***This is a reboot of a post originally featured on the old blog of one of several hikes we did in October in the Great Smoky Mountains. The rest were nowhere near as good as this one (mostly due to weather.) This one bears mentioning as perhaps the best view in the entire park. Not mentioned below was the very good side trip to the recently rebuilt Alamo Steakhouse in the much maligned (by me) town of Gatlinburg, TN. Don’t say I never said nothing good ’bout Gatlinburg!
*Mount Cammerer is one of Becauseitzthere’s Best Hikes in North Carolina and Tennessee. It is also a featured Best Hike in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. See our hikes page!*
MOUNT CAMMERER, GSMNP
The second week of October seemed like a promising one for Fall Colors and for great hiking, and so we packed up the car and headed for Great Smoky Mountain National Park for a 4-day weekend. We had an open agenda for the trip, and only at the last minute did our plans congeal and we set on Cosby campground for the stay. Just 30 minutes East of Gatlinburg, on the Tennessee side, his is one of my favorite campground in the smokies (the other being Deep Creek on the NC side) and one of the few where one can hope to find some degree peace and privacy on a bust fall weekend in this, America’s most visited national park
Cosby is the jumping off point for the Mount Cammerer Fire Tower Hike, which I had originally done back in 2008. Though it is one of the best views in the park, I had not planned on doing it again. Sylvia, who had gotten tired of hearing me rant about Gatlinburg, convinced me to do Cammerer again with her, instead of another hike closer to town. And I am very glad that for the second time in my life, I listened to her.
The Mount Cammerer Fire Tower sits perched atop a rock outcropping at the top of a 4928 foot mountain of the same name. Cliffs drop off impressively on two sides of the summit, giving unobstructed views to the North and East, as well as good vantages of the adjacent higher ridge lines on the south and west. In Fall, there is no better view in the Southern Appalachians. We set out for the summit hoping for good weather.
The summit lies just a half mile off the Appalachian Trail, which comes up from Davenport Gap on its way to the summits of Mounts Guyot, Leconte and Clingman’s Dome. The AT itself is reachable from Cosby campground via the badly misnomered Low Gap Trail. Folks, there is nothing low about this gap…the hike up to it via a well graded horse trail is a steep, unrelenting slog. There are no flat areas at all along this section of trail.
Sylvia and I walked directly out of our campground to the trail. After crossing Cosby Creek the trail begins its aggressive climb. The first few miles to Low Gap are quite steep, but the footing is good, being intended for use by horses. At about three miles the intersection with the AT is reached in a col full of wilted, late-season wildflowers, abuzz with bees and flies. (in 2008 when I did this the first time it was positively swarming; less so this time.) Past the gap, the AT climbs at a modest grade, and then levels out entirely. Excepting a single blowdown patch there are no views on this section trail. There is in fact only one view to be had on the hike, and that is a great one, but it is still to come.
Two miles beyond Low Gap the Mt. Cammerer trail diverges from the AT, and here we passed a large group apparently coming up from Davenport Gap. Just past the junction is a horse hitching post – this being the furthest point you can take a horse, if a horse you’ve got. The trail becomes a bit more uneven, though still short of a rock scramble, then breaks out into the clear where the first views of the tower is had. After this it is a short walk over a few outcrops of rock to the foot of the tower.
The tower itself is quite different than the usual fire towers that can be seen throughout the eastern US. Instead of being a tall, steel framed structure, this thing looks almost like a garden gazebo. I know of no other tower quite like it. It has an impressive stone foundation of quarried granite atop which sits a wooden-decked one room octagon with windows. Originally built by the CCC in 1930, the tower fell out of use in the 1960s, but has been maintained since then by volunteers.
The volunteers had been at work recently. During my first visit the deterioration of the tower was quite apparent, especially the interior which was little more than a trash strewn abandoned building. This time there was a marked change; not only had the roof and deck been repaired, but the interior had been cleaned out and restored as well. Instead of garbage, rot and gaping holes in the floor all was in good order. There was even a broom leaning against the wall for sweeping…which of course my wife insisted on doing. It appeared however that in some respects the workers had been perhaps too enthusiastic, as of roofing material had been hurled off the side of the tower down the cliff…much of which was caught in the surrounding shrubs in plain view. I am not sure the National Park Service approved of that but, you can’t fault the obviously fine job whoever it was did on the tower.
Here is an interesting website about the historical fire towers of Tennessee, most of which are no longer in operation. Technically, the Mt. Cammerer summit is right on the Tennessee-NC state line, but the tower was maintained from the Tennessee side, probably because the best vantages are west.
The view from the tower and surrounding rocks speak for themselves. Though it is a ‘small’ summit, the long hike in acts as a crowd control buffer. This is a place for serious hikers. There were three or four other groups present at the same time we were there, many of whom simply collapsed inside the tower from exhaustion and scarcely emerged. We had no issue finding a spot to have to ourselves.
The trip down was mostly as I remembered it, a knee-pounding two-hour slog back to the campground. On the way Sylvia did do her best to liven things up by attempting to fall into a stream, but emerged scarcely more wet than when she entered.
We found the Mt. Cammerer Fire Tower Hike via the Low Gap, Appalachian and Mt. Cammerer Trails to be a very challenging hike, just the very thing for a pair of hikers trying to condition for the major ups and downs of the Alps. The trail itself presents no serious challenges apart from its length and, in the two miles before Low Gap, unwavering grade. Most hikers will require a good six hours, at least, to make the out and back. It is a long and exhausting day to get to one view, albeit a stunning one. If care is taken to avoid the summit and the approaching ridge when thunderstorms threaten, this is a trail that can be done in any weather without significant danger of exposure. However, it is also a trail to save for good weather. It’s an awful long way, so you want to make sure there’s a payoff at the end of it.
Here’s a video of the hike…
In our opinion the Mt. Cammerer Fire Tower Hike is suitable for all fit hikers looking for a challenge. It is roughly comparable to Alum Cave Trail/Mt. Leconte in terms of difficulty, but we liked Mount Cammerer better. Alum Cave Trail is more publicized and does have more interesting things to see on the way up, but is also FAR more crowded, and Sylvia and I both think the view from Cammerer’s summit is superior. We recommend this hike as the best we have done so far in the Smokies.