Looking out on Newfound Gap Road and East Tennessee from the Chimney Tops.Photo/Johnny Molloy
The Chimney Tops are a Smoky Mountain icon, and a must-do trek for hikers, especially those like us who want to visit all the top sites in the Volunteer State. The 4-mile there and back hike is a good year-round, but will be crowded during the warm weather season. March is a good month to visit the Chimney Tops. I like heading up in winter or early spring for clear skies, and scant crowds. Avoid this hike during warm weather summer altogether unless hiking at dawn or dusk.
Whether you do or don’t mind some company on the trail, this short but steep hike is nothing less than spectacular. Leave Newfound Gap Road and its cars behind on a series of footbridges over crystalline streams. Ascend sharply amid some old trees to come out on top of the Smokies single most recognizable rock formation: the twin spires of the Chimney Tops, which provide a dramatic view of the surrounding landscape.
This steep uphill trail starts by going downhill. Leave the parking area on the Chimney Tops Trail and follow the path down to Walker Camp Prong, where a footbridge awaits your crossing. The white cataract with a big pool attracts swimmers on a hot day. In winter, snow and icicles border the mountain stream.
Continue on, entering Beech Flats Cove. Northern hardwoods of beech, silverbell and yellow birch complement some preserved hemlocks to cross Road Prong on two footbridges in short succession. Just after the fourth footbridge, you’ll come to the Road Prong Trail junction, at .9 mile. It leaves left for the state line ridge, and once was an historic mountain crossing between Tennessee and North Carolina.
Turn right, staying on the Chimney Tops Trail, which steepens considerably. Due to the heavy trail traffic, the trail is rutted and has toe grabbing roots along the way. Watch your step but don’t forget to look up every now and then to admire the old growth trees, buckeye among them, which accompany your ascent. During busy times, out-of-shape hikers will be standing beside the trail, hands on their knees, catching their breath.
At 1.9 miles, pass a cable that helps hikers negotiate ice in winter.
Soon top out on the rib ridge of the Chimneys. It extends from Sugarland Mountain, to your left. To your right are the twin peaks that reminded some pioneer long ago of a chimney in a house. There actually is a hole in the rock, big enough to fall in. The native Cherokee Indians fancied the rock formation to be the branched horns of a deer, calling this place Forked Antler. Be very careful as you climb up the open face rock, 4,755 feet high. Most people do it on all fours, especially in gusty March.
But, to me, the view is worth the scary final climb. To your east, beyond the second chimney, stands 6,593-foot Mount LeConte. To your west is the wooded wall of Sugarland Mountain. Southward stands Mount Mingus. To the north lies the valley of the West Prong of the Little Pigeon River and Newfound Gap Road, your return destination. The hills of East Tennessee fade into the distance. The views here can be truly incredible.
To reach the trailhead from the Great Smoky Mountains National Park Sugarlands Visitor Center near Gatlinburg, take Newfound Gap Road 6.7 miles. The Chimney Tops parking area is on your right, just after a road tunnel.