GATLINBURG - Knowing where the park service sends its snow plows can make winter hiking in the Smokies a lot easier.
On the Tennessee side of the Smokies, the Gatlinburg Spur is one of the first roads to be cleared of ice and snow. Other priorities include U.S. Highway 441 (Newfound Gap Road), and Laurel Creek Road, which runs from the Townsend Wye to Cades Cove.
Even if these roads are closed, there are several trail heads located along the park boundary. One of these is the Chestnut Top Trail that starts at the parking lot at the Townsend entrance to the park.
Another option is to park at the gate at the Greenbrier entrance on U.S. Highway 321 and simply walk up the road that parallels the Little Pigeon River. Hiking trails in the Elkmont area of the park are a good bet in winter because the National Park Service usually plows the section of road from the Sugarlands Visitor Center to Elkmont soon after it snows. Also, trails leading out of Elkmont are at relatively low elevations and don't receive as much snow as the surrounding peaks.
The Meigs Mountain Trail hike at Elkmont is an excellent choice any time of the year, but especially in winter. One option is to hike from Elkmont to Metcalf Bottoms, a distance of 7.8 miles.
The hike starts at the Jakes Creek Trail Head, at the end of the Elkmont road. After an initial climb of only 0.4 miles, the Jakes Creek Trail intersects with the Meigs Mountain Trail. Bear right (west) on the Meigs Mountain Trail, and follow it for 4.1 miles to the Meigs Mountain-Curry Mountain trail junction. The final leg of the hike is along the Curry Mountain Trail, which drops 3.3 miles to the parking lot at Metcalf Bottoms, along the Little River Road.
Since the hike is point-to-point, two vehicles are required for the shuttle between Elkmont and Metcalf Bottoms.
The Jakes Creek-Meigs Mountain-Curry Mountain trails hike is relatively flat. Hugging the northern slopes of Meigs Mountain, the trail overlaps old roads through logging communities that were active until the early 1900s. The remnants of these former occupants - rock foundations, rusted machine parts - are especially evident this time of year after the vegetation has died back.
The trail crosses a number of small streams that tumble down Meigs Mountain before eventually joining the Little River. There's a log bridge over Jakes Creek at the beginning of the hike; otherwise, the streams are small enough to be crossed using stepping stones.
After two miles, the Meigs Mountain Trail reaches back country campsite 20 at a wide opening in the woods flanked by two streams. For much of the hike, the trail cuts across steep mountain slopes at the head of deep, rhododendron-choked ravines. The trees - mostly second-growth tulip poplars, maple, and oaks - are draped with large grapevines.
In the winter, the leafless deciduous forest exposes the anatomy of the mountains. Contours are revealed, and geologic features like boulders and rock outcroppings become big attention grabbers.
Some of the best views along the hike come at the end as the Curry Mountain Trail descends to the Little River Road along the Little River.
For a longer hike of 9.9 miles, continue on the Meigs Mountain Trail and turn north on the Meigs Creek Trail. After 3.5 miles, the Meigs Creek Trail comes to the Sinks along the Little River Road, just west of Metcalf Bottoms.
For an even longer hike, pick up the Lumber Ridge Trail at the Meigs Mountain-Meigs Creek trail junction and continue west for 4.1 miles to the Great Smoky Mountains Institute at Tremont. The hike - a direct link between the Elkmont Historic District and Tremont - is 10.5 miles long.
Morgan Simmons may be reached at email@example.com or 865-342-6321.
© 2009, Knoxville News Sentinel Co.
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