Appalachian Trail to Charlies Bunion, Great Smoky Mountains National Park

The Appalachian Trail straddles the Tennessee/North Carolina state line in Great Smoky Mountains National Park for more than 70 miles. A particularly scenic day hike on the AT is the four mile stretch from Newfound Gap to Charlies Bunion, a remote and rugged outcropping that sits on the ridge between the states. Along this sharp ridge you will pass magnificent views of the Carolina Smokies to the southeast, and the massive shoulders of Tennessee’s Mt. LeConte northwest. Much of the way offers long distance viewing on both sides of the ridge, so keep your camera handy as you hop from North Carolina to Tennessee, and back. Be sure to also take a side trip to “The Jumpoff,” a precipice on the next ridge west from Charlies Bunion. This hike occurred on Thursday, May 16, 2013 from 9:10am to 4:05pm. Our plan was to hit the AT at Newfound Gap, then hike to Charlies Bunion. On the way back, we would stop at The Jumpoff for a view of Charlies Bunion from across the valley.

Hike Length: 9.5 miles Hike Duration: 7 hours Hike Configuration: Out and back

Hike Rating: Moderate, some dangerous dropoffs

Blaze: White Elevation Gain: 2,420 feet Elevation Change: 1,125 feet

Trail Condition: AT is very good, some of the Jumpoff Trail is sketchy.

Starting Point: Newfound Gap on Hwy 441.

Trail Traffic: We encountered more than two dozen other hikers.

How to Get There: From either the Tennessee or North Carolina side of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, take Newfound Gap Road (Hwy 441) to the top at Newfound Gap. Park in the large lot there. The AT trailhead is in the northern corner.

We left home at dawn for the two hour drive into the heart of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. I hadn’t seen my brother (the other Internet Brother) in a year, so it would be great to get back on the trail together. And we picked the Appalachian Trail to celebrate.

We’d heard so much about the landslide on Newfound Gap Road through the winter. The repairs had been completed for about a month now. We watched for it as Hwy 441 winded its way up the steep incline. Sure enough, there was a very large swath of forest leveled by the massive erosion of earth. We planned to stop on the way back for pictures.

We reached Newfound Gap, the top of the paved road in the park, and the state line between North Carolina and Tennessee. It was a very cloudy day with low-lying haze, but very little threat of thunderstorm activity… a definite deal-breaker in the high country. While gearing up we debated about layers there was a bit of a brisk wind and hit the trailhead just past 9:00.

The Appalachian Trail begins climbing in an easterly direction immediately as you leave the tourists at Newfound Gap behind. The stretch of trail to Charlies Bunion is over the rounded top of Mt. Ambler. You will climb moderately about 1,000 feet over the first 2.5 miles, then drop down 600 of that to the Charlies Bunion outcropping another mile and a half further. Nothing excessively strenuous.

We immediately passed a hillside covered in bluets and white violets. I had heard from others that the Smokies were alive with wildflowers this year from all the winter wetness. It’s been an odd spring. The Blue Ridge area, closer to home, has had a late spring bloom. But the Appalachian Trail had put on its best floral finery.

Roughly two-thirds of a mile up the trail we had our first view off to the southeast of the North Carolina Smokies. It’s a majestic sight, but unfortunately cast in a grey pall from the overcast and valley haze.

The trail winds from the NC side to the Tenn. side of the ridge. For a half mile past the NC overlook, the trail drops sharply on your left. You don’t want to stumble and fall as it would be quite awhile before you stop. The next vista is on the Tennessee side as you get a first look at Mt. Leconte and its Myrtle Point overlook.

At 1.7 miles into the hike you will reach the junction with Sweat Heifer Trail and its connection to Kephart Prong, one of the major drainage channels on the NC side of the ridge. Horace Kephart was one of the local leaders most instrumental in obtaining national park status for the Smoky Mountains area. Legend has it Horace gave Charlies Bunion its name.

The story is told that Horace and his friend Charlie Connor had heard about a landslide along the ridge separating the two states. While exploring the area, they happened upon a large rock outcropping with magnificent views of the surrounding landscape. In order to rest his weary feet, Charlie took off his boots and socks to reveal a humongous bunion that Horace thought resembled the unusual granite they were sitting on. The rest, as they say, is history. Or perhaps myth.

By now, you’re reaching the highest part of the trail. Most of the next two miles is over 5,800 feet elevation with occasional views on either side of the ridge. You will really feel like you’re on the backbone of the Appalachians. At 2.7 miles you will come to another trail junction, this time with The Boulevard Trail. We kept this marker in mind because it is also the way to “The Jumpoff,” a feature we wanted to check out on the way back.

Soon after, the trail reaches the summit of Mt. Ambler above 6,100 ft. in a dark old growth spruce-fir forest. Apparently the wind howls through here judging by the amount of blow down beside the trail. The trail itself is somewhat of a trough through this cimmerian forest, rocky and claustrophobic.

Icewater Springs Shelter

When the trail begins to descend the other side of Mt. Ambler, start looking on your right for the Icewater Springs Shelter, one of the many refuges strategically placed along the Appalachian Trail to make it tolerable for the thru-hikers. This shelter has a glorious view of sunrise over the NC Smokies to entice the weary ones to continue their long journey.

Just past the shelter, you’ll see Icewater Springs itself draining right into the trail, a great place for water resupply. Make sure to filter it first.

The last mile to Charlies Bunion descends about 500 feet along a sometimes rocky, flower-laden footpath. You will begin to see the outcropping on your left in the distance, as well as increasingly scenic views of the Tennessee Smokies. We were treated to marvelously gnarly, wind-swept trees overhanging the trail, and a literal carpet of violets… white, purple and blue.

Look for the Charlies Bunion spur trail off the main AT on your left. Then it’s less than a hundred yards to the outcropping. The rocks themselves are a rainbow of earth tones, seemingly changing color at each jagged edge. It’s about a 6-8 feet scramble to the top. Be careful as the rock surface has been worn smooth by the thousands that have come before. If you mis-step, it’s a long way down.

To your left (southwest) is the next ridge over that includes The Jumpoff, and Mt. Kephart, named for Horace. Because of the cloud cover and haze, we couldn’t see as far as a clear day, but we could make out the shores of Douglas Lake to the north near Sevierville. To the right, the spur trail continues down to another overlook with a great view of the east side of Charlies Bunion. That’s the photo at the top of this post. Click for a larger version.

Be sure to take that trail, otherwise you’ll miss the mineral encrusted granite wall along the right, and the hillside of lush vegetation that lies below the rocky outcropping on your left. Just before the spur rejoins the AT, turn around for the magnificent view of Charlies Bunion and the sharp spines of the Smokies beyond. We picked this spot to enjoy our lunch.

Apparently there were quite a few other hikers who left Newfound Gap within 15 minutes of us, because very shortly after we arrived, Charlies Bunion was like Grand Central Station. There isn’t a whole lot of room to maneuver there, so we decided to give the others their turn and move on to our next destination… The Jumpoff.

The trail map I have seems to indicate the Jumpoff Trail has both northern and southern connections to the AT. As we returned along the route past Icewater Springs Shelter though, we never found it. So instead, we turned right on the Boulevard Trail when we reached it, took a right turn 100 yards later, and began the steepest part of our hike.

Right off the bat, the Jumpoff Trail climbs steeply through a maze of moss and lichen covered roots and rocks. I don’t normally carry trekking poles, but they sure would have come in handy navigating the long and high steps that really stretched the groin and hamstring muscles.

The Jumpoff Trail finally tops out at about 6,200 feet with a fabulous view of Mt. LeConte through the dead hemlock and fir trees. The trail descends a bit and finally reaches The Jumpoff overlook after about 0.6 mile.

North Carolina Smokies

WARNING!!! The vistas from The Jumpoff are fabulous, but this is a very dangerous place. The overlook sits on an extremely narrow ledge with a 300-400 foot drop straight down. The Jumpoff is aptly named. This isn’t a granite cliff edge either. This is eroding soil, so if you step too close to the edge, you simply don’t know if today is the day that piece of earth decides to fall over the abyss. Definitely don’t bring young children to The Jumpoff! WARNING!!!

Having said that, this is a remarkable place. There is a clear view of Charlies Bunion from 500 feet above. We could see the ant-like people as they marched along the spur trail from the AT to the outcrop. Most of the eastern area of the national park, and much to the north is noticeable from The Jumpoff. 6,621′ Mt. Guyot is visible to the northeast, along with the ridge that is the state line and the Appalachian Trail.

After we’d had our fill of pictures, it was time to head back. The Jumpoff Trail was just as difficult to navigate on the way back down. This isn’t an officially maintained Park Service trail, but it will get you there and back if you’re careful.

We retraced our steps to the AT and turned west for a return that is all downhill. Wouldn’t you know it when we were nearing the end of our hike the clouds had moved on and the sky was a glorious blue on the Carolina side of the ridge.

As we approached Newfound Gap even more wildflowers were blooming from the sunshine and I happened to think, this is two hikes in a row that I’ve reported on that followed a state line for its length.

To summarize, this is a beautiful stretch of the Appalachian Trail with deep forest and scenic vistas that isn’t especially difficult. You’ll do about an 8.3 mile round trip to Charlies Bunion, and tack on another 1.2 miles if you decide to check out The Jumpoff as well. Watch your step around the sheer edges for safety, and come prepared for potentially quick changing weather since you are on a high, razor-like ridge. I thoroughly enjoyed this hike and would like to visit again during the autumn leaf season.

On the way back down Newfound Gap Road, my brother and I did stop to take in the landslide repair area and take a few pictures. See the last one below.

 

 

Updated June 29, 2015: Took another great hike to The Jumpoff and Charlies Bunion. Even continued down the Appalachian Trail beyond the Bunion to Dry Sluice Gap before turning around. This is fast becoming one of my favorite adventures in the Smokies. I’m sure I will be back to try some of the other seasons. Enjoy these new photos.

 

This post was created by Jeff Clark. Please feel free to use the sharing icons below, or add your thoughts to the comments. Pack it in, pack it out. Preserve the past. Respect other hikers. Let nature prevail. Leave no trace.

 

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  • Rick Shepherd

    Excellent trail description and photos!…..Twenty years ago when my son, Cade, was ten, we hiked the same route…..What a fun time……I injured my back when almost to Charlies Bunyan but we persevered…..On the way back my little guy carried my daypack for me.