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Backpacking the Great Smoky Mountains Twentymile Area

Updated: Jun 6, 2022

This 18.1-mile loop includes a total elevation gain of 3643 ft, a steep ascent to the Gregory Bald Ridge Trail, distant views of Cades Cove, waterfalls, creek crossings, barred owl sightings, and overnights at Campsite 92 and 113, the only backcountry tent site on the Appalachian Trail in the Great Smoky Mountain National Park. Our trip took place May 2-4, 2021. Severe thunderstorms made for an electrifying final day on the trails. If we were to do this trip again, we'd include a stop at Gregory Bald, the Shuckstack Tower, and check the weather more closely ahead of time...


Day 1

5.6 Miles & Elevation Gain of 1500 ft

Twentymile Trail, Wolf Ridge Trail, Twentymile Loop Trail & Long Hungry Ridge Trail

The Twentymile Ranger Station, found in the southwest corner of Great Smoky Mountain National Park, serves as the starting and endpoint for this scenic backcountry loop. Traveling from the Tennessee side of the Park, you'll drive the world-famous US 129 Tail of the Dragon, with its 318 curves in just 11 miles, before crossing into North Carolina to reach the Station parking lot. We approached the Park from the North Carolina side, having spent the previous night enjoying the charm of Bryson City, NC as well as the gourmet food and luxurious accommodations of the Everett Hotel. We highly recommend both a stop in Bryson City and a stay at the hotel if you are in the area.


There are a number of customizable loop trails in the Twentymile area, but if you want to reach the spine of the Smokies, be prepared for a heart-pumping climb no matter which trail you take. The first section of the Twentymile Trail is wonderfully flat and wide, having once been a railroad for hauling timber in the 1920s when the Kitchen Lumber Company was in operation. Most backpackers will use the Twentymile Trail to reach Gregory Bald, but we detoured on the Wolf Ridge Trail to spread the climb over two days and use the Long Hungry Ridge Trail to reach the spine.

Lush rhododendron, a mix of hardwoods, and wildflowers line this beautiful trek. There are numerous creek crossings along the way, but sturdy footbridges make for an easy and enjoyable hike. You'll notice an incline during the last 2 miles, but nothing too steep. We only passed 2 hikers throughout this stretch of trail.


Campsite 92

Campsite 92 makes a great location to rest and split the climb up to the Gregory Bald Ridge. A creek runs along the site allowing for a reliable water source and a fantastic soundtrack to lull you to sleep. There are two bear hanging systems for food bags and plenty of downfall trees for starting a fire. We claimed a spot in the back left corner of the campsite and barely noticed the two other groups of hikers camped closer to the trail.


Reservations and permits are required for all backcountry stays in the Great Smoky Mountains and can be made online up to 30 days ahead of your trip.


Day 2

6.6 Miles & Elevation Gain of 2143 ft

Long Hungry Ridge Trail, Gregory Bald Trail, Appalachian Trail

We averaged a sad pace of 1.3 miles per hour on our way up the Long Hungry Ridge Trail towards Gregory Bald Ridge, stopping for multiple breaks. Closer to the top we came upon fresh bear scat in the dead center of the trail, but fortunately, the big fella must have passed earlier in the morning.

Upon reaching the crossing we took off our packs and enjoyed a well-deserved lunch. From here on out we saw the fruits of our labor in the form of breathtaking views of Cades Cove through the spring trees. You'll experience a few climbs along the ridge trail from here, but the worst is behind you. We didn't pass a single hiker all the way up the Long Hungry Ridge Trail or along the Gregory Bald Trail and thoroughly enjoyed the solitude.

I was BEAMING when we reached the iconic Appalachian Trail. We passed a few northbound thru-hikers, including Masochist, who had started in Key West and was traversing the Eastern Continental Trail. He shared that he hoped to make it all the way to Cape Gaspe, Canada should the border be open by the time he reached it, a questionable goal amidst the COVID pandemic. It was a surreal experience to have the luck of passing him and learning about his trip. Our only wish was that we'd taken more time to chat, but didn't want to hold the guy up!


Campsite 113 (Birch Spring Gap Campground)

Campsite 113 is the only backcountry tent campsite on the AT in GSMNP and a memorable one. There are 6 sites wonderfully spaced out around what feels like the sides of a holler. There is one community firepit and bear cables centrally located among the sites as well as a spring for water. We arrived around 4:30 pm and after setting up camp enjoyed a tasty meal of Idahoan instant garlic mashed potatoes loaded with bacon bits and lemonade to wash it down.

While preparing for bed around 8:30 pm a barred owl began a conversation with another local owl. This video shows part of their chat and the first owl flying off towards the second. As an owl enthusiast, I couldn't have been giddier. It was a highlight of the trip and a great way to end the day. As we snuggled into our tent we check the upcoming weather forecast on our Garmin InReach and noticed a strong chance of thunderstorms around 7:00 am the next day. We decided it would be best to sleep in, make coffee in the vestibule of our tent, and wait for a break in the weather before continuing on our adventure. This was the wrong decision...


Day 3

5.9 Miles & Elevation Loss of 2562 ft

Appalachian Trail & Twentymile Trail

We woke around 6:45 am to the sound of distant thunder, but no rain just yet. I was excited because this meant I could enjoy a quick mother nature visit and get our food bags down from the bear cables before the rain hit, and boy did it hit. Within 20 minutes it was raining heavily and did not let up for 3 hours. Our Marmot Limelight tent was put through its paces and survived with flying colors as the thunder got progressively louder and lightning struck multiple times within 100 yards. You read that correctly. 100 yards. Around 10:30 am the rain appeared to be thinning and our Garmin InReach showed another round of thunderstorms expected to come through at 2:00 pm and continue through the evening, so we decided to pack up and get out while we could. The heavy wind and rain returned the moment our tent was stowed away. We looked at each other, dropped our bags, walked 30 feet down the campsite's slope, squatted on the balls of our feet, and covered our heads. My life didn't pass before my eyes, but I do recall telling God that I was pretty scared and would love to feel a comforting hug from him, then clarified that a figurative hug would be just fine, no need to get one in-person unless that time had truly come.


After 10 minutes we decided our best bet was to simply get moving and down off the mountain. We grabbed our bags, climbed up onto the ridge of the AT, and hiked as quickly as we possibly could. My husband joked that he could see lightning in the sky and off my boots. We had originally hoped to take a short jaunt over to the scenic Shuckstack Tower this day, but alas, had to skip it as it stormed for our entire descent. Every time our pace evened out, the sky would brighten with lightning and spur our little legs on. We passed Campsite 93, which we had reserved for the night, but felt no sadness in passing by. As you can see in the video below, the rain caused the creeks to swell and rush down the mountain as well. This was the only photo/video we took that day. When we finally reached the Twentymile parking lot at 2:00 pm, we heard one last crack of thunder as we opened the trunk door to throw in our packs.


Conclusion

The Twentymile Area offers a variety of trail experiences in a fairly secluded section of the Great Smoky Mountain National Park. You'll enjoy river crossings with well-made bridges, waterfalls, and access to both the ridge of the Smokies and to the Appalachian Trail. For this gal's first backcountry experience in GSMNP, I couldn't ask for more, just less lightning. For tips on weather basics for backpackers and what to do during a thunderstorm, check out this article from REI.


What's the most dangerous experience you've had while backpacking?


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