If we were to establish a local bestseller list, ranking books by local authors, the top 20 would be dominated by guidebooks to mountain trails. In fact, several Knoxville hiking authors have national reputations. We thought it might be interesting to ask a few of them about their favorite trails.
All hikers, and all hiking authors, are different. Some do most of their mountaineering on daytrips, rarely spending the night in a tent. Others don't respect a walk in the woods as a real hike unless it's an overnighter; they might be prone to camp even on a one-hour hike. Some enjoy the camaraderie of seeing lots of fellow hikers; they greet each other as they might in the park. Others love the thrill and beauty of being wholly alone on a trail, and are sorely disappointed in a trail if they see more than two or three others on the same six-miler. Some love the Smokies with the loyalty of a child; some have begun to roam to farther ranges.
All these authors have something in common, though; reading their books will make you want to take a good long walk in the woods.
David Brill works in an office in downtown Knoxville as editor of a magazine published by UT's Energy, Environment and Resources Center; recently of Farragut, Brill now spends most of his time in his cabin in a remote part of Morgan County. Originally from Cincinnati, Brill first visited East Tennessee 20 years ago just because he had passed through here to complete the Appalachian Trail. He moved to Knoxville about 15 years ago, partly for the hiking opportunities. He has stayed close to hiking in the years since, occasionally writing articles for magazines like Outside and Backpacking.
His narrative of that six-month journey from Georgia to Maine, As Far As the Eye Can See: Reflections of an Appalachian Trail Hiker (Rutledge Hill Press) earned extravagant national praise when it was published in 1990 and has been in print ever since. Now in his mid-40s, the author shows no signs of slowing down; this month, he's on his way to Maine for a reunion hike up Mount Katahdin. Last year, Brill scaled the summit of snowy Mount Rainier in Washington state.
Today, Brill's second home is the subject of his second book, soon to be published by Penguin. Living near the Obed has enhanced his interest in the Cumberlands: he's now at work scouting a new trail along the Cumberlands, sort of a western counterpart to the A.T.
Asked about his favorite trails in the area, though, Brill picks one far on the opposite side of Knoxville, east of the Smokies National Park, in fact. He's a little reluctant to talk about it. "It's like telling people about your favorite fishing hole," he says. It's the Shining Rock Wilderness Area, near Waynesville, N.C.
"The top of the mountain is the classic Smoky Mountain bald," Brill says, "with rhododendron, but also covered with scrub blueberry bushes; in August, they're just hanging with blueberries." And the trail didn't earn its name by default. "There's a three-story outcrop of pure white quartz."
Up there are lots and lots of rocks, and as Brill says, "good opportunities for bouldering"—that is, low-risk rock climbing, without ropes. "I like to find a slab of pure white quartz, and sit and watch the eagles swirl."
He speaks of it as if it's one of his favorite places in the world. It's not a long hike, but he likes to camp there, and has done so many times. "I've seen meteor showers there. I saw Halley's comet there. You can see the lights of Waynesville in the distance."
Though the place is not exactly a secret, Brill has reservations about encouraging everybody to try it. "I strongly encourage people to pursue zero-impact camping," he adds. "It's already starting to show wear."
He also likes another place on the Tarheel side of the border, Naked Ground, which is in the Joyce Kilmer National Forest. He's not sure how it got its name; he says every time he's been up there it's too cold to contemplate actual nakedness.
Brill hasn't given up on the Smokies—the Newfound Gap and Sugarlands areas—but doesn't go there much anymore. "From where I live, I have to go through Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge," he says. "They can destroy some degree of the enthusiasm I have for being in the mountains." That disgust with Pigeon Forge is universal among the authors we spoke with.
Johnny Molloy had never been on a mountain hike before he moved to Knoxville from Memphis to go to school at UT to study economics. In the 19 years since, however, he has spent more than 650 nights camping in the mountains, and along the way has become a national authority on hiking, camping, and even canoeing; best known hereabouts for his Smokies guides like Day & Overnight Hikes in the Great Smoky Mountains (Menasha Ridge Press, Birmingham) and his personal narrative, Trial by Trail (UT Press), he has projects in the works about wilderness areas as far north as Vermont and as far west as Colorado.
Chatting over lunch on Market Square, he seems like a man in a hurry, as he apparently is all the time. He's going backpacking tonight, an overnight trail-maintenance excursion to the backside of Abrams Falls; he's involved in the park's "Adopt-a-Trail" program, which pledges volunteers to visit a trail at least eight times a year and do routine maintenance. Then, tomorrow, Molloy's off to Florida to work on his current project: A Paddler's Guide To the Everglades. His 10 books have earned praise and sales, but haven't made him rich; he occasionally supports his hiking habits by tending bar at Lucille's.
"I'll give you five hikes to avoid," he says. "You can probably name them, too: Alum Cave, the Chimneys, Abrams Falls, Rainbow Falls, Charlie's Bunion." He likes some of those trails individually, mentioning Charlie's Bunion's "Bam! overlook." What he doesn't like is their popularity. "I call them Hi trails," he says. "All the way up and down, you're saying 'Hi. How's it going. Hi. Hi.'" Some extroverts might enjoy that, of course, but Molloy's books rate trails by five categories, ranking "Solitude" right along with "Scenery."
"To me, the Smokies are about biodiversity," he says. "In the Smokies, there are 120 types of trees. In Yellowstone, there are eight."
There are 900 miles of trails in the Smokies, and Molloy's walked most of them. But he says more than half of the total foot traffic ends up on just 50 of those miles. Now a Fort Sanders resident, the former Memphian can't get over the fact that Knoxvillians can go to the mountains any day of the week, and don't. "That's the advantage of Knoxvillians. People drive hundreds of miles to come here, but we can go anytime. Go during the week, if possible."
To Molloy, the quieter side of the Smokies isn't Townsend; it's the Cosby area. "There's easy access via I-40, you can bypass Pigeon Forge traffic, and you don't have to go through Cades Cove. You know how that is." Cosby boasts one of his favorite trails, Mount Camerer, via Low Gap, a five-mile hike notable for its trees and fall wildflowers and salamanders in the nearby creek. At the mountain's peak, almost 5,000 feet up, there's also an unusual structure: a short stone tower. Unlike most fire towers built by the CCC in the '30s, this one's just 40 feet tall.
For those who want to pack a sleeping bag, he recommends Gabes Mountain to Maddron Bald, then back through the rugged Snake Den Trail, named for a community of rattlesnakes that once resided here, along the way hitting campsites Sugar Cove (#34) and Otter Creek (#19). Along the way is an old homestead, Crying Creek, Henwallow Falls, a bald, and rare old-growth forest, with some of the Park's largest trees.
"And it's a damn bearfest, too!" Molloy means that in a good way. "The last three or four times I was there, I've seen bears." For those who dare, it's about 20 miles.
Unlike a lot of hardcore hikers, some of whom advocate hikes during Vols home games, Molloy admits being a Vols fan. In his narrative book Trial By Trail, he describes seeking out an actual "Rocky Top" in the Smokies.
"It's off of Spence Field," he says, "via the Anthony Creek Trail and Bote Mountain, about a six-mile hike up," a fairly tough hike. But strangers who climb ol' Rocky Top are rewarded at the summit. There's a rock outcrop there, as one might expect, plus something they don't mention in the song: "A fantastic view—on a clear day you can see Cades Cove and Chilhowee Mountain."
Doris Gove has a resume unlike that of any other Smokies author. A biologist and mother, the Knoxville resident has written several science-based storybooks for children, among them One Rainy Night, The Red-Spotted Newt, and My Mother Talks to Trees, which may well be a masked autobiography. Her botanical knowledge and subtle humor show up in several grown-up size hiking guides, among them Discovering the Smokies: A Science Journal and Hiking Trails of the Smokies.
As far as the Smokies go, she agrees with Molloy that it's hard to beat Mount Camerer, and the Low Gap Trail. "It's a rocky outcrop with a new rebuilt fire tower. It's quite different from other open spots. It's spectacular, if you hit a good leaf-color weekend." And it's those weekends that are the best time to stay out of the more popular parts of the Smokies.
"It's so hard to get to the Smokies anymore," she says. "Even if you take I-40, you have to go through Pigeon Forge."
Several authors seem a little sour on the Smokies, mainly because of the Pigeon Forge element, and have been running around with other mountains.
Among Gove's more recent books is Exploring the Appalachian Trail; Hikes In the Southern Appalachians (Stackpole Books, Mechanicsburg, Penn.). Perhaps not surprisingly, a couple of her favorite hikes right now are along the A.T., and along parts of it most weekend hikers never see.
One is Laurel Falls—another Laurel Falls than the one Smokies hikers are familiar with—near Hampton, Tenn., which his near Elizabethton. It's just about three or four miles, but "it's pretty rocky in places." For that reason, she doesn't recommend taking kids.
Another that might be more agreeable to small hikers is the Beauty Spot, near Erwin. On Unaka Mountain, "It's a piece of cake," she says. "It's a natural bald, but one maintained by the Forest Service."
Ken Wise is business manager for UT's library, which holds hundreds of thousands of volumes. But he's known to thousands for just one of the books on UT's shelves. Wise is author of the 1996 tome, Hiking Trails of the Great Smoky Mountains (UT Press). Hardly pocket-sized at 446 pages, it's one of the lengthier hiking guides and, reflecting Wise's own interests, it's also one of the more historical ones. When Wise writes about hiking, each trail is a story, an anecdotal history of the Southern Appalachians, enhanced with quotations from semi-legendary authorities like Horace Kephart and Harvey Broome. While some writers, like Gove, concentrate on natural history in their guides, Wise focuses on the human history, bringing out ruins of sawmills, old roads, gravesites, telling the yarns and quoting other authors' descriptions of sites. Even a more recent book, A Natural History of Mount LeConte (UT Press)—co-authored with UT botany professor Ron Petersen—includes fascinating stories of people, too.
Wise, who grew up near the mountains and was hiking and camping among them by himself from an early age, knows the mountains as few others do. Surprisingly, his first answers aren't far off base from those of many weekend-afternoon hikers.
"The one I really like, and the one I recommend people try the first time is Charlie's Bunion. You've got a view on both ends of the hike." He likes to take a sidetrip to a place called the Jumpoff. "You stand there, it drops off a thousand feet, straight down." In his book, he says the cliff offers "that spine-tingling sensation of being perilously close to a dangerous edge."
He also mentions the trail's ice-water springs. Overall, he says, "It's a good slice of the mountains, and not too hard."
Alum Cave is similar in that it's a diverse collection of interesting features: the Cliff Tops, Inspiration Point, Arch Rock, and the dense jungle of undergrowth called Huggins Hell. (Enjoy these diversions along the way; several generations of kids have been disappointed in the destination—Alum "Cave" is enormous, but is really just a concave cliff.) "For a five-mile hike, it's unbeatable," Wise says. "But it's a tough five miles," he says. "It's crowded."
"If you're looking for a waterfall, Ramsey's Cascades is the first place I'd mention."
But if you're looking for a real hike, try Gregory Bald. "Park at Sam's Gap on Parson Branch Road," Wise says, and follow the Gregory Ridge Trail. On the way, you can camp at Sheep Pen Gap (campsite #13). "It's a nice, open camp, one of the finest in the Smokies." Less than half a mile from Gregory Bald, it is famous for its annual explosion of flame azaleas each June. "There's plenty of room. It's really grassy, nice and flat. You can go up there at night, watch the stars." In his book, he notes that this may be one of only two natural balds in the Park, not one cleared by farmers for grazing; Gregory's Bald was described as early as 1821.
Russ Manning lives in Norris. The freelance writer has authored articles for national magazines like Outside and Sierra, as well as several just-the-facts-style hiking guides, plus the lengthier hardback, The Historic Cumberland Plateau. That mountain chain, known for its rock formations, seems to be his favorite. As author of books about Big South Fork and the relatively new South Cumberland area, he's something of a pioneer. However, his newest book is called 100 Hikes in the Great Smoky Mountains, published by Mountaineers Books in Seattle. Contacted by phone and asked for a couple of favorite hikes, he first looks to the south, and the Smokies.
He first mentions the Baxter Creek Trail, which starts in the Big Creek area and leads to the firetower on Mount Sterling. "It's not a horse trail, wide and rocky, as many trails are. It's just a path through the woods," a forest of spruce fir. It's 6.2 miles, each way.
A much-longer overnighter Manning favors is on the North Carolina side of the Park, starting at the Twentymile Ranger Station; it's a longer variation on Ken Wise's recommendation. Take the Long Hungry Ridge Trail to Sheep Pen Gap and Gregory Bald, but then come back down the Wolf Ridge Trail. It's a loop, about 14 miles, during which the hiker actually encounters three balds, including Parson's Bald and the old Rye Patch. Of that one, the one you'll come across first, Manning says, "it's just about gone now, but you can still see an opening there."
Manning then turns to the west of Knoxville, and Big South Fork, an area Manning has been writing about for 10 years. He recommends the trail named for John Muir, the Sierra Club founder who traversed these hills as a young man in 1867. Muir is better known for his conservation work out west, and Muir Woods, near San Francisco, are famous. But these are the first mountains Muir ever explored.
Anyway, Manning suggests taking the John Muir Trail north from Leatherwood Ford, and thence to Angel Falls Overlook. He especially recommends the view of rapids on the Big South Fork River, and the abundance of wildflowers—irises, geraniums, trilliums, bloodroot—along the way.
The Honey Creek Loop is in the southern section of Big South Fork, and includes waterfalls and interesting rock formations and passages you can pass through. Boulder House Falls has what are called "rock shelters: openings in the rock, like rooms, used as shelters by the Indians." It's a little over five miles, round trip; its difficulty lies in climbing over the boulders.
Finally, he mentions an even more difficult hike in an area little known to Knoxvillians: the South Cumberland Recreation Area. He describes the Fiery Gizzard Trail as "wonderful." The story is that Davy Crockett camped there, and during a supper cooked over an open fire, burned his mouth on an overheated turkey gizzard. "There are waterfalls, rock formations, pillars of stone, on the first half, then walk out of a gorge to Foster Falls," an impressive 80-footer at Little Gizzard Creek.
If it's not out of line to contact one former Knoxvillian who has made good in the mountain-trail writing business, we contacted Jeff Bradley, who now lives in Colorado. Author of A Traveler's Guide to the Great Smoky Mountains Region (Harvard Commons Press) and The Tennessee Handbook (Moon Publications), which is recently in a new edition. He brings up a whole different park, the Cumberland Gap National Historic Park, which straddles Virginia, Kentucky and (barely) Tennessee, and a "truly astonishing" feature on the Kentucky side: the Sand Cave. It's about four miles, a good climb, at the end of which is more of a true cave than you'll find in the Smokies: within an 80-foot entrance is one enormous room, more than an acre in size, with tons and tons of dry sand. There's also a good view of a waterfall. He says kids get a big kick out of it.
It's no big puzzle why there are so many hiking authors in Knoxville: there are great hikes in every direction, all within a two-hour drive. Finally, a disclaimer and caveat: This reporter has hiked only a few of these trails. Don't use this article as a guide; take a reputable guidebook by one of the above authors.