GATLINBURG, Tenn. (WATE) – A portion of the Chimney Tops Trail in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is reopening this week for the first time since last year’s devastating wildfires.
The entire trail has been closed since the Chimney Tops 2 fire in November. The trail will reopen on Friday to a newly developed observation point. Park officials say the extended closure has allowed the trail crew to design and develop a section of trail to provide a safe gathering area for hikers to enjoy views of Mt. LeConte and the Chimney Tops.
The top quarter mile of the trail to the Chimney Tops themselves was heavily damaged in the fire and will remain closed until further notice due to safety concerns. Hikers must remain within the open section and not explore beyond the closed area.
“It’s very dynamic. It’s actively eroding. It’s really hard to build a trail on top of bedrock that is constantly coming apart,” said Tom Remaley.
Remaley is part of the team tracking and studying environmental impacts from the wildfires. He described the fire as especially at the top of the Chimneys, causing some big problems with the slate rock.
“When you heat that up, sometimes… you’ll get mild explosions. It will crack apart. It becomes very, very unstable and that’s what up there right now,” he said.
Remaley says it’s unclear if the pinnacles will reopen in our lifetimes, but small landslides here and in other parts of the park are possible.
The park service wants to remind everyone that only two percent of the park had fire damage and regrowth is already evident. After Friday, only two trails in the park will remain closed because of fire damage.
Park staff will be monitoring the pinnacles as rain, freeze and thaw cycles, and wind events continue to change the landscape. If the ground is deemed to be safe and stabilized enough at some point, the park will consider rehabilitated the area.
“The park will be closely monitoring the closed area over time to see how it changes and if at some future point, the trail can be constructed out to the pinnacles,” said back country specialist Christine Hoyer.
Funding for the trail project came from donations from people all across the country to the Friends of the Smokies’ Fire Relief Fund.