Ep. 64 – Smokies Trail Signs and Helicopter Rides

SHOW #64  May 31, 2015


This week on Episode 64 Smoky Mountains Radio, How Reliable are Trail Signs and Helicopter rides! Let’s go!


It is Sunday, May 31, 2015 and this is Episode 64 of Smoky Mountains Radio.  Welcome to the show everybody.  I’m Mike, and i’ll be your guide around the 800 plus square miles of the Smoky Mountains and the 150 square miles of towns that border the parks.  If need info about coming to the Smokies, you will find it here.  Put my 40 years of experience to work for you to have the best vacation possible.  Whether this is your first stop to SMR or you have been along for the last year, I really appreciate that you took the time out of your day to listen, and welcome aboard.

I invite you to check out our website SmokyMountainsRadio.com to get all the information you need about your trip to the Smokies. You can contact me directly by emailing me at mike@smokymountansradio.com, on Facebook at facebook.com/smokymountainsradio or on twitter @smokies_radio.  You can also call the listener line at 865-325 9784.  Finally, of course, every one of our shows can be found on the website for you to stream or download. Of course, you can make sure you get episodes the moment they are released by subscribing to the show via iTunes or stitcher.  Leave me a review while you are there.  Those links can also be found on the site .  If you have anything you would like me to cover on the show, please feel free to contact me at any time.  Again, all the ways to reach me are right on the website at SmokyMountainsRadio.com.  Finally, if you like the show, all that I ask is that you help spread the word.  Tell a couple friends and get them hooked and maybe they will spread the word.  Thanks a lot.

And with housekeeping done, let’s get on with the show!

How Reliable are Trail Signs

If you have stepped out of your vehicle at any time in the Smokies and onto any of the 150 plus trailheads in the mountains, you have come face to face with a trail sign.  They come in all shapes and sizes, but are generally wood carved with information about the hike you are going to take.  They give you distances on the trail to a major destination or trail junction.  The Smokies are among the best marked trails in the nation.  There are signs at virtually every trail crossing.  It is one of the reasons that getting lost in the Smokies is actually a bit difficult unless you decide to walk off one of the 900 miles of trails.  But there is a little voice in the back of your head that asks the question, “How reliable are these signs?”

I have to admit, as I have hiked in the past along trails that are especially difficult, I can’t possibly believe that the signs are accurate.  2.5 miles on the low gap trail?  There is no way that trail is that short.  It takes forever and never seems to end.  It’s just over a mile to Arch Rock on the Alum Cave Trail and it feels like you are there in a flash.  It could only be a 1/2 mile there, right?  Many of the signs in the park have stood for years, some for decades.  During that time, there have been much more accurate mapping systems available using GPS and other means.  So why haven’t the signs been changed out?

Let’s start with the most obvious reason.  The signs are pretty darn accurate.  I’m talking in most cases within .1 to .2 mile.  There are exceptions.  The Bullhead trail is off by about .3 mile as is the AT just past Shuckstack.  But by and large, they nailed it.  Most of the trails are within less than .025 when mapped with modern technology.  I was actually surprised by this when I started mapping some of them out a few years ago how good they are.  So that is one thing for sure to put your mind at ease.

The elevation changes are a little different.  The topographical maps do a decent job and the elevation changes from the beginning to end point of a hike are okay, but the peaks and valleys in between are not quite so accurate.  Changes on several hikes can be off by as much as 300 feet.  That is perhaps what makes it seem like the mileage is off.  The changes in peaks and valleys makes the hike much harder than it appears on official papers.  Again, i’ll use the Low Gap Trail as a reference.  When you add up the elevation changes on the endless switchbacks, the official papers are off by nearly 600 feet of elevation.  So that is a pretty substantial difference.  But elevation information is not available on trail signs, so that two mile hike could feel a little misleading.  If you want more detailed information, you’ll have to buy one of the many books or maps available, and most people won’t do that.  You can find more accurate information on a couple of Smoky Mountains Websites, but most of it is fairly incomplete.  I’m going to start adding that information to the hikes on my website a little at a time.  I haven’t mapped all of them, so i’ll be adding it one at a time.  But i’ve already got the biggest hikes done, so i’ll add those this week.

The other issue that you might have is finding features within a hike.  So for example, the Alum Trail Hike has Arch Rock, Alum Cave, and Mount LeConte mileage right on the sign.  Other hikes, such as Baskins Creek, only give the mileage to the end of the trail and not to the falls. The same is true if you are headed to the Jump Off.  There is no sign to tell you where to go.  The sign at Newfound Gap gives you mileage to The Boulevard Trail, Charlies Bunion, and even Mount Katahdin.  But no mileage to the Jump Off or even to Ice Water Springs Shelter.  Generally, the more popular the trail, the more is put on the signs.  If you are in the less popular parts of the park, say in the deep creek area, the signage is a little less detailed.  That is something to keep in mind if you decide to hike in the less traveled places.  You will want to take a guidebook, map, or perhaps printouts from SmokyMountainsRadio.com along with you!

Overall though, the park is very well marked.  Getting lost, as I said, is difficult.  There are places in Georgia, Virginia, and Maine in their parks that even experienced hikers can get lost.  The Smokies make it truly difficult for that to happen.  The stories that make the news about lost and stranded hikers are exclusively about three things; very unprepared hikers, bad weather, and injuries. Almost always, it is due to unpreparedness.  But that is not a problem for anybody listening to this show of course.  So take heart, the trails are in good shape and very well marked.  And if in doubt, I’ve got all the ins and outs of the hikes on the website for you at any time.  Happy hiking everybody!

I’ll put more information about this in the show notes and on smokymountainsradio.com

Helicopter Rides

One of the most unique things to do on a trip to the Smoky Mountains is a helicopter ride.  It is also one of the best things to do.  We’ve mentioned it in fun and unique segments on the show before, but I have gotten feedback from listeners each of the last three weeks wanting to know more about it, so I am happy to oblige in this week’s episode.

Helicopter rides were a huge rage about 10 years ago.  They were literally everywhere around the Smokies.  And there is a good reason.  Is there any better way to see the Smokies than from the view of a helicopter?  The answer is no.  They are amazing.  You can find them in Sevierville, Pigeon Forge, Cherokee, Townsend, and Bryson City as well as a couple of outlying towns.  And they are cheap.  You will see signs posted that advertise $10 a person.  What a deal!  Okay, not exactly.  Let’s actually see what you get for the money.

The $10 sign is a sham.  Just know that up front.  You basically can’t get that rate.  They will try to up-sell you right from the start.  If you do get that rate, it basically buys you a trip straight up and down.  There is very little more than that and it only lasts for a couple of minutes.  And by that, I really mean about two minutes.  If you don’t know if you can handle being in a helicopter, it is a good way to check it out and make sure that you can do it.  But you won’t see much, and it is over before it begins.  If you want to really experience the Smokies in a helicopter, it is gonna cost you.  So before you show up and end up with sticker shock, let me explain a couple of things.

You should expect a ride to cost you a minimum of $25 per person.  Each helicopter at most places holds a maximum of four people.  So if you have a larger party, you are going to have to split up.  The good news is that there is no age restrictions, no height requirements, or even mobility requirements.  That means you, the baby, and the grandparents can all do it.  And I will say, it is pretty darn cool.  You should do it.

Like most things that require a guide, or in this case a pilot, the trip is great on it’s own, but much better if the guide is enthusiastic and actually knows his/her stuff.  Many of them are great.  I’ve had one point out Clingman’s Dome to me from the from entrance of the park.  Yeah, he wasn’t even close.  Mostly though, they are pretty good, and a lot of the lame places have folded completely.  The ones still standing will do a good job.

So let’s get some specifics.  The cheapest flights, those at the $25, $50, and $75 a person, will get you no more than 10-15 minutes in the air and generally only fly over the towns they take off in.  It is still pretty excellent to see the towns the size of an ant when you rise about 800 feet in the air with the massive mountains in the background, but you won’t be flying into the national park for those prices.  If that is your price range, I recommend going to Cherokee where that price at least gets you into the park.  But if you really want a flyover in the Smoky Mountains that lasts more than about 20 minutes, expect to pay at least 125-150 bucks per person.  That is very hefty to be sure, but you won’t walk away disappointed.  Packages go even higher than that.  I have seen some at more than 250 per person.  I’ve not taken one of those, I certainly don’t have the wallet for it.  But i’m sure its great.  And it beats any of the other great attractions with views like the Skylift or Space Needle.  Of course, it comes at a much higher prices, but it is truly worth it.

My wife is pretty claustrophobic, so rides for her are out.  There is not a lot of room in a helicopter.  It is a pretty tight fit.  But, the views in most are excellent from any seat.  Lots of glass and views and they provide headsets so that you can hear each other over the roar of the blades.

The biggest issue for me initially was safety.  I was a little worried that this would not be very professionally run and the pilots might not have proper training.  I’ve had no issues in the times i’ve gone up or visited.  Even the less friendly pilots have been professional and competent.  And if the weather is even a little iffy, they don’t go up.  They don’t put making a buck over the safety of the pilot and passengers.  If you are at a place that does try to take you up with bad weather pending, you know you need to go somewhere else.  But for sure, it is something that you want to try.  My best advice is to save up and take the best tour you can.  Each place has different routes available over various landmarks.  Pick the one that works best and give it a try.

I’ll put more information about this in the show notes and on smokymountainsradio.com


It was great hearing from so many of you guys this week.  Thanks to Wes, Kevin, Angela, and several others from reaching out.  I really appreciate all the awesome feedback and the suggestions for future episodes.  Stay tuned, i’ll be using several of those topic suggestions in future episodes.  In the meantime, i’ve kept this episode short and sweet this week.  Why would I do such a thing?  So YOU, can GO TAKE A HIKE!




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