Backpacking Great Smoky Mountains National Park: A First Timer’s Trek Into The Woods

Dark, ominous clouds snaked across the sky over 187,000 acres of old growth forest as the threat of a thunderstorm loomed. Ahead of the dense, hardwood forest was 18 miles of backcountry trail to be covered over three days. Yet all I could think of as a first-time backpacker was the sign warning, “You are entering bear country.” Indeed, I was entering the heart of Great Smoky Mountains National Park and was fairly certain a black bear was about to have its way with me.


My buddy Rob and I beat the sunrise and left Cleveland at five in the morning on a Monday, only stopping for gas and food in Charleston, West Virginia. Our nine-hour drive blazed by, arriving at the Cosby Campground around 3:30 pm. This gave us about four hours to hike the initial six miles along the Gabes Mountain Trial before we lost daylight. Luckily the thunderstorm I had been tracking relentlessly on my phone during the drive was mercifully holding off, allowing us to begin our trek relatively dry.

Clichés are plentiful when entering the Smoky Mountains for the first time. The beauty of the forest overwhelms you within the first mile. For me, it was hard to believe I had waited this long to listen to old advice and “get lost.”

The forest was so dense, it seemed impossible for a drop of rain to land on the ground without first being snatched by a thirsty tree. The humidity was a comfortable blessing, allowing us to hike in shorts and a tee shirt for the entirety of the hike. However, the unrealistic threat of a black bear ninja-chopping me in the jugular stayed active in the back of my mind.

Shortly after the second mile, a sign offered a brief detour to Henwallow Falls — a worthy diversion from our route. The large pile of boulders provided the perfect opportunity to take five and admire the quiet stream of water falling from above.

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