Charlie's Bunion & The Jumpoff (10-21-18)
Charlie’s Bunion and The Jumpoff represent two of the most majestic viewpoints in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Located within a couple miles of each other, just off the famous Appalachian Trail, and involving only a moderately difficult dayhike from the busy Newfound Gap area it means these two overlooks are also wildly popular. So don’t go expecting Smoky Mountain solitude. Even so, a hike to either or both of these incredible natural wonders is more than worth considering. Located northbound along the Appalachian Trail from the aforementioned Newfound Gap the route involves a wonderful and relatively easy ridgetop walk. Charlie’s Bunion is about four miles distant from the trailhead and located about a mile past the 6,217-foot Mount Kephart. The Jumpoff is actually located a short distance below the summit of Kephart and involves a half-mile detour off the A.T. about a mile-and-a-half before Charlie’s Bunion. Both viewpoints are perched far up opposite edges of the precipitously steep valley of tiny Letcher Prong. Standing at either of these spots, hanging some 2,000+ feet above the forest below, the northern ramparts of the rugged and remote eastern Smoky Mountain Range spread out to the distance. Honestly, trying to describe it in words is a bit of a futile effort. Instead I’ll try to let the pictures in this album express that which my words can only fail to impress.
As mentioned a couple times already the hike begins from the obnoxiously busy Newfound Gap, where U.S. Highway 441 crosses the crest of the Smokies, in the heart of the National Park. The route begins by heading northbound along the venerable Appalachian Trail. The trail makes a steady climb over the next couple of miles, alternating between one side or the other or sometimes along the crest of the ridge. You are high in the Smokies here. For most of this hike the trail stays well above a mile in elevation. Even so the going is remarkably easy considering the rugged terrain which surrounds the trail. At just over 1.5-miles in the Sweat Heifer Creek Trail joins from the south. At just over 2.5-miles, the Appalachian Trail reaches a more substantial junction with The Boulevard Trail, which arrives from Mount LeConte to the north. At this junction there's a choice to be made. Charlie's Bunion still lies a mile-and-a-half further along the A.T. while The Jumpoff is a half-mile away and reached by turning onto The Boulevard Trail. It really makes no difference which you choose first. I decided to push on to Charlie's Bunion first on this hike primarily because I could feel the inevitable crowds following behind me and I was anxious to have at least a brief bit of solitude when I arrived. I therefore saved The Jumpoff for the return hike and continued northbound along the Appalachian Trail.
Beyond the junction with The Boulevard Trail the A.T. begins a gradual descent off the backside of Mount Kephart, which it is now rounding. Within a few minutes walk a spur trail to the popular Icewater Springs Shelter is passed. This is a popular stopping point for both backpackers and day-hikers alike. Rarely do I pass this pretty old shelter when there's not at least a handful of folks resting out front. Beyond the shelter the descent becomes more moderate as the trail drops off the north side of Mount Kephart onto the narrow ridge separating it from Charlie's Bunion. The hike really starts to get scenic here as the narrowness of the ridge allows for numerous views, primarily to the north, to be had. The ridge offers yet more easy hiking as the grade remains easy. Soon...about 1.5-miles past The Boulevard junction and 4-miles from Newfound Gap the Appalachian Trail reaches the spur path out to Charlie's Bunion. The spur path is short but dramatic as it seems almost to hang from the steep side of the ridge. Then suddenly the Bunion appears ahead. Charlie's Bunion is a huge protrusion of stone which seems almost to hang out over the valley from the end of the ridge as you approach. Scrambling atop it you're standing some 2,000-feet above the forest below and the northern wall of the Smoky Mountain Range stretches away to the right and left. Mount Kephart and Mount LeConte rise majestically to the west while the more remote and rugged peaks of the eastern portion of the range loom on the horizon in the opposite direction. The grandness of the view here is hard to overstate. Unfortunately I didn't have long to enjoy it on my own as the crowds I knew where coming soon arrived. At that point I beat a hasty retreat from the top of the Bunion and struck out to do a bit of exploring of the ridge top nearby. I'm not going to explain where exactly I went here...I don't want these other sensitive areas to be overrun as well...but I did find a couple of other perches nearby which I found equally as scenic as the Bunion with the added enjoyment of solitude.
Once done at the Bunion it was time to head to The Jumpoff. This meant retracing my steps back the 1.5-miles to the junction with The Boulevard Trail and then turning right, or north, that path. The Boulevard is another of the Smoky Mountains major thoroughfares, running as it does from the A.T. to the summit of Mount LeConte about 5.4-miles distant. This hike, however, only follows The Boulevard for about a tenth-of-a-mile. At that point a small wooden sign marked "The Jumpoff" points uphill through the spruce on the right. This unofficial but well-traveled footpath is the steepest and roughest of the hike...it's quite short though. About a third of a mile from The Boulevard Trail the Jumpoff Spur crosses the wooded summit of 6,217' Mount Kephart, the ninth highest peak in the Smoky Mountain Range. There's not much to see from the top so you'll likely quickly continue on the remaining, now downhill, hike the one-tenth mile to The Jumpoff. Like Charlie's Bunion, The Jumpoff is perched high above the valley of Letcher Prong but instead faces more easterly instead of north. It's also a series of ledges rather than one giant...well, bunion. The view is once again immense as the cliff below you drops away nearly a vertical half-mile below. Beyond are the massive peaks of the remote eastern Smoky Mountain Range. Again, words fail and pictures only provide a taste. It's scenery on a scale that can only be appreciated when experienced in person. Majestic is the best term I can use to describe it.
After The Jumpoff it was time to make the trek back to the car. This simply involved retracing my steps back to The Boulevard Trail, then back to the Appalachian Trail, and then 2.7 glorious miles back along the crest of the ridge to Newfound Gap. The crowds heading out towards Charlie's Bunion at this point were staggering. It could be pretty off-putting at times if I'm honest. None-the-less I had gotten an early enough start that at least I was passing them on my way back. That said be well warned that if you want any semblance of solitude on this hike you better get going early...like crack of dawn early...that's no joke. Regardless, though, the natural wonder you'll discover on this hike is second to none. The popularity of this hike is well earned, I can hardly blame those who would wish to see it. Odds are, after looking through this album, you might want to as well. I hope you do. Without further aideu then I present to you the hike out to Charlie's Bunion and The Jumpoff in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. As always...ENJOY!!!
Trailhead GPS Coordinates: 35.611002, -83.425090
Route Type: Out-and-back + spur
Hike Length: 9.0 miles Hike Duration: 4:00
Trailhead Temp: 30'F Trail Traffic: 100+ people (ugh...)
Min. Elevation: 5,048' Max. Elevation: 6,217'
Total Vertical Gain: 1,975' Avg. Elevation Gain / Mile: 220'
Trails Used (blaze color): Appalachian Trail (white), The Boulevard Trail (unblazed), Jumpoff Spur (unblazed)