The devastating wildfires that burned thousands of acres in the Great Smoky Mountains before spreading into Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge in November caused lasting damage to an iconic trail.
The Chimney Tops Trail is one of the most popular in the park. The steep, four-mile hike with spectacular views is a favorite of visitors, but has been inaccessible for more than two months.
“People have been proposed to on this mountain. It’s where people make their memories and it has a story to tell about the tragedies of this fire, the recovery and as a park together,” GSMNP spokesperson Dana Soehn told our sister affiliate WBIR.
Soehn took members of the media on a tour of the trail on Wednesday, a first since the fires. The trail remains closed.
The first part of the trail is largely untouched, but the closer you get to the summit, the damage is severe.
"The trail as you remember it is no longer here," said Soehn.
The iconic pinnacles at the top that factor in so many memories survived, but the last few hundred yards to reach them is decimated. The trail shelf below the ridge line is gone, having slid down the hillside as the ground erodes. To reach the iconic pinnacles, you must climb over burned trees and loose rock on the ridgeline.
Gale force winds and fire ripped trees up by the roots, and all you can see is scorched earth.
“This is not a safe space to invite people to,” said Soehn.
This is not the end of the damage, according to the park service. The exposed ridge will likely erode even more through the winter and coming year, delaying recovery efforts even further. The NPS said reconstruction will not begin in 2017, as the give the zone time to settle. They worry any improvements might just erode away again.
The scorched summit could take 80 years or more to return to its former glory.
“The first thing we need to do is let this land heal, let us see how stable the remainder of this slope will be," said Soehn.
There is no formal timeline to reopen the rest of the trail. Eventually, the park service hopes to expand a lookout just below the damaged section of trail, so hikers can still at least see the pinnacles. The trail will be closed beyond that point for a longer period of time.