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VOL. 40 | NO. 53 | Friday, December 30, 2016

An uncertain prognosis for many popular Smoky Mountains trails

By Mike Blackerby

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Warning signs block the entrance to the Chimney Tops trail, where December’s devastating fire began.

-- Mike Blackerby | The Ledger

GATLINBURG – Call it a sense of foreboding. The unsightly orange traffic barricades seem strangely out of place while making the steep climb along picturesque Newfound Gap Road in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

About seven miles from the Sugarlands Visitor Center, driving south, the parking lot at the Chimney Tops trailhead that is usually bustling with hikers and gawking tourists is now blocked by the barricades.

The eyesores may be familiar sights along thoroughfares such as Interstate 75, but not in America’s most-visited national park, which attracts more than 10 million visitors each year.

A large sign stating the trail is closed to all users due to wildfire hangs from the low rock wall that serves as the trailhead entrance and borders the parking lot.

That’s unwelcome news for the 80,000 hikers that make the steep, 1.9-mile climb to the Chimney Tops each year.

The dire scenario serves as a stark reminder of the events of Nov. 23, when a man-made wildfire for the ages ignited along the Chimney Tops Trail and spread quickly to Gatlinburg five days later.

The historic wildfire killed 14 people, destroyed 2,500 structures, caused $500 million in damage and forced the evacuation of 14,000 people.

The park’s vast network of trails was also hit hard by the wildfires.

GSMNP superintendent Cassius Cash says the first trail-assessment crews that headed up the Chimneys brought back sobering news.

“The trail that leads up the Chimneys is really badly damaged,” Cash explains. “(So badly) that even our investigators couldn’t get to the Chimney peaks.”

Two boys, ages 17 and 15, have been charged with setting the fire and face aggravated arson charges.

The boys, who live in nearby Anderson County, were photographed by happenstance by a hiker on Nov. 23 as they threw lit matches along the trail.

The boys’ clothing helped authorities identify them.

The area is still reeling from the wildfires, which burned 18,000 acres in Sevier County and wreaked havoc in the park.

The striking Chimneys, a rocky peak which tops out at 4,753 feet with a trail elevation gain of about 1,400 feet, are emblematic of the damage inflicted on the area.

Distinctive burn scars mark the upper reaches of the double-capstone knob, which the Cherokees named Duniskwalgunyi, or “forked antler,” referring to the peak’s resemblance to the antlers of a deer.

The Chimney Tops Trail, along with many roads and trails in the park, was closed on Nov. 28.

The charred upper portion of the Chimney Tops.

-- Mike Blackerby | The Ledger

Days after the fire was finally contained, park trail crews began the long process of clearing and assessing trails throughout the burned area.

It’s a process that could take months, but there was some recent good news.

Park officials recently announced that Cherokee Orchard Road, Twin Creeks Trail, Noah Bud Ogle Nature Trail, Trillium Gap Trail, Rainbow Falls Trail, Baskins Creek Trail, Grapeyard Ridge Trail and Old Sugarlands Trail were reopened.

The prognosis isn’t so good elsewhere as Chimney Tops Trail, Road Prong Trail, Sugarlands Mountain Trail, Bullhead Trail, Rough Creek Trail, Cove Mountain Trail, Cove Hardwood Nature Trail and Sugarlands Riding Stables concession trails remain closed.

GSMNP spokeswoman Dana Soehn says it’s uncertain how long it will take to get all of the trails reopened.

But while the wildfires dealt a devastating blow, they are by no means a death knell to the park.

“In the park we had about 10,000 acres burn, which means we only lost about two percent of the park that burned in this fire,” Soehn says.

“We (initially) had crews hiking the trails, clearing them and doing hasty assessments.

“We have been steadily opening trails that didn’t require a lot of heavy restoration. It was primarily clearing the trail pathways.”

Soehn says the priority has been to get the less-damaged trails reopened as quickly as possible.

Trails that suffered the most damage, such as Sugarlands Mountain, Chimney Tops and Bullhead – one of the five trails leading to Mt. LeConte – are still in the process of being evaluated, Soehn adds.

“Our goal, during the month of January, is that our trails program manager, Tobias Miller, will be able to hike those trails and do a more thorough assessment.”

Soehn says she has “no idea” how long it will take to get the remaining trails that are closed, such as Chimney Tops, reopened.

Erosion, replacing burned out structures made of wood, such as bridges, are among the factors in play.

“It would be way too premature at this point (to speculate on when they will reopen),” Soehn adds.

“We may need to also have time to watch the freeze-thaw cycles. We have an assessment team monitoring the recovery of natural habitats in the park.”

The Chimney Tops Trail had just undergone a three-year, $450,000 restoration project by the park’s Trails Forever Program that was completed in 2015.

Trails Forever crews and volunteers toiled on the trail, building retaining walls, extracting tree roots, repairing and building log and stone steps, improving drainage controls and placing crushed stone and gravel.

Now, much of that costly and back-breaking work may have to be repeated on the trail.

It might also take a while, but Soehn says the scars and damage inflicted by of wildfire will eventually be repaired by park crews and the resilient forces of nature.

“As we move into spring, we’ll see even more reminders of recovery, both in our landscape and our community,” she says.

Cash is quick to point out, though, that the vast majority of the expansive park remains open for business.

“I just want to remind folks that we do have half a million acres, and there is still a lot of the park that our visitors can enjoy,” Cash says.

Mike Blackerby is a freelance journalist living in East Tennessee.

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