Newfound Gap – The Jump Off – Tourist Bunion – Charlies Bunion (16km/10M, 720m/2360ft elevation gain and loss)
If you do not want to admire R. smokianum along the busy road between Gatlinburg and Newfound Gap, then this hike here will be the most comfortable and easiest way to see many specimens of this beautiful Rhododendron in their natural and spectacular environment. Unfortunately one or two weeks earlier a late frost had killed most of the flower buds. However, a few had survived, so my disappointment was not that big.
Most of the time the hike followed the Appalachian Trail. Just the short detour to the Jump Off, a breathtaking escarpment on the back side of Mount Kephart, made a short but worthwhile exception. The signs along the trail that point to “Charlies Bunion” are in fact not pointing there but to a place nicknamed “Tourist Bunion” by insiders. This comparatively small anakeesta rock has not much to do with the “Charlies Bunion” as it is marked on topographical maps, which is in fact a huge rocky ridge further to the east. Since the real Bunion cannot be reached so easily from the AT, resourceful tourism managers have created this small alternative. Here one can see again: The way from a grand natural spectacle to a middle class tourist event often is not far. Nevertheless the abyss at the Tourist Bunion really is well worth the visit. Originally I intended to hike until Laurel Top on this trip. However, I decided to turn and hike back shortly before reaching The Sawteeth, because there was lightning and thunder from all directions coming closer and closer, not a good thing on top of these ridges. Until I had reached the Tourist Bunion again, the severe weather had disappeared. I did not turn again, because there were only few flowers on all these R. smokianum anyway. Sometime I hope to get back!