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“The Green Tunnel” through the Smokies

Newfound Gap

The Appalachian Trail (AT) is an iconic American long-distance path. In Great Smoky Mountains National Park, it runs over 70 miles along the park’s high ridges and gaps, including Clingmans Dome, the highest point on the AT. For many hikers, it’s the premier trail in the park. And while the trail runs predominantly along the crest of “ol’ Smoky,” hikers often have to trek through a dense forest canopy to get to an open vista, giving the AT the moniker of “the Green Tunnel.”  

Benton MacKaye on the AT. Courtesy of Appalachian Trail Conservancy.
Benton MacKaye on the AT. Courtesy of Appalachian Trail Conservancy.

The AT grew out of a proposal by a tall, lanky regional planner from “up East” named Benton MacKaye. MacKaye was an advocate of getting Americans into the Appalachian forests for healthy outdoor exercise. He envisioned a long-distance trail with a series of camps and rustic inns for hikers seeking a respite in the woods. Incidentally, MacKaye became a good friend of noted Knoxville, TN lawyer, conservationist, and lover of the Smokies, Harvey Broome.

MacKaye’s grand idea was broached in an article entitled “An Appalachian Trail: A Project in Regional Planning” in the October 1921 issue of the Journal of the American Institute of Architects. As his message was disseminated, it spurred interest among established hiking groups.

Hiking groups that had been using trails such as Vermont’s Long Trail started to consider the merits of an extensive trail along the spine of the Appalachians. These groups ultimately came together in the 1920s in an organization called the Appalachian Trail Conference (now called Appalachian Trail Conservancy) to work with landowners and government agencies on routing and rights-of-way.

View from Clingmans Dome tower off of the AT. Photo courtesy of Arthur “Butch” McDade.
View from Clingmans Dome tower off of the AT. Photo courtesy of Arthur “Butch” McDade.

As progress on the AT grew, some advocates for a national park in the Smokies also suggested the AT be routed there. To that end, such notables in Smokies history as writer Horace Kephart and photographer George Masa lent their considerable talents to promote and route an AT path through the Smokies.

Under the auspices of the National Park Service (NPS), the Civilian Conservation Corps played a major role in the trail’s construction along the ridges, gaps, and “balds” of the Smokies. Also, the Smoky Mountains Hiking Club (SMHC), working with NPS staff, has done yeoman’s work for decades on maintaining the AT and its historic stone shelters in the Smokies. To this day, SMHC members continue a longstanding tradition of valuable service.

View along the AT near Newfound Gap. Photo courtesy of Arthur “Butch” McDade.
View along the AT near Newfound Gap. Photo courtesy of Arthur “Butch” McDade.

Benton MacKaye’s grand idea from the 1920s changed over the years, but the AT has indeed provided generations of Americans with outstanding outdoor experiences. For his work, MacKaye is today honored with a trail in his own name, a fitting tribute.

Today, the AT is a very popular path used by thousands of hikers in GSMNP, including thru-hikers attempting the entire trail from Springer Mountain in Georgia to Mount Katahdin in Maine (with some hikers reversing the route.) It’s a federal long-distance trail managed by the NPS in collaboration with the Appalachian Trail Conservancy and local hiking groups. The segment of the AT that runs through the Smokies is demanding, but for those in good shape with hiking experience, it’s a fascinating “green tunnel” through the wild and beautiful high-country.


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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.

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