The Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The name sounds as grand and imposing as the mountains it encompasses. Surprisingly close to the glaring lights and endless man-made entertainments of Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg, sits this pristine beacon of natural beauty and real adventure. The first time I visited, my husband and I were on a couple’s retreat with friends from church in the Pigeon Forge area. We were banking on getting some running in and knew the park was not far away, so we decided to check it out. Little did I know how truly spectacular this place is, how intense the trails can be, and how common it is for spring snows to linger at those elevations. We got a couple runs in on that trip, one of which was extremely icy, and another that has become a particular favorite. The Appalachian trail section from Newfound Gap to the Jump Off is a moderate but steady climb that challenges and awes us every time we go. I still vividly remember the woodsy perfume of the pines that surrounded us as we passed into the higher elevations that first day. This, combined with plummeting views on both sides as we reached the apex of the Jump Off, created a stunning impression; even so, nearly four years passed before we managed to make it back to the Smoky Mountains and more specifically that trail.
Ironically, we were returning from another couple’s retreat with church friends when we came within range of the park again. On a whim, we decided to detour in and re-attempt the Newfound Gap run. As we climbed the section of Appalachian trail leading to the Jump Off we quickly began to encounter a good bit of snow and ice. It was magical, but slow going and we ended up turning back before reaching the summit we had hoped for.
Nevertheless, the bug to run in the Smokies had taken hold and a couple weekends ago we managed to return. With cool, sunny weather we plowed through the 3+ miles to the Jump Off much more quickly and enjoyed absolutely spectacular views. Though the drifts of several weeks earlier were melted away at the base of the trail, this ridge line still boasted fantastic snow-capped trees that looked as if they were perfectly coated with thick glistening icing.
The wind was whipping through them ferociously creating a refrigerator effect that was kind of incredible, but also intensely cold. It was an exhilarating experience that reiterated the way in which each visit to an area can feel unique. So much can change the landscape and allow for different beauty, sights, and sensations.
We returned from the spur trail that led to the Jump Off and kept plunging forward on the main trail to get in a bit of extra mileage. Signs pointed to Mount LeConte and we discussed the possibility of returning for a long run up and back to that famous peak, but for that day we just added a couple of extra miles before returning to the Newfound Gap parking lot.
This run is so much fun. You are rewarded with great views along the way, the intoxicating smell of firs as you gain elevation, and a panoramic view on the Jump Off that is quite an epic finale (or intermission).
Getting Here: This place is relatively easy to find. Just follow directions to Newfound Gap parking lot and take the Appalachian trail heading east toward Boulevard Trail and Mount Leconte. There is a sign for the Jump Off shortly past the Boulevard Trail. The trail climbs pretty steadily over the first half of the run, but you can enjoy a nice downhill on your return since this is an out-and-back route.
What to Eat: You have several options depending on your preferred route home and where you call home. If you’re heading back to the Upstate area, you can come through Asheville and hit any number of wonderful spots or if you get detoured off the Blue Ridge Parkway and end up in Rosman, NC (like we did) you can take your starving self over to La Casita. This was a delicious hidden jewel of a place in our book. We got the “special” guacamole, delightful endless chips and salsa, and split a trio of different enchiladas (chicken mole and verde) and a steak taco with a stuffed poblano instead of rice and beans. Everything was so good!
Good to Know: Cell service (at least for Verizon) is very spotty in this area. Make sure you have your directions pulled up and figured out before you enter the park. There are bathrooms here which is always a nice perk. Unfortunately, dogs are not allowed on this trail. It seems like that is pretty common knowledge, but we didn’t know until this trip that it is actually illegal and carries a hefty fine if you’re caught. Yikes!