Distance to a Road: 4.2 miles
Conservation Land: Yes, Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Travel Method: Backpacking
Travel Time One-Way: 2 hours
Something We Learned: The presence of a major hiking trail system (Appalachian Trail) and associated shelters can detract from the feeling of remoteness, but we embrace and encourage this mode of travel.
Several days prior to this trip, our GIS guru and colleague, Alan Baker, informed us that the Tennessee Remote Spot was near Siler’s Bald shelter along the Appalachian Trail (AT). Alan and I sat together in his office that day staring intently at a beautiful aerial photo of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park on his computer screen. We marveled at today’s computer technology that enables us to perform such a complicated task of computing an exact spot on a map that represents the most remote location of a state.
On July 29, 2010, my nephews and I set out on the nine hour drive from north Florida to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. We found a place to pitch a tent a few hours before dark and laid out all our backpacking gear. I helped the boys get organized for their first ever overnight backpacking trip. The next morning we drove up to the Clingmans Dome parking area.
Clingmans Dome is the highest peak in Tennessee (6,643 ft) and the parking area represented the nearest road to our target. From this parking area, we would set off down the Appalachian Trail in search of the remotest location in the entire state of Tennessee. We parked our truck at the parking area and finished packing our three backpacks.
We relished the mild temperatures in the 70’s, a far cry cooler than the heat wave we left behind in Florida. Temperatures there had regularly reached the 100′s throughout July. What a nice retreat from the heat…
I embarked with my nephews westward down the AT from near the summit of Clingmans Dome around midday. Shortly down the trail, we encountered a mother and her 10-year old son hiking with backpacks in our direction. They told us that they were thru-hiking the AT together and had come all the way from Maine heading southward. They were about three quarters of the way through a five-month trip.
That encounter inspired me to do something like that one day with my daughter, who is now only one and a half. I thought about how I couldn’t wait a whole ten years for that kind of a father-daughter adventure!
We walked all afternoon atop the spine of the highest ridgeline in the Southern Appalachians. Up here, we noticed something about the evergreen forest. For as far as the eye could see, snagly, mature, dead tree skeletons were a common component of the forest canopy. The large, dead snags were mixed within younger spruce, fir, and some deciduous hardwood trees.
We later learned that a massive die-off of mature Fraser fir trees within the higher elevations of the Southern Appalachians has been occurring for decades. An exotic, invasive insect species called the balsam woolly adelgid is responsible for this tree trouble. As alarming as this is, the good news is that there is abundant recruitment of younger, more resistant Fraser fir trees apparently filling the gap left behind by the mature tree die-off. A brighter future appears to be in store for the rare Frasier fir endemic to the highest southern Appalachians.
The scenery was spectacular both north and south of the ridge top that we followed. I was proud to have my nephews with me on a just uncle and nephews outdoor adventure. I had always hoped that the boys would grow into outdoorsmen someday. Seeing them taking it all in was a pleasure.
Our day’s objective - reach the Tennessee Remote Spot. The roughly 5 mile hike into the Remote Spot, I believed, was easily do-able in an afternoon’s hiking effort. And as luck would have it, the Spot was situated just off arguably the most famous hiking trail in the world. We would camp at the shelter tonight after documenting the Remote Spot, then return back the way we came to the truck at the Clingmans Dome parking area the next day.
We had an amazing four hours of frolick hiking together along the AT and took frequent breaks. Unfortunately, Chandler rolled his ankle early in the hike, and begrudgingly pushed himself down the trail to accomplish what we were here to do, in spite of his ankle pain.
When we arrived at Siler’s Bald Shelter, I couldn’t help but wonder if this place was truly remote and whether the presence of an AT shelter should skew the Remote Spot calculation. As if that weren’t enough, two hikers emerged from the shelter to greet us, which, as nice as it is to meet cool people on the trail, this made me feel queasy.
We conceived of the endeavor to travel to all 50 remotest locations mostly to spend time away from people and civilization and do something unique and wild. Now, there were people in a shelter nearly smack dab on Tennessee’s Remote Spot. All of a sudden, I wasn’t feeling too remote.
I wrote this off in my head as being part of a larger story that needs to be told to Americans about the loss of remoteness in our country as we continue to build new roads and structures across the landscape. This conundrum is why we had made every effort to define remoteness in a quantitative and repeatable way that hopefully will be useful to future investigators. The AT shelter, although being a permanent human structure, is not a permanently inhabited human structure, and therefore, does not affect the remote spot calculation.
In spite of the not-so-remote feel of our location at Siler’s Bald AT shelter, the boys and I came together after a brief rest and conferred about how to proceed to the nearby Remote Spot. We left our packs in a pile inside the shelter, where the National Park Service requires that overnight hikers on the AT spend the night, and we told the other hikers that we were going out for a little jaunt.
Just west of the shelter, back on the AT, the boys and I got together as a unit, and began measuring the distance from the shelter…then, with smiles and back pats of accomplishment, we stepped several feet off the trail, and landed near a young deciduous tree, which was situated directly on the Remote Spot. This was a proud moment for the three of us. I told the boys, “You’ve done something unique here today. Thousands of people walk along this trail annually, but none of them know that they are passing within feet of a state Remote Spot! What we have done here today, together, will in some way be a contribution to science and hopefully add to the discussion about how to preserve wildlands.”
There appeared to be no evidence that a modern human had stood on this exact location, save for maybe when the region was selectively logged in the early-mid 20th century.
I didn’t intend to keep this location a secret from the people of Tennessee for long. Soon, I would contact the Great Smoky Mountains N.P. and inform them that Tennessee’s remotest location resides within the park, and its exact whereabouts.
I imagined a sign being put up along the AT denoting the Remote Spot. Then had a conflicting thought - Would a sign detract from the feeling of remoteness at the spot?
I guess that’s for the National Park Service to decide. Heck, there’s already an AT shelter just up trail. More importantly, it appears that the Tennessee Remote Spot is located safely within a high quality conservation land, and its remoteness will be preserved in perpetuity.
The boys and I hiked back to the shelter where we set up camp and enjoyed the evening with the two original men occupying the shelter and two more people who had arrived while we were Remote Spotting…The seven of us shared stories around the camp fire in the humid but cool mountain air.
The next morning, we hiked out of the remotest location of Tennessee back the way we came. We didn’t want to push our luck with Chandler’s ankle, so we headed out promptly in the morning. I believe that both boys felt a sense of accomplishment from their first backpacking trip, although sometimes it is hard to read the poker faces of teenagers. Cameron appeared to have taken a greater interest in backpacking resulting from this scenic and memorable overnighter. I was proud of both of them in different ways. Proud uncle turned them loose to return back to the truck by themselves. I stayed behind for another half-hour to do some journal writing. I thought I could easily catch up to them, but I didn’t see them again until Clingman’s Dome parking lot two hours later.
This Remote Spot trip was definitely one of the easier ones we will encounter on this project. Despite being near the highest point in all of Tennessee, we were able to reach it in an afternoon’s hike. What does this say about the remoteness of Tennessee?
I look forward to returning to the Spot with my other Remote Spotting companions, Rebecca and Skyla. This is a spot we easily can lead others to when we launch that aspect of our endeavor — Remote Spot Geo Jaunts. Anyone interested?