In the Footsteps of Griz
“We’ve had some words about hiking off-trail,” said David Landreth about his frequent run-ins with National Park Service rangers in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. “They say they don’t ‘sanction’ off-trail hiking. I hate that word. It means there’s no law against it, but they don’t want you to do it.”
Off-trail explorer. Bushwhacker extraordinaire. Defender of wild places. Mentor and lightning rod. Few people in the southern Appalachians have so influentially spread their passion for the outdoors to others as has Landreth. And few have pissed off so many along the way.
Landreth—or just “Dave” or “Griztrax” to his friends—makes no bones about his preference to explore the southern Appalachians without restriction. He’s spent more time crawling through rhododendron thickets and clinging to exposed rock faces than he ever has on maintained trails. And that’s how he prefers it.
“I can see their point. They don’t want to have to go in and rescue people.” But Dave’s understanding with the rangers goes only so far. He once vehemently defended his pastime to an NPS officer who criticized him for endangering himself and those that join his off-trail pursuits. “‘I think you have a right to go out and get killed if you want to,’ I said to the ranger. He didn’t really care too much for that.”
Not surprisingly, Dave has become an unofficial target of Smokies rangers. He’ll find them waiting next to his car—recognizable by its “GRIZTRAX” vanity tag—at trailheads. He endures their interrogations about his most recent excursion while they admonish him for what they perceive as recklessness.
Griztrax likens off-trail hiking in the Smokies to a drug. The exhilaration he receives from swimming through a laurel thicket or diving face first into saw briars intoxicates him. Wilderness is at the source of his addiction. His insatiable lust for wandering Yellowstone’s grizzly country—while hauling plaster into the backcountry to make molds of bear tracks (he has over 300)—garnered him his trail name.
“You get something out of grizzly country like nothing else in life. You wake up in the morning, see the sun shining, and realize you made it through the night…nothing compares to that feeling.”
Landreth gets a similar fix from off-trail hiking in the Smokies. He’s a veteran of some of its most classic bushwhacks, logging dozens of off-trail ascents up The Chimneys, Charlies Bunion, The Jumpoff, Anakeesta Ridge, and countless creeks, slides, and ridges of venerable Mt. LeConte.
Many of Dave’s Smokies off-trail climbs have become legend. Seeking out the most remote summits and narrowest ridgelines, Landreth and his gang of bushwhacking companions have stepped foot where few humans—if any—have before. With that in mind, Dave bestows enticing—or chilling—monikers to some of his most memorable destinations, including No Name Ridge, Devil’s Elbow, Picnic Ridge, and the especially reassuring Suicide Slide.
In recent years, Landreth developed a particular infatuation with Mt. LeConte’s infamous south face, renowned for its remoteness and a treacherous exposure, known as Huggins Hell. “I’m addicted to that place. I’ve probably done about 40 different routes to the top.”
I first corresponded with Dave a decade ago. He hosted an online forum, Wild Country, composed of an underground group of Smokies off-trail hikers. A backpacking trip in the Smokies—my first ever exposure to backcountry—had me devouring literature detailing classic Smokies treks. Accounts of adventures into the Park’s most inaccessible terrain had me chomping at the bit to explore it for myself.
My naïve enthusiasm to want to first explore the most dangerous corners of the Smokies before completing on-trail hikes was met with distaste and distrust from those on the forum. I endured enough heckling from the group to nearly lose my growing fervor for exploring the Smokies—that was, until Dave jumped to my defense.
“Hey, don’t let the naysayers trip you up,” he wrote to me in 2004. ”Some folks try to discourage anyone who pushes the limits outdoors, or that hikes in a way that doesn’t fit their mold. I’ve never went in for the—what seems to be popular—belief that there is a ‘right’ way to hike or backpack.”
Dave’s compassion for my newfound interest in outdoor adventure boosted my confidence at a time when others were telling me I wasn’t ready for the adventures that lured me. Shortly thereafter, I joined Dave for my first-ever off-trail bushwhack.
We ascended the Porters Creek Manway to what Dave referred to as “The Wall”—a ridiculously steep headwall that forms the main Smokies divide. As I clung to a near vertical slope with little to hold onto and nothing to stop a fall, I put faith in Dave’s trust in my own ability to complete the climb. We crested the Smokies spine at Dry Sluice Gap—the final pitch so steep and harrowing that only adrenaline kept my terror at bay long enough to literally crawl hands-and-knees onto the Appalachian Trail.
It was on that hike that Dave passed on to me his addiction for wild places and off-trail adventure. But it also went far deeper than that. On that hike, Dave explained why he refused to let others discourage my outdoor pursuits. “If you show someone wild places, and you show them your own passion for it, you never know…one day they might show others, and one day they might end up fighting for it.”
The gravity of Dave’s words wouldn’t hit me until years later when I found myself devoted to a career in land conservation, fighting every day to preserve the wild places that Dave first showed me and encouraging others to cherish them as he did. Dave showed me the wild places back then, and sure enough, I fight for them now. Said Landreth, “That’s one of the proudest things in my life.”
Griztrax has had similar influences on others. He once led his friend Ronnie McCall on his first-ever hike in the Smokies—an off-trail hike at that—up an exposed, laurel-choked ridge near Mt. LeConte. “It was the most brutal off-trail hike I’ve ever been on. The temps were in the 90s and at one point, it took us over an hour and a half to cover 200 feet. For that whole distance, we never saw the ground, crossing instead over a thick web of greenbrier draped across rhododendron,” Landreth recalled.
“I figured that if he survived that one, nothing else would ever hold any fear for him, and so far, it hasn’t.” The experience opened McCall’s eyes to the exhilarating world of Smokies bushwhacking. He’s returned with Dave dozens of times since, each trip a bolder off-trail trek.
Landreth’s influence extends beyond those he’s personally taken into the wilderness. For years, his griztrax.net website served as his public testament to the value of wild places, luring countless hikers to stray from the maintained trails. Dave’s inspiring prose and stunning photography are captivating. His outspoken commentary in defense of wilderness even led some to call him the “Edward Abbey of the East.”
“I can’t remember a time when the outdoors wasn’t part of my life. With that, you get defensive of it. You love it so much that you hear somebody else using or abusing it, and you want to fight for it. It makes you argumentative.”
Like Abbey, Landreth has a penchant for rubbing some people the wrong way. NPS rangers aren’t the only people he’s pissed off. Dave’s outspokenness ramps up each election season in adamant defense of policy supporting wilderness preservation and environmental protection—which doesn’t always sit well with more conservative outdoor folk.
He’s hurt feelings in the backcountry, too, once separating from his off-trail partners in fear that he might be reported late and overdue to the National Park Service. “With the reputation that I have with [the rangers], they would eat that crap up,” admitted Dave. “I can be kind of an asshole sometimes. But my off-trail hiking partners are a good influence on me.”
“We’ve had some scary moments out there,” Landreth confided. But even at age 62, it’s going to take a lot to get Dave to break his off-trail addiction. “I don’t mean to be melodramatic, but I don’t want to live past the point that I can’t do this stuff. I don’t want to be like [19th century mountainman] Jim Bridger, sitting blind in a rocking chair, trying to feel sunshine on my face while looking back to the west at my glory days. If I get hurt, I hope it’s bad. I want to die out there.”
Like Abbey, Landreth will live on long after he’s done showing others the excitement of off-trail adventure—or pissing folks off in the process. “I don’t want everything that I’ve learned to die with me. If I can influence one or two people to do what I’m doing—that’s the coolest thing in the world.” •
Peter Barr is author of Hiking North Carolina’s Lookout Towers. He has hiked all 900 miles of trails in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park—and also has done his fair share of bushwhacking.