Using Topographic Terrain Maps For Hiking in Great Smoky Mountains National Park

When you hike trails in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, topographic terrain maps (topo terrain maps) can enhance your hiking experience. Topo terrain maps allow you to preview important terrain features like trail head location, overall elevation change, trail ups and downs, stream crossings and more.  Topo maps are also the key to understanding and identifying the incredibly diverse forests you encounter on every hike through the Smokys, the world’s stellar example of southern Appalachian forests.  This article shows you how to download topographic terrain maps and get useful information from them to make your hiking adventures more efficient and interesting.

What is a topo terrain map?  It is a map that shows the shape of the land in two ways.  First, it displays elevation contour lines that show the elevation above sea level of any point on the ground.  Second, these maps use 3-D terrain rendering.  This feature allows you to easily see land shape the same way an eagle does when soaring high over the land.

Here is a topo terrain map of part of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, downloaded as a Google Maps screen-shot.  We’ll show you how to get them soon, but first let’s have a look at the map.

The compass direction ‘North’ is always at the top of  topo terrain maps. The map scale that shows horizontal distance is usually located in the lower left corner of the map, and serves as a measuring tool for distances along the ground. You can see Highway 441 (main road through the Park) as a labeled gray line on the map.  All streams are marked in blue on topo terrain maps.  For example, the Oconaluftee River parallels 441 as a curving blue ribbon. The intersection of Oconaluftee River and Bradley Fork is shown in the lower right corner of the screen shot.

Those familiar with the Park know Smokemont campground is located  on the east side of Bradley Fork, just above its intersection with Oconaluftee River.  The purple lines represent trails associated with Smokemont (Smokemont Loop Trail and Bradley fork Trail). Google Maps screenshots don’t usually show trails, but we’ll show you how easy it is to insert them a little later in this article.

The 3-D terrain rendering of the map makes it very easy to see the shape of  mountain slopes, stream channels and river bottoms.  Contour lines, the undulating brown lines on the map also show land shape.  Elevation in feet above sea level is marked on each dark brown contour line, and every point on the line is located at its labeled elevation.  The vertical height between each of these labeled contour lines is 200 feet.  Notice the lighter brown lines between the dark ones.  They are not labeled, but the vertical distance between each of these lines is 40 feet.

Contour lines enable you to determine the elevation of the terrain you will hike. They also give you additional clues about the shape of the land.  For example, contour lines show mountain peaks by forming undulating concentric circles.  Contour lines  form “V” shapes where streams and valleys occur.  The V always points up hill.  Closely spaced contour lines indicate steep terrain like the steep slope just to the right of the word ‘Mountains’ on the map.   Widely space lines like those farther to the right indicate more gently sloping terrain.  Contour lines are important because many topo maps don’t  show 3-D rendering.  You must interpret land shape using contour lines alone.

Let’s say you want to hike part of the Smokemont Loop Trail.  On the map, this is the trail (purple line) beginning  where Oconaluftee River and Bradley Fork meet.   Let’s say you are hiking from the trail head to the point on the trail where it reaches the 3600-foot peak on the map.  Looks like you will ascend from about 2200 feet at the valley floor to 3600 feet at the peak.  That’s an elevation change of 1400 vertical feet. The trail distance to the peak is about 1.7 miles.  You can see from the terrain that the tail is a continuous up hill climb.  How hard will this hike be?

Use the trail difficulty formula from the Hiking The Smokys web site ( to figure out the difficulty level of this hike.  Here’s how.  Multiply the change in elevation (1400 feet) by .002, then add the number of round-trip miles (1.7).  For this example, the difficulty level calculation wound be, 1400 times .002 plus 1.7 = 4.5.  A difficulty level of 5 or below indicates  a fairly easy hike.  A number between 5 and 10 indicates  moderate difficulty, and anything over 10 is considered strenuous.

Topo terrain maps tell you more than the hiking conditions of the trail.  They provide  keys to understanding what forest types you will encounter on your hike.  This information will enhance your appreciation of this botanical Eden, making your hikes much more interesting and informative.  Elevation is one of the keys.  Landform is the other.  Landform just means the shape of the land.  River coves, creek flats, protected slopes and exposed slopes are all examples of landforms found on our sample map.  As a brief example, consider Smokemont campground on the map.  This is a river cove environment located at around 2200′ elevation.  This combination of  elevation and landform provides ideal habitat for the River Cove forestAmerican sycamore and American Hornbeam are trees always present in this forest along with Rosebay rhododendron.  Each combination of elevation and landform supports a specific forest type.  Visit this site’s main page for more information about the forest types of Great Smoky Mountains National Park:

Now, for the maps!  The web site, Google Maps allows you to download and print screenshots of any part of Great Smoky Mountains National Park and many other places on the planet!  Go to Google Maps.

Type GSMNP in the search maps text box and hit enter.  Mouseover the MoreTerrain check box.  Drag the map around with your mouse to find the location you seek.  Use the zoom slider to zoom in close on the terrain. tab and click on the

As mentioned earlier, Great Smoky Mountains National Park trails are not shown on Google Maps.  This brings us to another fantastic web site hosted by the University of Tennessee and powered by Google.  It is called Great Smoky Mountains Land Forms, and here is the url:

When you arrive, click on the Map tab and then click on Terrain. Now the fun begins!  Scroll down and you will see a Select A Trail text box with a blue background.  Use it to select any trail in the Park.  Now drag the map to the trail location and the trail will be shown on the map as a purple line.  There is a distance measuring tool there too.  You’ll figure out how to use it fairly easily.

To grab the screenshot just hit the Print Screen button on your computer.  Now open your favorite graphics program and paste the screenshot into an image file.  Print it out and head for the woods!

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About Dan Williams

Forest manager & environmental educator with the Warnell School of Forestry and Natural Resources. I have spent 26 years interpreting forest research for non-scientists interested in learning more about the forests of the Southeastern United States.
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