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.
Hunter Upchurch is a high school teacher and college counselor who lives in Jackson, Mississippi, which is much too far from the Smokies for his liking. An enthusiast for all things related to the backcountry, he tries to spend as much time on the trails of Great Smoky Mountains National Park as possible.