Although my husband J.L. and I are avid hikers in the Smokies now—that wasn’t always so. Growing up in east Tennessee, our families took occasional trips to the mountains for picnics, short walks up the trails, or afternoons exploring the craft shops of Gatlinburg, but J.L. and I never took our first official “hike” until mid-life when we hiked with friends to Grotto Falls one Saturday. To our surprise and delight, we loved it… discovering that hiking was simply a joyous walk in the woods versus some sort of rugged, sweaty, arduous effort like we’d imagined. Always outdoors lovers, we immediately began to explore other trails in the mountains.
Getting into our new adventure with zest, we picked up a pile of hiking guides to learn more about trails to explore. But we then began to run into difficulties—from our perspective. Many guidebooks didn’t begin describing the trail until ten to twelve miles up the way—while we’d turned around long before that as weekend hikers. In addition, the books’ ratings of trail difficulty seldom matched our “new hiker” status, with their idea of “easy” very different from ours. We also found the guidebooks we studied often failed to mention points of interest along the early portions of the trail we were likely to see—a falls, historic home, an interesting bridge—and mileage to these points or to trail intersections along the way were often not included.
As we explored our first trails, I wrote notes in a journal detailing each hike and J.L. took lots of photos. It didn’t long for us to decide to write our own guidebook more suited to casual hikers like ourselves—a book non-Sierra-Club types or average visitors to the park might better relate to. The result, after exploring hundreds of trails on the Tennessee and North Carolina sides of the Smoky Mountains was THE AFTERNOON HIKER, published in 2014. Our book has 110 trail descriptions and over 300 color photos. To the best of our knowledge, ours is the only Smoky Mountain trails book with photos throughout.
If you’ve never hiked in the Smoky Mountains two short trails you might want to explore for a first hike might be The Gatlinburg Trail, which starts at the back of downtown Gatlinburg, or The Rich Mountain Loop, which begins at the entrance to Cades Cove. The Gatlinburg Trail is a short 1.7 miles trail traveling on an easy walking path from the back end of Gatlinburg on the River Road to Park Headquarters Road not far from the Park headquarters and Sugarlands Visitor Center. It travels through an open, shady forest along the West Prong Little Pigeon River. Despite its nearness to a major tourist city, the trail is a quiet and peaceful one to explore with remnants of settlers homes and cabin foundations along the route.
The Rich Mountain Loop begins at the entrance to the loop road through Cades Cove. Park your car just before the road begins and walk a few feet to the trail’s entrance on the right. A 1.5 miles walk leads to the historic John Oliver cabin, a nice point to turn around for a short 3 miles roundtrip walk. Like the Gatlinburg Trail, the pathway is easy to walk, following through a picturesque woodland, across a couple of small creeks, and past views of the Cades Cove valley.
If you have never explored any of the Smoky Mountains trails, I hope you will do so on your next visit to the mountains. It is a joyous way to get close to nature and to experience the beauty and peace of the mountains firsthand. To help you plan hikes to take in whatever part of the Smokies you plan to visit, order our hiking guide to take with you… from your favorite bookstore or online. You can read more about the book on my website and see some of the early pages of the guide in the Look Inside feature on Amazon at: https://www.amazon.com/Afternoon-Hiker-Guide-Casual-Mountains/dp/0692020462 … We hope to see you on the trail one day!