Smokies LIVE Blog

The magic of a first hike in the Smokies

Story and photo by Hunter Upchurch

Inspired by a family trip to Douglas Lake in East Tennessee in the summer of 2016, I decided I wanted to give hiking a try. Though I had grown up spending lots of time outdoors in the rural Mississippi Delta, the main activities were hunting and fishing, neither of which had much appealed to me as a kid. “Hiking” in the Delta meant walking across (relatively flat) wooded land from one deer stand to the next.

Nevertheless, the few hours my family spent in Great Smoky Mountains National Park that May afternoon in 2016 captured my imagination. The intense greens of early spring, the smell of mountain air, the views of ridgelines peeking out through the foliage—I couldn’t put my finger on it at the time, but I spent the rest of our vacation thinking about those mountains. On the long car ride home to Mississippi, I tried to express the reaction I was having to my wife and told her that I wanted to come back to spend more time in the woods to try hiking, an activity I had never expressed much interest in at all.

So, I recruited my best friend from college (who, like me, had never hiked a day in his life), and we planned two day hikes over the long Columbus Day weekend to “test the waters.” With borrowed gear and loaded down with way too many supplies for a single day, we struck out early Saturday morning to see Grotto Falls and then make our way up to the Brushy Mountain overlook just off Trillium Gap Trail. The forecast that day was not promising, and the actual conditions confirmed every bit of the weatherman’s pessimism: we were soaked through and through before we ever walked behind the famous Grotto Falls. Cloudy, wet, and chilly, the day was such that any reasonable hiker—or one who had not driven nine hours to walk in the woods—would definitely have given up and retired to the hotel room. But we were there to find out if this strange activity, wandering through mountain trails subject to the whims of the elements, was something we liked. And liked it—well, loved it—we did. Though my pictures atop the Brushy Mountain lookout point are just me, dripping wet, standing in front of a fog bank, I still went back to the hotel that night tired and happy.

I could tell you all about the next day—any Smokies hiker knows the kind: crystal-clear skies, cool breezes—when we climbed up Alum Cave Trail to LeConte Lodge. Anyone, even the most stalwart “indoors person,” would love hiking on a day like that. But as we drove home on Monday, dissecting the weekend, we realized that we’d actually fallen in love with the Smokies as much in the rain as we had in the sun. Stretching your legs on a mountain trail, whether for an hour, a day, or a week, can be a profound experience regardless of the conditions.

Those two days—driving through the national park with my family on vacation and then returning to hike in the pouring rain with a good friend—changed and enriched my life in ways I’m still coming to understand. So, I advise any readers who’ve never taken a hike in the Smokies to get out there and walk a few miles from a trailhead. I’ve found the trails to have an endless feeling. Indeed, I’ve been walking down a new one each trip for the last six years.


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Great Smokies

Welcome Center

Hours of Operation

(subject to change)

Open year round (closed December 25)

January - February

Open Daily 9:00 am - 4:30 pm

March - November

Open Daily 9:00 am - 5:00 pm

Open Daily 9:00 am - 4:30 pm

The Great Smokies Welcome Center is located on U.S. 321 in Townsend, TN, 2 miles from the west entrance to Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Visitors can get information about things to see and do in and around the national park and shop from a wide selection of books, gifts, and other Smokies merchandise. Daily, weekly, and annual parking tags for the national park are also available.

Physical Address

7929 E. Lamar Alexander Parkway Townsend TN 37882


865.436.7318 Ext 320