knoxville news sentinel article on our trips.

More than 800 miles of hiking trails cover the Great Smoky Mountain National Park, but most of the park’s nine million visitors pass through the mountains each year unaware of the many manways that traverse it as well. Entering the park from Gatlinburg, tourists unknowingly drive past an manway known as the Courthouse Rock Trail. The trail leading to this magnificent wonder is so obscure that many lifelong residents are unsure of its location, and many others are unaware of its existence.

Clayton LaPrees, owner/operator of Smoky Mountain Guides, is well aware of the path’s existence. He has led numerous guided tours along the path since starting his guide company five years ago. LaPrees, 32, is a native of Sevier County and began hiking the trails in the park as a youth.

Courthouse Rock is an unusual natural rock formation. The rock is actually several layers of granite, sandstone and one layer of quartz piled as much as 60 feet high and forming a pillar. The rock is smooth on four sides with some crevices allowing climbers places to scale its heights. The top is a flat surface that would allow a dedicated rock climber an awe-inspiring view of Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge as well as mountain vistas.

Technically, the Courthouse Rock Trail is designated as a manway rather than a trail. According to LaPrees, what distinguishes trails from manways is how they are maintained. Trails are designed to accommodate numerous hikers and are maintained by the National Park Service. A manway is a footpath that was created either by the Cherokee or other indigenous tribes of the region or by early settlers. They are not well marked and are often difficult to find. It takes a trained guide to access the trailhead leading to the manway that leads to Courthouse Rock. Manways are not maintained by the park service.

On a wintry February day, LaPrees leads five hikers up the trail for a Trek and Dine excursion. Trek and Dine features a hot meal prepared at the destination on a small propane cooker. It is 36 degrees outside. LaPrees had instructed his group to wear layers of clothes and to dress warmly.

LaPrees meets his hikers at the Sugarlands Distillery in Gatlinburg and loads the troupe into his company’s van. On the way to the manway, he relates the history of the region to his clients. He drives past a, obscure cemetery on the left. A Confederate flag decorates one of the graves, indicating visitors.

LaPrees pulls off to the side of the road and assembles his group and his supplies. Looking about, the path they’re about to take is indiscernible. LaPrees carries a large backpack loaded with supplies, including food, water, utensils, trash bags and a first aid kit. He leads the group over some fallen trees and through rhododendrons. After a short walk a small trail emerges from the thick foliage. The group reaches a stream, and each person carefully steps from one stone to the next in hopes of staying dry.

The trail continues uphill. Along the way LaPrees tells the tales that have become a part of local folklore. According to LaPrees, the Cherokee may possibly have held court at Courthouse Rock.

“There is no written record to prove it but, according to local lore, this site may have been a social gathering for old settlers and a place of court for native Indians. Some historians have considered it a place once used for hanging judges to practice,” said LaPrees.

The group hikes past the stone foundation remains of several cabins. The inhabitants of these mountain homes are long gone. Their land was purchased by the federal government to make way for the national park. The home sites are silent witnesses to the life of the people who once lived here.

Most prominent among these is the home site of the Joe Quilliams family, who once farmed the area. A few metal artifacts are strewn about the property, including what appears to be the door of an old wood stove. These artifacts belong to the national park and it is illegal to remove them.

Along the way, LaPrees stops at three peaks from which the hikers are given a chance to take photos or just admire the magnificent scenery around them. In the distance is snowcapped Mount LeConte, to the left is Pigeon Forge and between them is a forest that seems almost boundless.

LaPrees continues up the trail through a rhododendron tunnel. At an elevation of 3,000 feet and after more than an hour of hiking and 1.2 miles, the group crosses a rise. Looming in the distance is a rock formation six stories high. It is the only such formation known to exist in the Smokies.

“Scientists believe this area was under water at one time,” said LaPrees. “This rock was formed by the ocean.”

As the group marvels, LaPrees prepares lunch. He serves hot chocolate to warm the chilled hikers, then lights a small propane grill sitting on a rock. Within minutes he serves up chicken fajitas made with precooked chicken, homegrown vegetables and whole-wheat wraps.

Gazing at the rock, it becomes all too apparent the dangers of hiking to this location alone. Because it is so secluded, a lone hiker or climber with an injury could be there for days before he is discovered. Cell phone reception is poor, making it improbable that an injured hiker could call for rescue.

“During the summertime, we often see bear, snakes and yellow jackets here on the trail,” said LaPrees. “An inexperienced hiker unfamiliar with the area could get in trouble up here easily. It is easy to get lost up here as well, as there are other trails that lead away from this trail.”

The hike down the mountain is easier. However, LaPrees has one final stop to make. He takes a detour to a nearby waterfall where early inhabitants of the area sated their thirst and bathed. After a few photos, the group is ready for the final leg of the journey. Back at LaPrees’ van, the manway is once again obscure and difficult to locate. It is as if it has faded into the foliage.

Smoky Mountain Guides offer an array of small group adventure tours throughout the region. Moonshine in the Smokies, Waterfalls & Wineries, Trek & Dine, a variety of auto tours throughout the park, seasonal guided hikes, wildflower discoveries, Appalachian trail hikes, multi-day backpacking trips and flyfishing are among its offerings. Its corporate services division offers team-building retreats and other activities.

For information about Smoky Mountain Guides visit www.smokymountainguides.com or call Clayton LaPrees at 865-654-4545.