Nov. 28, 2023

Iconic Locations: Charlies Bunion

Have you ever wondered who Charlies Bunion was named after or why there are two balds with the same name? On today’s Iconic Location episode, we are exploring the mystery of Charlies Bunion.

Have you ever wondered who Charlies Bunion was named after or why there are two balds with the same name? On today’s Iconic Location episode, we are exploring the mystery of Charlies Bunion.




Note: This transcript was generated by with light human correction

Mills Kelly  00:07
At some point, every hiker, whether they hike for a few hours, or a few months, has had the same experience. It starts out as a warm sensation on the toe, or your heel, or maybe on the ball of your foot. If you're like me, you try to ignore it. Even though you know you shouldn't. Eventually, that warm sensation turns into something worse. Actual pain at that point, you know, you've waited just a bit too long to do anything about it. You have a blister. We've all been there. Me more times than I can count. The blisters are just annoying. You slap a bit of moleskin or some duct tape on them, and off you go. A bunion however, is way way worse. Bunions hurt a lot or so unfold. Fortunately, they are slow to develop. And not that many hikers actually get them. But the ones who do get bunions find themselves reconsidering their life choices, or at least their choices in footwear. Welcome to The Green Tunnel, a podcast on the history of the Appalachian Trail. My name is Mills Kelly, and I'm your host. There's one place on the Appalachian Trail where every hiker experiences a bunion. Charlies Bunion in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. When I first heard the name Charlies Bunion, I couldn't help but wonder why on earth when anyone name a mountain after a painful bone condition in your feet. To make sense of that, we turn to a local expert.

Ken Wise  01:57
And it offers a spectacular view. It really shows you what the spine of the Great Smoky Mountain looks like going out for Davenport gap, which is called the salty entirely bunion actually probably marked the extreme western end of the salty. My name is Ken Wise and the code and University of Tennessee library where I was co director of the Great Smoky Mountains regional project. We did research and collections about the Great Smoky Mountains. 

Mills Kelly  02:29
I first met Ken in the fall of 2019 when I was doing some research on the history of the trail in the archives at the University of Tennessee. And I quickly learned that if there's anything to know about the Smokies or about the AT in the Smoky Mountains, I can already knows it. I've hiked a number of sections of the Appalachian trail along the North Carolina Tennessee border, but I haven't hiked over Charlies bunion, so I asked him to describe it for us.

Ken Wise  03:00
Charlies Bunion is a rocky protrusion. It sits right on the Appalachian Trail about four miles north of Newfound Gap. It was scored by a wildfire in 1925. The fire came up from burning slaves from the lumber company up in North Carolina side and burned the whole knob. And then two years later, bunion was visited by a thunderstorm that soaked the whole ball. And what little vegetation they were left after the fire would loosen from mild like a wash down into the defiles on Tennessee side, leaving it just a bald bear rock.

Mills Kelly  03:44
That 1925 fire that Ken mentioned, was so intense that it rendered the soil completely sterile. Which helps to explain why if one ever managed to survive the fire washed away in that big storm two years later.

Ken Wise  03:59
Now prior to the fire. Charlies Bunion knob was covered with a spongy, massive humus. It had spruce trees going on it floaties and the usual high elevation vegetation.

Mills Kelly  04:15
So that's how the ball ended up looking kind of like a bunion. But how did it get the name Charlies bunion? Well, as Ken tells the story, the naming of mountains was much more of a casual thing in the 1920s than it is today.

Ken Wise  04:32
There was Horace Kephart, the famed author of Our Southern Highlanders was camping with George Masa, who was noted photographer from Asheville. They were going to explore the Sawteeth where Kephart had never been in. But they had a guy named Charlie Connors. Connors and Marta went up to the Sawteeth, and Kephart was an older man and he wasn't quite fit so he couldn't make the trip. So he stayed in camp and Masa and Connors, who went and visited the salty youth and then they came to this boat over flooded tubes and, and visited here apparently. So they get back into camp and Connors told Kephart we went over a little knoll and my feet were hurting. And he made some reference to a bunion on his foot. So Kephart who was a memeber of the North Carolina nomenclature committee, he responded by saying good, we'll put that down on the government map.

Mills Kelly  05:36
At that moment, many of the peaks in the Smokies had not been named by settlers. Native Americans, of course, had had names for those mountains for centuries. But settlers like Kephart, Conner and others, were in a bit of a frenzy in the 1920s, to name as many peaks in the Smokies as possible. They knew that those mountains were going to be in the new National Park, and they wanted to put their personal imprint on the names of those peaks before anyone else did. The nomenclature committees can refers to are made up of local experts, and were charged with proposing names to the US Geological Survey to appear on official government maps. The thing about the smoky so is that they lap over the border between North Carolina and Tennessee, which meant that there were two nomenclature committees. Fortunately for the people involved, many of those on the North Carolina committee, were close friends with members of the Tennessee committee. That small circle of friends all agreed that Charlie's bunion should become the name of that rocky protrusion. That looks a bit like a bunion on someone's foot. Unfortunately, the Geological Survey didn't quite get the memo.

Ken Wise  06:53
The US Geological Survey does not have Charlies Bunion there. They've got it two ridges over another protrusion. Didn't get burned over as badly. But it was in the same fire. And that's where they locate Charlies Buniion so in some sense. You've got the US Geological Survey, Charles Bunion  and you have the Park Service Chariles Buion and there, I don't know, about a quarter of a mile apart

Mills Kelly  07:22
In the 1920s, it was a misprint that misprint survived into the present. And depending on which map you're using, Charlies Bunion appears in two different locations. There may be other instances where the Park Service and the Geological Survey have given the same name to two different peaks near one another. But if there are, I haven't seen them. Maybe they thought Charlie had bunions on both feet.

Mills Kelly  07:52
The AG came to Charlies Bunion in 1935 courtesy of the Civilian Conservation Corps, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park had opened the year before. And CCC crews were working all over the new park to construct roads, buildings, fire towers, and fortunately for us sections of the Appalachian Trail. The trail hikers used today is the same one they laid down almost 90 years ago. The hike of Charlies Bunion is a very popular one with hikers of all kinds. And for good reason. As Ken said, the views are truly spectacular. Reaching the summit at 5564 feet can be a little challenging. But friends who have been there swear to me that the payoff is definitely worth it.

Ken Wise  08:43
Well, it's only four miles so it's not a long hike is one issue. Probably the worst poorest section of Appalachian Trail, the Smokies runs from Newfound Gap almost to Charlies Buinion. It's been overused by hikers. It's rocky it's rough. And then as you get to Ice Water Spring and start down, then you have a trail it's not only rocky and rough but when it's got water in it, draining off them ice water splitting and then coming off of Mount Kephart. It can be a little intimidating if you are not used to some locking arms. But most people should be a nice day high bomb out in four miles out.

Mills Kelly  09:32
If you go to Charlies Bunion, it's worth taking in more than just a view over the spine of the Smokies. Too often, when we see a view like that, we forget to turn around and look at the mountain behind us. But if you don't turn around, you'll miss an important part of the history of the bunion.

Ken Wise  09:51
Now here's the interesting thing about Charlies Bunion is it's a little protrusion that sticks out is a knife edge which comes right out of Greenbrier and just reaches the Appalachian Trail, there's a little bump and that's where everybody sits. If you turn around, there's a bigger node behind you. It got growth on it. Trees have come back, moss has come back, Sand Myrtle is on it.  And that is probably the knoll that Charlie went over there rather than the little protrusion that sticks out in front that everybody sits on. The Park Service trail runs on the North Carolina side of the protrusion, the AT does, with the Park Service put in several years ago, a trail going off the AT back and out to the Bunion and then back to the AT about 150 yards downstream so to speak. So the outlet trail takes you to a little saddle and there’s a  bump there. And that's what most people think is Charlies Bunion, but more than likely Masa and Connor went over the big one on top behind. And that's really what he thought I'd be the bunion and it's shaped like a bunion too. It just sticks up like, like a thumb and you can climb to the top.

Mills Kelly  11:05
From the top, you get a really amazing view of the saw teeth, and then out across the park from there. So if you go, be sure to follow Ken's directions and go up on the big bump behind you. And if you do feel a warm sensation on a toe or your heel, don't be like me. Stop, deal with it and hike on. You won't be sorry you stopped. But you might be sorry, if you don't.

Mills Kelly  11:45
The Green Tunnel is a production of R2 Studios at the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media at George Mason University. Today's episode was produced by me. Jeanette, Patrick and Jim Ambuske are the executive producers. We want to offer a big thank you to Ken Wise for giving us the backstory on Charlies Bunion. I also want to thank Ken personally for all the help he gave me when I was working in his archive in 2019. Original music for The Green Tunnel was performed by Scott Miller of Swope, Virginia and Andrew Small and Ashley Watkins of Floyd, Virginia. To help us keep making the world's best podcast about the Appalachian Trail. Please go to our website R2 and click on Support us. From there, you can make a donation of any amount to help us keep doing this work. Thanks so much for listening. And we'll see you soon

Ken Wise

Ken Wise is the author of Hiking Trails of the Great Smoky Mountains: A Comprehensive Guide. He was also a director of the Great Smoky Mountains Regional Project at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville's John C. Hodges Library.