The first time I went to Great Smoky Mountains National Park more than 15 years ago I knew it was someplace special. But it took me nearly 10 more years before I ever set foot on one of her trails. Work kept me busy and I had different recreational interests, but when I got serious about hiking around 2008, you couldn’t hold me back. Most of my early hikes were closer to home in Pisgah National Forest, but when I made my first Smokies hike, climbing the iconic Mt. LeConte on the Alum Cave Trail, I was hooked. I’ve been at it ever since.
Sometime in early 2014 I learned about the “Hike the Smokies” Challenge, a means of rewarding yourself by doing what you enjoy most. If you sometimes need a little motivation to get out and feel the Smokies, perhaps this will help. It did for me. I set a goal of obtaining one of the 500 Mile Pins. I had no idea how long it might take me… 10 years? 5 years? It didn’t matter. I was going to do it.
I started out at a fairly good pace, hiking 120 miles in calendar year 2014, and in so doing achieved the 100 mile pin. This amounted to about 10 miles per month on average. Some months I did more, while others, particularly in winter, I slacked off. Still, a positive accomplishment for my first year. After all, day hiking in the Smokies is a great way to get the exercise I need while also discovering the abundant beauty of the Southern Appalachians.
Hiking is an inexpensive activity with numerous health and recreational benefits. For me, basically the only expenses were a good backpack and keeping shoes on my feet, plus the gas to get there and back.
Having received the 100 Mile Pin the first year, I thought I could step it up a bit and reach the requirement for the 250 mile pin in 2015. I started looking for longer trails to not only stretch more into the heart of the national park, but to also stretch my own boundaries. 7-milers became 12-milers. Four hour hikes became six, or seven. All told in 2015 I added 160 more miles to my total, now up to 280. The 250 Mile Pin was mine.
In recent years I have come to enjoy winter hiking more and more. One thing that meant is I could keep working on my 500 mile goal year round. As the calendar rolled into 2016 I wondered if I could do 220 more miles and reach my objective before the end of the year. It would mean more frequent trips to the Smokies. Perhaps I could combine hiking with my volunteer job for the national park at the Appalachian Highlands Science Learning Center at Purchase Knob.
Well, it’s been a busy year. I have taken nearly three dozen distinct hikes in the Smokies in 2016, many of them along the Cataloochee Divide and in Cataloochee Valley. On November 14th of this year I passed 500 miles while on the trail to Chasteen Creek Cascade, and on the way back out of the park I stopped at Oconaluftee Visitor Center to pick up my 500 Mile Pin from Ranger Florie.
There were no brass bands playing, no fighter jets flying overhead. But Florie and I knew the accomplishment, and we shared a great big smile. As I walked outside to my car with pin in hand, I was beaming.
When I started this quest I had no idea I could accomplish my goal in just three short years. Over these years I have learned to love the Smokies even more, and learned how precious are her mountains, forests, and waterways. I have still only scratched the surface on everything she provides for all of us. So look for me out on the trails in the future. I’ll still be counting the miles.
First, you obviously have to decide this is something you want to do. Duh! Next, pick up one of the Hike the Smokies diary books. Pocket-sized booklets to record mileage are available for $1.00 at the park’s four visitor centers (Sugarlands, Oconaluftee, Clingmans Dome & Cades Cove). Then, just start hiking and recording your mileage in your diary booklet.
When you have hiked 100 miles, 250 miles, and 500 miles, bring your mileage record to one of the park’s visitor centers to receive a free mileage pin and to be authenticated by one of the park’s rangers in your “Hike the Smokies” diary. It’s that simple.
There is even a program for the whole family. When your family has hiked 10 miles, 25 miles, 40 miles, and 50 miles, bring your mileage records to one of the visitor centers to receive mileage stickers. It’s great to get out there with the ones you love most.
Learn more about the “Hike the Smokies” Challenge here. What are you waiting for? Discover where that next trail goes. After all, they belong to every last one of us. It’s time to go “Hike the Smokies!”