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Mount Cammerer: The Hike & The History

Mount Cammerer is a popular hiking destination in the Great Smoky Mountains. At 4,928 feet, the summit's lookout tower provides panoramic views of the surrounding forests. The views are stunning especially in the autumn season. I hiked to the summit in mid October this year; the experience left me with some amazing photos, history lessons, and aching muscles.

Mount Cammerer: The Hike

There's more than one way to reach the lookout tower atop Mount Cammerer, but the most popular route begins at Cosby Campground via Low Gap Trail. From this trailhead the trip to the summit is 5.2 miles one way (11.2 roundtrip) and fairly strenuous in difficulty.

Mt. Cammerer Hike
One of the brutal switchbacks on Low GapOne of the brutal switchbacks on Low Gap
One of the brutal switchbacks on Low Gap

Low Gap Trail

For the inexperienced or out of shape, this portion of the hike can be brutal. The 2.9 miles of Low Gap Trail leading up to the intersection with the Appalachian Trail are an alarmingly uphill battle. Roots, rocks and switchbacks plague most of the incline. When you take a breather, however, you'll appreciate the woody surroundings and sounds of nature. The autumn colors started showing brightly the more we climbed, providing the little bit of extra motivation that we needed.

Low Gap Trail from Cosby Campground
Some of the steps on the AT are harder than others

The Appalachian Trail

When we finally reached Low Gap at the Appalachian Trail junction, we were absolutely winded and thankful the hardest part was over. Then next leg of the trip is 2.1 miles on the famous Appalachian Trail. We're still going uphill at this point, but there's less than 1000 feet left to climb. This portion of the trail is very similar to most other parts of the AT in the Smokies. White blazes, wooden steps built by the CCC, rocks, roots, and narrow wooded pathways lead the way.

Mount CammererMount Cammerer

Mount Cammerer Trail

Finally we reach the actual Mount Cammerer Trail, a 0.6 mile walk in the woods that leads straight to the firetower. This is the biggest relief of the entire hike; the first measly half mile is nothing more than a squiggly line on the elevation profile. Just before the end of the trail is a place to tie up horses. I wasn't sure about the reasoning for this until we continued the trek: the very last part of this portion involves more climbing up and around rocks than walking on a trail.

Mount Cammerer

Mount Cammerer Lookout

The final destination is stunning and makes the difficult hike so worth it. Surrounded by large rocks, the Mount Cammerer lookout tower is the first thing you'll spot protruding above the trail as you approach. Hikers can enter the firetower and walk around the octagonal railing for incredible panoramic views of the Smoky Mountains. The Autumn colors we saw in October were completely breathtaking. If you're brave enough, you can climb to the right and around the tower to the north facing rock outcropping for even more views.

Side view from the rocks
Side view from the rocks
View from the lookout tower
View from the lookout tower

The tower hasn't been in use since the 1960s, so what's going on in there? The answer is actually nothing. There's not a single thing inside the top of the octagonal structure aside from some casual debris and unfortunately some random graffiti. There is a door on the lower part of the tower that I peeked inside, revealing some pieces of wood, a ladder, and some other miscellaneous construction material.

Spooky empty tower interior
Spooky empty tower interior
Looking outside the door of the tower
Looking outside the door of the tower

And yes: we were brave enough to climb around the tower for a better vantage point. How could we not? It's clear that we weren't the first to do so. Just to the right of the base of the tower is a very small path leading to some climbable rocks. This is where you will find the most stunning scenery.

Climb down to the right to get around back
Climb down to the right to get around back
Small path to the right of the tower
Small path to the right of the tower
View of the tower from behind
View of the tower from behind
A brave hiker explores a littler further
A brave hiker explores a littler further

History Of The Lookout

So how did this extraordinary structure get here? The young men of the Civilian Conservation Corps began constructing this behemoth in 1937. It was meant to be an outpost where people could scan the surrounding forests for fires. The stones that make up the base of the tower were originally just rocks located nearby! The extraordinary feat is evident when you gaze upon this incredible structure.

Fire Towers
Mt. Cammerer Lookout recalls a time when fire watchers manned remote posts, scanning the horizon for smoke.

Imagine building this structure in 1937. "Boys" of the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) did most of the work. They quarried rock from nearby, and hand-carried it for masons to shape. They cut large timbers from the mountain, and brought in glass, hardware, and lumber by hand, horseback, or jeep. By 1939 the job was done.

The lookout operated until the 1960s, when modern fire detection methods replaced it. By the 1980s the mountain's rugged weather had taken its toll; the lookout was in bad shape. But two local park supporters decided the weather wouldn't win; they launched a crusade to save the lookout, and succeeded.

Today Mt. Cammerer Lookout appears as it did in the 1940s, when fire watchers scanned their 360° view, guarding the park's forests.
Inscription on Historical Plaque, NPS
The fire tower on Mt. Cammerer in the Great Smoky Mountains (June 14, 1940)
The fire tower on Mt. Cammerer in the Great Smoky Mountains (June 14, 1940)
Wiley Oakley and a fellow hiker enjoying the view (June 14, 1940)
Wiley Oakley and a fellow hiker enjoying the view (June 14, 1940)
Mount Cammerer lookout tower - June 3, 1953

Find more incredible photos of Smoky Mountain history on the Tennessee State Library And Archives website and read more about the Civilian Conservation Corp right here.