Appalachian Trail: Newfound Gap to Tremont

Newfound Gap

Our crew at Newfound Gap (US 441 and Appalachian Trail Crossing).

Written By:  Brad Powell
Exploration Date:  May 17-19, 2010
Weather:  Some morning rain on Day 1, otherwise fair weather.
Elevation:  1,722' to 6,643'

It was May 2010, and three of my closest friends and I were about to set foot on a part of history.  For years, we've talked about it, but kept putting it aside.  We've hiked other trails, but not this one before.  This was the start of our Appalachian Trail adventure.  The goal?  To section-hike the Appalachian Trail a little every year.

On May 17, 2010, the first section hike of our Appalachian Trail adventure began in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. 

We parked the car at the Great Smoky Mountains Institute at Tremont and were taken by a hiker shuttle service up to the Newfound Gap parking lot.  We had booked the hiker shuttle service a month in advance, the same with reserving our backcountry passes along with the two shelters we planned to stay at. 

The plan for the hike looked like this:

Day 1 - Newfound Gap to Silers Bald Shelter (12 miles)
Day 2 - Silers Bald Shelter to Spence Field Shelter (15 miles)
Day 3 - Spence Field Shelter to Tremont  (9 miles)

Day 1 

On Day 1, we started out at Newfound Gap around 10 a.m.  Now, that is pretty late of a start for an above 10-mile hiking day, but we were confident we would make it before nightfall.  That morning, we had eaten at IHOP, stuffing ourselves while we waited for the time to travel to Tremont and meet our shuttle service.  We started at the crosswalk of the parking lot and headed south on the Appalachian Trail.  Through- hikers call this southbound, heading toward the southern terminus - Springer Mountain, Georgia.  Just barely one mile in, there is a dry stream crossing.  Our shuttle service guide told us that if we took it up mountain, we would find a tunnel which was used as part of the Appalachian Trail many years ago when it went a different route. 

After checking out the tunnel, we slowly got our hiking pace into normal trekking speed and followed the trail along the Clingmans Dome Road.  Of the whole adventure, it was during this section where we met most of the "through-hikers."  A through-hiker is one who starts in Georgia and is planning on hiking all the way to Mount Katahdin in Maine.  The four of us just so happened to be heading south while a massive chunk of north-bound through-hikers were coming through the Smoky Mountains during this time period. 

As they stopped to introduce themselves, we heard stories of how years ago it snowed really bad and hikers took the Clingmans Dome Road instead of the trail.  However, park rangers gave them all tickets for walking on the road during construction.  Sticking to the trail, we climbed our way to Clingmans Dome, the highest point in the state of Tennessee and also the highest point along the whole Appalachian Trail at 6,643 feet.  At Clingmans Dome, we broke out lunch at the top of the tower and enjoyed the view of the Smoky Mountains.  Looking southward, we could see Fontana Lake in the background.  The Appalachian Trail goes right over the top of Fontana Dam.  For our trip, we were going to stay on the Appalachian Trail until Spence Field, and then we would take the Bote Mountain Trail and the West Prong Trail toward Tremont.

Silers Bald is only about four miles away from Clingmans Dome.  After lunch, we slowly hiked this section of trail, taking in the gorgeous mountain view.  This section of trail is one of the best hikes to take in the Smokies.  Stopping short of Silers Bald, we took a break at Double Spring Gap Shelter.  Here, an elderly couple had stopped for the night.  They were section hikers, like us (hiking northbound instead), and planned on ending their hike in Hot Springs, North Carolina.  It was neat to meet people like this along the trail.  It just goes to show you that anyone can hike the Appalachian Trail - young to old, short to tall, strong to frail.  What really helps you on your hike is your equipment and packing light.

We let the elderly couple settle in for the night and made haste a few more miles to Silers Bald Shelter.  Along the way, we stopped for a second at Silers Bald.  Silers Bald is 5,607 feet high and used to be completely open.  That is what a bald means - a grassy, treeless area on top of a mountain.  There is a nice open area that provides a view a couple of feet off the trail.  We then made our way down to Silers Bald Shelter, where we stayed the night.

Shelter camping along the Appalachian Trail is truly unique.  You are walled in on three sides.  Shelters have a roof, a wooden floor to sleep on (some shelters have two floors), and picnic tables outside.  Shelters are provided along the Appalachian Trail for hikers' convenience.  If planned right, a through-hiker could hike the entire trail without having to pitch a tent or hammock.  The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is unique in that it does not allow tent camping along the Appalachian Trail, so hikers are almost bound to stay in shelters for the night.  This is to reduce the laying down of grass and to prevent damage to the already overused wilderness area. 

Shelters can be reserved for only one night at a time through the backcountry office of the park, which was what my group and I did.  By doing this, we had first claim to the shelter.  Along the Appalachian Trail, it is common courtesy to let through-hikers sleep in the shelters, but since the park had certain rules, we were able to claim the first spots of the shelter.  The shelter that night wasn't crowded at all; just the four of us and another group of three that chose to hang up hammocks outside instead.  They were section hikers, too.  That night, I fixed myself a lasagna bagged meal and settled in for a cold night on top of the mountain.

Day 2

Hiking the Appalachian Trail

Brad hiking the Appalachian Trail.

Waking up very early happens naturally when you're camping out.  It is unique how one's body naturally goes back to a sunrise- sunset day. With all technology out of reach and no electricity, it is easy to live this way.  Electricity, I believe, has made us more nocturnal nowadays.  I love how getting out in the wilderness just rewires one's clock.  Also, being outside on a trip like this automatically brings your body to a state of survival.  It is really neat how one's body can transform to pure survival mode, where everything you eat is looked at as providing energy and the water you drink is rationed to make it through the day.

In the morning, we all woke up early, ate breakfast, and purified water before setting out.  Purifying water is a must on long-distance hiking trips.  Most educated people will tell you that it is important to purify water in order to get all the impurities out.  The reason being is that in the backcountry you are literally getting your water from mountain springs, streams, or creeks.  This is the same water source for animals, too.  The best site for drinking water is to find a deep pool of water along a running stream. 

At Silers Bald, the water source is just a little spring bubbling up out of the ground with a few pools.  It was hard to find a deep enough spot to allow the water purifier to suck it up.  We had to use a milk jug that I had brought with me to capture the flow of water and then stick the hose in the milk jug to be able to efficiently suck it up through the tube and into the purifier.  After filling all our water bottles up, it was time to hit the trail.  We also purified water at the same site the night before.

The morning on the trail started with bad news - it was going downhill.  One thing all hikers learn over time is that if a trail goes downhill, it will go back up.  The trail was pretty much a smooth hike through a heavily forested area of the park that morning.  We covered about 5.7 miles before stopping for lunch at Derrick Knob Shelter.  It was here we met a few through-hikers making their way up north into the country we just came from.  They all told us about the trail ahead, saying that they came downhill the whole way.  That was bad news for us because it meant we would be hiking uphill from here on out.  Bracing ourselves for what was ahead, we headed out with no hesitation.

The climb up the mountain to Thunderhead and Rocky Top had to be the most difficult climb I had ever taken.  I've been long-distance hiking for several years now, and this just capped them all, including the Hell Hill climb along the Gibson Gap Trail in the Cumberland Gap National Historic Park.  There were several times where we as a group had to just stop and take a break.  Our calf muscles were giving out, and we were rehydrating like crazy.  To make sure I kept myself going, while keeping my water resource under control, I took out a water bottle and just carried it in my hand the whole way up. 

From Derrick Knob, it is about six miles to Thunderhead Mountain.  While hiking up to Thunderhead, we met some more through-hikers and explained to them that if they were going to make it to Derrick Knob by nightfall they needed to hurry up.  They actually should have said the same to us.  When we finally got to the top of Thunderhead Mountain, we were completely exhausted.  At 5,527 feet, Thunderhead Mountain really does not provide a view.  However, there is a stack of rocks that look to be oddly placed.  If one balances on these stacked rocks, a pleasant view is rewarded.  It is after the Thunderhead peak that the views start to intensify.  Going down on the other side of it, open views of Fontana Lake and Cades Cove are available.

The next mountain peak we came across was Rocky Top.  Rocky Top is 5,386 feet high and offers an almost 360-degree view of the Smoky Mountains.  Surprisingly, it is this significant mountain peak that the song Rocky Top is named after.  Who knew that the fight song of the Tennessee Volunteers had actually been written about the wondrous views looked at from the Rocky Top peak!  It would have been awesome to stop and relax on this mountain peak, but we had somewhere to be by nightfall.  We took the views in for a short while we scurried down the mountain into the high valley of Spence Field.

As we were walking into Spence Field, a few wild turkeys caught our eyes.  It looked like they were trying to find some food before darkness fell in.  What fascinated me was that all the wildlife in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park seemed much larger than normal.  We did not run into any bears or snakes, but the animals we did run into were just huge.

The end of Day 2 brought us to Spence Field Shelter.  Located just off the Appalachian Trail, along the Eagle Creek Trail, this shelter is one of the most popular places to stay overnight in the Great Smoky Mountain National Park.  The shelter was pretty much set up exactly like Silers Bald, but it had more places to hang your backpack and more picnic table space.  An outhouse is also located here, providing some much need comfort!

That night the four of us, along with the group of three who had stayed with us the night before, were in the shelter.  Some other through-hikers decided to crawl in as well.  There was also a large group of co-ed hikers who decided to stay up near the Appalachian Trail and sleep in their hammocks.  It was kind of refreshing to see female hikers along the trail.  The whole time we had just been running into other men, and I think I speak for all other male hikers when I say that seeing a girl on the trail kind of brings a sense of confidence, letting you know you're really not alone out here.  That night, my group and I purified water and fixed supper before hitting the sleeping bags.

Day 3

The third day was bittersweet.  We would step off of the Appalachian Trail and take two side trails down to the Great Smoky Mountains Institute at Tremont.  After purifying water and taking time to eat breakfast, we headed out.  After talking the whole trip about where we were going to eat once we got off the mountain, the decision was made to go to Pizza Hut and, basically, this was our motivator to finish the hike.  The third day was only going to be around nine miles, shorter than the past two days. 

We left Spence Field Shelter and climbed up to the Appalachian Trail.  It was here where we met our turkey friends from the day before.  They gobbled at us as we made our climb.  Upon reaching the Appalachian Trail, we had to backtrack about 0.1 miles to where the Bote Mountain Trail veers off.  Did you know that the Bote Mountain Trail was named after a mispronunciation of the word "vote" by a Cherokee native to the area when being asked where to put a new road in the area?   To find out more about this historical situation, see Bote Mountain Trail.

Coming off the Appalachian Trail via the Bote Mountain Trail is all downhill and fast.  There are places where it feels like you are running because the terrain is so steep.  "It would really suck to climb up this," I continued to tell myself. After passing all the little trails that broke off toward the Cades Cove area, we finally came to the West Prong Trail intersection. We felt like we were flying down the mountain ridge, covering about 5.4 miles in about an hour and a half. 

After this, we took the West Prong Trail.  The West Prong Trail led us to Campsite #18, where the West Prong of the Little River flowed rapidly through the campsite.  If I were to plan another hike, I would make sure I stayed at this tent camping site!   The West Prong Trail comes out right across the road from the Tremont Visitor Center.  We crossed Tremont Road and, basically, fell to our knees in the parking lot.  The exciting long hike was finally over!  Over the course of three days, four friends had hiked over 36 miles, stayed in two backcountry shelters, and ultimately experienced a Smokies Adventure!

To find out more about this exploration, nine videos can be found on YouTube by searching "Hiking the Appalachian Trail: GSMNP (South)."