The Chimney Tops

This week, I’ve been hanging out with the family in a nice home up in the Smoky Mountains outside of Gatlinburg, TN. I haven’t been running at all. The neighborhood streets are very narrow, very steep and very curvy. Alice and I decided it was much too dangerous to run on them…or maybe that’s just a convenient excuse.

In any case, we’re not exactly sedentary. Yesterday, we decided to tackle the Chimney Tops, a popular 2 mile trail in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The trail is steep. It climbs up 1700 feet over those 2 miles and our progress was slow. Wendy isn’t as used to cardiovascular exercise as Raffi, Alice and I are, so she was feeling the effects. About 1.5 miles into the hike, she couldn’t go any further so she and Raffi hiked back down to a stream while Alice and I continued to the top.

At this point, I should back up and mention a peculiar incident that occurred earlier on the trail. We were climbing a particularly steep part of the trail when a shirtless teenage boy went running past us at full speed, breathing very heavily. His run didn’t last very long and he stopped about 50 yards ahead of us to catch his breath. Then, he started dancing. Right there in the middle of the trail, he attempted to do the robot. Soon, his father called him back to the group and the whole group eventually passed us while were were resting near a stream.

Fast forward about 45 minutes. Alice and I had reached the top of the trail after leaving Raffi and Wendy behind. To reach the spectacular view at the top of the Chimneys, one has to climb about 100 yards up a series of rocks. It looks like this:

Note the caption on the photo. Alice and I proceeded up the rocks, wary of the 100-200 foot vertical drop on either side. Proceeding on all fours, the climb wasn’t horrible, but the rocks were hot and burned our hands so there was little time to rest and analyze the tricky path up. There were also quite a few people coming down, so we had to wedge ourselves into small spaces to let them pass. We were about halfway up and dancing boy was sitting with his family about three quarters of the way up when a lady emerged near the bottom of the climb.

“There’s an easier way over here!” she yelled up the hill. That made sense. After all, I’d read about 8 year olds successfully reaching the summit of the Chimney Tops. We scrambled back down only to find that the “easy way” was blocked by a fence with a “hiker alert” saying that the area was closed for rehabilitation.

When this close to the edge of a steep vertical drop, I tend to listen to the National Park Service and not go into closed areas, but it had been a long climb to get to this point and dammit, we wanted to see the 360 degree view.

We climbed the fence and made our way a long a gently sloping path around the peak. This was indeed much, much easier. When we reached the end of the path, there was a steep, narrow 30 foot climb to the summit. It was a little more treacherous that the longer climb on the other side, but it seemed easier to swallow our fears for 30 feet of climbing.

We pinned our backs against the rock face so hikers descending could make their way around us. Meanwhile, dancing boy and his family brushed past us in the other direction and waited in a tree for the descending hikers. When the last hikers were down, an old man at the summit yelled down at us.

“Come on up and get your money’s worth!”

From the bottom, I swear it was Larry the Flip flop guy, but that seemed impossible. Dancing boy’s family started up and dancing boy reluctantly followed. Alice and I lined up behind.

“Do you want me to go first, or do you want to?” I asked Alice.

“I’ll go first,” she replied. “If you were to fall, we’d both die. If I fall, you can catch me.”

The logic sort of made sense and she started up the steep climb. I looked up, grabbed the rocks with my hands and started up behind her. As I looked past her at the very slow progress made by dancing boy, it occurred to me that Alice’s logic was slightly flawed because a fall by the eccentric dancing boy would certainly take both of us out.

No sooner had this thought crossed my mind than he started kicking the side of the mountain erratically. Dirt and rocks fell into our face. Then, he screamed a loud, high pitched scream and let go of the rocks. I don’t know how he stayed on the mountain as he stood straight up and turned around, facing out toward the open air.

“I don’t want to die!” he screamed has he started to rapidly descend, out of control toward us.

“Oh shit,” I said to my daughter, “we gotta get the hell outta here.”

Adrenaline shot through me as I slid down the rocks. Thankfully, the tree prevented us from going over the edge as we slid past the narrow trail. The screaming continued from above.

“Where are you going? Mommy! Mommy! I want my mommy!”

Alice and I scurried along the narrow ledge like squirrels on an electrical wire.

We heard another high pitched squeal behind us.

“I want them to leave me alone! Mommy! Mommy! I don’t want to die!”

We could then here dancing boy’s dad telling him to get down as fast as he could. Alice and I clambered over the fence, past dancing boy’s mom and aunt who were having a conversation about camelbaks with another group and started back down the trail.

A quarter mile later, dancing boy ran past us at full speed, his back full of giant, puffy welts. His sister soon followed and we eventually found them bathing in the same stream where Raffi and Wendy were waiting for us.

Later, dancing boy and his mom hiked down behind us and asked for Benedryl. He had been stung multiple times by angry bees. We had none, but they made it all the way down and found someone at the bottom with Benedryl in their car. We’re pretty sure he is autistic, which explains some of the behavior we witnessed. Still, he outweighed both of us and he looked like he was going to kill himself and take both of us with him.

If I ever return to the Chimney Tops, I’m going on a cooler day and I’m taking the “hard” way.


  1. That’s pretty scary Brian! As much as you did to prepare yourself and to be as safe as possible, it’s tough to anticiate what other’s might be doing! Glad to hear that everyone made it down safely.

  2. stinks that you didn’t make it all the way up, but sure glad you both made it back safely. at first i was going to say maybe dancing boy was trying to impress alice but in the end, i’m not thinking so anymore 😉

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