundant amount of Epsom salts.
When your at Alum Cave Bluff you are roughly at the halfway point. Congratulations! But you still have the other half to climb. As you continue up the trail you will come to a few view spots where you can see Little Duck Hawk ridge and a view of Inspiration Point. But after a short climb, the trail turns the corner and begins a short descent for the next .4 miles. This is a nice break for the legs and lungs before you begin your unrelenting ascent to Mt LeConte.
At mile 3.8 you reach the 180 Stairs. You have roughly 1.2 miles to the trail intersection with Rainbow Falls and Boulevard Trail. This last mile honestly is my favorite part of the trail. You have carved out sections of trail in the rock with cable assists, natural springs that flow nearly year round and open views of the Chimney Tops and Clingmans Dome. As you near the end of your climb you can look above you and see the rock face of Cliff Tops.
Once you finish ascending, the trail make a sharp right hand turn and levels out in to a Fraser Fir forest. This is the area that feels extra special to me. When I make it here, I know my climb is basically over and I’m only .2 miles from the Rainbow Falls/Boulevard/Alum Cave junction and another .1 to the lodge. You can almost call it my happy place.. And here is where I congratulate you. You just ascended 2,600′ while hiking up Alum Cave Trail. You are roughly at 6,400′ above sea level. This is reason to celebrate!!! If the lodge is open, you NEED a cookie!!
Now after getting to the trail junction, make a right onto the Boulevard Trail and go .1 mile. You will come to the Cliff Tops Trail which is not an official trail of the park. It will take you .2 miles up to Cliff Tops. But just a few more yards past the Cliff Tops sign is the steps down to the LeConte Lodge. Now if the lodge is open, go sign your John Hancock in the guest registers in the lodge office….. and go grab that cookie from the dining hall!
Now if you choose to go to Myrtle Point then you will continue to hike straight on the Boulevard Trail another .4 miles up trail to the intersection with the Myrtle Point Trail. It too is not an official trail of the park. But while in route to there you will pass both the LeConte Shelter and High Point, the tallest point on Mount LeConte.
When my buddy Will “Red Beard” Wood asked me to come up with a route in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park (GSMNP)(also known as the Smokies) that would have epic views and be challenging. I knew just the route I wanted to make. Having hiked over 2,500 miles and all the trails at least twice in the past year and a half, some of which I’ve hiked too many to count. I guess you can say I’m very familiar with all the trails in the Smokies.
So I sat down with my notes and my maps and created a route that would be a great representation of what our Smokies are all about. The route takes you to some historical sights that predate the parks establishment along with some of the parks most popular waterfalls and views. The route also has some built in flexibility allowing the hiker to make it longer or shorter and a few bailout points if needed.
Once the route was set I talked it over with Will. He felt like the route was truly gonna be an epic hike that others would want to do as well. He suggested we name the route the “Plug-it In Circuit “. Naming the route after my trail name “Plug-it In” and calling it a “Circuit” as they call routes in other countries. Plus it’s kind of a play on words. But in the end I sincerely appreciate Will’s suggestion. It’s pretty cool having a Circuit named after me.
We began planning how we would document this circuit. Will has an incredible YouTube channel and planned to video the hole trip. This would give the potential hiked a visual of what the circuit will look like. He does an outstanding job capturing the trail and the emotions that a hiker feels when you are seeing everything for the first time. I decided to document the circuit in a detailed written account of the hike along with a few photos.
So, how tough is this route? Will and I attempted to do this hike a few weeks prier, but due to the high mileage (20 Miles) and the extreme elevation change (over 10,000’), we had to leave the trail due to Will injuring his leg. Weather was extremely bad then with heavy rain and remnants of a hurricane predicted to come through the area. If that wasn’t crazy enough, when we attempted it a second time. We had 2 other people attempt it with us. Both of those individuals had to quit on the first day due to various reasons. The combination of high miles paired with a large elevation change and unpredictable weather makes this hike a strong challenge to even the most seasoned of hiker.
Thing to know before you start….
The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the most visited National Park is the United States. It does not require a entry fee to enter the park, but it does require you to purchase a backcountry permit if you plan to camp in the backcountry. You will want to reserve your backcountry permits early, but the system does not allow you to make your reservations no more than 30 days out. You can go to the Smokies Permit website to see all RULES AND REGULATIONS regarding purchase your BACKCOUNTRY PERMITS. You call also call the Backcountry Office at 865-436-1297. If you have to reschedule your campsites then you will need to call the Backcountry Office to do so.
If you plan to stay at Cosby Campground then you’ll need to go to the Parks Frontcountry website HERE to reserve a campsite. Be aware that Cosby Campground as well as all the front country campgrounds are seasonal and most are closed during late fall to early spring.
The elevations in the park can range from 875’ to 6,643’ and the topography does affect the local weather. The temperatures can vary from 10 to 20 degrees Fahrenheit from the base of the mountains to the summits, and weather conditions equally vary at higher and lower elevations. Rainfall averages will also vary between the base and high elevations. Average rain totals range from 55” to 85”. So plan appropriately and prepare for the worse conditions. More info on the season weather information can be found HERE. You can check current weather forecasts for the park by phone at (865) 436-1200 extension 630.
GSMNP does not have any cellular towers located inside the park boundaries, but depending on your provider and location, you may receive some level of service in some areas.
As for the Plug-it In Circuit, I use AT&T and I did have service in a few locations. These are the particular locations that I know I had service;
•Top of Brush Mt
•Portions of Old Settlers Trail (between CS 33 and Maddron Bald Trail)
•Snake Den Ridge at Maddron Bald Trail intersection
•Appalachian Trail (between Low Gap and Mt Cammerer Trail)
GSMNP posts all temporary, seasonal and weather related closures HERE. These closures also include trails, roads and facilities. Bear warnings and trail cautions are also posted on this site.
GSMNP does offer a PDF file of their official TRAIL MAP for the park. This will be very useful to have in the backcountry or when planning your trip. You can also pick up a paper map at any of the parks Visitor Centers.
Here is the video that Will “Redbeard” Wood shot the Plug-it In Circuit. He did an outstanding job capturing the essence of this circuit. He also has an incredible YouTube channel that you should also checkout.
Here is the GPX FILE for this circuit. This can be a handy assets to have to ensure to stay on the route. Special thanks to Scott K. aka @x_hiker (on Instagram) for collecting this data and sharing it with us.
DAY 1: (Trillium Gap Trail to Campsite 33 on the OST)
The official start and finish location of the Plug-it In Circuit is at the Trillium Gap / Rainbow Falls Trailhead. This is located on Cherokee Orchard Rd inside GSMNP just outside of Gatlinburg,TN. This road is open all year long, but is subject to temporary closure due to winter weather. There is a parking lot near the trailheads where you can leave your vehicle. This is typically a safe location as the Park Rangers patrol it regularly.
When you leave the parking lot, you’ll take a short 40 yard approach trail to your official starting location. Trillium Gap Trail will start out with very little elevation change for the first mile or so. Keep your eyes open and on the lookout for black bears, eastern wild turkeys and whitetail deer. You will typically see bears either on the ground foraging for berries and grubs or hanging out in the tops of the many oak and popular trees in the area. Black Bears are typically nonaggressive, but you should never approach them and give them plenty of space. You will also probably see a few Eastern Wild Turkey in this area too. They usually will travel in flocks from 3 up to 30 or more, depending on the season. Whitetail Deer are also very common in this area. They love to feed on the low vegetation along the trails edge. You can see more of the parks wildlife rules and regulations HERE.
As you continue along Trillium Gap Trail, you’ll notice that a road travels along in the same direction just to your left. This is Roaring Fork Road. It is a seasonal road and is usually closed between November and March. This is a very touristy traveled road and section of trail. During Spring through Fall, this trail can get very congested so be patient. This congestion will end just after Grotto Falls.
Around mile 3.5 miles into your hike. You’ll come to your first major point of interest, Grotto Falls. It’s the only waterfalls in the park the the trail actually goes underneath and behind the 25’ waterfalls. This area will more than likely be full of tourist and day hikers. Grotto Falls is one of the most popular waterfalls in the park. But once you pass this location you will see less people.
Once you’re past Grotto Falls, you’ll notice the trail gets more narrow and more steep. The trail will continue to climb another 1.75 miles up to the junction with Brushy Mt Trail. This is Trillium Gap, 5.25 miles into your hike. Here Trillium Gap Trail turns right and travels own up the the LeConte Lodge on Mt LeConte, Brushy Mt will turn left to an overlook and the official end to the trail and also goes straight ahead rom the junction and down the other side of the mountain.
At the Junction, make a left on Brushy Mt and go .4 miles up to the end of the trail. On your way up, you’ll go through one of the best Rhododendron tunnels in the park and It will open up to expose a unique view of LeConte along with the western facing ridge of the Smokies. There is also a USGS Benchmark here. During the summer this area has a lot of wild blueberries growing along this trail.
Once your return back to the Trillium/Brushy junction, you’ll take a left onto Brushy and go down the mountain. There is a spring or two to get fresh water right on the trail about 100 yards from the junction. After this location you won’t have water available till you’re near the bottom of Brushy Mt Trail. Brushy Mt Trail is 4.9 miles long and connects to Porters Creek Trail.
When you’re at the Brushy / Porters Creek junction, you’ll notice a trail that goes back up on the left. This will lead you to the old Messer Cabin and barn. The park service restored these structures and maintains them. Once again you’ll notice more people. This area can get a little congested with day hikers and tourists. But if you turn left onto Porters Creek from Brushy Mt it will take you out to the Porters Creek Trailhead about 1 mile. There will be a gate across the trail that also serves as a service road for the park. This will be your first opportunity at a “bailout point”. You can get a hitch into town or arrange for someone to pick you up.
Here is where you start your first short road walk. Follow the gravel road roughly .8 miles to a bridge. This is Greenbrier Cove. It’s another “bailout point” if you choose to use it. If not, turn right and cross the first bridge. About .1 miles you will cross a second bridge, the Old Settlers Trailhead (OST) is to your left in the parking after the bridge. Take this trail. You will cross several small streams and the trail will seem more like a roller coaster than anything. You will also start to see a few stone walls and stone chimneys that were built by some of the first settlers in this area. These walls predate the GSMNP. From the Trailhead you will travel roughly 6 miles to your first campsite on this Circuit. Campsite 33 will be on both sides of the trail. The sight on the left has 3 spots for tents, the sight on the right is up the trail a few yards with many tent spots nestled in a hemlock forest. This campsite also has bear cables. You can hang your food from these cables at night. There is a dependable stream here for drinking water. Campsite 33 is definitely one of my favorite campsites in the whole Park.
•Day 1 Total Mileage: 18.4
•Circuit Total Mileage: 18.4
•Bailout Points: Porters Creek Trailhead or Greenbrier Cove.
Day 2: (Campsite 33 to Campsite 29)
From campsite 33 you’ll continue northeast on Old Settlers. You will cross many small streams and do a steady 1000’ climb. After the climb it will be more like a roller coaster with many small ups and downs. But in this section of the OST, you see more stone walls and chimneys along with a few cemeteries. This area was one of the more populated areas of the OST.
Roughly 9 miles from campsite 33, you’ll come to the Maddron Bald / Gabe’s Mt / OST trail junction. You will have a few options here. If you need a bailout point, then you can turn left at the junction on the Maddron Bald Trail and walk roughly 1 mile to the Trailhead. There will be a gate across the trail that also serves as the service road. There are several residents in the area as well as you are just a short walk from the main highway.
If you want to shorten your hike just a bit, then you can continue straight at the trail junction onto Gabe’s Mountain Trail. This will bring you out in Cosby Campground. You can also use this location at a bailout point or continue on to Low Gap Trail to proceed with your hike.
If you want to proceed with the original circuit, then make a right at the trail junction onto Maddron Bald Trail. The trail will start out wide with not much elevation change. This section of trail also serves as a service road for the park service. After about a mile or so the trail narrows and you begin to see large tulip poplars and hemlocks. This area is known for these large trees. You may see more day hikers in this area because of that. You’ll also come across the only log footbridge on this trail. It’s very large, but blends in with the environment quite well.
Once you cross this footbridge, you will hike roughly 50 yards and come to the Albright Grove Loop junction. I would highly recommend taking the loop. It only adds .4 miles to your hike and takes you through some of the largest tulip populars in the park. Albright Loop Trail will bring you back on to Maddron Bald Trail .3 miles up the trail. Once your back on Maddron Bald Trail, you will have a few small stream crossings before you get to campsite 29. It is located roughly 4 miles from the OST/ Maddron Bald trail junction. This will be your second campsite on this circuit. I did have cellular service at this campsite. I use AT&T for my provider.
Campsite 29 has 5 good tent spots, 2 sets of bear cables for hanging your food at night and a good flowing stream for drinking water. I would highly recommend treating your water here. There was evidence of people using the bathroom within 50 feet of the stream above the campsite.
•Day 2 Total Mileage: 13
•Circuit Total Mileage: 31.4
•Bailout Points: Maddron Bald Trailhead
Day 3: (Campsite 29 to Cosby Knob Shelter)
Today will be the day of many options. You’ll have the option to make the circuit longer or shorter as well as the option to bailout if you so desire. You’ll start your morning out with a 1.5 mile climb. During this climb you’ll go through a very impressive rhododendron tunnel as well as a very nice ridge walk. There will even be a clearing to give you a view of the main ridge line of Mount Guyot.
Once you’ve made it to the Snake Den Ridge / Maddron Bald junction, you have an option to shorten the circuit. By turning right onto Snake Den Ridge, you’ll hike .7 miles up the mountain to connect with the Appalachian Trail (AT). Doing this will cut 17.4 miles off your circuit. This will also eliminate Mount Cammerer and Cosby Knob Shelter from your itinerary. Otherwise turn left at the Snake Den Ridge / Maddron Bald junction and head down the mountain 4.6 miles to Cosby Campground.
On your way down the mountain, about half way, you’ll come to a stream. This is a great location to get drinking water. The next spot for water will be about .5 miles from the campground. There will be a very large log footbridge at this stream. Shortly after crossing the footbridge, you will come to Cosby Horse Trail/Snake Den Ridge junction. You can take the Cosby Horse Trail if you choose to bypass the campground. Or you can continue on to the campground via Snake Den Ridge.
Once you’re at the campground you will make a right onto the road. If you have any trash, there should be dumpsters here to do so. Also there will be a restroom to your left (behind the dumpster) if you need to us it.
Important for I know about Cosby Campground. This is a seasonal campground. It is usually closed from Oct 31 Thru April 1st. But there is a “Hiker Parking Lot” on the other side of the campground. It is open year round unless the park service closes the roads due to winter weather.
Another set of options are available to you here in the campground. You have a bailout point here if you need it and if you choose you want to make the circuit longer, you can take Lower Mount Cammerer Trail which will take you to the AT just north of Mount Cammerer. Once on the AT head south 2.3 miles to Mount Cammerer Trail and you will rejoin the original circuit. This will add 10 miles to your circuit. Otherwise take Low Gap Trail from the campground 2.5 miles to the junction with the AT.
Low Gap is very steep, but is the most direct route to the AT from the campground. Expect to see day hikes on this trail as they make their way to and from Mount Cammerer. There is a stream to get drinking water near the bottom and 3/4 of the way up trail. Once you’ve made it to the Low Gap/AT junction you have another set of options .
You can turn left onto the AT and go 2.1 miles to Mount Cammerer Trail. There you will find a USGS Benchmark. Continue onto Mount Cammerer Trail .6 miles to the tower. This location is one of the most popular spots in the park. With its unique history and its incredible 360 views, it’s no wonder everyone wants to hike to this place. It is the only stone lookout tower in the park. Built in the mid 1930s it once served as a fire tower. From here you can see I-40, Max Patch, Mount Sterling Fire Tower, Foothills Parkway, Newport, Dandridge and Cosby Tennessee. There is also a USGS Benchmark here as well.
Once done at Mount Cammerer, you will back track south on the AT till you get to Low Gap once again. From here you will continue .8 miles to Cosby Shelter, your 3rd campsite of the circuit. If you chose to bypass Cammerer, then you could simply take a right onto the AT from Low Gap and go .8 miles to the Cosby Knob Shelter. On your way to the shelter is a great spring to get fresh drinking water. It’s roughly .5 miles south of Low Gap Trail on the AT.
•Day 3 Total Mileage: 15
•Circuit Total Mileage: 46.4
•Bailout Points: Cosby Campground
Day 4: (Cosby Knob Shelter to Pecks Corner Shelter)
Today you will be hiking south bound on the AT from Cosby Knob Shelter. This will be mostly an uphill climb nearly all the way to Mount Guyot. But you’ll come to the Snake Den Ridge/AT junction 3.9 miles into your day. This is your last chance to bailout till you get to the Boulevard Trail, roughly 16.7 miles away. Choose to continue 1.9 miles you’ll reach Mount Guyot. There is a spring right on trail that you can get fresh drinking water from. Mount Guyot is the 2nd tallest mountain in the GSMNP standing at 6,621’ above sea level. Continue on the circuit 1.8 miles you’ll get to Tri-Corner Knob Shelter. This is a great place to take break. You can get fresh drinking water or use the privy here.
Once your break is over, you will continue south on the AT, here you will go near the summit 6,417’ Mount Chapman and actually go over the summit of 6,003’ Mount Sequoyah. On this section of the AT you will be crossing the Tennessee / North Carolina border back and forth many times. As you head south, views of the Tennessee Valley will be to your right and the North Carolina mountains will be to your left.
I have to say that there’s not a trail with more incredible views in the Smokies than the Appalachian Trail. Especially the section between Newfound Gap and Davenport Gap. This 32 mile stretch of the AT has one epic view after another. And the fact that you’re up around 6,000’ above sea level for a good part of the time makes it even better. It’s definitely one of my favorite parts of the Smokies.
Around 5.3 miles from Tri-Corner Knob Shelter, to come to Hugh’s Ridge Trail. This is the trail that Pecks Corner Shelter is on. You will hike .4 miles down the trail to the shelter. This shelter has a water source and a privy.
•Day 4 Total Mileage: 13.5
•Circuit Total Mileage: 59.9
•Bailout Points: Snake Den Ridge to Cosby Campground, Low Gap to Cosby Campground
Day 5: (Pecks Corner Shelter to Rainbow Falls Trailhead)
This was our last day on trail and we got a early start. We planned to push the final 20.1 miles out and get back to our vehicles. But you will have more options for this circuit a little later into the hike.
The only thing bad about Pecks Corner Shelter is you have to hike back up the mountain .4 miles to the AT, but once you’re there your legs should be nice and warmed up. Once back to the AT you’ll turn left and continue south bound. In this section of trail, you will be mostly ridge walking as you continue to follow the main ridge line of the Smokies. As before this is also the border between Tennessee and North Carolina. There will be the typical ups and downs as with most ridge walks, but with this one you’ll have opportunities for some beautiful views.
Your best opportunity for views will be at Laurel Top and Bradly View. Those two locations are hands down some of the best views in the park, giving you a breathtaking view of both North Carolina and Tennessee. You can expect the winds to be pretty fierce as the wind blows against the steep mountain side. Also on the Tennessee side you can start getting a pretty good look at Mount LeConte.
Before you know it you’ve made it to the side trail to Charlie’s Bunion. This is another must see location here in the GSMNP. The trail to Charlie’s Bunion is narrow and drops hundreds of feet to the left as it opens up to an incredible view down into the Tennessee Valley. The rugged rocky exposed ridge reveals an impressive rock face that is known as Charlie’s Bunion. Expect to see lots of day hikers and tourists here. It’s one of the most visited spots in the park. And from here you have a clear view of Mount LeConte, which is where you’ll be going next. You can take the trail on around the edge of the mountain at Charlie’s Bunion. This will bring you back out to the AT.
Continue south on the AT about another mile. You will get to a piped spring just before you get to Ice Water Shelter. This is a great water source. You will want to get fresh drinking water here. There won’t be another water source till you get on the Boulevard Trail.
Once you’ve made it to the Boulevard/ AT junction, take the right onto the Boulevard Trail. Your next point of interest is just 40 yards ahead. You’ll see the Jump Off trail sign to your right. Take this trail which is steep and washed out. This is not an official trail, but it will take you .4 mile to a breathtaking view that gives you a unique perspective of Charlie’s Bunion and the main ridge line through the park. At the Jump Off, the bluff drops hundreds of feet so watch your step..
Back on the Boulevard Trail you will continue on 5.4 miles to Mount LeConte. This will take you along several ridge walks and will eventually skirt you along the northeastern edge of the mountain. When you come to a huge slide area known as the “Scar”, you are less than a mile from the top of Mount LeConte.
Once near the top, you come to the junction of Myrtle Point and Boulevard. Myrtle Point is hands down the best location to witness a sunrise on Mount LeConte. It is just a short .2 miles off the Boulevard Trail. Don’t expect to be there alone though. Between Lodge guests, Shelter campers and Day hikers, this spot gets a little crowded at times. Back on the Boulevard, about 40 yards ahead is the summit of Mount LeConte. You’ll know it by the huge pile of rocks that people have piled on top of one another.
Now the rest of your hike is all down hill. You only have 7 miles back to the Trailhead / the official end of the circuit from here. Just 40 yards down the trail you have another view point called Apolo Point. This will give you a clear view of Newfound Gap and the side of Myrtle Point. As you continue another 50 yards you get to LeConte Shelter. This is gonna be another opportunity for you to stay here for the night. Just make sure you have your backcountry permit for this location if you choose to do so. This shelter does not have a fireplace. Fires are not allowed at this shelter. It does have a privy and bear cables.
Continuing on another .2 miles you come to the LeConte Lodge. You will begin to see more people than you have in a week. This is the most popular destination in the GSMNP. The LeConte Lodge is for guest only, but you can purchase coffee, Hot Chocolate, Cookies, etc.. You can also sign the guest registry in the office and get warm by the stove. Hikers are welcome to hang out there. There is also a water spicket near the office as well as a privy. Something to keep in mind though, the Lodge closes between Nov 1st and April 1st. Also the weather can get well below 0 degrees on Mount LeConte in the winter so plan accordingly.
Before you leave LeConte you have one last must see destination. There is a trail directly across from the Lodge. This will take you .1 mile up to the Cliff Tops. This is hands down the best view in the entire park, especially when it comes to a sunset. Cliff Tops is known as the best place to go watch a sunset here in the GSMNP. But you better prepare yourself cause there will be plenty of people there with you.
The Boulevard Trail/Alum Cave/Rainbow Falls trails junction near the Lodge. Take Rainbow Falls Trail. It is 6.5 miles from that junction to the Trailhead, the official finish of the Plug-it In Circuit. On your way down the mountain you will once again run into more people as you get closer to Rainbow Falls. It’s a pretty popular destination with day hikers and tourists. It’s a beautiful cascading waterfall nestled in the side of the mountain. But just a few more miles and you are finished. After traversing a few small stream crossings and seemingly a few hundred steps, you’ve made it to the finish of the Plug-it In Circuit. Congratulations!
•Day 5 Total Mileage: 20.1
•Circuit Total Mileage: 80
•Bailout Points: Appalachian Trail to Newfound Gap
The Plug-it In Circuit is designed as a 5 day/4 night 79.2 mile circuit covering some of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park’s best views and most popular areas. With day 1 and day 5 being 20 mile days, this Circuit will test you physically and mentally. But with built in bailout points and options to lengthen or shorten the circuit. It can be adjusted to fit most backpackers varying skill levels.
If you choose to give this Circuit a try, don’t forget to share your experience on social media by using the hashtag #plugitincircuit and tagging both @redbeardhikes and @plugitinhikes.
First and foremost I want to thank all of our Great Smoky Mountains National Park employees and volunteers for all of their hard work to keep all of our facilities, trails and roads open.
As someone who absolutely loves our Smokies, and sharing the gander and beauty that these mountains reveal. I spend days and at a time and sometimes weeks in the backcountry of the park. In 2017 I hiked over 2,200 miles in the park and completed 2- GSMNP 900-Milers. If I seen trails in bad shape or something that wasn’t right, I would alert employees and park officials so they could take care of the issues.
Over the last few weeks I’ve had an opportunity to communicate through email with the Great Smoky Mountains National Park Management Assistant/Public Affairs Dana Soehn. I wanted to get a better understanding as to why the park was taking such an aggressive stance on road closures during bad weather. So at my request Dana sent me this email explaining why the park is closing roads so much now days. This is the email she sent me.
“Over the last year, our park staff has worked hard to develop protocols for road closures that best protect our visitors, park rangers, and emergency equipment operators. Our goal is to prevent people from traveling on a roadway that, based on forecasts and experience, we expect to become hazardous due to ice, snow, flooding, or falling trees. In order to meet this objective, our park rangers work hard to safely close roads before weather events occur so that we are not not placing visitors or emergency personnel in harm’s way during an active storm event. With our current ranger staffing levels, we are challenged to provide coverage across the parks’ 380 miles of roadways. Rangers perform safety sweeps along the roads to alert visitors to the closures. Depending on how widespread the weather event is expected to be, it can take several hours to safely effect a closure. We are trying to provide more timely notices to visitors by posting messages on our SmokiesRoadsNPS Twitter account about planned closures. Of course, sudden storms still pop up and our rangers respond as efficiently and safely as possible. With well-forecasted storms, we have an opportunity to implement closures in a manner that we feel is safer for all.
We understand that some would prefer that we only close roadways when conditions have left roads impassable. Unfortunately, this practice can unduly put our staff in hazardous situations when they are called to respond to wrecks and stranded motorists. Occasionally, we have implemented closures that became unnecessary when weather events did not materialize. We do work hard to reopen roadways efficiently, but this also takes time with our current staffing levels. We recognize that this is an inconvenience to our visitors and we work hard to balance the risks; however, our position is that we will always place safety first for our visitors and employees. We appreciate this opportunity to share our approach with you.”
I just want to thank Dana for sharing this information with us. It goes a long way to help clear things up and helps give us a little understanding to the parks new protocols. But I’ve also made a couple of suggestions that may help with a couple problems associated with the road closures. I feel there are a couple more things that the park could improve on that would definitely make these road closures less of an inconvenience.
So these 2 issues need to be addressed;
⚫Issue #1: If the park service closes roads or plans to close roads due to weather or a government shut down; ▪ List and post ALL roads and access points that are or will be closed on the website and the Smokies Roads Twitter page. Even the little side roads like Greenbrier, Cataloochie, Cosby Campground and Mt Sterling Road. Any access point to the park that is closed needs to be posted so the public will know. ▪ Notify those that have active & current backcountry permits that their access point will be closed via email or by phone. The park has the contact info for the permit holder. This needs to be a standard procedure in bad weather situations. The park service already sends emails to the permit holder advising them of approaching bad weather. Adding road closure information pertaining to the permit holders hike intenary needs to be apart of that system.
______________________ When camping in the backcountry, a backcountry permit is required. It costs $4 per person, per campsite/shelter. Currently the park service does not issue refunds on backcountry permits. They only offer to reschedule the permit, but no more than 30 days out. The average person typically can’t take additional days off from work within 30 days, especially week long trips. It’s like planning your vacation, making the reservations, traveling to there just to find out they are closed. Oh, and you don’t get a refund on top of that. They just offer to let you come back within 30 days…….. Who can take off additional time from work in the same month?…. There’s a better way…..
Here’s the a couple of suggested solutions to that issue:
⚫Issue #2: ◾If the park service closes roads due to a weather situation or government shut down, then the park service should offer; ▪ Option #1: Give a full refund to the backcountry permit holder. (It’s NOT the permit holders fault the roads are being closed. Therefore why should the permit holder pay the price and lose out) ▪ Option #2: Offer a credit in the backcountry permit holders name. The credit would be good towards future backcountry permits equal to the amount of the current permit. The credit can be good for the length of 6 months to 2 years.
These suggested solutions are small steps in improving the experience and the interactions the public will have with the park. As someone who loves the Smokies and appreciates the park service employees. To stand by and do or say nothing wouldn’t be good for our park or it’s visitors. There is always room for improvement and we can work together to fix things to improve the experience our park visitors have with our beautiful Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
The level of concern the park has for the safety of it’s visitors and staff can’t be questioned. When you see a park employee or volunteer out, stop and say THANK YOU for all they do for our beautiful park and it’s visitors.
I never in my life imagined I would ever attempt something so bold and so challenging that I’d be pushing #mybeardedself to the edge, both physically and mentally. And to attempt to do this record breaking feat during the hashest months of the year was even more insain. But to most people’s surprise, it didn’t start out as a record breaking hike. I just simply wanted to hike all the trails. How I came to this decision though was a whole nother story.
Thankgiving weekend of 2016, (the same weekend of the Chimney Top II fire) me and a close friend of mine Chad “Stick” Poindexter of Stick’s Blog did a short backpacking trip with our kids in tow from Newfound Gap to Mt LeConte. I remember sitting at the Cliff Tops watching the sunset and watching Chimney Top burn below us. It was the first time in my life that I had been to Mt LeConte and I was in total awe! But while I sat there the thought came to me to take a break from section hiking the AT and focus on hiking all the trails in the Smokies instead. I initially figured it would take me a year. I had no idea how many miles of trails there was or how hard they would be. It was a decision though that felt right. Like it was exactly where I was supposed to be and I couldn’t have been more right. I went home and immediately discussed it with my beautiful bride Ashley, who was completely on board and supportive of the idea. I then began doing my research and planning logistics. I picked up the book “Day Hikers Guide To All The Trails In The Smoky Mountains” by Elizabeth L. Etnier. It became the main reference book of my whole hike. It had the trails already marked and planned out with mileages listed and elevation gains. It was mainly geared towards day hikers, but I simply combined several hikes and made some tweaks to fit my backpacking style. I also used the “Hiking Trails of the Smokies”, but only as a general reference.
Now, as a backpacker I wanted to backpack as much of the Smokies as I could. This would help me trim more “Total Miles” out of my hike. Liz’s book had the overall “Total Miles” listed at 1050 if you followed her book to the T. But I thought if I backpacked as much of it as I could, then I could possibly trim around 100 miles off that number.
My adventure started at the Alum Cave trailhead at 3:am on Dec 31, 2016. I hiked up the mountain with a group of hikers to see the last sunrise of 2016. When we got to the lodge the wind was blowing pretty hard and the temp was hovering around 9° degrees. A handfull of hikers turned back due to the conditions being so extreme. But a smaller number of us pushed forward towards Myrtle Point (the best spot to see a sunrise on LeConte). My plan was to start with a hike to LeConte and to finish my 900 Miler with a hike to LeConte as well, since that was where I made my decision to do my #gsmnp900miler. And as far as I’m concerned I couldn’t have planned that out any better if I had tried. I also wanted to learn as much as I could about the history and the trails and there was no better way to do that than to involve some of my “Hike The Smokies” friends that I had met on Facebook. After all it was their posts and pictures that influenced my decision to do my #gsmnp900miler. Plus most of them I had never met face to face before, so this was a perfect opportunity to do so. And as time went on not only did I get to hike with some of them, but several helped me out with shuttles and lodging.
The first month (January) I worked 3 days a week at the business I’ve owned since 2002 (Plug-it In Electrical Service, Inc) and hiked the other 4 days. This worked well for what I was doing at the time. I was pushing out about 50 miles per week. I wasn’t getting in any kind of hurry at that time. I did all of the Cades Cove area and part of the Twentymile, Cosby and Elkmont areas during that time. It was during this month too that I experienced the coldest temp of 6° degrees. I was camped out at CS#17 on Little Bottoms Trail in about 4″ of snow. This is why I absolutely love winter backpacking. Everything was frozen and laced in white. It’s the perfect setting for beautiful pictures. I’m glad I had my Black Rock down beanie with me. It is incredibly effective at keeping my head warm in these extreme temps. Plus it’s perfect weather for a good #icebeard. I absolutely love have my beard completely covered and full of ice and snow. There’s just something about it that feels good to me. It also reminds me to not get complacent and how extreme the conditions are that I’m in. Things can go very wrong very fast in these conditions. A life and death struggle is just one bad decision away.
Around the 3rd week of January I decided instead of taking a year to do all the trails. I thought I could get them done by the end of May. This would free up my summer to do family stuff. But a week later I got curious as to what was the fastest time the 900 Miler had ever been done so I contacted the GSMNP 900-Miler Club to find out. They told me the current fastest time was 4 months and 12 days and the record was held by Sharon Spezia. I immediately thought to my bearded self that this was in my time frame. Maybe this would be a good challenge for me and I might be able to break it….. So that’s exactly what I did. That’s when #fastestgsmnp900miler was born. This was the hashtag that I would identify my hike with.
In early February I began hiking with a determination to break a record in big fashion. I began doing bigger miles and started making preparations to start hiking full time. I still had a job or two to wrap up then I was good to go. My focus was strong and I wasn’t going to be distracted easily. On the 4th of February I turned 44 years old. You guessed it. I was out hiking that day. I did hike #17 and stayed at Derrick Knob Shelter that night. I couldn’t have imagined doing anything else on my birthday this year. It simply seemed perfect. And even though I was getting older I wasn’t feeling it in the least bit. In my eyes I was just getting started.
As February got rolling, so did I. The weather was unseasonably warm and I was going to take full advantage of it. Because I knew we would probably get a good snow in March. I was just hoping to get done before it hit. I was starting to push out some much bigger mileage. Doing 20+ miles was becoming easier by the day. And with the Tennessee side about wrapped up, my focus was about to be set on the North Carolina side.
Now I only camped in the backcountry a total of 19 nights (15 in my Zpacks Duplex tent and 4 in shelters). Which left me with day hiking the rest of it. Instead of driving home which was 1 to 3 hours away (depending on where I was in the park). I would drive to a store nearby and sleep in my truck. This allowed me to save gas and to resupply if I needed to or simply get some fresh foods for the night like milk, fruits and veggies. I always made a point to purchase my dinner and breakfast from the store where I was staying at. I felt like it was the least I could do for them not kicking me out of their parking lot. Haha
Once March got here I was steaming along and not looking back.
Everything was going good and I was on schedule to finish on the 19th of March. But I was on my way home to visit for a night when the motor in my truck blew up. This wasn’t what I needed then. I was in Pigeon Forge and I was 1 hour from my house. I was able to drive it home, but the next day I had to pick up a rental car for my beautiful bride to use while I used her vehicle. I got my truck scheduled for a new motor while I was back in the woods. That was a close call. It could’ve ended this hike. I’m glad we had the money set aside for such emergencies. Having an emergency fund saved our butts that time for sure.
As most of you know I am a follower of Christ. I’ve not been shy or affraid to share that with people. And as I hike I talk to God a lot. It’s great one on one time with the one who made you and everything around you. But it was on Hike-38 that I truly realized He was still listening to me. I was hiking Balsam Mt trail and Palmer Creek trail but I had to go down Balsam Mt road to catch Spruce Mt trial. On the map it looked like it was 2 to 3 miles down the road. I met a park employee on a tractor at the Palmer Cr trailhead and asked him how far it was to Spruce Mt. He told me 5 to 6 miles. I immediately felt a sense of panic. That was mileage I didnt plan for. So I immediately began to run up the graveled road. After what seemed like forever I come around one last turn and I asked God “Please let the trailhead be here”. And as i came around the turn there it was. I immediately began crying tears of joy and thanking God. The trailhead was roughly about 2.5 to 3 miles from the Palmer Cr trailhead. Right where I initially thought it was.
In the final 8 days I pulled my biggest mileage day at 35 miles. Honestly I wasn’t sure if I could do it but I did. It was Hike-40 and I was trying to beat the snow that was forecasted. Remember me saying earlier about the big snow I expected in March? This was it……. or at least I thought it was. The next morning at the shelter I was surprised to see on 4″ of snow. That was good news for me. That meant I could still get some big miles in that day. I was only expecting to get 10 to 15 due to the high snow fall forecasted. That’s why I pushed for the 35 miles the day before. But this also meant I would be pushing my finish date up 1 day to the 18th instead of the 19th. As the days were winding down and the amount of noise my hike was making in the HTS hiking community, I realized I needed someone who could let the park service know what was about to happen so they could prepare for the extra traffic. Plus they needed to organize the celebration at the finish. That’s when I thought of my good friend Teri Samples. She told me not to worry and that she would take care of it. And she did and then some. Not only did she notify the park service but also all of our local tv channels and new papers. The celebration at the finish was bigger than I had ever heard of or could’ve imagined. But more on that a little later.
On March 18th 2017 I woke up ready to finish my 900-Miler. It was hike (Hike-47). Nearly all of my closest friends joined me. I could not have imagined finishing this #fastestgsmnp900miler hike any other way. The trail was the wettest I had ever hiked in, but we were not complaining. It was good to be able to have my friends with me. We started out at Trillium Gap trailhead that morning at 6:30. It had been raining all night and was still raining. Grotto Falls was absolutely incredible. The water flow was more than it was the first time I’d seen it. As we made our way up to the top of Trillium the water and snow on the trail was unbelievable. So with completely wet feet we were welcomed into the lodge by my friend Phillip Clarkson to dry off and to have a cup of hot chocolate.
After warming up for about 30 to 40 minutes we all loaded up and started down the mountain on Rainbow Falls trail. At the trailhead at the bottom of the mountain a reporter from WBIR met me and interviewed me really quickly. We were already 30ish minutes behind schedule. There were also a couple there that greeted me and wished me well. But we quickly got back to hiking and headed down the Old Sugarlands trail. The last trail of this hike. I was almost done…….. and I was ready. My right quad was cramping real bad, which made it very painful to walk on yet alone to hike. It had given me some problems earlier that week too.
But at about 200 yards from the finish was the moment I’ll never forget. As I was climbing up a short hill I looked up to see no one other than Sharon Spezia. She had hiked in to have this moment with me. With smiles on our faces, we immediately gave each other a hug as she congratulated me. It was such an incredible moment. I had been wanting to talk to her ever since I decided to break her record. But never was able to get in touch with her. The crazy side to this story was we actually met on trail. It was Hike-19 on the Little Greenbier trail. We crossed pathes that day, but I didn’t realize it until I was about a 1/4 mile down the mountain (she was going up). So ever since then I was hoping to see her before I finished. And I finally did.
My hike was just a few minutes from being complete. Sharon and my closest friends went ahead to become a part of the “hiker tunnel” as I hung back to have the last couple of minutes to gather my thoughts and to prepare mentally for what was about to happen. I was just moments from being a 900 miler.
I could feel the anticipation inside me as I started walking towards the hiker tunnel. I had never seen that many people at a 900 Miler celebration before.
The tunnel looked like it was about 60′ long or more. As I got closer I could see Sharon at the entrance. She greeted me once again and told me to “go finish this”. I could hear everyone clapping and cheering as I entered the tunnel. I immediately thanked God for this opportunity, getting me to here and gave Him the glory. As i continued to walk through the tunnel, I seen so many faces. Some I knew and some I didn’t. People reached in to give me “high five”. And some just patted me on the back and shoulder. When I got towards the end of the tunnel. I knew I was getting closer to the one I wanted to see most, my beautiful bride. She had told me by phone that she would be waiting for me at the end of the tunnel. So that was all I was thinking about. And as I exited the tunnel I looked up and there she was. It was eveything I could do to keep from crying. I was so happy to see her beautiful face. She met me with a big kiss and warm embrace. It felt so good to have her in my arms again. I hadn’t realized how much I’d missed her till then. I had been keeping my bearded self occupied with details of the trail so I wouldn’t think about it.
After I was done catching up with my family. I did a couple of interviews with WBIR and the Knoxville News Sentinel. I also go to spend some more time with Sharon Spezia who also introduced me to Jennie Whited. Jennie was the first female to do 5 maps (900 milers). I had so many people that came up to me to congratulate and talk to me. Some I knew and some I didn’t. But either way I appreciate all of them taking the time out of their busy day just to come be there for me. I believe that’s the part that overwhelms me the most. It’s very humbling when I think about that.
But as I sat there it slowly started sinking in. I just finished my 900 Miler. And I did it in the fastest time EVER… Wow! Maybe what I did was a big thing after all. Before I was having a hard time understanding why everyone was making a big deal out of my hike. But now I was starting to understand it. God just helped this ordinary man do something extraordinary. I couldn’t have possibly done this without His help and strength. I leaned on Him for His guidance, understanding and strength each day. I give Him all the glory for this hike. For God was my ultimate trail guide.
Afterwards, you guessed it. We all went to Smoky Mountain Brewery for an Ol’ Smoky burger and a beer. It is my absolute favorite place to go after a hike. It was great being able to sit down and have a big meal and a beer with my closest friends. These guys just came from Alabama, South Carolina, North Carolina and Mississippi just to hike with me. What amazing friends I have. I’m such a blessed man to have friends like them. I thank God for each and every one of them.
If you would like to see what it was like on that last hike, then go check out the video and write up at Stick’s Blog. Chad captured that moment perfectly and I am forever grateful for it.
A lot of people have asked me what’s my next adventure. Well I’ve decided that in the Fall (2017) I’m going to do it again, BUT EVEN FASTER. I’m shooting to do it in just 45 days total. Which would break my own record of 78 days. I believe I can do it and I’m looking forward to the opportunity. If I’m able to complete it then that will also make me a 2 time 900 Miler in 1 year. Which would tie me with 7 time 900 Miler Sharon Spezia who also has done 2 maps in 1 year. It would be an honor to share that record with her.
In the last hike I used the hashtags #fastestgsmnp900miler and #gsmnp900miler to identify with that hike. This way people could search anything they need to find out about that hike using that hashtag. This time I’ll be using the hashtags #fastestgsmnp900milerx2 and #fastestgsmnp900miler . It should be an extraordinary journey. And I’m looking forward to what God will show me on this hike. After all He is my “Ultimate Trail Guide”.