TO THE TRAILHEAD: From the Sugarlands Visitor center, travel 13 miles to on Newfound Gap Road to Newfound Gap parking area. From Oconaluftee, travel 16 miles to Newfound Gap to the parking area. The trail begins to the right of the dedication monument and restrooms. Simply follow the white blazes.
THE HIKE: Charlies Bunion is one of the most popular trails in the national park. It follows the crest of the Smokies for four miles to a rocky outcropping that gives the hiker tremendous views and a great place to sit and admire them. The trail is only moderately difficult, rising over a thousand feet before coming down that distance to arrive at the Bunion. There is much to see along the way to keep you engaged in your endeavor.
This hike begins on the famed Appalachian Trail that runs over 2,100 miles from Georgia to Maine. For this hike, you will follow the 2×6 white blazes on trees that line the entirety of the AT for four miles. You will encounter a large number of people on the trail for the first .2 mile. After they realize that this is not a stroll in the woods, they will turn around in their city clothes and shoes and you will have the hike more to yourself.
Your first arrival point is the trail junction with the Sweet Heifer trail which goes to the right. You will stay to the left. You will continue to climb until you reach the Boulevard Trail crossing that goes to the left. You can take a side trail to the Jumpoff just .1 on the Boulevard trail that offers wonderful views. Otherwise, keep going straight on the AT. Just past the Boulevard junction you will find the Ice Water Springs Shelter on the right. This is one of hundreds of three-sided shelters along the Appalachian Trail. You can reserve a bunk space in the shelter with a reservation (you should do this well in advance). Most shelters, including this one, have a water source nearby as well as a privy (primitive bathroom). Even if you are not staying here, it is a good place to take a break and have lunch/dinner or a snack before moving on.
The remaining mileage begins to move downwards offering views at various points along the way. None of them will compare with what you get at 4.0 miles where our journey ends. You can go left or right at this point. Stay to the left and climb onto the rock face. Be careful in wet or frozen conditions. A slip here could send you tumbling over a thousand feet. The views are some of the best in the park. With views everywhere at 5,500 feet, the drop-off beneath your feet gives wonderful scale to the peak. Before you head back, be sure to take plenty of photos of this unique spot.
Though many people will not continue on the trail after the first .2, it still can be crowded during peak summer/fall months. The trail intersections (one of which leads to Mt. LeConte) as well as Appalachian Trail Thru hikers and section hikers make the trail extra busy. Consider this when you choose when to hike. Finally, Newfound Gap Road stays open year round (weather permitting). It would be a good idea to check online or at a ranger’s station before you journey out to make sure that the road has not been closed during the winter months. This will happen frequently.