Rock Climbing on Chimney Tops
- Chimney Tops - 4,700 feet
- November 18, 2006
- 1,700 elevation gain, 4 lateral miles
- 45 degrees Farenheit, partly sunny
- Seven climbers: Nelson for 1.5 miles, Ethan and Sierra to base of summit scramble, Alice, Olivia, Stephen, Stephen Dale to summit
One of the most popular climbs in the Smoky Mountain National Park is the short hike up a pair of rocky summits known collectively as “Chimney Tops.” At only 4,800 feet they are overshadowed by the larger Mt. Le Conte to the north and Mt. Kephart to the south. However, the panoramic views from either the upper or lower summit of Chimney Tops are remarkable and draw multitudes of tourists. After climbing most of the major peaks in the Smokies I believe it is the only true 360-degree summit view in the southern Appalachian chain.
This particular route was chosen not only for its beauty but also because it was a fairly short climb (2 miles to the summit) suitable for the whole family. We were vacationing in the area and wanted to take a family hike to a mountain that we’d not seen before and Chimney Tops seemed a perfect fit. At less than two lateral miles and 2,000 feet of elevation gain it was something that everyone could enjoy.
We left the trailhead around 11:30 am on a Saturday and shared the route with scores of people... far more than we'd ever encountered on any other climb. This is definately a tourist route but the summit view more than justifies the effort so we tolerated the crowds and worked our way up Chimney Tops Trail while crossing the nearby river numerous times on those beautiful little wooden bridges constructed along the trail. We then came to the alternate summit route that veered off Road Prong trail to the north toward Chimney Tops, stopping to check the remaining distance with some climbers returning from the peak before pressing on to the final half-mile stretch of rocky incline leading to the summit scramble. This area got pretty strenuous and my father, Nelson, chose to stop here and wait for us to make our summit bid and rejoin us on the way back.
The remaining six continued up the trail until it dead-ended into a cliff face. From here it was necessary to make a light technical climb to the top. It was not extremely difficult – perhaps a thirty-foot vertical climb with fairly easy footholds and enough handholds to get by. A fall here may not be fatal but it would certainly make for a nasty stay in the hospital and of course, getting you back down the mountain would be an unholy nightmare. For that reason I decided that the younger set – Ethan and Sierra – should stay within site at the trail’s dead end below and that only myself (Stephen), wife Alice, oldest son Stephen Dale and oldest daughter Olivia should summit. We would do so in teams so that someone always stayed behind with the younger ones.
Stephen Dale, Olivia and I were the first to ascend, climbing with meticulous care and watching every foothold and testing every handhold. We had been up some steep grades and scrambles (where one must get down on all fours to manage the degree of incline) many times before, but technical climbing – even at this easy level – was fairly new to us so we were methodical and cautious. We got to the top and the reward was everything we expected.
The scenery was magnificent. We were surrounded on all sides by higher peaks and the distant mountain range formed a bowl shape around us. Although we sat on a major peak we were still looking up at the bigger mountains ten to fifteen miles distant on all sides. Several other people were on the summit as well… trio of loud, obnoxious teens and a nice family who was hiking together just like us. The nice family soon left and afforded us a bit more comfort at the summit – sitting space is at a premium atop the craggy rocks at the peak. Lower Chimney Tops can be gained from the main summit by carefully following a narrow ledge of rocks for perhaps two hundreds yards northwest. The route there is very technical and requires some rock climbing skill. It also has sheer drop-offs on either side and if one should fall (and survive) there is no route by which help can reach you. So it was an easy decision to stay on the main, higher summit and bypass the lower peak.
After ten minutes or so Stephen Dale descended so that Alice could join Olivia at the top. They were soon at the summit and posed for a photo as the prettiest girls on the mountain.
Meanwhile, half a mile away and several hundred feet lower on the east side of the mountain, the temperatures had dropped drastically and Nelson, who was waiting on us, tried to build a small campfire to stay warm but was thwarted by wood that was still soggy from recent rains. He resorted to his last layer of clothing to stay warm and toughed it out until those at the summit regrouped and met him on our return.
Sierra got a little tired on the return trip and even six-year-old Ethan, who has mastered the art of living life at full speed, wore down. The trip to and from the mountaintop is a wonderful hike through thick forest and across rushing streams so we were never at a loss for scenery. We returned to the trailhead just after sunset, happy with the day’s climb. It was not one of the taller or more challenging peaks, but it was perfectly suited for a family day hike and we enjoyed it thoroughly. For those wanting a less demanding climb that still offers stunning, alpine-like mountain vistas, Chimney Tops is a good bet.