Chimney Tops Trail
|Trail Features:||Panoramic views, Cascading stream|
|Trail Location:||Newfound Gap Road|
|Roundtrip Length:||3.8 Miles|
|Total Elevation Gain:||1487 Feet|
|Avg. Elev Gain / Mile:||783 Feet|
|Highest Elevation:||4753 Feet|
|Trail Difficulty Rating:||6.77 (moderate)|
|Parking Lot Latitude||35.63538|
|Parking Lot Longitude||-83.46979|
The trailhead for Chimney Tops is located roughly 6.9 miles south of the Sugarlands Visitor Center (between the lower tunnel and "the loop" on Newfound Gap Road).
The Chimney Tops Trail is one of the most popular hikes along Newfound Gap Road. The trail owes much of its popularity to its relatively short length, and its outstanding panoramic views from the pinnacles. Its length, less than 2 miles, however, makes for a very steep hike - so much so that many hikers don't even reach the top. The first half of the trail is relatively tame. However, to reach the summit hikers have to climb more than 960 feet over the course of the last mile! This is similar to the rate of elevation gain you'll find on some of the 14,000-foot peaks in Colorado.
In 2012 the Trails Forever program launched a multi-year project to rehabilitate this extremely popular trail. The combination of heavy use, abundant rainfall and steep terrain had turned the Chimney Tops Trail into what was described as "a badly eroded obstacle course of slick broken rock, exposed tree roots and mud". Over time these hazards forced hikers to trek across uneven surfaces, or encouraged them to walk along the edges of the trail, all of which resulted in extensive erosion and resource damage.
Restoration efforts by Trails Forever crews included construction of rock steps, redefining sections of trail that were unsafe or difficult to navigate, improved drainage, as well as the construction of raised turnpike structures to prevent further erosion. In all, Trails Forever crews installed a total of 367 stone steps - each weighing roughly 300 pounds!
At one point progress on the project was delayed several months due to flooding rains. After several weeks of above average rainfall, the Great Smoky Mountains received more than 4 inches of rain in one 24-hour period on January 30, 2013. The resulting floods washed out the 70-foot footbridge that spanned the Walker Camp Prong near the trailhead, which forced the closure of the entire trail for more than five months.
The first section of trail more or less follows the cascading waters of Road Prong Creek, and crosses several footbridges along the 0.9-mile route to Beech Flats. If you're hiking during the spring or early summer, be on the lookout for rhododendron, mountain laurel and many other wildflowers that bloom along the trailside during this time period. The trail junction at Beech Flats marks the approximate half-way point for this hike. From here the Road Prong Trail branches off to the left towards the Appalachian Trail at Indian Gap, roughly 2.4 miles away. The Road Prong Trail, which continues to follow the stream of the same name, is one of the oldest trails in the Smokies. In the 18th and 19th centuries this ancient path was commonly known as the Indian Gap Trail.
To reach the Chimney Tops you'll have to stay on the main path, which veers towards the right.
Now the fun begins - that is, if you enjoy hiking up steep terrain. From the junction the trail takes a westerly course and climbs roughly 730 feet over the next two-thirds of a mile, before swinging northward to climb the ridge leading to the summit. As this ridge narrows hikers will begin to have some decent views of the mountains towards the east.
This hike officially ends just before reaching the first pinnacle, a little over 1.9 miles from the trailhead. Proceeding any further is purely optional. The National Park Service has posted a sign here warning hikers that they should climb at their own risk. While no technical gear is needed, it should be noted that a steep scramble is necessary to reach the very top of the pinnacles, roughly 50 feet above you from this point. Many injuries have occurred in this area, so take proper precautions to keep yourself and your companions safe, especially during wet conditions. The ascent is definitely not recommended for anyone with a fear of heights. If you're not up to the challenge you'll still have some fairly good views without having to climb the pinnacles.
Chimney Tops is one of the few mountains in the Smokies that has a bare rock summit. From the 4800-foot summit Mt. LeConte and Mt. Kephart will dominate the views towards the east, while Sugarland Mountain dominates the view to the west. On a clear day the Sugarlands Valley will be visible towards the north.
The Cherokee name for Chimney Tops is Duniskwalgunyi, or "forked antler", which refers to its resemblance to the antlers of a deer.
Although it might be warmer, and will likely be much more crowded, I would recommend waiting until the afternoon to start your hike. Most people will end their hike at the lower portions of the pinnacle, therefore their only views will be towards the east. Waiting until later in the day allows you to view the mountains across the valley without having to peer through the morning sun's haze.
Novice hikers should also note that the Chimney Tops Trail is a very strenuous hike. Although it's rated as moderate, due to its relatively low mileage, it's actually much more difficult as a result of its extreme elevation gain.