This 16.5 mile overnight backpacking trip has cooler temperatures in the summer, beautiful streams and waterfalls, high mountain meadows, abundant berry bushes, and even an old plane wreck to explore. It’s a great change of pace from hiking the Appalachian Trail.
Initially, we planned on doing very little hiking in July this year. Our goal was to stay out of the heat and to rest up a bit so we wouldn’t overdo things before we tackle our trip to New Hampshire later this summer. But the weather was too nice and we had lots of invitations to go hiking. Over the 4th of July weekend, our friends Anthony and Suzanne suggested we go on a backpacking trip together. We always enjoy hiking with them, so plans were made to hike in the Spruce Knob area. This was actually the second 4th of July weekend we’ve spent on the trail with Anthony and Suzanne. A couple years ago, we did a trip to Dolly Sods.
Our friends came down and spent the night before the trip at our house. We divided up some group gear and then packed the car and headed out fairly early to start our trip. We arrived at the trailhead mid-morning. We saw the short trail to the Spruce Knob summit fire tower, but we decided to visit that at the end of the loop the next day to feel like we had truly earned it. Spruce Knob is the highest peak in West Virginia.
The printed maps we have found of this area are fairly outdated and online maps also don’t have the trails completely accurate. The best map I have found of the entire area has been from Mid-Atlantic Hikes and it may be helpful to bring that along since there are lots of trail options here.
We started off our first day of the hike on the Huckleberry Trail (TR533). The trail starts off with a little bit of crushed gravel on the trail, but that goes away in a short distance. This first section of the trail was fairly flat or downhill and alternates from going from dense Spruce forests to more open fields. There are numerous dry campsites along the trail. In the fields, we found tons of blueberries that were just starting to ripen. We stopped along the way for a few handfuls before pressing on. At 3.4 miles, you will reach a campsite and a sign that points to the trail going right. Follow this trail and in another short distance, you’ll come to another sign pointing you to go left as the trail winds around a dense forest area. You’ll soon reach another sign that shows that the Lumberjack Trail is .4 miles away. The last .4 miles of the Huckleberry trail drops rather steeply to the large trail junction at 4.7 miles. Take a right at this junction to join the Lumberjack Trail (TR534).
The Lumberjack Trail is a relatively flat trail. We were warned that it can be very muddy and wet, but we found that even after some recent heavy rains there were only a few 20-foot sections that had mud to slog through. Most of the trail had rocks or logs placed that saved us from having to get our shoes wet or muddy. Around mile 5.8, we saw a plane door hung on a tree and a short, yet steep trail that led down to plane wreckage (a Piper PA-23 that crashed here in 1973 with two casualties). Be respectful if you decide to visit this site. We stayed on the Lumberjack Trail until it came to a junction with the High Meadows Trail at mile 6.7. Take a left to join the High Meadows Trail (TR564).
The High Meadows Trail was the most overgrown trail we came across. There were times that it felt like we were bushwhacking. There are stinging nettles everywhere along the trail and grass was up to our knees in some portions. The High Meadows Trail also has alternating landscapes; you will go from dense forests to large open meadows several times. Keep an eye out for blue blazes on posts or trees as you navigate through these high grass areas. The trail descended through these gorgeous meadows and it is not surprising that we were thinking of the Sound of Music when we were walking through these fields surrounded by mountains.
Eventually, you will enter into the woods again and cross a small creek. At 8.6 miles, you will reach another trail junction. Take a right here and you will descend even more as you make your way through a scenic forest landscape. You will soon hear water flowing from Seneca Creek below you. The trail crosses the creek and comes to a junction with the Seneca Creek Trail at 9.1 miles. At this point, you will cross Seneca Creek to reach the trail on the other side. The water was flowing to make a nice small waterfall. Before we crossed, we ventured just a short distance (about 75 yards) to the right down the Seneca Creek Trail and came across one of the most beautiful waterfalls/swimming holes I’ve seen – Seneca Falls. We dropped our bags on the trail and scrambled down to reach the base of the falls. There was a large cavernous rock overhang to the right of the falls. In the water, we could see brook trout swimming around, occasionally breaching the water to catch flies that were dancing along the water surface. Once we climbed back up from the basin, another group came down to the falls jumped into the swimming hole at the base of the falls. From the screams when they jumped in, we could tell the water was extremely cold. We made our way back to our original junction and then determined the best place to cross the creek was at the very top of the small waterfall. We all made it across safely.
Christine hit a wall with her energy level, so we stopped a few minutes to eat a snack on the opposite side of the creek at a nice campsite. Knowing we still had a distance to go, we pressed on further. The Seneca Creek Trail went to the side of Seneca Creek for the entire way. We crossed the creek in a couple of places. Around mile 10.4, we began to see a ton of campsites. We were surprised to see that there were so many people that were camped here overnight. When we kept passing people on the trail, we felt that we would have our picks of campsites, but we didn’t realize how many people come here a different way (mostly from the lower Spruce Knob parking lot and taking the Seneca Creek Trail to these campsites). Anthony and Suzanne hurried ahead, while I waited a while for Christine to try and regain her strength.
We caught back up with our friends soon and they had claimed a gorgeous campsite (even though it was hard to imagine a bad one here) at 10.6 miles that was near a waterfall that plunged into the creek. While there were lots of larger groups out here, we found a nice, secluded campsite that had a nice waterslide that created a babbling brook sound throughout the night. We set up camp and started to make some dinner. I always enjoy bringing a card game with us when we do an overnight backpack and this time I brought the game Hike. It was pretty brainless fun and plays similar to Uno with specialty cards that create twists in the game. It was starting to get dark, so we created a small, but nice fire in the pit. Once the sun set and the fire died out, we retired to our tents. It may have been the sound of the brook, but I probably slept the best I have ever slept backpacking that night. What a great first day!
As usual on backpacking trips, we both woke up right around first light. We spent a little while longer in our sleeping bags, chatting and stretching. It was a chilly morning, so we weren’t quite ready to climb out into the cold.
Eventually we emerged from our tent to start the day. I put on gloves and a light jacket and headed downstream to take a few photos of the big waterfall at the next campsite over. The folks camping there had packed up and departed very early. Adam went to get the bear bags down while I took photos.
We got everything out for breakfast and started taking down our tent, rolling up sleeping pads and stuffing our sleeping bags back into compression sacks. I decided that I was going to eat a huge breakfast, so I wouldn’t bonk again on our second day of hiking. Adam didn’t go into much detail in his day one post, but right around mile ten of our hike the day before, I hit a wall – HARD! It was right after we visited Seneca Falls and crossed the stream. I sat on the ground and told everyone that I was feeling really lightheaded and sick. I didn’t feel hungry. I had been drinking water all day. Regardless, my legs just felt like jelly and I just didn’t want to walk another single step. Adam, Suzanne and Anthony all told me that they thought I needed to eat. Turns out they were right – I had been hiking for ten miles with a 25 lb. pack on under 700 calories. I guess I just didn’t realize how little I had eaten until I did the calorie math. My appetite always goes away when I’m doing strenuous activities. Usually, it doesn’t cause problems and I just eat when I get to camp. I guess this time I just expended all my short term energy before we finished for the day. I need to do a better job forcing myself to eat enough.
Alright… off that tangent and back to breakfast! As promised, I ate a large breakfast – oatmeal, cheese, a honeybun and coffee. It was about 600 calories of food and much more in line with my energy needs for a tough uphill and 6 miles of hiking. Everyone had eaten and packed up camp by around 9:45 and we were on our way again.
We had a short distance left to walk along Seneca Creek. Within about a quarter mile, we reached a small wooden footbridge across the stream. We crossed and continued uphill on the Seneca Creek Trail. The steepest climbing was across a beautiful, expansive meadow. We got great views of the valley and our last glimpse into the Seneca Creek watershed. The high meadows on this hike are truly majestic and are definitely one of the trip’s highlights.
After crossing out of the meadow, we continued uphill through the woods back to the four-way junction of Seneca Creek/Lumberjack/Huckleberry. Staying straight took us back onto the Huckleberry Trail. From there, we retraced our steps from the day before. It was a little slower going and felt longer on the second pass. It was all uphill and everyone was a little tired. It’s always funny how different the same four miles can feel under different circumstances.
We enjoyed the sunny, unseasonably cool July weather. We stopped and picked many blueberries along the walk back. I also took a little side trail from one of the meadows and found a talus slope with nice views across the mountains.
We got back to the car around noon. We threw our packs into the back of the car and took the short, flat walk to check out views from the observation tower atop Spruce Knob. It’s just a short quarter mile walk and well-worth the extra time and steps. We spent some time enjoying the lofty views and cool breezes. Anthony, Adam and Suzanne decided to walk to one more nearby viewpoint on the Whispering Spruce Trail. It was just a tenth of a mile down the trail and provided even more spectacular views. I headed back to the car to eat some more candy and switch my trail shoes for flip flops.
After a few minutes, everyone was back at the car and we were on our way back to Harrisonburg for a celebratory meal and beer. We all decided that Jack Brown’s was the best spot for lunch. They have fantastic gourmet burgers and a great beer list. It’s a perfect post-hike indulgence.
We couldn’t have asked for better weather, scenery, or company for this 4th of July weekend backpacking trip. After lunch, we bid farewell to Anthony and Suzanne. They’re such great hiking buddies and we always feel lucky when we get to hit the trail together.
- Distance – 16.5 miles [Day One] [Day Two]
- Elevation Change – About 2300 ft.
- Difficulty – 4. The distance makes it fairly tough and the second day has a lot of uphill on the trail.
- Trail Conditions – 3. Most of the trail was well-maintained. The High Meadows Trail was quite overgrown. There are some rocky, loose sections on this trail too, which can be a little rough on the feet.
- Views – 5. The best views are from the Spruce Knob trail near the fire tower. The fire tower has wonderful views, but once you take the .5 mile trail around the fire tower, you will have gorgeous, breathtaking views from the highest point in West Virginia. The views along the main backpacking trip were mostly during the High Meadows Trail. There are gorgeous mountain views and no sign of civilization.
- Wildlife – 3. There were lots of birds to be found on the High Meadows Trail. We did have a deer visit us several times at camp.
- Ease to Navigate – 2. The Huckleberry Trail and High Meadows Trail could use more signage. I would suggest printing out our step-by-step desciption and bringing the midatlantichikes map to help guide your way.
- Solitude – 2. This is a popular spot for people to do overnight camping. Expect to see lots at the campsites, but you will have more solitude until you get to Seneca Creek.
Directions to trailhead: Directions vary so greatly depending on the direction you’re coming from. Please refer to the trailhead marked on the map below to determine your best route.
This tough 8.75 mile hike follows a vaguely Y-shaped route to two outstanding viewpoints. There are ample opportunities for backcountry camping on this route. If you’re lucky, you may be joined on part of your hike by the famous House Mountain hiking goat!
Like most hikers in Virginia, Adam and I are fans of Hiking Upward. It’s one of our primary resources for route information. We’ve been in touch with Bryce and Tony (the creators of HU) off and on the past few years. We had casually tossed around the idea of meeting up for a hike or backpacking trip, but our schedules never seemed to work out. Finally, in June, we found a date that suited everyone and made plans to meet up for a hike of House Mountain. The HU guys were working on updating information for the re-routed trail up Little House Mountain and we were hiking the area for the first time.
The morning started off gloomy and gray. I was a bit worried about missing out on views, but we got in the car and hoped for clearing skies. Everyone got to the trailhead around 8:30 a.m. We made our formal introductions and started the hike right away. Our hiking party was made up of Adam and me, Tony and Bryce (HU team), and two of Bryce’s friends from work – Wayne and Bharath. It was a great group to hike with and we all fell into easy conversation on the hike up.
The first couple miles of this route follow the Saddle Ridge Trail. This portion of the hike starts off as a gravel road and passes a number of private residences. After the first half mile, the route becomes more trail-ish and passes through shady woods. There is one decent view of rolling hills and field on the right side of the trail.
At about two miles in, you reach the saddle between the Big House and Little House summits. The saddle was historically a homestead and a fruit orchard before being turned over to public use. There is still plenty of open pasture space for tent camping in the saddle. Take a few minutes to read the informational signs about the area while you’re at the saddle. They provide information about the area’s history and the conservation efforts that made these trails possible.
When we visited, we decided to hike Little House first. The trail to the summit is a recent re-route. The old trail was extremely steep, climbing straight up the mountainside without the amelioration of switchbacks. The new trail is still quite steep, but the switchbacks definitely ease the climbing. The trail was just blazed in spring of 2014, so if you hike anytime soon you’ll see plenty of fresh blue blazes marking the way.
We caught some nice views through the trees on the way up before finally gaining the ridge. The ridge made for more moderate walking and included lots of interesting rock formations. There were several small campsites along the ridge walk, too.
Eventually, we reached the end of the trail and a beautiful viewpoint. It was still pretty overcast, but the low clouds had lifted enough to give us a view of the valley below and surrounding mountains. We took time for a snack and a few photos before making our way back down to the saddle. On the return trip, Tony and Bharath decided to take the old trail back down. They beat us back to the saddle by a few minutes.
With everyone regrouped, we headed up the trail to the Big House summit. Within the first couple tenths of a mile, we passed the House Mountain backcountry shelter. It was a nice spot with a new privy and a side trail leading to a spring. We found the shelter stocked with lighter fluid, plastic silverware and other often-forgotten necessities. This hike would make a great beginner backpacking trip! You’d have a couple miles of hiking with a pack. But then you could set up camp and visit the two summits pack-free.
Most of the climb to Big House is along a rugged ATV trail. It’s straight up the mountainside until you reach one large switchback. At the switchback, look carefully for a very rocky, less-worn footpath departing the trail. Depending on the vegetation, this might be an easy spot to miss. If you take the switchback and continue the trail in that direction, you’ll just have a longer walk in the woods and no views.
We started scrambling up the rocks when all of a sudden a black and white animal wearing a red collar bounded out of the woods. At first, I thought it was another random hunting hound that was lost in the mountains. But no… it was a GOAT! She hiked with us the rest of the way to the viewpoint.
At the summit, she followed us around – begging for food and vigorously licking the salty sweat off our arms and legs. It was a hoot and we really enjoyed such a friendly and novel companion on the trail. We ate more snacks, took more photos and spent time hanging out with our new goat buddy.
On the hike down, the goat left us shortly after the switchback. She gave us several loud farewell bleats before she bounded back into the woods. The return hike to our car was all downhill, passing the saddle one last time before retracing our steps on the Saddle Ridge Trail. Near the end of the hike, we had the privilege of meeting Brian. He lives in one of the houses along the trail and is one of the primary people who works on building/maintaining the trails on these mountains. If you see him, be sure to say thanks!
At our cars, we decided to head into downtown Lexington for some post-hike food and beers! As Bryce put it ‘Every good hike should end in a pub!’ We had a good meal and more fun conversation at ‘The Palms’. It was mid-afternoon and not very crowded when we visited – probably a good thing to not subject too many fellow diners to the smell of dirty hikers. :-) After lunch, we made our farewells and parted ways. We had a great day and can’t wait to hit the trail with these guys again.
It was great to finally meet up with Hiking Upward. We do most of our hiking with just the two of us, so there is always a little anxiety about hiking with new people. Because of all the miles they have covered, I wondered if we would be able to keep up or were going to get left in the dust of their hiking boots. Along with our pace, I also wondered what we’d talk about. However, within a few minutes, I knew we were quite the kindred spirits. We talked about many things from hiking experiences to favorite microbrews. As we were sharing some of our favorite trails, we were bringing up names of trails as if we were consulting maps. I guess when we all write these hiking entries, that knowledge sticks with us. I know this was the first of many adventures we will share together.
We started off from the parking lot (pay attention to the sign to know where to park and respect the boundaries). We made our way up the road and at .3 miles, you reach a gate that begins the official trailhead. Past the gate, you start a gradual ascent up a fire road, passing by a residence to the left. At 2.25 miles, you reach the saddle between Big and Little House Mountain and the junction between the two trails.
We started off by hitting Little House Mountain first, taking a right at the information signs and following the blue-blazed trail. The trail starts off relatively flat, but as you round the mountain the trail is very narrow and requires you to be mindful of where you step. At 2.5 miles, the trail then begins to climb up the ridge very steeply and you begin a series of switchbacks until you gain the ridge at 3.1 miles. The trail at this point goes through a thick area of rhododendron and remains slightly flat or downhill until you reach the viewpoint. Along the way, you pass through some areas of larger rocks. At 3.6 miles, the trail opened up to breathtaking views. We paused here for a while to eat a snack and take some photos. There are a few different places to get views from the rocks nearby.
We made our way back to the junction and saddle area, which we reached at 5.0 miles. Now, it was time to take on Big House Mountain. We took the opposite trail at the junction (as you were originally climbing up the trail, it is the trail to the left), making our way through some grassy areas before the trail opened up. Within a short distance, we passed a nice overnight shelter to the right. This shelter had it all – there was a sleeping bag someone left behind and even some cans of Yuengling for someone else to enjoy (if warm beer is your thing). There was a privy building a short distance away. We noticed another blue-blazed trail, which we were told later (by Brian, the trail maintainer) leads to a water source.
After we passed the shelter, the trail opened up to a larger fire road again which kept up a steady, tough climb gaining 400 feet in .4 miles. The trail came to a junction with a switchback trail to the right that leads to the true summit of Big House Mountain, but the views are gained by staying straight on the trail. The trail becomes very rocky at this point and we were soon joined by our goat friend. Her nimbleness on the rocks amazed us and she led us to the rocky Goat Point viewpoint at 5.9 miles. There was an upper perch and a lower perch for taking in some of the gorgeous views. As I was heading to the lower outcropping, I spotted a geocache behind one of the rocks. As I was signing the log, the goat jumped down from the high perch, scaring me and almost making me fall down the mountainside. Be careful out there, especially when there are salt-craving goats waiting to pounce.
We headed back after taking in the views for a while (and being thoroughly licked by the goat). I will say that I think I was the favorite of the goat. This wasn’t the first time I had been amply licked by a goat while hiking – the other time was when we hiked the Massanutten Ridge trail. Maybe the salt from my sweat tasted the best or I was the most agreeable to being licked – I’m not sure. But, as we headed back down the goat followed us until we reached the rocky junction with the switchback to the summit. She stared at us from the top as if to beg us to come back to his place for more licking. We said our goodbyes to the goat and then made our way back. We reached the saddle junction again at 6.6 miles and made it back to our car at 8.75 miles.
If you are interested in geocaching, there are 17 different geocaches to find on the Little House Mountain and Big House Mountain trails. I won’t list them all here, but here are the two at the summits:
After we arrived back at our vehicles, we decided to hit The Palms in Lexington for some great food and a few beers. We had such a great day with our new friends! I can’t believe that we had not heard much about this hike before. This is a true gem of a hike with so many panoramic views!
- Distance – 8.75 miles
- Elevation Change – 2850 ft.
- Difficulty – 4.5. There is some pretty serious climbing on this hike. Not many hikes of this length in Virginia have quite so much elevation gain.
- Trail Conditions – 4. The trail was in great shape and the hard work put into maintaining this trail is evident. The newer trail to the summit of Little House Mountain is narrow and steep with some loose sections. We recommend a hiking stick or trekking poles to help keep yourself upright!
- Views – 4.5. Gorgeous! I’d love to visit on a crystal clear fall day sometime!
- Streams/Waterfalls – 0. None – but there is a small piped spring near the camping shelter.
- Wildlife – 3. Any trail that has a wild(ish) goat gets a few wildlife bonus points!
- Ease to Navigate – 4. The trails in this area are very well-marked. The one tricky spot might be finding the viewpoint on Big House Mountain. If you miss the rocky path departing the trail at the hairpin turn, you might miss the views altogether.
- Solitude –3. We saw a fair number of hiking groups along the trail, but had both overlooks to ourselves.
Directions to trailhead: From I-81, take the I-64 exit 191 toward Lexington/Charleston. Follow I-64 for six miles to exit 50 (US 60 East). Follow US 60 East for 2.2 miles, turn right on Route 639. Go .8 miles and bear left onto Route 638. Follow 638 for 1.1 miles. Turn right on Route 641, go 1.1 miles. Turn right onto Route 643. Parking is on the left side of the road in .3 miles. Make sure you follow the parking signs on private property.
* MapMyHike is not necessarily accurate, as the GPS signal fades in and out – but it still provides some fun and interesting information.
This 9.5 mile hike to Bear Church Rock from Bootens Gap (on Skyline Drive) is a great alternative to the route that begins down in the valley at Graves Mill. While this route doesn’t include the scenic Staunton River or the Jones Mountain Cabin, it crosses some of the deepest, least traveled parts of Shenandoah National Park. And in the end, you reach the same great viewpoint. While this route is a little longer than the alternative, it has less climbing and feels a little more moderate.
Bear Church Rock really impressed us when we hiked it a few years ago, approaching it from Graves Mill. However, we were thinking it would be nice to take a different route that would be more accessible from Skyline Drive. This approach is a mile longer, but it has 400 fewer feet of elevation gain, making this an overall easier climb.
We started off from the Bootens Gap parking lot at Mile Marker 55 on Skyline Drive in the Central District of Shenandoah National Park. We took the Appalachian Trail from the parking lot, heading north. In .4 miles, we reached the junction with the Laurel Prong Trail. We took a right to join this trail. The Laurel Prong Trail ends up going through a relatively steep decline through a loose, rocky section. The trail eventually bottoms out and you reach a junction with the Cat Knob Trail at 1.1 miles. We took the Cat Knob Trail and began a steep incline. The trail hits another junction with the Jones Mountain Trail at 1.8 miles. Take a right on the Jones Mountain Trail. At this point, the trail is relatively flat or downhill for most of the way to Bear Church Rock. At 4.6 miles, we reached a side trail that takes you up a few feet to reach Bear Church Rock. Return the way you came to make this a 9.5 out-and-back.
One thing to note on the trail is you do come across several times where the National Park crosses back and forth across boundary lines with the Rapidan Wildlife Management Area. You may see some US Boundary markers in several places that marks the portion that is under National Park control versus Virginia control.
When we reached the highest point of the Cat Knob Trail, we found the largest concentration of pink lady slippers I have ever seen. Everywhere we turned, we kept seeing more and more and they were at the peak of their bloom. That was such a nice reward by coming this route.
Somewhere along the Jones Mountain Trail as we were making our approach to Bear Church Rock, my knee buckled and gave me a lot of pain for the rest of the day. One hard part about hiking is if you get injured, you don’t have a lot of choice but to keep going. I stopped about .25 mile before we reached the summit and rested. I wasn’t sure if I would be able to make it all the way. Christine went ahead to scout the way and see how much further. Not wanting to be separated too long, I pushed myself onward and found her at the rock overlook. We stayed there to rest for a while and we had the rock all to ourselves. We were joined in about 20 minutes from a man from China who had come up the route from Graves Mill. He didn’t speak English and we heard him on his walkie-talkie talking to someone that we presumed to be his wife. We were guessing she was farther behind and he was assuring her he made it. The climb the other way is quite steep, so I wouldn’t be surprised if she had either turned around or was just taking longer to get to the rock.
The views were spectacular. While we had a bit of a cloudy day, it was nice to see the shadows from the clouds creeping along the mountain ridges in the distance.
We decided to make our way back. I felt like getting to the viewpoint and soaking them in allowed me to heal my knee enough to make the return. I was hobbling along slowly, but I had to keep pushing forward. We got back to the car and I was glad to not have to take any more steps.
It was National Trails Day, the weather was great – and even though neither of us was in the mood to go on a long car ride to a distant trailhead, we had to get out and hike! We settled on the hike from Skyline Drive to Bear Church Rock – mostly because it was close to home, but also because we’d never hiked it before. A few years ago, we hiked from the valley bottom in Graves Mill up to Bear Church Rock. That was a challenging and beautiful hike, so we thought it would be fun to visit the rock from the other approach.
From the parking lot at Bootens Gap, we headed north on the Appalachian Trail, gradually ascending Hazeltop Mountain. I was amazed by how lush and green everything in the park looked. It almost looked as green as the Smokies! Our last hike in the park had been in late April, before the leaves fully emerged. Spring always take a long time to fully arrive in the mountains.
After a short, easy stretch on the AT, we reached the junction with the Laurel Prong Trail. We turned right onto the trail and followed it gently downhill, past several springs. In a saddle between two mountains, we reached the junction with the Cat Knob Trail.
That trail climbed steeply over the knob before reaching the junction with the Jones Mountain Trail. The Jones Mountain trail bears to the right. This section of trail actually departs Shenandoah National Park and enters the Rapidan Wildlife Management Area. You’ll notice park boundary signs and different orange/red blazes (as opposed to Shenandoah’s blue blazes) when you’re on this part of the hike.
This section of trail is incredibly beautiful! We enjoyed the expansive understory of ferns and countless pink lady’s slippers. The mountain laurel was just starting to bloom. The terrain along the Jones Mountain trail was rolling – lots of ups and downs, none of them too steep. This route to Bear Church is probably less popular than the route from Graves Mill, so the trail was narrow and overgrown. Tall grasses brushed our legs all along the way. Adam said, “All I can think of is ticks. I feel like I’m crawling with them!’ Luckily, the permethrin we’ve been using on our clothes and gear really seems to be working. Neither of us found any ticks during a thorough post-hike check.
Around 3.8 miles into the hike, the trail took an incredibly steep downward turn. We lost about 300 feet of elevation in about a quarter mile. We passed a few rocky outcroppings that looked like they might potentially have views, but they all turned out to be obscured by trees. At 4.25 miles, we started watching carefully for the spur trail to Bear Church Rock. It’s not a marked spur, so conceivably, one could miss it. Our guidebook said that outlook was at this point, but all we could see is a trail continuing steeply downhill.
Adam began to wonder if we passed the view or if maybe it had been closed in by trees. I told him that it was a really open, spectacular view and that it had to be nearby. I told him I’d scout ahead and shout back if I found it. I ended up walking almost another half mile before I reached the spur trail! The distances in our guidebook were way off on describing the last mile of the hike to the viewpoint. Other sources I checked afterwards all put the distance between 9.5 and 9.8 (rather than the 8.5 miles indicated by our book).
There was a large hiking group on the rock, so I felt weird about shouting for Adam. They told me they were headed out the way we came and would send Adam down when they passed him. But, just as the final hiker departed, Adam arrived.
We had lunch on the rock and enjoyed the unspoiled, pristine views of the park. One of the nice things about Bear Church is that you really don’t see civilization from the viewpoint. You get great views of Fork Mountain, Cat Knob and the Staunton River Valley – but no roads or houses or farms. It’s beautiful! The mountain laurel around the rocky viewpoint were in full bloom and quite spectacular!
After a nice rest, we hiked back the way we came. Most of the return trip was uphill, but other than a short section of climbing right after leaving Bear Church it was very moderate, gradual climbing. The last little bit along the AT was smooth downhill. We saw a doe and fawn hiding in the ferns right before we got back to the car. Once we were back in the car, we decided to head up to Big Meadows for blackberry milkshakes (yay!) and to say hello to our PATC friends. We were glad to catch up with the pair of PATC volunteers who led our Backpacking 101 course several years ago. Good day!
- Distance – 9.5 miles
- Elevation Change – About 1800 feet
- Difficulty – 3. The climb down and back up are not overly tough, but the distance gives it an average difficulty.
- Trail Conditions – 2.5. The rocky slope climbing down the Laurel Prong trail did have some loose rock. The Jones Mountain Trail was quite overgrown along the way and we were walking through a lot of knee-high grassy areas. Wear bug spray and check for ticks afterwards.
- Views– 4. Great mountain views from Bear Church Rock.
- Streams/Waterfalls – 0. Non-existent.
- Wildlife – 2. We didn’t really see much wildlife on this trail. We thought much of it would be a great place to spot a bear since it is in a very wide part of Shenandoah National Park and not as well-traveled.
- Ease to Navigate – 3. You do take four different trails to get to Bear Church Rock, so pay attention at the junction markers.
- Solitude – 3. Most of the people we saw on the trail were on the Laurel Prong portion (typically making their way to the Rapidan Camp). I would expect that you would see someone at Bear Church Rock.
Directions to trailhead: Follow Skyline Drive to mile marker 55. Park at the Bootens Gap parking area on the east side of the drive. The AT departs from the end of the parking lot.
This 4 mile out-and-back follows beautiful Porter Creek to a small waterfall at Fern Branch. The waterfall itself was barely a trickle when we visited, but the lush Smoky Mountain forest was especially beautiful here. This hike also takes you by a historic barn and an old hiking club cabin.
With our week in the Smokies winding down, we wanted to hike something special and something we had never hiked before. I found myself referring to the ‘Hiking In the Smokys‘ website again. They have a list of their personal top 10 favorite hikes. We didn’t want anything over 10 miles, so that ruled out Gregory Bald, Rocky Top and Mt. Cammerer. We had already hiked six of the others (LeConte, Charlies Bunion, Andrews Bald, Chimney Tops, The Jump Off, and Alum Cave). So that left just one from the favorites list – Porters Creek. It sounded like a lovely trail – old growth forest, streams, a waterfall and lots of history.
Before setting out on our hike, we got donuts from The Donut Friar. This made me exceedingly happy and was the perfect start to the day. There is something magical about their chocolate crullers. After donuts, we were on our way to the Greenbrier section of the Smokies. We’d never hiked anything in that area before, so we were excited to try someplace new.
The road into Greenbrier is mostly gravel, but is well-maintained and easy to drive. It’s also very scenic and follows the Little Pigeon River. The trailhead is about 4 miles down the road. It’s clearly marked and there is plenty of parking.
The trail starts off as a wide, gravel road through the woods. Porters Creek runs along the trail, offering plenty of scenic water views. About .6 of a mile along the way, you’ll see signs of old stone walls and stairs on the right side of the trail. The remnants date back to the early 1900’s when Elbert Cantrell built a farm in this area. Immediately past the farm, you’ll pass the Ownby cemetery. Adam and I walked around the cemetery and noticed that most of the graves belonged to very young children. Sad – it really makes one appreciate modern medicine and vaccinations.
About a mile into the hike, you’ll cross a log footbridge over the creek and come to a Y-junction in the gravel road. The trail to the right goes to more historical structures, but we’ll cover those on the way back. We took the trail to the left and arrived almost immediately to another trail junction – continue bearing left on the Porters Creek Trail. At this point, the gravel road ends and becomes a ‘real’ trail.
This section of the hike is beautiful – lots of big old, trees. It’s so green, shady and peaceful. At 1.6 miles we crossed another log footbridge. This one was much longer and crossed the stream crookedly. From there, the trail ascended gently until we reached Fern Branch falls at 2 miles. The falls are on the left side of the trail and set back a bit in the woods.
When we visited the falls were not flowing very heavily. It was still a beautiful spot – especially with the sunlight filtering into the woods at the crest of the falls. We took some photos and then headed back the way we came.
On the return arm of the trip, we stopped at the Y-junction and visited the John Messer farm site. The cantilevered barn is in excellent condition. Just past the barn, you can visit a springhouse and an old cabin built by the Smoky Mountain Hiking club. Overnight stays at the cabin are no longer permitted.
After visiting the barn and cabin, we made our way back to the car and headed back into town for lunch. We ended up at Hungry Bear Barbecue. It was great and definitely deserves the top ratings it has online.
Porters Creek was definitely beautiful and we would recommend the hike for a low-key, easy day. It would also be our last new hike of our 2014 spring trip. The next day, we chose to re-hike an old favorite – Charlies Bunion.
Staying in Gatlinburg, TN for a few days, we wanted to explore some different sections of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. We decided to check out the Porters Creek after reading about Fern Branch Falls and the wildflowers on the trail. When we got out of our car, we could tell from the wetness of the area and the humidity that it would be a good idea to douse ourselves in bug spray.
We crossed the gate and started along the wide fire road. As Christine mentioned, during the first mile you do get some stream views, ruins of an old farm, and a family cemetery. The trail does ascend, but very slowly, so it is not very challenging.
At the .9 mile mark, there is a small footbridge you can use to cross a small stream (or you can rockhop across). At the 1.0 mile marker, you reach a large junction. There is a side trail to the Messer Barn and hiking club cabin and also a junction with the Brushy Mountain Trail. Take the left Porters Creek Trail. At 1.5 miles, you come to a large footbridge that crosses Porters Creek. This footbridge was much longer and can be a little unsettling since it is fairly high above the creek in some points. The railing for me was also below my hip in some spots, which didn’t give me the feeling that it would protect me if I did slip. After you cross the footbridge, the trail seems to change environments as you walk through a large area of wildflowers and fern. The forest floor was exploding in green! The trail then becomes steeper, narrower, and rocky through this portion until you reach the falls.
As we were walking along, we could hear a waterfall off to our right and got a faint glimpse from a distance, but this was not Fern Branch Falls. Instead, at 1.8 miles, we reached the large waterfall on our left. The trickle from the waterfall wasn’t overly impressive, but it was a nice scenic spot. We made our way back the way we came.
When we returned to the junction with the Brushy Mountain Trail, we took the short side trail that led to the barn. Behind the barn, you cross a small stream and then can find the hiking cabin and springhouse. Both the cabin and barn are open, so we enjoyed exploring the abandoned buildings.
We made our way back to our car and found several cars that were arriving to hike this trail. With the cabin, farm, ruins, and graveyard, this hike really does give you a glimpse into the life and environment of families that lived in this area and used these facilities in the late 1800s through the early 1900s. The hiking cabin actually permitted members to stay here until 1981.
- Distance – 4 miles
- Elevation Change – About 800 ft.
- Difficulty – 2. The climbing is gradual and gentle.
- Trail Conditions – 3.5. The section from the trailhead to the Messer farm is essentially a road. The section from the farm to the falls is trail, but it’s in good shape. The only part that may challenge some hikers are the two log footbridges.
- Views – 0. None
- Streams/Waterfalls – 3.5. Porters Creek is lovely. Fern Branch falls would probably be more impressive in wetter weather. It was fairly small when we visited.
- Wildlife – 3. We saw a couple salamanders and a big black snake. There are bear sightings in all parts of the Smokies.
- Ease to Navigate – 4. Trails are well-marked and easy to follow. You may miss some of the historical remnants if you’re not paying attention.
- Solitude – 3. We hiked on a pretty Thursday in late May and only saw a few other people.
Directions to trailhead: From Gatlinburg, go east on 321 for 6 miles. Take a right at the Greenbrier entrance to GSMNP. The road will turn to gravel. The road will fork at 3.1 miles, but continue straight at the fork to reach the Porters Creek parking area at about 4 miles.
This 8.7 mile loop didn’t offer much in the way of natural scenery – no great views, no plunging waterfalls, but we did see a bear! Apparently, this is a great trail to spot bears, as all ten hikers we spoke to on the loop saw at least one bear over the course of their hike. This trail also passes the historic John Oliver cabin.
The Cades Cove section of Great Smoky Mountains National Park has a lot to offer – camping, drives around the loop to view wildlife, biking (covered in a previous post), and a historic view into the way people lived and farmed in this area. Honestly, I have a little love/hate relationship with this section. The biking and wildlife viewing can’t be beat around this area. However, the traffic is so incredibly slow through this area. Expect people to go WAY below the posted speed limit, so getting to Cades Cove can take a lot longer than expected. I think most of the way traveling from the Sugarlands Visitors Center, multiple people were driving about 10-15 mph for the entire 17 miles, so it was a drag getting there. Christine and I typically like to get out early in the morning to beat traffic and heat through the day, so I would recommend the same if visiting Cades Cove.
Since we had biked the loop and hiked Abrams Falls (also on the Cades Cove loop) before, we looked for some other options for hikes. Our book Day Hikes in the Smokies (by Carson Brewer) had this listed as a nice option for a hike. According to the description, there was a waterfall, some views, and a historic homestead so we felt this would be a nice option to take.
We parked in the lot past the information kiosk as you enter the Cades Cove loop. There was plenty of parking in the lot, as most people either park their car to bike the loop or just ask the rangers at the kiosk some questions about the area. We parked at one of the furthest parking spots and then crossed the road. In a short distance, the trailhead appeared and we started off on the Rich Mountain Loop trail. This trail was relatively flat. It was mostly wooded, but there were a few spots where it opened up to views of meadows. In .5 miles, the trail reached a junction with the Crooked Arm Ridge trail. We took a right here to start the Crooked Arm Ridge trail. At .8 miles, you reach the Crooked Arm Cascade, which was no more than a small trickle when we viewed it. This trail is the steepest section of the hike, as you are climbing up the entire trail gaining close to 1800 feet by the time you reach the end of the trail at mile 2.7. The humidity this day was very high and there was no breeze, so we felt like we were pouring buckets of sweat on our relentless climb through many switchbacks along the trail.
At 2.7 miles, we passed the junction with the Scott Mountain Trail, but the junction wasn’t clearly marked to let you know it was the Scott Mountain Trail (Note: This might be because the Scott Mountain Trail is closed from campsite #6 to Schoolhouse Gap. However, Campsite #6 is still open. Check park information for the latest updates on trail closures.) Staying straight, the trail turns into the Indian Grave Gap Trail. It continues to climb gradually, and there are some occasional obstructed views from the ridge. You finally reach the peak of climbing around mile four, near Cerulean Knob (3686 ft. – no views). We continued walking the ridge for a while, then the trail then starts its descent. At 5.3 miles, the Indian Grave Gap Trail reaches a junction. Continue on the Rich Mountain Loop trail.
The trail continues to descend and you do get some nice views along the way of a branch that leads to Abrams Creek. Around 7.2 miles, the trail leads to the John Oliver Place, a historic cabin. If you are interested in learning more about the Oliver family and life in the 1800’s in Cades Cove, I would recommend checking out the history of the Olivers and the cabin and what pioneer life was like in Cades Cove. We paused to check out the cabin and as you face the house, take the rightmost trail behind the house (there are several small paths here) to continue on to the Rich Mountain Loop. You will have a few stream crossings (minor rock hopping is required) until you reach the first junction you met at mile 8.2. Continue straight to take the Rich Mountain Loop trail to arrive back at your car at mile 8.7.
As mentioned in the short description at the top, we kept coming across people that had seen bears along the trail. Until we started the descent from Cerulean Knob, everyone we crossed told us they had seen various bears across the trail. Of course everyone also said they watched the bears and then they ran off. Always excited to see bears, we felt like everyone else had chased them away. As we were descending we were convinced that we probably wouldn’t see anything, but as soon as we voiced this doubt, Christine spotted a bear right off the side of the trail. The bear just watched us indifferently while it ate some leaves. Then it took a slow walk and then squatted to do what bears do in the woods. As soon as it was done, it shot through the woods at a breakneck pace like its poop had scared him. I guess that is why they call it “bear scat”, because he really did scat after doing his business.
One lesson that I quickly learned on this trail was that humidity is relative. While we were doing the tough climb up to the ridgeline, we came across another couple (who of course were telling us about a bear they saw). Feeling that I was quite the sight from all the sweat coming off my body, I commented on how hot and humid it was. They said, “Wow. We haven’t been sweating at all today.” They then explained they were from Mississippi so they were more accustomed to the heat and humidity and thought it was quite comfortable. Of course this reminded me on some of our trips to Maine and talking to people that couldn’t handle the heat of 85 degrees without humidity and we thought it was quite pleasant.
While we felt the hike wasn’t overly impressive based on the description we originally read, we felt grateful that we saw a bear in the Smokies. If you’re looking for a bit of a challenge and some variety of terrain in this area of the Smokies, this is a hike to consider.
After a third day of shorter, easier hikes, I was finally feeling better and we were on the move from Bryson City to Gatlinburg for the remainder of our week in the Smokies. We decided it was time to hike something a little longer/tougher. We considered a few trails on the northern side of the park, including Gregory Bald, Ramsey Cascades, and Rich Mountain. In the end, we settled on Rich Mountain because our guidebook said it had views, a waterfall and a historic cabin. I like trails with a variety of attractions, so it seemed like the perfect choice for the day.
Another perk of the Rich Mountain loop is that the trailhead can be accessed at the head of Cades Cove, before the start of one-way traffic. The Cades Cove loop is something every GSMNP visitor should drive (or bike) at least once. It’s a great place to spot wildlife and it showcases the park’s fascinating human history. But, if I’m being fully honest, the traffic in Cades Cove can be insufferable when you just want to get to a trailhead and start your hike. On this particular day, I was very happy to be avoiding the gridlock!
We followed the Rich Mountain Loop trail for about half a mile to our first junction. At the marker, we took a right onto the Crooked Arm Ridge Trail. Most people seem to hike the trail clockwise, but we decided to go the other way for to get the climbing done a little earlier and a little faster in the loop.
One of the first landmarks we passed was Crooked Arm Falls, which our hiking guidebook described as ‘not Niagara, but still very nice’. That turned out to be quite the understatement! The ‘waterfall’ was barely a trickle of water over a short rock shelf. Maybe it’s more impressive when there has been a ton of rain!
After passing the waterfall, our climb began in earnest. Neither of us was used to hiking in the heat and humidity. Virginia had been having lots of cool, pleasant days that spring, so it was very tough going. When we got back to the car and had smartphone access again, I checked the temperatures and real feel estimates – it had been about 88 degrees with a real feel of 95. Honestly, that’s kind of the outer limit of heat in which I’m willing to hike.
We slogged along uphill for a couple miles. The air was really still and steamy, with any chance of a breeze blocked by the shoulder of the mountain. The trail was deeply eroded in several sections, with the middle of the footpath looking like a chute in the ground. The views promised by our guidebook were mostly closed in by the leaves on the trees and we started to think we may have picked a dud of a hike. I was feeling really overheated and crabby.
Eventually we reached the junction with the Indian Grave Gap Trail. At this point, the climbing became easier and we felt a breeze across the ridge. We started to see more wildflowers – mountain laurel and flame azalea. We spotted several cute toads hopping across the trail. We stopped for a snack near an opening in the trees. We had a decent view into Cades Cove. Along this section of trail, we passed two other hiking parties – both mentioned that they’d had bear sightings before the junction with the Rich Mountain Loop. One group had spotted an adolescent bear and the other a mother bear with two cubs. Between the breeze, the wildflowers, and the likelihood of a bear spotting; my attitude turned a little more positive. Adam was more skeptical than I was, saying ‘If all these people already saw bears, we’ll probably be the only ones who don’t!’
We walked along, trying to stay quiet for the wildlife. We reached the junction of the Indian Grave Gap Trail and the Rich Mountain Loop Trail without spotting a bear. I figured that we were out of luck, and started chatting with Adam again. As we were descending toward a stream bed, I caught a shuffle of movement through the trees. I stopped abruptly, waved my hand up to stop Adam behind me and whispered ‘BEAR!’ Ten feet from the edge of the trail, we spotted a handsome yearling bear foraging for food. He knew we were there, but continued to move along at a normal pace. Other than once upward glance, he completely ignored us. Suddenly, he broke into a full gallop and went crashing deeper into the woods and out of view. It was a GREAT sighting and made the hike totally worthwhile.
The rest of the hike between the bear and the John Oliver cabin was downhill, steeply at times. For a couple hundred yards, we were followed by a cute yellow warbler. The bird hopped from tree to tree right alongside us before finally flying off. We had a couple easy, shallow stream crossings on the section of trail.
We reached the Oliver cabin and were met with crowds of Cades Cove tourists. Most people visiting the cabin park along the loop road and then walk a short distance up to the house. I think this cabin is the oldest structure in the Cove. After spending a little time exploring the cabin, we headed back onto the Rich Mountain Loop trail.
After the cabin there wasn’t anything remarkable left on the trail to see. I don’t think I took a single photo! It was just an easy walk for about a mile back to our first junction of the day, followed by a half mile stretch back to the parking area on the loop road. It felt great to be back in the air-conditioned car!
On our way out of Cades Cove, we stopped by the snack bar at the campground. I got a gigantic Gatorade and a bag of generic Cheetos. The Gatorade tasted miraculous after miles of drinking lukewarm Camelbak water! About an hour later, we were checking into our hotel in Gatlinburg. After showering, we headed out to the Smoky Mountain Brewery. On the way, we got caught in one of the biggest downpours I’ve ever experienced. We ate dinner soaked, but the beer and steak were so good I didn’t care.
So, I guess in closing… would I recommend the Rich Mountain Loop? Probably – it seems like a great place to hike if you want good odds of seeing a bear in the wild, but don’t go expecting great views and waterfalls.
- Distance – 8.7 miles
- Elevation Change – 1800 ft.
- Difficulty – 3.5 The hike up the Crooked Arm Ridge trail was tough.
- Trail Conditions – 3. The trail was clear, but there were some eroded parts on the climb up the Crooked Arm Ridge Trail. On the hike down, there was some loose rock also.
- Views – 2. There were some obstructed views from the ridgeline.
- Streams/Waterfalls – 2. The Crooked Arm Cascade was a disappointment with little water, but the streams on the back end of the loop were nice.
- Wildlife – 4.5. We did see a bear and it looked and sounded like a lot of bear activity here. We also saw some deer along the way.
- Ease to Navigate – 1.5. Trails were not marked very clearly, especially at junctions. Also, there is confusion around the John Oliver place on which way to go to complete the loop back.
- Solitude – 2.5. Cades Cove is a very popular area. I would expect to see some people on the trail most days, but less in the upper elevations. There will also be lots of people that will park on the main road to check out the John Oliver Place.
Directions to trailhead: From the Sugarlands Visitor Center in GSMNP, follow signs towards Cades Cove. Follow Little River Road for about 17 miles. At the intersection near Townsend, the road will become Laurel Creek Road. Follow Laurel Creek road for 7.4 miles to the parking area at the head of Cades Cove. Park in the lot on the left hand side of the road right before the traffic becomes one way. The trail starts about 25 yards ahead on the opposite side of the road from parking.
This 4 mile out-and-back is an easy hike to one of the Smokies’ lesser visited and under-appreciated waterfalls. The walk begins from the Smokemont Campground and follows a lovely stream and eventually reaches a pretty 25′ waterfall.
For the first few days of our trip, I wasn’t feeling great. Even after easy hiking days on Mt. Pisgah and Wesser Bald, I still wasn’t myself. Mentally, I had big hiking plans for every day of our trip, but in the end, my body dictated that we hike shorter, less strenuous trails.
On our second day in Bryson City, we woke up to lightning, rumbling thunder and torrential downpours. The local weather said that the heavy rain would clear out and leave us with a hazy, mostly cloudy, unsettled day. We decided that an easy waterfall hike would be perfect for those conditions. After breakfast at Mountain Perks (probably my favorite breakfast spot in Bryson City), we drove into the park.
Our hike started at the far end (section D) of the Smokemont Campground. For the first 1.2 miles, we followed the Bradley Fork Trail. It went gently uphill along the stream. The morning rain paired with the emerging sun made for a hot, muggy and buggy hike! Whenever we stopped for photos or to take in the scenery, we were swarmed by gnats and mosquitoes. Nonetheless, the trail was beautiful – so lush and green.
The trail along Bradley Creek is popular with horseback riders. In fact, the National Park Service concessionaire offers a trail ride from Smokemont Stables to the waterfall. I bet it’s a wonderful, scenic ride! The trail is also shared with the Benton MacKaye Trail – a 300 mile trail across the southern Appalachians. Almost 100 miles of the Benton MacKaye Trail passes through the Smokies. MacKaye, a forester from Massachusetts, is noteworthy because he came up with the idea for the Appalachian Trail… what a legacy to leave behind!
At 1.2 miles, the Bradley Fork Trail intersects with the Chasteen Creek Trail. At this junction, take a right and follow the trail toward Chasteen Creek. Almost immediately, on the right, you’ll pass Backcountry Campsite 50. It’s a pretty streamside spot with a fire ring and bear cables. The campsite can only be used if you have secured a paid permit. Evidently, permits in the Smokies can be hard to come by, so plan early!
After the campsite, walk another half mile along the Chasteen Creek Trail. Shortly after crossing a footbridge, you’ll come to a split in the trail. On the left side of the split, you should be able to see a hitching rail and mounting step for horseback riders – go in this direction.
From the clearing for horses, you’ll see a narrow footpath following the creek. In just about a tenth of a mile, you’ll come out at Chasteen Creek Cascade. It’s about a 25 foot waterfall. It’s not the kind of waterfall that plunges dramatically; rather it slides over the rocks into a pretty pool below. We had the waterfall all to ourselves and enjoyed the spot for about twenty minutes. Afterwards, we headed back the way we came and back into Bryson City for lunch at the Bar-B-Que Wagon. They have great Carolina-style barbecue with all the expected sides.
When we talk to people about the Smokies, they seem to be surprised that some of the best highlights of the park are the waterfalls. In talking with the locals of the area, April and May tend to be very rainy seasons for the area. Storms move in and out quickly through the park, but they typically expect a little rain most days during this season. Rainy days are prime days for waterfall viewing and photography.
We started off our hike from the Smokemont Campground in the D section of the campground. In the winter, this may be blocked off and you may have to park and leave from the C section. The trailhead starts from a large gate near the designated parking area at the end of the campground. We doused ourselves with bug spray and moved on.
The trail was gradually uphill, but it mostly felt flat. In fact, we were surprised to see the elevation gain on the hike afterwards. The trail started off on a gravel road alongside Bradley Fork. The forest was lush with green from all of the rain, so it was a pleasant stroll through the woods. Because of the width of the trail, Christine and I could also walk side-by-side along the trail. At 1.1 miles, we crossed a large footbridge and at 1.2 miles we came to the intersection with the Chasteen Creek Trail. We took a right there and continued to walk on a wider trail, passing Campsite 50 at 1.3 miles. At 1.9 miles, we reached the side trail to the left with the horse hitching area. It was a short walk to get to the waterfall from there. We headed back the way we came for an easy, scenic hike.
If you wanted to make this a longer hike, after you visit the waterfall, return back the way you came. You could take a right at the junction with the Bradley Fork trail and connect to the Smokemont Loop Trail. This would make the grand total of distance about 8 miles, but would loop back to a different section of the campground.
You may see people fishing for rainbow trout along the Bradley Fork or Chasteen Creek. I can imagine many campers at the Smokemont Campground spend some time fishing in hopes of cooking some fish from the water.
After the hike, we had lunch then headed into Cherokee to check out the Qualla Arts & Crafts Mutual. Their traditional work is fascinating and beautiful. We always enjoy visiting. After that, we stayed on the reservation and visited Mingo Falls, one of the tallest and most impressive waterfalls in the Appalachians. It was a short walk, but there were many stairs!
Our wrap up for the day was a visit to Nantahala Brewery followed by pizza from Anthony’s. We consider those two stops to be ‘must-do’ in Bryson City! On to Gatlinburg tomorrow!
- Distance – 4 miles
- Elevation Change – 490 ft.
- Difficulty – 1.5. This is an easy walk along a very gently graded trail.
- Trail Conditions – 4.5. The trail is mostly wide and road-like. It’s only narrow and muddy at the base of the falls.
- Views – 0. None.
- Streams/Waterfalls – 4.5. Bradley Fork, Chasteen Creek and the falls are all beautiful!
- Wildlife – 3. We didn’t see anything, but the Smokies have wildlife everywhere!
- Ease to Navigate – 3.5. The trail is easy to follow if you read the junction markers. The shared/intersecting trails might be confusing if you’re not paying attention.
- Solitude – 3. Chasteen Creek Falls is not one of the park’s more popular trails. You may see horses and occasional hikers from the campground, but generally this trail has less foot traffic than many others.
Directions to trailhead: From Newfound Gap Road (Route 441), follow signs to Smokemont Campground. The campground is located 3.5 miles north of the Oconaluftee Visitor Center and 26 miles south of the Sugarlands Visitor Center. Park in the hiker parking area at the end of section D of the campground.
Introductory Guide to Visiting Great Smoky Mountains National Park
(while Wesser Bald is technically outside GSMNP, it’s still part of the greater Smokies region)
This 2.8 mile out-and-back is an easy hike to one of the area’s best viewpoints. The platform atop the defunct firetower on Wesser Bald offers panoramic views of the spectacular Smokies (and all the other mountains in the area).
It is nice when you find a hike that the locals rave about. During our trip to North Carolina, I heard three different people mentioning that we needed to hike Wesser Bald. After getting to the top, I can see why this is so revered.
When we started off in the morning, it had been storming the night before. A fog had settled on the lower elevations. While we were driving, we were curious if we were going to get any views at all. On our drive there, the cloudy conditions gave us great views along the Nantahala River as we passed several scenic spots and chances to catch some roadside waterfalls and rapids. We made our way up Otter Creek Road and parked at Tellico Gap, where the Appalachian Trail crossed the road.
When we first parked, we noticed the sign that designated the start of the trail, but we noticed there was a white-blazed trail and a fire road to the left. We knew our hike was on the white-blazed Appalachian Trail, so we took the trail to the left. The fire road trail to the right also leads to the tower. I’m not sure how the conditions are on it, but it did seem to be shorter, since we found a family with kids that left after us beat us back to the parking lot (and they didn’t seem like fast hikers). The trail passed through a thick brushy area fairly quickly, but most of the trail was in a more opened-up wooded area. The hike was fairly uphill as it skirted the mountainside, but I didn’t find any of the trail to be incredibly steep. Instead, it winds There were a few switchbacks towards the end of the hike where it was a little steeper, but the switchbacks save you from going straight up the mountain.
When we reached the top of the spur trail at 1.3 miles, there was a great viewpoint that gives you a small sample. If you are not willing to climb the fire tower, this would be the best views you would get on this hike. As you reach the top, take a right and you’ll reach the fire tower in a short distance. Make your way back to complete the out-and-back or you could press pass the fire tower to take the fire road back to make it a loop.
When we reached the fire tower, we could hear a couple people at the top of the tower. Christine quickly made her way up. I, on the other hand, needed to psych myself up. As you’ve probably seen in many pictures, I don’t mind getting out on rocks that are on the edge of a huge precipice; however, I don’t trust man-made structures when it comes to heights. I trust nature over man. I went up halfway and then I could start to see the sky through the gaps in the stairs and I just turned back around. But from the bottom, I could hear Christine and the others at the top of how beautiful everything was and I knew I needed to force myself to get up there. So, I took a second attempt and made it up. Christine and the others at the top applauded my efforts for overcoming my fear. I’m so glad I made it to the top, because the scenery was breathtaking and some of the best mountain views I’ve ever seen. We stayed up there a while and talked to a few different groups of people that made it up after we did.
After we made it back, we decided to head to the Nantahala Outdoor Center. We had a nice lunch at the River’s End and then we enjoyed a beer at Big Wesser BBQ & Brew, while watching kayakers and whitewater rafts go down the river. This is always one of our favorite spots while visiting near the Smokies and it is definitely a place you can spend hours during the afternoon. You can also hike from Tellico Gap to the Nantahala Outdoor Center on the Appalachian Trail for a one-way total of 7.5 miles if you want to do a shuttle option.
If you are interested in geocaching, there are three you can find on the trail:
The forecast for our week in the Smokies didn’t look good – stormy, rainy and unsettled every single day from Sunday to the next Saturday. So, when we woke up to dense fog on Monday morning, we weren’t completely surprised. However, the hourly forecast on weather.com made it look like the fog might burn off. We hoped that the odds would be in our favor, and headed off to hike a trail we’d been eying for a while. Wesser Bald is a short, moderate 1.4 mile hike along the AT to an old fire tower overlooking the southern Appalachians. It’s a spectacular view if you’re lucky enough to hit the spot on a clear day.
From Tellico Gap, we followed the AT as it made gradual, sweeping switchbacks through beautiful, lush forest. The trail was lined with wildflowers and blooming azaleas/rhododendron. I think I saw more pink lady slippers on this hike than I’ve ever seen anywhere else. It was gorgeous. The azaleas came in white, pink and orange and the rhododendron bloomed in their classic bright pinkish-purple color. I also spotted wild strawberries and some gorgeous purple spiderwort.
The humidity took some getting used to! Even though it wasn’t particularly hot, the day was windless and the air was completely saturated. By the time we got to the top, I looked like I’d been dunked in a pool! Just before reaching the tower, we passed a nice view looking toward the Smokies and Fontana Dam. Near the overlook, a short spur trail took us to the top of Wesser Bald. This bald is no longer actually a bald – it’s been let go and returned to the natural forest environment. So while the view has closed in from the base of the tower, the view from the two-story viewing platform is superb!
I climbed up to the top and said WOW! Adam didn’t feel comfortable with the open, rattling stairs, so he hung out at the bottom while I chatted with a couple at the top. They had hiked up earlier from the NOC and were waiting to meet up with their son, who was on a solo backpacking trip. They were really fun to talk to – both were veteran AT thru-hikers and REI employees. We talked about favorite spots on the AT and chatted a bit about gear. I always love meeting people like them on the trail!
While we were chatting, Adam mustered the courage to climb to the top of the tower. He was so glad he did, too! The views really blew both of us away! Even though it was hazy, we could still see for miles in every direction. We spent a long while atop the tower, enjoying the views and the fresh mountain air.
After a while, we decided it was time to make our way down and seek out some lunch. One of our repeat stops ever time we visit the Smokies is the Nantahala Outdoor Center. We enjoy lunch at the Riverside Cafe, browsing the nice outdoor gear store, and (of course) drinking a few beers by the river at Big Wesser. It’s so fun to sit at an umbrella table, drink a nice craft beer and watch kayakers shooting through the rapids. It’s also a great place to people-watch in general. While we were sitting and enjoying our drinks, the skies opened up and dumped a huge amount of rain in just a few minutes. I’m sure glad we had the rain at the NOC instead of on top Wesser Bald!
- Distance – 2.8 miles out-and-back
- Elevation Change – 777 feet.
- Difficulty – 2. The trail is mostly uphill, but not too steep.
- Trail Conditions – 4. The trail was in great shape and the footing was fairly solid.
- Views – 5. Absolutely spectacular views from the fire tower and another nice view right before the tower.
- Streams/Waterfalls – 0. Non-existent.
- Wildlife – 1. We only saw some birds along the way.
- Ease to Navigate – 3. The confusion of the fire road at the beginning gives it a lower score, but other than that you should be fine. Follow the white-blazed AT.
- Solitude – 2.5. Popular with locals, but this wouldn’t get the traffic that a hike in the nearby Smokies would.
Directions to trailhead: From Bryson City, follow US 19/74 for 20 miles. Turn left on Wayah Road and follow it for five miles. Turn left on Otter Creek Road and drive 4.1 miles to Tellico Gap. The road is paved for the first 2.8 miles. At the crest of the hill, you will see the AT crossing and several parking spots. Follow the signs to Wesser Bald.
This 3 mile out-and-back leads to the towering (literally) summit of 5,721 ft Mt. Pisgah. Due to the short length and proximity to lodging, a camp store, and a picnic area, this trail is exceedingly popular with families. The summit offers some nice views, but the presence of a huge television tower detracts from the natural beauty of the area.
Our second day in Asheville was just a half day, but we wanted to get a little more hiking in along the Blue Ridge Parkway before making our way down to Bryson City and the Smokies. Breakfast was at the popular Sunny Point Cafe. We got there just a couple minutes before they opened and were able to snag the last open table for two! It’s a very popular spot, so be prepared to get there early or have a long wait.
After breakfast, we headed up to the parkway to climb Mount Pisgah. Our book talked about great views, but described the hike as ‘strenuous’. In fact, there was a warning sign at the trailhead indicating that the hike was tough and steep. It actually only climbs about 700 feet, but it does so in a short distance. I suppose the warning is necessary for novice hikers or people who think they’re just out for a casual stroll.
The hike started out from a parking lot atop the Buck Springs Tunnel. There are actually a couple trailheads in that area – Mt. Pisgah, Shut-In Trail and the Buck Springs Trail. To get to the Pisgah Trail, drive to the far end of the parking lot.
The hike started off gentle and flat – just a pleasant walk through the woods. We could see the conical summit of Pisgah, replete with its television tower, looming through the trees. The trail made a sweeping turn at around .4 miles and began a steady uphill climb. It was rocky and rough at times, but overall a moderate ascent. A couple tenths of a mile before the summit, we came across one nice view across the mountains.
After the nice view, we made the final push to the top. The summit has a wooden viewing platform and a serious eyesore of a television tower. I know they’re necessary, but I wish they could have put it on a less scenic, more remote peak! All that metal really ruins the scenic beauty of such an impressive summit.
We sat on the summit for a while. The views would have been pretty nice, but the day was overcast and hazy, so that took away some of the majesty from the experience. I think we were also the only people on the summit without kids! Mt. Pisgah is clearly a very popular family hike! There were more three-year-olds on that mountain top than any other demographic. I guess it makes sense – the hike is short, moderate and doesn’t have any steep drop-offs — perfect for a family with small children.
We hiked down the way we came, making speedy work of the descent. Now… on to the Smokies!
When we’re on vacation, we like to alternate longer hikes with shorter hikes to make sure we still have energy at the end of our trip. When we were researching different hikes to do near Asheville, NC, we came across Mt. Pisgah. With it being such a short hike and the trailhead being sort of en route to our next town stop, we thought this was a winner. We also read about wonderful views from the top so we figured it would be a high payoff for minimal effort.
The trail started off following a slight incline for the first few tenths of a mile. Then the trail went up more steeply in elevation and can be challenging at times. But, since the hike is pretty short, it is attainable by most people. We saw more families hiking on this trail with little children than anywhere else. While many of the kids were walking the trail in the beginning, we found most of them were being carried by the time they reached the summit.
We arrived at the top in well under an hour. The tower was such an eyesore and we both were thinking this would be so much nicer of a hike without the 339-foot tower there. The wooden platform allowed for about 270-degree views (90 degrees taken up by the tower). While it was hazy, I could tell that on a clear day you would be able to see for quite a distance.
The origin of the name of the mountain comes from the Bible. The Reverend James Hall is attributed to being the first to call this area as “Pisgah”, taken from the biblical reference to the peak where Moses viewed the promised land. The Pisgah National Forest was historically owned by the Vanderbilts (who built the nearby Biltmore House in Asheville). 500,000 acres were sold to the government by the Vanderbilts as an effort to help preserve this land.
If you are interested in geocaching, there are several to find on this trail:
- Tumble Rock
- Gnarly Tree
- My Favorite Hike
- Atypical #29: Carrot Top
- Steep Steps
- Mt. Pisgah
- Mt. Pisgah Too
While this hike does have some nice views from the top, we were a little disappointed by the size of the tower and the popularity of the trail. As Christine mentioned, it would have been nice to have this on a more remote mountain (and also not the namesake for the entire National Forest).
- Distance – 3 miles
- Elevation Change – 700 ft
- Difficulty – 1.5. This trail is short with a moderate ascent.
- Trail Conditions – 4. The trail was generally in good condition.
- Views – 3.5 – Typically views from a peak like this would get higher marks, but the tower is such a distraction.
- Streams/Waterfalls – 0. None
- Wildlife – 1. Maybe some birds and squirrels.
- Ease to Navigate – 5. There is only one trail to the top, and it’s very easy to follow.
- Solitude – 1. This trail is popular and heavily traveled.
Directions to trailhead: From Asheville, take the Blue Ridge Parkway south to the Mount Pisgah Parking Area, on the left, at milepost 407.6. Park at the second parking area.