360 views: Popular Chimney Tops trail reopens to the public
For more than 10 months, bright orange barriers have blocked the trail head to one of the most popular hikes inside Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Chimney Tops is typically one of the most highly trafficked trails in the park, but since the Chimney Tops 2 fire began at the summit in late November 2016, the trail has been relatively quiet.
During the wildfire, winds whipped flames at the summit to such intensity they burned not only trees, but shattered the ground beneath them.
“Sometimes you’ll get mild explosions and it will crack apart and become very unstable, and that’s whats up there right now," Tom Remaley, inventory and monitoring coordinator for GSMNP, said of the exposed stone pinnacle of the trail.
The park has kept the entire trail closed, citing safety concerns.
Park staff have spent months studying the land and the fire damage, and building a new end point for the steep two-mile trail in the shape of a tiered observation platform approximately a quarter-mile below the summit.
The platform offers views of Newfound Gap, Mount LeConte and the iconic Chimney Tops.
"The view here is very nice, and it’s good you can see the pinnacle on this side, and then you get the nice view of the mountains on the other," said Josh Shapiro, projects trail supervisor for GSMNP, while gesturing toward the peaks.
Shapiro lead a four-member trail crew that spent nearly four weeks camping near the top of Chimney Tops as they built the platform. Many of the building materials had to be flown in by helicopter.
Even though the Chimney Tops summit is still inaccessible, park staff said they believe the new viewing platform is a satisfying end to the hike.
"I think it’s one of the nicest views that you can get on a lot of the trails in the Smokies," Shapiro said.
The trail work cost roughly $90,000, which came from a combination of federal funds and Friends of the Smokies.
“We were humbled and moved by the outpouring of generosity on Nov. 29 and the weeks following the Chimney Tops fire,” said Holly Jones, director of community outreach and strategy for Friends of the Smokies.
She said they're thrilled the trail reopened to the public Friday.
“It means a lot to our members and also the hikers that get to benefit for years to come," she said.
Christine Hoyer, a backcountry management specialist with GSMNP, said all of the park staff and volunteers who have worked on the trail are excited to see it reopen to the public.
"I think all of us are glad to see it open, and at such a beautiful time of the year, because we know there are so many people who want to come and experience it, they want to get out here, either because they’ve been here before and they want to see what it looks like, or they’ve never been out here and they’ve heard about coming up to see the Chimney Tops," she said.
Hoyer, who said she can't count the number of times she's hiked Chimney Tops, lead a group of media members up the trail on Wednesday to view the conditions and the new observation platform.
She said park staff spent a lot of time studying the changes of the trail and figuring out where it was safe for people to hike.
"Was it all the way out to the Chimney Tops pinnacles, or was it somewhere else?" she said.
They settled on a bend in the trail just below the fire-scarred summit.
"The idea was to create a space where people could come and could be a new end of the trail for now," Hoyer said.
Whether or not the trail will ever be reconstructed all the way out to the pinnacles is still unclear. Park officials say it could be years, or even a lifetime, before the ground stabilizes at the summit.
"The park will continue to monitor the closed area over time to see how it changes and if at some future point, the trail can be reconstructed out to the pinnacles," Hoyer said.
The Chimney Tops Trail reopens to the public on Friday, Oct. 6.