There are a lot of books on the Smoky Mountains.
And even though Ben Anderson of Asheville is a longtime friend, I’ll admit that when I first heard he was planning to write about hikes in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, I did wonder what another book could add to the existing canon.
A couple of months ago, when John F. Blair published Ben’s “Smokies Chronicles: A Year of Hiking in Great Smoky Mountains National Park,” I found out. What Ben’s book gives us is a guide for the occasional hiker – trail descriptions and insights aimed at people who enjoy visiting the park from time to time but will likely never hike all of its 900 miles of trails. By including a mix of short and longer hikes, Ben has given the rest of us a great tool to plan our own adventures.
Ben completed 40 hikes during 2016, surpassing his goal of 400 miles while traveling on all or part of 60 trails. He documents each of those experiences, describing how to get to a particular trailhead, whether it’s easy or hard to find, what to expect on the trail and the weather conditions he encountered along the way. As he discusses the various trails, he mixes in Park facts as well as an overview of the area’s history.
I’ve hiked many of the trails Ben writes about, so I was interested in seeing how his thoughts compared to my own. For example, he did the Lower Mt. Cammerer trail as part of a two-night camping trip; I day-hiked that one, coincidentally experiencing it with Ben’s wife, Karen, almost exactly two years before Ben hiked it. While Ben did an out-and-back hike from Cosby Campground, Karen and I, along with Kay Clemmons of Sylva, started at Davenport Gap near Big Creek and walked several miles on the Appalachian Trail before reaching the Lower Mt. Cammerer trailhead. Kay planned the hike, and instead of going out and back, she had arranged a car switch with hiking friends James and Sue Nations, and Inez Dills and her daughter Karla Parris. While we walked it under different circumstances, I remember that trail just as Ben describes it – lacking spectacular views (except for the Sutton Ridge overlook a short distance off the trail) but featuring beautiful woods, especially in October, and a pleasant, mostly rock-free, path.
Because I don’t keep a journal, and rarely make hiking notes in my Smokies trail book, it was nice to read Ben’s take on that trail and be reminded of an excellent day.
Ben’s year of hiking coincided with the driest fall on record in the Park, which led to the Chimney Tops 2 fire and tragic loss of life in Gatlinburg, Tennessee. In October 2016, around the time Ben was hiking the Lower Mt. Cammerer (Oct. 28) and Brushy Mountain (Oct. 29) trails, a group of friends and I took a one-night backpacking trip across Gabes Mountain trail, also starting at Cosby Campground. Ben had hiked most of Gabes Mountain the previous January. While he describes a rock-hop across Greenbrier Creek near the campsite, and torrents of water over Hen Wallow Falls just off the trail, we encountered a much drier area in October. We didn’t have to rock hop the creek, we strolled across it, barely seeing any water under the leaves. The rushing creek and waterfall the trail guide said was next to our campsite was mostly non-existent; we had to move leaves and search for a trickle of water to fill our bottles and prepare supper. All of which goes to show what a difference the season and conditions can make in a particular trail experience.
I also enjoyed reading Ben’s thoughts on trails I haven’t hiked yet, such as the Mingus Creek and Newton Bald trails near Cherokee. I’ve looked at the signs for their trailheads for years, and now I want to see them for myself.
As it turns out, Ben’s book is something I never knew I needed until I had it. He’s done the research and provided the directions so that readers can tailor a Smokies adventure to suit themselves.
Ben, a former journalism professor who once taught at Western Carolina University, which is how I came to know him and his family, will be in Sylva tonight (Thursday, Aug. 17) to discuss his book and sign copies.
The event will be at 6 p.m. in the Community Room of the Jackson County Library, and City Lights Bookstore will be on hand to sell books.
Lynn Hotaling was editor of The Sylva Herald for 18 years, retiring in January 2016. She is the author of two books on local history.