The following is a guest blog by FNO Founder Chris DeVore:
Update: After speaking with park officials I have learned that this program has been undergoing some revamping. Although popular amongst frequent visitors, it's a goal of the park to make this well known to new visitors as well. In addition, GSMNP has recently created a “Hike the Smokies for Families” Challenge which targets younger populations as well.
Nearly two years ago the National Park Service released a challenge for citizens visiting Great Smoky Mountains National Park. It was coined the “Hike the Smokies” Challenge. The Challenge rewards individuals based on miles hiked within the park, and sets them apart by tiers. The first tier starts at 100 miles and the tiers rise from there.
I recently left my post working with the Department of the Interior and found this challenge created a decent amount of buzz around DOI social media outlets. From most opinions I have heard, the Challenge was a rather ingenious way to get goal-oriented individuals to take in the treasures of the Smokies and share their exploits.
Must-do Day Hike: Although one of the more popular and busier options, Alum Cave is my day hike of choice. At just short of five miles, this hike has stimuli surrounding throughout the moderate climb. Whether it’s the wildlife of the area, the history, the great views, or the cave (which is technically a massive rock outcropping) there are spectacular sights here year round.
Must-do Overnight Camp: Most of my frontcountry camping trips take place with family and friends. It's a fun way to take in day hikes nearby without the extra challenge of backpacking. If I had to choose one campground close to enough activity that would keep me entertained for days, I would choose Deep Creek. Deep Creek boasts three waterfalls within a short hike, which makes this one of the prime campgrounds in the park. Relaxing fishing spots nearby don’t turn me away either.
Must-do Backpacking Hike: This is probably the most important “must-do” activity in my book, not to mention it’s also the easiest way to take a chunk out of the Challenge. Big Creek Loop, or “Big” as park frequenters call it, is the perfect way to take in sampling of what the park has to offer. At 16.5 miles it’s a great way to spend a weekend of backpacking. Whether it’s swimming holes or wildlife, there's plenty to get your attention on this trail. When you’re on a trail like this the Challenge would be the last thing on your mind.
Must-do Sightseeing: Having a background with the US Fish and Wildlife Service, I would have to choose a wildlife-centric sightseeing adventure. Dating back to the 1800’s thousands of elk naturally roamed the park. Shortly after human encroachment began on the area that is now the park, humans began to take their toll on the species, and the elk were driven to extinction. However, the elk made a reemergence in an experimental phase of reintroduction of the species in the early 2000s. The experiment has now led to an elk population of nearly 140 in North Carolina alone. Therefore, my must-do sightseeing trek would be to spot one of the few elk in the eastern United States. This can be best accomplished in the area near Maggie Valley.
Whether you’re into day hikes, backpacking, or even wildlife-viewing, the Challenge is an option for everyone. Next time you’re in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, stop by a Visitors Center and pay just $1 to take part in the program for yourself. Next thing you know you'll be climbing tiers.
Christopher DeVore is the founder of Father Nature Outdoors. His company produces outdoors camping products, most notably the award winning FNO Integrated Sleeping Bag. For more information on Mr. DeVore or Father Nature Outdoors check out www.fathernatureoutdoors.com. Father Nature Outdoors - Because Mother Nature can be a pain.
Hiking in the Smokies