Hiking in the Smokies has always been special to me, whether it was the short hikes I did as a child visiting for almost every Spring Break or the backpacking trips that helped me gain confidence in the outdoors.
But, oftentimes, I’m hiking alone and, for whatever reason, this brings me so much more anxiety when I’m in the Smokies. I think there’s a lot of reasons I’m more anxious here (bears, no cell service, etc.) but I don’t let it stop me from experiencing a place that means so much to me.
This hike to Charlie’s Bunion was no different. I was straight up scared, but I wouldn’t admit it to myself. It was a combination of little sleep the night before, an early wake up call and the fact that I had to make the drive back to Nashville that same day.
I wanted to see this highlight of the park, but, of course, I didn’t want to do the typical route. It just wasn’t a “long” enough hike and I wanted to challenge. So, I took an alternate route via Kephart Prong, Grassy Branch, Dry Sluice Gap, the AT, then back down the Sweat Heifer Trail connecting back to Kephart Prong. It was a bit ambitious for a day hike (about 15 miles), but that’s what I do! It would also make a fantastic overnight backpack. There’s 2 shelters along the way – Kephart (2 miles from trailhead) and Icewater Spring (7 miles from trailhead) – that are great places to camp. Just make sure you get a permit!
I drove to the Kephart Prong trailhead in the dark, the sun rising just as I stepped out of my car on the trailhead and the rushing creek greeted me, providing some solace. The first part of the trail follows the Kephart Prong and it’s the perfect picture of a Smoky Mountain stream complete with log footbridges crossing the creek as the trail gently zig-zagged over it. It was a beautiful walk in the early morning as I made sure to keep my eyes up around every corner, to be sure that I didn’t startle any wildlife. My initial anxiety calmed a bit and I decided to have a snack just before the Kephart shelter.
Let’s just say that snack was not the best idea. A few minutes later, my anxious belly was churning as I began a steady climb on the Grassy Branch Trail. Soon, I began to feel nauseous and light headed. I stopped, put my hands on my knees and tried to take deep breaths. But, that only partially helped and that snack came right back up. I plopped down right in the middle of the trail and had to evaluate if I was going to continue on. After a few cautious sips of water and sitting with my head between my legs for a few minutes, I decided to truck along. I kept evaluating each step I took to make sure that I felt ok.
I don’t remember a small portion of the Grassy Branch trail because all I was focused on was putting one foot in front of the other. I climbed steadily and passed rhododendron groves and colorful trees and parts of the trail that look like deep ruts through the trees. I always find it interesting that many of the trails in the Smokies are not blazed at all. But, they are so well worn that you don’t worry if you aren’t on the trail.
Over the course of Grassy Branch and Dry Sluice Gap, you gain about 3,000 feet of elevation. I’m sure my legs notices it but I was so focused on not feeling sick, that the elevation gains flew right by.
I didn’t see a single soul until I turned onto the AT. It’s always equally thrilling and scary to not see someone when you feel so remote. Most of the portion on this section of the AT is flat. So, it’s a nice break from the climb you just conquered.
Now, the actual Charlie’s Bunion is not the classic “tourist” Charlie’s Bunion. I’ll leave it to you to find the “real” one. There’s a little narrow path that branches off the AT and takes you to the geographic Bunion. (Plus, I was the only one there. I was most definitely NOT the only on at the other one!) While it is a cliche place in the Smokies, it is definitely a beautiful view. I went almost at the peak of fall color, so I was rewarded with a rainbow of fall colors.
After departing from the Bunion, I headed southbound on the AT headed for the Sweat Heifer turn-off. Not long after, a nice gentleman asked if I could take a picture of him next to a wayfinding sign to send his wife. He was hiking a long section of the AT and we got to hike together for a few miles. While I’ve never seriously considered thru-hiking, it felt like I got a little ‘trail magic’ in getting to have a hiking partner. It also greatly calmed my nerves even more. I was ready to attack the back half of the hike. (Plus, I managed to get a few calories in my body, so I was feeling a bit stronger.)
The Sweat Heifer Trail was a diamond in the rough. I really enjoyed this hike back down the mountains. There were great views peeking through the tree, little stream cascades and everything just felt like a Smoky Mountain Trail. I really haven’t heard much about the trail, but I do highly recommend it if you’re ever in this part of the park.
As I met up with the Kephart Prong Trail again, I was overwhelmed with gratitude for these mountains, this hike, and my body for carrying me 15+ miles in under 7 hours while feeling ill, not to mention the total 3,600+ feet of elevation gain. While this was an ambitious route, even feeling at my best, I do feel like it’s doable as a day hike. Just be prepared to be real sore the next day!
I can’t recommend this alternate route to Charlie’s Bunion enough. You get to explore lesser known Smoky Mountain trails and feel very proud of yourself for hiking up a mountain to get there.
Distance from Nashville: 4.25 hours
Trailhead: Kephart Prong Trailhead on US-441 (Newfound Gap Rd)
Trails: Balloon loop formed by Kephart Prong, Grassy Branch, Dry Sluice Branch, Appalachian Trail and Sweat Heifer Trails
Link to trail map: GSMNP Map (Note that this is the map of the whole park. I suggest using GAIA GPS on this, and any, hike!)
Length of hike: about 15 miles
Type of hike: Balloon loop
Camping: Kephart Shelter (2 miles from Kephart trailhead) and Icewater Spring Shelter (7.5 miles from Kephart Trailhead). Either is a great place to stay if you are doing an overnight of this route.
Overview: Climb to the stunning views from Charlie’s Bunion on a lesser known route following Smoky Mountain streams, log footbridges and lush, magical flora.