Question - Gunter Fork Trail Smokey Mtns.

5:52 p.m. on August 30, 2009 (EDT)
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I'm planning a backpacking trip in November in the Smokey Mtns. in North Carolina. Part of the trip includes the Gunter Fork Trail. I understand that there is a 6 mile section that is quite steep. About a 5000 ft. elevation gain. I've read that it's pretty strenuous with no place to camp until reaching the top at Laurel Gap. Is anyone here familiar with this trail that can give me a real since of how difficult this section is?
There was a time when this was just part of a days hiking, but I'm 67 now and haven't been on the trail since last February. I suppose I'm becoming a wuss in my old age. Any info is greatly appreciated.

7:21 p.m. on August 30, 2009 (EDT)
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Welcome to Trailspace.

I have not hiked that trail Hutch, but I hear it is a killer.

Here is a link to a trail report that I ran across, this guy is over fifty I believe, and gives a pretty good boots on the ground assessment of his hike. This page also gives an elevation chart with way points.

Also I would like to point out that while there may be no place to camp, it is not against the rules to collapse, and nap a short distance (100 yrds) from the trail. Just some trail humor there.

Hope this helps.

7:24 p.m. on August 30, 2009 (EDT)
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3,956 forum posts you got me wanting to go do it!

11:38 p.m. on August 30, 2009 (EDT)
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Thanks Trouthunter for the welcome as well as the good link describing the Gunter Fork Trail. I had estimated the trail to be approaching a 20% grade and the guy pegged it at 17%. Two friends that I hike with had suggested trying it, but hey, they're 25 years younger than me. I may need to give this bad boy a little more consideration, all things considered.

I might be able to sway them to another trail. We want to spend 4 nights with 5 hiking days. If you know of another nice hike in that general area that's not quite as strenuous please advise.

Thanks again,


5:55 p.m. on August 31, 2009 (EDT)
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There are so many great trails in GSMNP. Although it is a little too crowded for me except in winter time, one trail you may like is the Alum Cave Trail, I have done that one. Here is a link to a trail description for Alum Cave Trail:

Also here is a link to the official websites PDF trail map and guide to traveling / camping in the GSMNP. The trail map is hard to read, but by clicking on the + button (Adobe reader) you can enlarge the map to get really good close ups.

Here is a link to the homepage:

I guess you already know that Permits are required for backcountry travel, and some campsites require a reservation.

I hope your trip planning goes well, let me know if I can help.

10:54 p.m. on August 31, 2009 (EDT)
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According to the "Brown book" - The Hikers Guide to the Smokies - the trail goes from 3200 to 5500 with a few river crossings with no footlogs. There's a very photogenic 'pool' and cascades on this trail. It doesn't appear to be as difficult as some (like Goshen Prong, which goes from 4000 to 5800 in 2 miles)

9:33 p.m. on September 1, 2009 (EDT)
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Thanks to both Trouthunter and Travelnate for the sources you have recommended using. I'm in the process of reviewing for my upcoming as well as future backpacking trips.

10:29 p.m. on September 1, 2009 (EDT)
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You are quite welcome my friend.

1:21 a.m. on September 2, 2009 (EDT)
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go get that lil brown book, btw. its a requirement for anyone hiking in the GSMNP

5:21 p.m. on September 2, 2009 (EDT)
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Yes travelnate is right, trail guides are indespensible.

There's no way anyone can remember all the info by memory, and maps just don't tell you everything a guide can, even the maps with trail descriptions.

10:22 a.m. on September 10, 2009 (EDT)
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That brown book is definitely a must have if you are trip planning in the smokies. I have done Gunter Fork a few times. While it is a bit steep, there are definitely steeper trails in the park. It's hard to give advice though since I don't have any way of gauging your physical abilities. To non-backpackers or even those unfamiliar with hiking in the smokies, it is definitely considered a strenuous trail. The thing I remember being challenging on it was fording the creek at high water, which can supposedly be dangerous but also a lot of fun, although it might be a bit chilly in November.

I hope I am still out on the trails at age 67. That is pretty awesome. Let us know how the trip turns out. I recommend doing the AT section through the park if you haven't done that before. You could do it in halves and start at the top of Clingman's, this way you wouldn't have as much uphill, although it is definitely still a strenuous series of ups and downs it at least mixes it up a good bit.

7:52 a.m. on September 11, 2009 (EDT)
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I have learned not to take other hiker's descriptions on what is "steep". Look at the map contours and trail profiles and judge for yourself. What can be a rigorous steep climb at the end of the day can be an easy up in the morning. I hiked the AT in the Park one August by doing two five day loops, the first out of Fontana, the second out of Cosby Cove. The Park was not crowded. Off the AT I camped alone several nights and on the AT there was never more than 4 of us in any shelter. Getting the permits I planned for was a 7 minute phone call.

Trails off of the AT are not as well maintained. A few times I could not see the trail beneath my feet as the brush was too thick. There are 800 miles of trail in the Park. Some try to hike them all!

You might find helpful a paperback from The Mountaineers Press entitedl 100 Hikes in the GSNP by Russ Manning. (Second edition, 2004)

Looking at the trails to Laurel Gap, I see good possibilities to do a loop hike including a lengthy section of the AT. (Davenport Gap to Mt. Crammerer is not steep) You could branch off at Low gap or go further to Camel Gap or even Tricorner Knob. Lots of good options towards Mt. Sterling Ridge and hiking or avoiding the Gunter Fork trail from either direction. If you camped at either #36 or Laurel Gap Shelter, you could cross the GF Trail in the morning when your legs are rested. (At 65 that's how I plan the steeps!)

7:43 p.m. on September 11, 2009 (EDT)
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Yes, good advise about doing the ascents early in the day!

How you doin rambler?

1:49 a.m. on September 13, 2009 (EDT)
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Hey all. Thanks for the good feed back from each of you. I haven't been on the forum for several days so I'm just now catching up.

My only previous backpacking experience in the Smokies was a trip on the AT from Clingman's Dome to the Natahala Outdoor Center. This was back in 2004. It was a nice trip except it rained or was cloudy most of the time, so I didn't get to see much in the way of the nice vistas that I have seen pictures of. Though sharing the shelters with the little critters was the most annoying part of that trip.

At this point we are still reviewing some of the other alternatives to the Gunter Fork Trail for the November trip. I'm ordering the Little Brown Book and should have it soon.

Rambler, the loop hike you described sounds like a good possibility, with other options as well, in putting together a nice trip.

I'm doing a 30 miler in Arkansas' Ozark foothills beginning Oct. 3. This will be a nice little tune up for Smoky trip in November.

Thanks again to all for the good input.


5:20 p.m. on October 27, 2009 (EDT)
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We just returned from a backpacking trip in the Smokies and included the Gunter Fork Trail in a four day loop. We walked this trail from Camp 37 in Walnut Bottom to Laurel Gap Shelter on the Balsam Ridge Trail. IMO, the trail is a moderately difficult grind hike*. But the waterfalls, cascades and views in the upper elevations make this a spectacular place to hike.

October has been wet, so we had to wade Big Creek at the lower junction with the Camel Gap Trail. With some careful planning, we kept our boots on at all the remaining 6-8 creek crossings. The trail isn't very steep until you pass large falls/slide. After that it is a steady steep pitch, sometimes off-camber, to the ridgeline with occasional short catwalks. My altimeter recorded 2,750 ft. of ascent from Walnut Bottom to Laurel Gap. Less than 200 ft. of this gain was recorded after we reached the Balsam Ridge Trail, I think.

I prefer climbing the steeps to going down them, so would bias toward climbing this trail if I visited it again. Our visit to the Smokies took us to nine different trails (2 from dayhikes) and it's main rival in beauty was the old-growth chocked Boogerman Trail.

*Generally speaking, I considering most Appalachian hiking routes of less than 2,000 ft. elevation change to be moderate. At 3,000 ft. things are getting strenuous. Distance is also a factor and 6-8 miles is an ideal distance. Longer and things are leaning toward strenuous. For our Gunter Fork Trail day, we hiked 6 miles with just under 5 hours of walk time - including stream crossings - and a couple hours of rest time (the waterfalls here demand long rest stops). All along the Appalachian ranges it is easy to find much harder routes. One nearby example is the Baxter Creek Trail, which climbs 4,000 ft. in 6 miles.

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