December 14, 2015

Chimney Tops + Camping in the Great Smoky Mountains

The hike to chimney tops isn't easy, though the first mile would lead you to believe otherwise. It begins with an easy walk over well-built, wooden bridges that lead you safely across rushing streams, and the incline, though steady, isn't so steep that you find yourself bent over a tree gasping for air. However, it is a workout nonetheless.

But if you were to do some research online ahead of time, the description of this hike makes it clear that the second mile isn't for the faint-hearted. As you reach the sign at the switchback letting you know you're halfway there, you prepare your mind and body for a much more difficult second half. You begin that familiar stride - one foot in front of the other, just keep moving forward.

You then come to a steep, uphill battle that seems never-ending. Dozens and dozens of stairs that leave your legs burning with sweat pouring down your face, your back, your chest. Breaks are your friend. "Let's get up to that tree, and then we'll stop." The higher you climb, the more you see individuals hiking down. You can't help but think, "We must be getting closer." Then the exhaustion begins to set in, and a bond between you and everyone else on the trail forms. "Is it much farther?" you ask to the couple on their way down. "You've got about 15 more minutes or so." You keep chugging along. Your tired expression must be painfully obvious as you reach those final yards because without first saying a word, other people start telling you "you're almost there" as they take their earlier accomplishments back down the mountain to their car full of water and snacks.

And then the trees begin to open up...

And then you see the jagged rock face that silently tells you, "You've made it." The rock face isn't a requirement, and if you're afraid of heights, it's probably best to keep your feet firmly planted on the trail below. But if you feel up to the final challenge - and really, why wouldn't you after all you just went through to get to this spot - you brave the steep, stone cliffside for the ultimate view.

On our particular hike, the trail was crowded, and we reached the rock face around the same time as many other hikers who all sought that same view. We climbed about halfway up the rock before getting panicky and deciding we'd seen enough and were ready to head back to the car. But still, the views were worth it. So we scooted back down the rock and started our two-mile hike back to the trailhead.

After so much effort and pain to get to the top, the view is rewarding and presents new energy for the hike back. The euphoric bliss powered me back through the winding trails with a spring in my step, and now that the exhaustion had passed, I remembered to look up...

We made it back to the car, proud of what we'd just done. And after catching our breath and refueling with some much-needed cold water, we drove to the trail that would lead us to our overnight campsite. This was a popular weekend in the Great Smoky Mountains with the fall foliage nearing its end and the bareness of winter beginning to subtly creep its way in. That meant congested mountain roads, which, despite being inconvenient, did allow a certain car passenger to sneak her head out of the sunroof to snap pictures of those "scenic overlooks."

The hike to our campsite was a complete 180 degree shift from the hike to chimney tops. It was flat and easy. We passed plenty of families and older folks returning from day hikes and fishing in the river next to the trail on our way in.

We were the first and only people at our campsite for quite a while. We set up the tent and got a small fire going before preparing our meal of ground beef, potatoes, and corn. We also found the UT vs Alabama came on the radio we brought with us. It was so peaceful. After the sun fell out of the sky and darkness took over, two others made their way up the path. They were two young guys from Louisiana who'd made a long 14-hour drive to the Smokies for a weekend in the mountains. They also had a dog with them, which left us feeling a little more comfortable knowing that she would probably bark if a bear happened to wander into camp.

The next morning, we had a quick breakfast before packing up our site, saying goodbye to our new friends, and hiking out. I'm not usually big on camping or hiking. There's something about being in the woods that doesn't really appeal to me. But when you live so close to a national park, it would be downright sinful to not fully experience and appreciate its beauty. And believe it or not, I actually enjoyed myself for the 24 hours that we were in the heart of Mother Nature. We eventually made it back to our car and headed back to our little home in Knoxville where a warm shower awaited us.

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