Why Mules Are the Unsung Heroes of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park

A mule carrying supplies through a forest.
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Maintaining all of the trails in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is no simple task. Spanning more than 800 miles, the park’s trails weave through a variety of environments, including steep slopes and challenging terrain. Doing maintenance and repair work in the Smokies is further complicated by the fact that motorized vehicles are prohibited in the backcountry. So, how do the Trails Forever crews bring their heavy equipment up to the higher elevations of the mountains?

Enter the mule. Yes, mules, which are the offspring of a male donkey and a female horse, are the secret weapons that the Trails Forever crews use to complete their vital work in some of the most hard-to-reach places in the national park. Local news station WATE recently shined a light on the park’s mules and why they are the unsung heroes of the Smoky Mountains:

A Mule’s Work is Never Done

Trails Forever, a team of professional and volunteer trail restorers funded by the Friends of the Smokies charity, uses 10 mules and seven horses for its maintenance work. These hardworking animals regularly contribute to projects on both the Tennessee and North Carolina sides of the national park.

Mules are blessed with a number of attributes that make them invaluable to the Trails Forever crews. First and foremost, mules are strong. Weighing 1,400 pounds, these critters are capable of hauling up to 20 percent of their body weight. In the above video, the mules can be seen carrying seven-foot black locust logs, which works out to about 240 pounds per mule. Appropriately enough, the Trails Forever mules have been given names like “Tug” and “Tow” to reflect their incredible strength.

Mules were also chosen by the Trails Forever team for their intelligence and temperament. In general, mules are considered to be smarter and more agreeable than donkeys and more patient, tough, and long-lived than horses.

Visitors to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park are unlikely to see the Trails Forever mules because they mostly work on trails that are closed to the public. For instance, in the video from WATE, the mules are bringing supplies to the Rainbow Falls Trail, which is closed from Monday – Thursday until November 15, 2018. The logs and equipment hauled by the mules allow the Trails Forever crew to build steps, stairs, bridges, and drainage ditches along the trail.

Llamas in the Smoky Mountains

Mules aren’t the only animals hard at work in the national park. Believe it or not, llamas are also used to carry supplies in the Smoky Mountains! The LeConte Lodge, a special resort located at the top of Mount LeConte, has long employed llamas to deliver goods via the Grotto Falls Trail. With their padded feet and experience with mountainous terrain, llamas are a natural fit for trekking through the Smokies. You can see the LeConte Lodge’s llamas in action in this video from YouTube stars Charles Trippy and Allie Wesenberg:

If you would like to see llamas in the national park, your best bet is hiking the Grotto Falls Trail on Monday, Wednesday, or Friday, as these are the days that supplies are usually delivered to the lodge. Hikers have reported running into llamas in the morning.

To learn more about everything to see and do in the Smokies, check out our Great Smoky Mountains National Park page!

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