Charlie’s Bunion, Great Smoky Mountains National Park
*We have added Charlie’s Bunion via the AT to our list of Great Hikes in the Southern Appalachians. It’s actually a no-brainer on this list, a hike that everyone in the region eventually does. It would also be very near the top of our favorite hikes named for chronic foot ailments…if we had such a list. But we don’t.
**This article is part of a longer series on Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and our general love-hate relationship with this amazing and celebrated place
Great Smoky Mountain National Park. Everyone knows the name.
It may not be our favorite National Park, but it is the one we visit most often, because it happens to be right in our figurative backyard. Figurative meaning, while it is located partly in the same state we are, it’s over four hours drive away, about the same distance as Washington DC.
In point of fact, it’s not the closest National Park to us. Shenandoah National Park in northern Virginia is slightly closer. But the closest is actually Congaree National Park. If you just read that and went, “Huh?” don’t feel too bad. Congaree is one of the most obscure units in the National Park system, protecting a huge track of flooded woodlands in coastal South Carolina. It is one of the least visited National Parks…in fact, we haven’t been there and no immediate plans to go there. (Sylvia has stated her abject refusal to visit ‘swamp’ on many occasions, and Brian, wishing to remain married for a while longer, is happy with the mountains.)
There is absolutely no doubting that Great Smoky Mountains NP is an and critically important place, both for the ecosystem it preserves and as a huge source of recreational opportunities. And there can be very little real dispute that it is the greatest national park in the Eastern United States. It is also the only significant National Park Unit in the entire country that, as a requirement of its charter, charges no admission fee. It’s one hundred percent free to visit.
However, everything said above has significant repercussions. All of the factors above, plus the fact that it sits in close proximity to a good dozen major population centers across the east coast and Ohio River Valley, help make it a very convenient and desirable place to visit. And lot of people do visit. In fact, GSMNP is BY FAR the most visited true National Park in America. In 2017, over 11,0000 visitors streamed through its gates (or more correctly, inched through amidst the press of traffic.) That is almost twice as many visitors as the next most visited National Park, which happens to be the Grand Canyon.
And what this means is, while GSMNP may be a remarkable place, it’s also a remarkably crowded place. Several of Brian’s least fond memories involve being stuck in huge traffic tie ups in this park…some of the worst traffic jams he has ever seen. And Brian grew up in Boston.
We have seen the Smokies described in numerous as a hiker’s paradise. This is a very debatable statement, in our opinion. There are many fine hikes in this park, and a few are great. But our opinion is that there are other places in North Carolina and Tennessee that are as good, and probably better. And most are far less crowded.
Two other things must be said about hiking in the Smokies. The first is a problem shared with many areas in the Southern Appalachians – poor air quality. The views, even on bright sunny days, are often marred by haze. Some of this is natural (they aren’t called the Smokey’s for no reason) but most of it is caused by pollution mostly from factories and power plants in the Midwest. Shenandoah NP has similar (maybe even worse) problem. If you visit on a day when a shift in the prevailing winds blows the haze off, it’s really stunning. (See our hike of Sharp Top…it’s not in either park but you’ll get the idea.) But, most of the time…there’s just something about views when they are obscured by smog and haze that leaves a bad taste in the hiker’s mouth.
The second problem is trying to find a view at all. There are very few open summits in the Smokies and many of these are (in our opinion) decidedly underwhelming.
This again is a truth about Appalachian Hiking (hence they call the AT the “long Green Tunnel.”) However, Brian grew up in New England, a few hours drive from the White Mountains of New Hampshire. He is absolutely convinced that the best summits of New Hampshire (and Maine, and maybe Vermont too) are collectively superior to those in the Southern Appalachians.
There are several reasons for this…tree line in the Northern Appalachians is at approximately 5000 feet. Go above that, you are in the Alpine Zone. In the South, tree line doesn’t exist. It would be above 10,000 feet, but there are no mountains anywhere near that high. There are ‘balds’ in the South, but not all of these are impressive. Some feel more like cow pastures than wild peaks.
No view that I have seen in the Smokies compares with this one from Hawksbill Mountain
Secondly, there are many more rocky topped summits in the Northern Appalachians and Adirondacks. And we’re not even talking about the bigger mountains here…there’s just tons of small ones too, like Chocorua, Monadnock, Camel’s Hump, Roger’s Ledge, the Moats, Tumbledown, etc. And almost all the big ones (like Washington and Katahdin) have large and impressive alpine areas with nearly limitless views. These places FEEL like wild summits, and that’s exactly they are. Washington remains a potentially dangerous summit to this day, and Katahdin is in some ways even more forbidding.
Compare this the highest points in the Southern Appalachians. Mount Mitchell is treed to the summit, and Clingman’s Dome in the Smokies is too. Both have observation platforms that help with the viewing but…it’s just not the same. There are some tough sections of trail to both but…In no way do these peaks compare to the Presidential Peaks or Katahdin Massif.
Now, that’s not to say there’s aren’t many great summits in the South. Old Rag is a dandy, and at least three of the summits that border the Linville Gorge can rival almost anything north of them. There’s plenty others, too. Roan Mountain in Tennessee and the Black Balsam section of the Art Loeb Trail have extended open views. So do the Grayson Highlands.
But if you think those places are located in GSMNP, think again.
Probably the largest open summit in the Smokies is Gregory Bald. We visited this place early in 2018 as part of our shakeout for the Tour du Mont Blanc and enjoyed the hike. But were also a bit underwhelmed by the summit. There were fine, though somewhat restricted and haze-obscured, views, but nothing that could possibly compare to Mt. Washington on a good day.
Mt. Cammerer is probably the best single viewpoint in the Smokies
There’s also Mt. Leconte, which has no view from the summit but many great views and curious caves and bluffs on the way. And Mt. Cammerer which we think is perhaps the best view in the park, or the best we’ve seen anyway. And – full disclosure – we have seen it all. We’ve yet to see Rocky Top, the Thunderer or the Chimney tops.
But no discussion of the park would be complete with perhaps the most famous view in it. This would be the viewpoint known as Charlie’s Bunion. I am not sure who Charlie was, but the view from his bunion sure is grand. In fact, I would say that this is, without doubt, the best claimant to the title, “World’s Greatest Bunion.”
Brian hiked to the Bunion in 2008 on a day of partially good weather. The photos are from this hike.
We’ve already covered the fact that GSMNP is the most visited of the National Parks. Well, Charlie’s Bunion is likely the second most popular hike in the first most popular park…after only the Alum Cave Trail. So, if you guessed that you won’t be alone, you guessed right.
Another factor in this being a popular hike is that, for its entire way, it follows the famed Appalachian Trail. It also leaves from Newfound Gap, aka the most crowded single place in the most crowded of the US National Parks. This adds up to a lot of…crowds.
Almost everybody who visits Newfound Gap poses in front of this sign to get their picture taken. Its almost a right of passage.
But really, it makes little sense. The NC-TN border runs for hundred of miles…in fact, the Appalachian Trail alone runs for 224 miles along the border, and there are many road crossings. There’s no magic at all to it…you could stand at the border in a hundred different places. But people gotta have their pictures.
The first challenge of the hike to Charlie’s Bunion is finding a parking space at the Newfound Gap lot. An early start is recommended. The hike to the bunion is about four miles one way…eight plus miles total. Most of the hikes to anything in GSMNP are quite long. In fact, to reach any view not right on the roadside you usually have to walk ten miles or more. So the Bunion, while a good ways from the road, is closer to it than most viewpoints. And that don’t make it any less crowded.
While it’s not an easy hike, it is not particularly difficult either. It’s a steady uphill most of the way over a modest, though eroded, trail bed. You will be constantly passing other hikers or being passed by them, depending on your pace.
What Brian remembers most about this hike was that he left his hydration system at home and had to improvise one on the fly. He was able to rig up a very crappy makeshift one by hanging a Nalgene bottle from his pack by means of a carabiner. He clearly remembers the bottle swinging back and forth of smacking into his chest with every step. No photos exist of this hybrid system, which is for the best. It has never been redeployed.
The second thing he remembers is that he encountered a woman who had a bear bell on her pack and was very nervous about a bear encounter. A bear bell, for those who don’t know, is a little jingle bell that you attach you your pack in the vain hope that bears will hear you coming and assume you are Santa Claus and leave you alone, or something like that. Brian owns one, somewhere, which he purchased for a trip to Montana in 2004. He lived through that but has not used it since.
Oh, and by the way, Brian did see a bear in the park just the day before the hike and related this to the woman, who was greatly displeased to hear it.
The third thing he remembers is the view. Which is impressive. It’s a 180-degree panorama that looks something like this…
We have noted that many of the views in the Smokies tend to look stark and ominous, even somewhat gloomy. Mt. Cammerer is one major exception to the rule. But Brian is okay with this…wilderness should be a bit forbidding in character. True wild things have teeth.
(If you are wondering why the call it the Bunion, and who Charlie is, there are two possible versions of this story, both of which can be found on the wikipedia article for the Bunion. Brian is of the belief that neither is likely to be correct.)
There’s really only this one view, plus a very nice rock ledge to sit on and enjoy it. Usually there’s a bunch of people lounging around. Brian spent some time speaking to a young hiker who had been backpacking in the park for days…he was carrying a huge pack, had no idea what he was doing, was making it up as he went along, and was loving every minute of it.
After enjoying the views for a while, Brian (who was still suffering from his bout with plantar fasciitis at the time) stumbled back to Newfound Gap, unclipped his Nalgene bottle and drove away. He took no selfie that day.
A Year or so later Sylvia and I returned to the spot, where we took this picture.
Minutes later, we got stuck in a bear jam (traffic jam caused by a bear, or bears) that stretched, I kid you not, from Gatlinburg all the way back to the gap.
Some years after THAT, Sylvia and I attempted to hike to another viewpoint along this same route, but the weather simply did not cooperate. Not only did we get crowds, we also got clouds. We halted at the lookout known as the Jump-Off. Not clear, exactly, what you jump off into…probably it’s a long way away, we didn’t try it. There’s supposed to be a view of Charlie’s Bunion from here but…we couldn’t tell. We ate a soggy snack beneath dripping pine trees and beat a well-earned retreat. I could not find a single picture from this soggy day…it’s just as well. There was nothing to see but us, soaked to the bone.
Brian will fully admit that GSMNP is not his top of the list place to hike. In the Southern Appalachians he prefers the Pisgah, Nantahalia and Cherokee National Forests. He also thinks that while Shenandoah is a smaller and generally an inferior park, it does have at least one far superior hike (Old Rag.)
But on days when it is not crowded, GSMNP is a very, very nice place to hike, camp and sight-see. And we have not explored all of it yet…Sylvia and I still have an open mind toward a vast wilderness area.
Every American should see all the major National Parks at least once. And when you get to GSMNP, you might as well see the Bunion. You might see a few better hikes , but you won’t see a greater bunion, that’s for sure.
Next: Can You Avoid the Crowds in the Smokies?