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great smoky mountains national park

Great Smoky Mountains National Park is a gem amongst American national parks. This southeastern mountain range is a subrange of the highly-glorified Appalachian mountains. The Great Smoky Mountains were famously home to the Cherokee tribe for centuries before European explorations began in the mid 1500’s. The first non-native newcomers settled in Cade’s Cove around 1818, and by 1838, most of the original Cherokee inhabitants of Great Smoky Mountains National Park were moved to Oklahoma along the “Trail of Tears”.

These mountains are not only filled with breathtaking beauties of nature’s inevitable timestamps: they contain proof of America’s developmental realities. Logging camps, early schoolhouses, and traces of The Civil War are only a few to name, and many more exist to enrich your average walk-in-the-woods experiences. Black bears, fireflies, wildflowers, forests, wetlands, marshes, swamps, and caves are all a part of a classic experience in The Smokies. Before you grab your pack and head out, take a moment to scan a few safety recommendations for basic hiking in the Appalachian mountain terrain below.

1. Alum Cave Trail to Mount LeConte

alum caveAlum Cave Trail is roughly an 11-mile out-and-back hike with an elevation gain of 3,008 feet. Hike this trail anywhere between March and November. This hike won’t be a cakewalk, but it will definitely get your heart pumping. This trail is considered difficult, but it’s also one of the most popular hikes in the area. If you’re feeling ambitious, give it a try. You can always hike part of the way and turn back when your legs have had it. It also features a beautiful waterfall.

2. Chimney Tops Trail

Chimney Tops Trail is roughly a 3.5-mile out-and-back hike with 1,289 feet of elevation gain. Hike this trail anywhere between March-November. It may be short, but it will pack a leg-pumpin’ punch! Due to the wildfires in 2016, you can’t go all the way to the top like you used to, but there’s still an incredible view.

3. Rainbow Falls Trail

rainbow fallsAs suggested by the name, Rainbow Falls Trail leads to hikers to a waterfall! This trail has a 5.5 mile-long trip, and it is an out-and-back trail. Rainbow Falls has a 1,653 feet of elevation gain. This trail is considered moderate. This is also one of the trails you can take to get to the summit of Mount LeConte.

4. Grotto Falls Trail

Grotto Falls Trail is 2.6 miles, with a 534 feet of elevation gain. The best time to hike it is anywhere between April to November. Grotto Falls is considered moderate, and the waterfall is the only one you can walk behind in the entire national park. Plus, Grotto Falls Trail is the trail the Mount LeConte llamas take to bring supplies to the top for the lodge!

5. Charlies Bunion via Appalachian Trail

charlies bunionCharlies Bunion via the Appalachian Trail is roughly an 8.5-mile long out-and-back hike with 1,981 feet of elevation gain. It is best hiked anywhere between March-November, and is well known for its abundance of wildflowers in the spring. This trail is considered moderate.

6. Laurel Falls Trail

Laurel Falls Trail is roughly a 2.5-mile, out-and-back trail with an elevation gain of 396 feet. Visitors can enjoy this breezy hike at anytime during the year. This trail is popular for birding and is considered easy. It is one of the most popular trails in the entire national park because the trail is paved and the 80-foot-tall waterfall is impressive at the end of the hike.

7. Abrams Falls Trail

abrams fallsAbrams Falls Trail is roughly 5 miles roundtrip with an elevation gain of 629 feet. It’s an out-and-back trail that features a 25-foot tall waterfall. This trail is located along the Cades Cove Loop, so be sure to plan accordingly if you want to hike this trail.

8. Clingmans Dome Observation Tower Trail

Clingmans Dome Observation Tower Trail is a heavily trafficked 1.2-mile long trail with a total elevation gain of 331 feet. Hike this trail anywhere between April and November for an incredible view of the mountains at the top of the observation tower. This hike takes you to the highest point of the Great Smoky Mountain range: 6,684 feet.

9. Ramsey Cascades Trail

ramsey cascadesThe Ramsey Cascades Trail is a stout 8-mile hike with a total elevation gain of 2,224 feet. This trail can be hiked year-round and features fly-fishing and waterfalls. Most of the elevation is gained in the last few miles of the hike, so save your legs for the final grind to the finish!

10. Spruce Flats Falls

Another hiking trail in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park you’ll want to check out is Spruce Flats Falls. This is a moderate trail with a roundtrip length of 1.8 miles. At the end of the hike, you’ll come up on the waterfall. It has four tiers that water runs down, and it is one of the most beautiful waterfalls in the whole park.

Always remember: when packing for a day-trip in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, be sure to pack for a potentially-unexpected night-trip. Rain ponchos, a change of clothes, and wool-socks for overnight warmth go a long way in terms of being comfortable while staying in the wilderness for longer than you had planned.

The main web page for Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the National Outdoor Leadership School both provide excellent resources for staying safe in the back country, and if you run across a ranger, use some investigative skills and ask about any conditions you should be aware of before venturing out. If you venture out frequently, consider becoming a Wilderness Outdoor First Responder through NOLS, and help to keep yourself and others safe in your wilderness expeditions. Need a place to stay while you’re exploring the Smokies? Look through our Smoky Mountain cabins and book one today for your next hiking adventure!

Before You Hit the Trail

Before you hit the trails with your friends or family, prepare everyone to understand that they are responsible for their own safety and the unpredictability of outdoor adventuring. Check the Great Smoky Mountains National Park web page for current alerts in the mountain range.

Familiarize yourself with the group you are adventuring with by:

  • Asking the group if they have allergies that could induce anaphylaxis, and if they own or carry an epi-pen
  • Asking the group if they have a history of: diabetes, strokes, heart issues, seizures, or mental health, and if they carry prescribed medications.
  • Asking the group if they have had any abnormal symptoms, like: headaches, nausea, or abnormal bowel movements before you leave.
  • Knowing the personalities you are venturing with: Are you venturing with leaders, beginners, complainers, etc. It’s important to know one another’s strengths in the backcountry for an enjoyable time and optimal cooperation.

NOLS- Recommended Patient Assessment for Backcountry Injuries

If you are hiking and come upon a potential backcountry patient, or someone in your group becomes seriously injured, it’s important to approach the harmed individual professionally, and with caution. The following method to approaching a patient in the backcountry was taken from the National Outdoor Leadership School’s book, Wilderness Outdoor Medicine.

Before you approach a potential backcountry patient, NOLS recommends that you recite the following rhyme:

  1. “I’m #1” Make sure there are no threats to your personal being before you approach an injured or unconscious patient.
  2. “What happened to you?”  Look for evidence of a cause of injury, like sprawled bikes, or other clues to what harmed the individual
  3. “None on Me” If the patient appears to be bleeding, put on gloves or find a way to remain uncontaminated in the backcountry
  4. “Any More?” Sometimes the patient who is conscious and complaining is not the most seriously injured. Check the scene for others who may be unconscious, or in need of serious help.
  5. “What’s the Vibe?” Is the situation very serious? Is it minor? What do you think?

Checking for Life-Threatening Injuries

According to NOLS, the most basic form of patient assessment includes assessing the patient for immediate potential life threats. To remember how to assess for potential life threats, familiarize yourself with the ABCDE section of NOLS’s patient assessment system:

  • A-Airways. Clear any airway obstructions.
  • B-Breathe.  Make sure the patient can breathe, and ask them to take two deep breaths.
  • C-Circulation. Check for severe bleeding under waterproof layers, and pat down patient to check for blood.
  • D- Decision.  Based on the mechanism of injury, decide if you should protect the patient’s spine mobility by stabilizing the head with two hands. See a NOLS pdf on spine injuries.
  • E-Expose. Expose any chief complaints of an injury at skin-level.

NOLS offers courses in Wilderness Outdoor Medicine to prepare for accidents in the backcountry with the best possible evacuation methods. If you are interested in a NOLS course, simply search for the National Outdoor Leadership School online