They don't build them like they used to. At least, that's what "they" say.
"They" never met the Trails Forever crews and volunteers in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
After nearly six months of weekday closures, NPS employees and volunteers have reached the halfway point in a two-year project to rehabilitate Rainbow Falls Trail. The crews hope to finish the trail by November 2018. When it is complete, visitors will likely think the work was done long ago.
"Some people see this stonework and these steps and it looks old. That's because we model the appearance after the work done by the Civil Conservation Corps (in the 1930s). We don't want it to look like new construction," said project supervisor Josh Shapiro as he stood on new stone staircase on the trail.
The stones are perfectly shaped and seem like they were brought in for the project. In fact, crews find the stones near the trail and then shape them by hand.
"It is really incredible the level of expertise and skill our crews have. The stonework is built to a 100-year standard, meaning it won't have to be redone for at least another century," said Shapiro.
Rainbow Falls Trail extends 6.7 miles from the trailhead north of Gatlinburg to the summit of Mt. LeConte. However, there are more popular routes to reach the mountaintop, such as Alum Cave Trail and the Boulevard Trail. The main attraction on Rainbow Falls Trail is the 80-foot waterfall 2.7 miles from the trailhead.
"Most of the wear and tear on the trail is between the trailhead and the falls," said Shapiro. "There were places where the ruts were really bad and you have gullies three feet deep. We had to fill in a lot of that with crushed stone and then build stone steps. We also have a lot of problems with 'social trails' that lead people off the main trail."
The stone steps are one remedy for a strenuous route riddled with ruts, roots, and rocks. Black locust wood is also used to bolster areas of the trail, but crews try to build as few structures as possible.
Some construction was rescheduled this year due to the wildfires of November 2016. Crews will wait until 2018 before beginning rehabilitation work to allow more time to gauge the stability and needs of the areas affected by the fire.
"We had some areas where there were still trees falling, so for safety purposes we shifted things and worked on other areas of the trail for now," said Shapiro.
Volunteers are a major part of all the Trails Forever rehabilitation projects. Since May, volunteers have worked every Wednesday from 9:00 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. to help rebuild the trail.
Volunteers have to register at least one week in advance by contacting Trails and Facilities Volunteer Coordinator, Adam Monroe, by phone at 828-497-1949 or email at Adam_Monroe@nps.gov. There are likely two more opportunities this year to volunteer before the weekday closures end November 16, 2017.
The Rainbow Falls Trail has been closed Mondays-Thursdays since May 8, 2017. The closures will end November 16 as crews break during the cold months of the year. Weekday closures will likely resume in May 2018 as the weather warms and volunteers are readily available.
The Trails Forever project is funded in part by the Friends of the Smokies. The program has already rebuilt popular paths in the park such as the Forney Creek Trail, the Chimney Tops Trail, and Alum Cave Trail.
More information about volunteering for the Trails Forever program can be found at the Friends of the Smokies website.