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Springhouse Branch Trail At Great Smoky Mountains National Park Closed To Horse Use


Editor's note: Corrects name of trail to Springhouse Branch, not Gap.

Heavy rains have created unsafe conditions for horses on the Springhouse Branch Trail in Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Park officials say it likely won't be until early October that repairs to the trailbed are made for safe passage of stock.

Heavy rainfall this year resulted in the development of a wet weather spring that recently washed away the trail surface along a section of Springhouse Gap Trail exposing slick bedrock, the park said in a release.

Due to the steep terrain and unstable surface, the area is no longer safe for stock travel. The trail is passable for foot traffic, but hikers should exercise extreme caution.

Park crews will repair the trail by building an elevated structure made of natural materials, including locust posts and crushed stone, that will allow for proper drainage. The improvements will create a durable surface for horse travel. Crews will begin work in early September and expect to be completed by early October.


Horses had caused severe damage to the eastern half of this trail two years ago. Leave it to the park service to find a "Mother Nature" cause to blame for what almost every hiker could tell you is a systemic problem with hiking trails in the Smokies: Horse travel is allowed on extremely fragile trails without any regard to the suitability of the trail for horse traffic.

Why should the park service continue to spend tens of thousands of dollars repairing trails damaged by horses only to reopen the trail to horses and have the same damage occur again after the next time the park gets heavy rains and horses rip-up the soft surfaces?

The time is long overdue for NPS managers to implement a review of hiking trails in the Smokies to determine which trails are not suitable for horse travel. Until horses are banned from those fragile trails, severe trail damage caused by horses will continue to impair our park's natural resources in such a way that they may no longer be enjoyed by future generations.

Yet backcountry campers are the one to pay fees in Ditmanson's playground. Word on the street is that embattled Superintendent Ditmanson is getting pushed out of the top job early because of all his concession-friendly and scandal plagued admistration scrutiny by the public. That and the pending lawsuit is expected to highlight his back door dealings with multiple entities.

And folks around here may get a new superintendent who isn't kissing up to the horse crowd.

RE: Kissing up to the horse crowd

Unfortunately, every park superintendent for the Smokies that I've seen (since the 1980's) have kissed-up to the horse crowd. The NC & TN horse lobbies are well-represented at any event where potential restrictions on their use of park trails is up for discussion. Too many of the management decisions about the Smokies have been based on the "don't make waves" philosophy of politics instead of using common sense and good science.

Well they use junk science and misrepresent data when it suits their needs. Case in point is the backpacker tax. They misrepresented data on multiple occasions. This is a real problem with the NPS. Look at Point Reyes and beyond. If ever a mgmt culture needed changing it is the NPS. Putting Jewell at the helm just solidified their affinity for this trend towards commercial entities having sway. In the Smokies, concessionaires have their sway with Ditmanson. The horse concession in Cades Cove is a prime example. But these things will come to light soon. It is time the NPS had to answer to someone.

Re: "Kissing up to the horse crowd"

I worked on trails for the NPS (CA, AZ & WA) for over twenty-five years. The previous posters are correct that some park managers tend to turn a blind eye towards the resource damage and associated costs that horses and mules can produce, including, but not limited to:

mud churning, tread widening and braided trails on flatter ground

gullying and outer tread collapse on grades

damage to drainage structures

increased cost for larger travelway clearing of rockslides, brush & down trees

increased maintenance required at switchbacks, signs, railings

increased cost & maintenance for stream & bog crossings

increased resource damage at fords

water pollution, introduction of exotic vegetation & invertebrates

Obviously, there is variation by season and soil type, but I think many of these effects increase exponentially with the size of the packstring. Some of the most famous trails in the Canadian Rockies are seas of mud produced by horse overuse.

Certainly many of them are frequent and productive volunteers in the parks, but the power of the horse lobby tends to be far out of proportion to their numbers. It might be partly the western romance and 'living-history' aspects in some deskbound manager's minds, as well. Then too, that lobby has the advantage of invitations on comfortable & well-supplied backcountry junkets, literally with 'party-animals'. I saw NPS animals similarly used to lobby pols and NPS bigshots.

They must have been less than 5% of the users at Olympic, but I'd guess at least 15% of the trail budget went toward subsidizing stock use. The Backcountry Horsemen there routinely carried firearms, before that became legal for the public in the parks. They also routinely carried chainsaws, sometimes foolishly working alone. The park bought quite a few dead horses over the years from volunteers 'improving' boot-constructed way trails on steep unstable terrain where taking stock bordered on animal cruelty, IMO.

Early (80's) draft's of OLYM's Wilderness Management Plan (still never completed, or at least approved) suggested one major valley on both the wet & dry sides of the park be closed to all pack animals as a sort of imperfect control or baseline to compare with monitored stock use in the rest of the park. The Horsemen wanted most of the secondary trails upgraded rather than suffer a 15% loss of mileage. An Assistant Superintendent (yes, even back then there were more than two) put the kibosh on the control idea, arguing passionately that the park had 'grown up' with mules helping build the trails. Even though I knew he shared most of NPS management's development bias, I foolishly replied that the ecosystem hadn't...

Things seem more under control there now. Trails are specifically listed as open/closed to stock. Party sizes have been reduced and overnight use is only in designated stock camps. There are still stock-related problems, IMO. Day-riders can still spread weedseed. Management seems hellbent on bridging every minor stream & bog, supposedly to protect salmon, when they can't really maintain the many hundreds of trail bridges and miles & miles of boardwalk they already have.

For a chuckle, compare the above with this page:

I don't know the backcountry accident rate for riders, but one aspect of stock use on park trails not mentioned so far is increased risk to hikers. I once hurt my back helping stop a runaway NPS mule string headed for a family of day hikers on a bridge.

Having been a frequent critic, I want to acknowledge that Mount Rainier management is way ahead of the curve on this issue. Most of the trails were once open to stock, and the park kept a packstring operation funded despite the short season. Helicopters have since replaced stock as the 'minimum tool' and visitor stock use has been reduced to essentially just the Pacific Crest Trail along the eastern boundary:

I do have to shake my head at some of the fancy signs at Paradise trailheads implying that the trail & meadow damage is mostly due to thoughtless hikers trampling the daisies. Certainly that occurs frequently, but IMO much of the worst resource damage originated from park management allowing large concession trail rides (avoiding lingering snowbanks) for decades. The picnic area just below the new VC is still called 'Barn Flat'.

Ditmanson is retiring. That should make Smokiesbackpacker happy.

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