My daughter and I have just returned from our peak-bagging trip to the Smokies, where we climbed both Mt. Ambler and Mt. Kephart in the same day along the Appalachian Trail route. For the casual hiker the summit information included here may not be critical, but for the peak-bagger it is absolutely indispensable. Read on!
Our trip started at the Newfound Gap trailhead and about a mile into our walk we ran across several long ice patches. In early November the weather was still about 55F and sunny, but the ice was significant and turned back several climbers that we met on the trail. We made our way carefully across the ice and continued up the mountain where we found our first major landmark, the crossing of the Sweat Heifer Creek (SHC) trail. It is well marked and you can't possibly miss it.
For the peak-baggers among us, you should realize that after crossing SHC trail and continuing along the Appalachian Trail you begin climbing Mt. Ambler, variously listed as being between 5700' and 6120'. My topo map system shows it as being just under 6100', so the latter altitude is probably correct (all topo references in this report are from DeLorme's "Topo USA" software map system, version V1.TP 10200). Finding Ambler's true peak is a bit of a trick because there are (if memory serves) two false summits before reaching the mountain's highest point. Without an altimeter, you can find Ambler's peak by watching for a series of wooded, rolling swells that appear to be summits. The final summit is the true peak, and it is followed by a long and gradually descending section of the trail which does not rise again until you begin your ascent of Mt. Kephart. Finding Ambler's summit takes a bit of faith and observation, but it can be done without an altimeter though its much easier with one. The Appalachian Trail (AT) does indeed go directly over the summit of Ambler.
It does not, however, go over the summit of Mt. Kephart. Despite what you read, neither the AT nor the Boulevard trail (BLVD) lead to the true summit of Mt. Kephart. After crossing SHC trail, the summit of Mt. Ambler and a gorgeous overlook on the slopes of Kephart, watch for a wooden signpost signifying where BLVD trail meets the AT. When you reach this signpost, you are at roughly 6020' elevation. Here is where most trail reports and web sites go wrong.
To this point, the AT has traced almost the exact same path as the NC/TN state line. State lines are shown on almost all maps, so the AT and the state line appear to be blended and often become confused. They are so close in proximity that many maps just show a single dotted line to represent both the AT and the NC/TN state line. And indeed, the state line does go over the peak of Mt. Kephart, missing the true summit by less than ten yards... however, the AT absolutely does NOT go over the summit. The AT and the state line split just before reaching the summit, just before the junction of the AT and BLVD trail. At this junction, the state line continues up and over the summit of Mt. Kephart, the BLVD trail splits northwest into TN, and the AT descends down the eastern face of the mountain into NC. Most people follow the state line and assume that it exactly represents the AT, but - at the peak of Kephart - it does not. So peak-baggers, remember that the AT will NOT take you over the summit of Mt. Kephart.
If you want to summit Kephart, you have two choices: a) you can choose to stay on the trails and get as close as possible (which is what my daughter and I did), or b) you can use a compass and altimeter and find it yourself since no trail goes there.
For option A, do this: when you reach the junction of the AT and BLVD trails, bear left and follow the BLVD trail northwest. Pass the trail to the Jump-Off (which splits off the BLVD) and watch the ground as the trail rises slightly. To your left will be a thin line of trees through which you can occasionally get brief but beautiful views; to your right will be a steep rise into the forest. Walk to the highest point just past the Jump-Off trail and the true summit of Kephart will be about fifty yards up the hill to your right. It is unwise to blindly try to find the summit without a compass, a topo map and an altimeter. Because of the heavy forest you would probably walk right over it and not know it anyway. At this point you are at approximately 6110' and have come as close as possible to finding the true summit (6217') on a marked trail and, after hiking over three miles, you richly deserve to write it into your peak list.
For option B, do this: using a map, compass and altimeter, reach the same point described in Option A, then turn east and slightly north (on a compass bearing of approximately 65 degrees). Make your way up the steep slope for less than 50 yards and watch for the slope to level off. At this point you are mere footsteps away from the summit which you can find by using your altimeter. Go to the high ground and check your altimeter for an elevation of 6217'. Congratulations... you have done it the hard way.
If you read the standard instructions for reaching the summit of Kephart via the AT, you will miss it. If you reach the Ice Water Springs shelter house along the AT, you have gone a quarter of a mile too far and have been descending for some time now. Go back up the trail to the junction of the AT and BLVD trails, and follow one of the options listed above.
In the autumn the trail to Kephart will be awash in melting snow and ice, which runs down the AT and makes for a slightly wet climb. There is no exposure to worry about and IMHO, the climb is beautiful and well worth the effort.
And for peak-baggers, there's nothing like landing two mountains in a single hike. :-)