Posted by Darryl Payne in National Park
If you're craving the kind of peace and quiet that seems to have existed only in the previous century, camping in the tranquil Smoky Mountains Backcountry may be exactly what you're looking for. Here, backpackers can wander more than 800 miles of trails that lead past breathtaking mountain vistas, quiet old-growth forest and clear, cold, rushing rivers and waterfalls. You'll see wildlife you've never seen before and may go days without seeing another human or hearing a cell phone ring. The Backcountry is not your average camping adventure, so it's important to know a few things before you go.
First, it's important to distinguish between the Frontcountry and the Backcountry of the Smoky Mountains National Park. The Frontcountry has developed campsites with restrooms and running water nearby, and each site has a fire grate and picnic table. The Backcountry, however, requires a hike of several miles to get to a campsite and offers a much more secluded experience. Besides a few shelters, there are no facilities.
Backcountry camping requires a permit, self-sufficiency, stamina, and careful attention to safety. In the Backcountry, nature determines trail conditions and hikers should be prepared for washouts, wildlife encounters, trail erosion and crossing swollen streams. Being part of an environment where nature is in control is often a deeply fulfilling experience for those who know how to stay safe in a variety of situations. A commitment to safety and environmental stewardship is important in the Backcountry, but well worth the effort.
Before you load up your gear, you'll need a reservation and a permit. You can get both online through the Backcountry Information Office. There are several regulations to which backpackers must adhere - but they're common sense and geared toward protecting you, the land and the animals. For example, backpackers may only camp at designated sites and shelters, and you can't hunt, touch or feed wildlife. You must pack out everything that you pack in.
Backpackers should also familiarize themselves with safety regarding crossing streams, taking shelter in storms and high wind, treating drinking water and avoiding hypothermia - even in summer. There are two types of poisonous snakes in the Smokies, and though there have been no reported fatalities from snakebite in the park, you'll want to know how to identify them and respect their habitats.
One of the biggest thrills of backpacking the Backcountry is the opportunity to observe magnificent black bears in the wild. More than 1,500 black bears reside at all elevations of the park. Black bears can stand up to six feet high and can weigh up to 600 pounds. They are incredible to see in their natural habitat. However, they can be dangerous if you don't know how to stay off their radar or safely get out of their way.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park is one of the last protected habitats for black bears, and they are a critical part of the ecosystem. Familiarize yourself with bear behavior and safety before you go and you'll enjoy sharing nature with these beautiful giants. For example, you must employ the bear cable system for any food or personal items that have an odor. Bear cables are used to hang odiferous items out of reach and are in place at sites throughout the park. These systems keep backpackers safe from bear raids and keep bears safe from becoming dependent on human food. Besides black bears, you're likely to spot elk, deer, wild turkeys, raccoons and more than 240 species of birds as you trek. Note that pets are not allowed in the Backcountry. If you do want to camp with your dog, stick to Frontcountry campsites.
Check out a trail map and you can locate nearly 90 historic structures, including gristmills, barns, churches, schools and log cabins. Of note is the pretty Palmer Chapel, a simple church that dates to 1898. Circuit riders - traveling preachers - took turns conducting services here. Also worth visiting are the Mingus Mill, the Noah Ogle cabin, and the Hannah cabin. Speaking of maps, be sure to download or pick up a trail map as GPS systems and cellular services aren't reliable in the mountains.
If you're up for an adrenaline rush in addition to your peace and quiet, plan to experience nature in a different way at Adventure Park Ziplines. Adventure Park has seven zip lines that are up to 2,500 feet long and carry you through more than 1.5 miles of in-the-treetops cables. Tours last about two hours and are family-friendly.
The amazing sights, sounds and experiences of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park Backcountry are like no other. Dive in and you'll enjoy expansive mountain views, rushing waterfalls, untamed wildlife and clear, starry skies. Brush up on your camping and hiking safety, respect the land, the animals and the forces of nature, and you'll have a camping vacation you'll never forget.
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