Meet the Mules: The Unsung Heroes of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Local News

There are more than 800 miles of trails in The Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Many have difficult terrain and steep slopes, so maintaining all those trails can be tricky. Getting the right tools to those higher elevations is challenging, especially because motorized vehicles are not allowed in the park’s back country.

So how do all of these popular spots stay passable for visitors to enjoy? WATE 6 On Your Side Anchor Kristin Farley hiked miles into the park to find out.

Her morning started bright and early at the Rainbow Falls Trail Head, where seven-foot black locust logs were being loaded onto mules. The mules are named things like Tug and Tow. On this day, they were carrying about 240 pounds each. We are told they never haul more than 20 percent of their body weight.  

“They’re kind of the unsung heroes in the park, not a lot of people know that we use them,” said caretaker Danny Gibson.

He says a total of seven horses and 10 mules cover projects on both the North Carolina and Tennessee sides of the park. He appreciates their strength and intelligence and spends a lot of his time making sure they stay safe out here too.

 “Anytime we go evaluate a trail, we are looking for holes they could step in, maybe break a leg, so we go and fill in those holes,” Gibson explained

Most of their hard work happens on trails closed to the public, like the Rainbow Falls Trail, which will be shut down for much of this year. These 1,400-pound animals play a crucial role in the Trails Forever rehabilitation project which is improving parts that have been washed out and worn down by both Mother Nature and millions of visitors over the years.  

“We are trying to make the trail a whole lot safer,” said Josh Shapiro, a Trails Forever crew leader. “The park has had to do rescues out here, from people falling on rocks to rolling their ankles and that sort of thing. We are coming through first to take out the rocks and roots out of the trail to try and get rid of tripping hazards…then we are putting in trail drainages.”

Crews are only able to do this type of work because the mules hauled logs and equipment nearly two miles up this trail.  The logs will be used to build steps and large rocks and boulders will also be used to create more durable stairs, bridges and drainage ditches.

Gibson says he enjoys having his mules help with these big projects, “This is the third project we’ve helped with Trails Forever. ..the guys really appreciate the mules getting the stuff in, because they could be working on stuff while we bring the materials in.”

Everyone we talked to said the partnership works well and these animals are a key to the national park staying true to its mission to preserve the natural and cultural resources here for the enjoyment, education, and inspiration for future generations.

If you want to be a part of this project and are passionate about giving back to the park, the park needs volunteers on this trail every Wednesday. For more information and to sign up contact the Volunteer Coordinator Adam Monroe at  Adam_Monroe@nps.gov.

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