You don’t have to climb to 6000 feet to get spectacular views of the Smoky Mountains. In fact, Mt. Cammerer has some of the best views in the national park, yet doesn’t even reach 5000 feet. You can see Snowbird Mountain and the Pigeon River Gorge to the east, and Mt. Sterling south, and the full expanse of the national park to the west. Mt. Cammerer was named for Arno B. Cammerer, who was director of the National Park Service from 1933-1940 and was instrumental in the Great Smoky Mountains becoming a national park. The stone and timber fire lookout that sits at the summit of Mt. Cammerer was constructed in 1938 by the Civilian Conservation Corps, and was unique in its day for its unusual octagonal shape. This hike occurred on Thursday, September 22, 2011 from 7:30am to about 2:00pm. The plan was to take the Low Gap Trail from the Cosby Campground in the northeastern section of Great Smoky Mountains National Park to the junction with the Appalachian Trail. From there, the AT follows the Cammerer Ridge until it meets the Mt. Cammerer spur trail to the historic fire lookout at the summit.
Hike Length: 11.2 miles Hike Duration: 6.5 hours
Hike Rating: Difficult, strenuous Blaze: White
Elevation Gain: 2470 feet Hike Configuration: Up and back
Trail Condition: Very good, brief rock scrambling at the summit
Starting Point: The Low Gap trailhead is at the back of the “B” section of the Cosby Campground.
Trail Traffic: We encountered 2 USGS scientists on the way up, and 4 hikers on the way down.
How to Get There: From the small town of Cosby, TN take Hwy 32 south 1.2 miles to Cosby Park Road and turn right. The national park entry sign is 100 feet up the road and the Cosby Campground is three miles. You will want to drive through the campground to see where the Low Gap Trailhead is, but you cannot park there. All parking is reserved for campers. The trailhead is at the very back of section “B” of the campground, but you must then go back to the campground entrance for the “hiker’s parking.”
View Low Gap and Appalachian Trails to Mt. Cammerer, Great Smoky Mountains NP in a larger map
We almost got lost before we even got to the trailhead. Sheesh! The Cosby Campground in GSMNP really winds around in the woods at the base of the mountains. The Low Gap Trail is literally “all the way” in the back of the campground. What’s worse… you can’t park there. All parking in the campground is reserved for campers. We found that out when we got back to our car and discovered a courtesy warning on the windshield. Considering there were only about five campsites occupied out of more than a hundred available, the rangers cut us some slack. Anyway, we passed a group of rangers on the way out and asked about the parking. You have to park in the designated area at the entrance to the campground, then walk (probably more than
¼ mile) to the trailhead. Look at it as a good warmup for the trail.
The first half mile of the Low Gap Trail follows Cosby Creek as it tumbles down from the state line ridge above. There is one creek crossing
— you can either be a Meanderthal and wade through, or go up the hill a ways to a bridge
— and then the up gets serious. The Low Gap Trail climbs about 2000 feet in just under three miles, so our legs and lungs got a good workout.
A couple guys from the U.S. Geological Survey caught up with us and we all stopped for a snack and water break, and some chatting. The USGS scientists were here to get some core soil samples from a virgin sugar maple stand that was another 20 minutes up the trail. They said they’ve been taking samples from Maine to Georgia, all along the Appalachian Trail, all summer long. They’re doing an acid rain study. Apparently acid rain is killing off the sugar maples in New England and they want to see how the ones further south are doing. We caught up with them again 20 minutes later as they were preparing to bushwhack off-trail to the sugar maples. You can’t see the stand of trees from the trail, but know that they are there, and that the USGS is trying to protect them.
After a couple hours we reached the junction with the Appalachian Trail at Low Gap. There was a new sign hanging on the trail markers. This one said the Cosby Knob Shelter on the AT was closed because of bear activity. We’ve been reading about significant black bear encounters in Great Smoky Mountains National Park this Fall because the mast has been very thin. For the next two miles on the AT, we would see indicators of that ourselves. The Low Gap Trail and the AT are also horse trails in this area, so we had to bob and weave, dip and dodge, to avoid the piles that would ruin our boots for weeks. Add to that many, many piles of bear scat right on the trail. Most of it was filled with mountain ash berries, apparently the food source that was plentiful.
The ridge the AT follows marks the state line between Tennessee and North Carolina; TN to the left and NC to the right. The ridge makes a swooping curve to the north so that we could see ahead. I always get a kick out of seeing where the trail will be going, or where it has been. The more I hike, the more that becomes apparent to me. This section of the AT flattens out after about 300 more feet of climbing from the Low Gap junction. The ridge eventually narrows considerably, and we could see over both sides into each state. We crossed over 5000 feet elevation and began to see just the first hint of Autumn color in the leaves that had fallen already. The maples were a rich shade of burgundy and the laurels were shining yellow.
After 2.1 miles, and about an hour, we reached the next junction… this one with the Mt. Cammerer spur trail. It is 0.6 mile to the summit, and oddly enough, the trail goes down a hundred feet or so to get there. The closer we got, the rockier it got. Granite outcrops with streaks of white quartz began to appear on both sides of the trail, and then were the trail. We came to a hitching post for the horses and a sign that said they could go no further. The reason became self-explanatory as we had to scramble over the rocks for the final few hundred yards. Be sure to tighten your boot laces so you don’t turn an ankle. Each side of the trail is covered with laurel and rhododendron so you can’t see much until… Wow! The whole thing just opened up and we could see for miles and miles in each and every direction. I think we’re there!
The summit of Mt. Cammerer is dominated by the historic stone and timber fire lookout that was built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s. That’s the picture at the top of this post. The lookout operated until the 1960s when it was replaced by more modern forest fire detection methods. By the 1980s it began to fall into serious disrepair until a couple of generous park supporters started a successful fund-raising effort to save it. The lookout appears now just as it did in its heyday in the 1940s. Apparently it was staffed by two observers who lived and worked there in two week shifts. Talk about beautiful wilderness solitude. My companions are both big history buffs, so they really dig this kinda stuff.
There’s a sign at the base commemorating the lookout and the men who built and operated it. The sign taught me something I did not know
— the difference between a fire lookout and a fire tower. A lookout is a one or two story structure that is built directly on the ground, while a tower is a tall timber or angle-iron structure designed to rise above the trees.
The summit of Mt. Cammerer is a perfect spot for lunch, no matter the weather. If it’s windy or rainy, simply go inside the fire lookout. Otherwise there are several rocky outcroppings that are flat and just right for sitting a spell to rest the weary legs. It’s always nice to get the pack off for awhile. You can look in any direction and see ridge upon ridge of mountains lined up; a sight so common to the Blue Ridge and Great Smoky Mountains. This particular day was very overcast, so there wasn’t a lot of definition for photography, but it was still beautiful.
The Pigeon River Gorge is just below to the northeast with Snowbird Mountain across the gorge. If you look closely you can see the airplane guidance tower on Snowbird. Almost due south is Mt. Sterling, another challenging hike I hope to do in the near future. On this day there was a big cloud sitting on top of it, making sure it didn’t go anywhere. To the east and south are the mountains of the Blue Ridge in North Carolina, and to the west the majority of the rest of the national park stretches out into Tennessee. With the grey overcast, also came low-lying valley clouds that were a reminder how the park got its name. It’s always breathtaking. We stayed up top for more than an hour. The sights, the smells, the sounds, the companionship
— it was that enjoyable.
The return trip is back the same way we came. You can approach Mt. Cammerer from the east on the Appalachian Trail as well. It is done from the Big Creek area of the national park. You cross Davenport Gap and then on up the mountain. It’s a little bit longer and comes up on the North Carolina side of the ridge.
By the time we got back to Cosby Creek we were all pretty tired. When climbing up nearly 2500 feet I try not to think about the effort required, instead focusing on the anticipation of the destination. When going back down though, the constant pounding on the feet, ankles, knees, and hips begins to take a toll after a couple hours. But this was definitely worth any soreness. It was a fun and enjoyable hike. The trail was in really good shape, especially the AT. The forest along the way is beautiful and lush, with many monstrous old-growth trees. The views in every direction from the point that is Mt. Cammerer are stunning and awe-inspiring. I definitely recommend this hike. Any trip to Great Smoky Mountains National Park always makes me smile.