Origins of the Trails in the Great Smoky Mountains

Thursday, December 1, 2011

There are roughly 850 miles of hiking trails in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. There’s also a lot of history underneath those trails we walk along today. How were these trails established? Who blazed them, and why?

Some of the earliest trails in what would become the national park were simple game trails, created by migrating bison, elk, and other large animals. Many of these were later adapted by the Indians in the area. The Cherokee used these established routes for trading with other tribes, and for reaching favored hunting grounds.

Over the years, with the steady encroachment of white settlers, many of the old Indian pathways were converted into stock trails and wagon roads. By the late 1800’s, big lumber companies were converting Indian trails into logging roads and railroads to help with the harvest and transport of timber.

A few of these old settler roads eventually became the hiking trails we use today. If you hike along the Old Sugarlands Trail, the Little River Trail or the Meigs Mountain Trail, you’ll be walking on some of the same roads used by the pioneers and homesteaders of this area.

Some of the footpaths we use today were blazed by one pioneer in particular.

Wiley Oakley, also known as the “Roamin Man of the Mountains”, was born in 1885 at the base of Mount LeConte. Tragically, his mother died when he was a young boy. To help deal with his grief he began wandering the hollows and mountains near his home. Reflecting back as an older man, he spoke of how he would try to climb the highest peaks to see if he could catch a glimpse of her in heaven.

As he grew older, Wiley’s responsibilities also grew. At sill a relatively young age he began helping the family with hunting and fishing duties. It was during this time that he spent “roamin” and hunting that he was discovering the unique features of the mountains and was even blazing his own footpaths. Eventually he became a hunting and fishing guide, and gained such a renowned reputation that he was soon guiding politicians, celebrities and businessmen from all over the country, including Henry Ford.

During the Park’s formation, Wiley became a major consultant and was called on by surveyors to help determine Park boundaries. Some of those paths he blazed earlier in his life eventually became official park trails.

Another early explorer by the name of Paul Adams is credited with blazing the trail from Alum Cave to Mount LeConte, as well as for helping to establish the famous lodge atop that same mountain.

Adams, an avid hiker, joined the Great Smoky Mountain Conservation Association in 1924, a group dedicated to making the Smoky Mountains into a national park. Later that same year Adams led an expedition to the top of Mount LeConte for the purpose of showing Washington dignitaries the rugged beauty of the Smoky Mountains, and to help promote the cause for national park status. The delegation spent the night in a large tent. The following year Adams would build a cabin on that same spot which eventually led to the establishment of the LeConte Lodge.

Although many trails in the Smoky Mountains follow all or parts of the routes developed by migrating animals, Indians, pioneers and explorers, the majority of trails still in use today were developed by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC).

The CCC was a work relief program established in 1933 by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. As part of Roosevelt’s New Deal legislation, the CCC was created to combat unemployment during the Great Depression. Between 1933 and 1942, the CCC used 4000 men to build trails, campgrounds, bridges and ranger stations in the Smokies.

Some of the trails built by the CCC include Bullhead, Alum Cave, Kephart Prong, Maddron Bald, Sweat Heifer and Sugarland Mountain.

Since the early days of the Park, various hiking clubs have worked to improve the original CCC trails, and in some cases, construct new ones. One of those pathways, the granddaddy of all trails, was the Appalachian Trail.

The Appalachian Trail, also known as the AT, runs for more than 70 miles through Great Smoky Mountains National Park, entering from the north at Davenport Gap and exiting in the south near Fontana Dam. The highest point anywhere along the 2175-mile trail is at Clingmans Dome (6625 ft.). The trail also passes by other notable landmarks in the Smokies such as Charlies Bunion, Rocky Top and the historic stone fire tower atop Mt. Cammerer.

Although the AT was the brainchild of Benton MacKaye, cofounder of The Wilderness Society, it was Harvey Broome and Paul Fink that made it become a reality in the Smokies.

Harvey Broome was an early environmentalist, another one of the cofounders of The Wilderness Society, and a longtime president of the Smoky Mountains Hiking Club. He, along with seven others, hiked the 70+ miles of AT through the Park in 1932 before the trail was completed. He was largely responsible for sighting most of the AT thru the Park.

Paul Fink, another leader of the movement that led to the founding of the national park, was also instrumental in blazing the AT through the Smokies. Fink was a member of the Board of Managers of the Appalachian Trail from 1925 to 1949, and was the author of “Backpacking Was the Only Way”, an account of early 20th century camping and backpacking adventures in the southern Appalachians.

Over the years, the Park has closed certain trails for various reasons. In the future, it’s likely that other trails will be closed and new ones will be created, demonstrating that the park isn’t static, but a park that continues to evolve.

Hiking Great Smoky Mountains National Park, by Kevin Adams, covers 80 hikes in the Smokies, and includes photos, trail maps, elevation profiles, and quick reference trail highlights.



Jeff said...

Thanks for the interesting historical background Jeff. The more I hang out in the Smokies, the more I want to learn what came before.

Tim said...


Great post. Love learning the history behind the trail we hike. Speaking of Harvey Broome, I've been reading one of his books off and on here lately; "Out Under the Skies in the Great Smoky Mountains". If you haven't thought you might want to check it out for more history on the park.

I also hear tell that there are some trails that they don't put on the map. There's a few trails that are kept as secret as possible so that park staff can take dignitaries and other park VIP people to for special trips etc.

The Smoky Mountain Hiker said...


I know there are trails that have been "abandoned" by the park service. Then there's the famous unmarked trail that goes to White Oaks Sinks, but I've never heard of any secret trails. Sounds like an Area 51 type deal! :)

I'll have to do a little research on that one...might make a good posting if I can dig anything up.


Danny Bernstein said...

There are no hidden trails in the Smokies. They have enough trouble maintaining the 803 miles of trail they have. And VIPs and dignitaries don't walk. They get driven to beauty spots.

Interesting the rumors that get spread.
Danny Bernstein