Cucumber Gap is a lovely 5.6 mile loop known for wildflowers, stream scenery and the historic Elkmont cabins.
For our last day of hiking in the Smokies, we opted for something easy compared to our previous two days, which had us hiking over difficult terrain for 10+ miles each day. We decided a hike along a pretty stream with a taste of history would be a nice choice.
The hike started on the Little River Trail. We crossed the gate that led to the gravel road. Almost immediately to the left, you come across some of the Elkmont cabins. There are signs posted asking that you not enter the houses. These do look dangerous, with caved-in roofs and rotting wood, so don’t risk it. The Little River Logging Company established this small town in 1908 to serve as a central location for its logging efforts. In 1910, they started selling parcels of land to interested outdoorsmen, who established the Appalachian Club. In 1912, the Wonderland Park Hotel was built and in 1919 a group of businessmen bought the hotel and established the Wonderland Club. As the wealthy began traveling to this area, the Appalachian Club and Wonderland Club served as social outlets for the elite. Most of these houses are in complete ruin, as the park has taken over the property after not renewing the leases of those previous owners. There is a plan to maintain and renovate 19 of these houses (mostly in the “Daisy Town” area).
We continued along the trail that is flanked by the Little River to the left. There are many places that you can duck off the main trail and enjoy watching the flowing river. At 2.4 miles, you reach the junction with the Cucumber Gap Trail right after passing a bench. Take a right and head on the Cucumber Gap Trail, which begins an ascent. We came across a woman, who was glad to see us since she said we could “scare the bear away”. She had been walking on this trail many times and has seen bears frequently here. We were excited to possibly see a bear on the trail, but we weren’t lucky enough this time.
At 2.7 miles, you will rock-hop across Huskey Branch. The trail continues to ascend, but slightly more steeply until you reach the top of Cucumber Gap at mile 3.8. Off to the right, you may have an obstructed view of Burnt Mountain and the Bear Wallow Creek valley below. Near the top of the gap, you may see Fraser magnolias, often referred as “cucumber trees”, giving this trail its name. The trail descends at this point and crosses Tulip Branch at 4.4 miles. At 4.8 miles, the Cucumber Gap Trail ends and you willl take a right when you reach this junction with the Jakes Creek Trail. At 5.1 miles, the trail reaches another junction. Head right again at this fork. Soon, you will pass by more abandoned Elkmont houses until the trail opens up into the larger area of homes known as “Daisy Town”. Walking down the main street, you will reach the Appalachian Club, which has a large wooden porch and some historical signs that you can read to learn more about this area. From the club, make your way to the right and you should shortly reach your car again.
This was a nice leg-stretcher of a hike, and one that you’ll likely want to take slowly to enjoy the scenery along the way. The houses are interesting to check out and you may want to take a few minutes to enjoy the heavy-flowing Little River. If you are someone that is interested in the history of this area right before the park was established, this is a great hike to check out.
After two days of long, tough hikes, we began our final day in the Smokies looking for something a little more relaxing and low-key. While enjoying amazing (honestly… this is not an overstatement) donuts from The Donut Friar, we skimmed our guidebook. In the end, we settled on the Cucumber Gap Loop. It’s known as one of the Smokies’ nicest, more moderate hikes. It boasts abundant wildflowers, beautiful river scenery and a chance to visit the historic Elkmont cottages.
The trailhead is just a short drive from Gatlinburg, near the Elkmont campground. We set off on the Little River Trail, which is really more of a wide, gravel road than a trail. Almost immediately, the Spence Cabin came into view. This historic cabin has been restored by the park service, and is available for day-use special event rental. The other cabins dotting the river alongside the Spence Cabin haven’t been so lucky. Most of them are dilapidated, sagging and fading back into the forest. ‘Keep Out’ signs are posted along the trail. Although you cannot enter (or even touch) the buildings, you can still peek through the windows and imagine what life may have been like in the area’s heyday.
After spending a little time peering into the cottages, we continued along the path. I looked for wildflowers, but we really didn’t spot much beyond bluets, wild violets, sporadic mountain laurel and a few fading trilliums. It was several weeks past peak bloom in the park’s lower elevations.
We stopped several times to enjoy and photograph the beautiful Little River. The water here tumbles over boulders and rock shelves, making many small cascades and rapids. The day was sunny and cloudless, so it was hard to take decent pictures. I did manage to find a few shady spots that were nice for photos. At one particular spot, I set up my tripod and sent Adam out to sit on a rock. He noticed a brown snake, sitting half in and half out of the water. I tried to get a photo, but as soon as I pointed my lens in his direction, the snake ducked into the water. It popped its head up one last time before diving deeper and disappearing for good. I did a little research on what kind of snake he might have been and came up with a common brown water snake.
We tried not to stop or stand still for too long, because the mosquitoes on this hike were outrageous. Even when we were moving, we were swatting. Standing still was almost unbearable. It was definitely the warmest, stillest, most humid day of our trip, so I suppose we shouldn’t have been surprised to find a riverside hike so buggy! I ended up putting a little DEET on my face. I’ve had a few mosquito bites on my eyelids that have swollen to softball size and stayed that puffy for days. It’s a very bad look for me. :-)
We soon passed a small waterfall entering from the right side of the trail. I didn’t see it mentioned in our guidebook, but apparently it’s called Huskey Branch Falls. It’s a pretty spot!
Shortly after the waterfall, we came to the junction with the Cucumber Gap Trail. Adam mentioned meeting the woman who passed along the bear warning. What I didn’t know at the time was that the only fatal bear attack in the Smokies happened close to this spot. I have a healthy respect for bears, but I’m not frightened of encountering them on the trail. Fatal encounters are rare and tragic. In the end, all we saw were lots of big snails, squirrels, and a couple pileated woodpeckers.
The Cucumber Gap trail contains the steepest climbing of the hike. About half the elevation gain on this hike takes place over a single mile on this section of trail. There wasn’t anything remarkable or unique about this part of the hike – pretty violets, tall trees, and a couple shallow stream crossings. We also managed to pick up a bit of a breeze, which helped keep the bugs away.
We soon found ourselves at a junction with a wide gravel road, we turned right and made our way to another junction with the Jakes Creek Trail. The remainder of the Elkmont cottages sit along this section of the hike. There are cabins in just about every rustic style imaginable. Apparently, Elkmont has been a controversial issue in the Smokies for years. Some people would like to see all of the buildings torn down, so that nature can take over. Others would like to see the homes restored so that the park’s origins and history can be visited and remembered. Currently, the plan lets each side of the argument win in a way.
Many of the cottages will be demolished and removed, but those that are in better condition or are historically significant will be repaired and eventually opened to the public. The area has already been added to the National Register of Historic Places. The park has additional information about the project on their website.
Near the end of the hike, we reached a paved road that passes through the densest section of Elkmont cottages. This area is definitely worth a little exploration! We enjoyed sitting on the chairs on the porch of the Appalachian Clubhouse. This building, like Spence Cabin, has already been restored and is available for event rental. The front of the building has a few signs with historical information and old photos. It sounds like it was quite the place to be back in the day!
From the clubhouse, the return to our car was just a short walk along the road. While the Cucumber Gap Loop wasn’t the most thrilling hike of our trip, it was still fun and interesting.
On our way back into Gatlinburg, Adam spotted a mother bear and two tiny cubs along the road. So, even though we didn’t see bears on the hike, we didn’t leave the Smokies without a great look at wildlife. It was a fitting final experience!
- Distance –5.6 miles
(Check out the stats from MapMyHike)*
- Elevation Change – About 900 ft.
- Difficulty – 1.5. The trail along Little River is fairly flat. There is a little elevation on the Cucumber Gap trail, but it wasn’t too tough.
- Trail Conditions – 4. The Little River Trail and Jakes Creek Trail are both gravel fire roads that are very easy to walk on. The Cucumber Gap trail was well-maintained, but somewhat overgrown in some areas.
- Views – 1. You may get an obstructed view of Burnt Mountain from the top of Cucumber Gap, but not much else.
- Streams/Waterfalls – 4. The Little River Trail has some of the best stream viewing you can see. There were some rapids, but no significant waterfalls.
- Wildlife – 3. A great spot for birding. Deer and bear have been spotted here often.
- Ease to Navigate – 3.5. There aren’t great signs around so that you know exactly how to get back to your car, but we were able to find it fairly easily (and now you should be able to as well).
- Solitude – 3. We saw a few people along the trail, but this is a little quieter than a lot of the popular trails in the park. Many people on the trail may be camping nearby.
Directions to trailhead: From the edge of Gatlinburg, enter Great Smoky Mountains National Park and head south on US-441 South for 1.7 miles. Turn right on to Little River Road and go 4.9 miles. Take a left onto Elkmont Road and continue on it past the campground for a total of 2.0 miles. Park in the small parking lot and the Little River Trail is past the locked gate.
* MapMyHike is not necessarily accurate, as the GPS signal fades in and out – but it still provides some fun and interesting information.
This ten-mile hike follows the Appalachian Trail along the Tennessee-North Carolina border. Most of the hike is above a mile high, so in open spots you get some very impressive views of the Smokies. The bald itself is rather disappointing, as it’s been mostly reclaimed by the forest, but we did enjoy the vistas and visiting two Appalachian Trail shelters.
This is a hike we planned on doing on our Spring 2012 Smokies trip, but we had so much stormy weather that we didn’t want to risk a long, mostly unprotected hike along mile-high ridgeline. So, we settled for the shorter trip to Andrews Bald. In the end, it actually turned out that Andrews Bald was a larger, more scenic bald than Silers. But, we still found many reasons beyond the slightly disappointing bald to enjoy this hike.
We started pretty early on Tuesday morning, after a lavish breakfast at The Pancake Pantry (Swedish Crepes with lingonberries!!). It was sunny in Gatlinburg, but as we made the drive toward the summit of Clingmans Dome, clouds began to envelop the mountain. At the very top, we were completely socked in. We knew it would burn off over the course of the morning, so we started the climb up the paved road to the observation tower.
From there, we picked up the Appalachian Trail. We followed it, descending downhill, sometimes steeply and sometimes gently. There were some sections of descent that caused Adam and I to look at each other and say ‘This is not going to be a fun climb back up!’
Since we were completely in the fog, we had no idea what views or scenery the trail would have to offer on the return hike. It was almost like doing one hike in the morning, and a completely different hike in the afternoon. I kind of like that! Also, the fog made the woods extremely beautiful and mysterious. There’s just something about mist and evergreens!
We saw lots of wildflowers, including some spectacular red trillium that Adam spotted. We listened to birds singing in the fog and watched the sky become increasingly brighter.
When we came to the first vista that wasn’t covered by fog, I got out my wide angle lens. Unfortunately, it had been sitting too close to my icy cold CamelBak water bag, so as soon as I got it out, it fogged up so badly I couldn’t take a single photo until it acclimated and dried out.
By the time we got to Double Springs Shelter, larger patches of blue were already opening in the sky. We took some time to read the shelter journal – lots of fun entries.
From Double Springs, the trail seemed to ascend and descend repeatedly. We watched the mileage on our GPS and thought that it was about time that we should be approaching the bald. Honestly, we could have passed it without notice. It wasn’t really much of a bald. It had been described in our guide as ‘a large, mostly grassy bald with a few heathers and berry bushes’. What we found was a small clearing with no grass, covered completely by tall bushes.
We thought ‘This can’t possibly be it!?’ But, it was – as confirmed by GPS data and our imminent arrival at the second shelter – Silers Bald Shelter. We ate lunch at the shelter – Subway and these awesome locally-made trail bars by Granola Naturals (Toffee and Chocolate Granola Crunch Bar – YUM!) that we picked up at the NOC.
Right after lunch, we headed back the way we came. The hike back was tough, hiking ten miles after climbing LeConte the day before was probably not the best plan. But when we’re in the Smokies – we hike ‘til we drop.
Most of the way was hard, but not unbearably tough. However, the last push to Clingmans Dome was about a mile of very steep climbing. My legs were screaming and all I could think was ‘put one foot in front of the other, repeat, repeat, repeat’. The only thing that softened the pain of the climb were the spectacular views! These views made me oooh and ahhh repeatedly. Despite my exhaustion, I kept thinking ‘This is so darn gorgeous – worth every sore muscle and drop of sweat!’
There is nothing like hiking a mile-high ridge that offers views of the Smokies rolling out beneath you.
Back at the Clingmans Dome observation tower, we were met by massive crowds. Lots of people had questions and made comments about our trekking poles. An older guy called us ‘show-offs’ – not really sure why, but it was done jokingly. Adam and I really enjoyed seeing our first clear view from the tower. The two previous visits had both been low visibility/cloudy, so this visit was a real treat!
After the hike, we headed back into town for a massive feast on Mellow Mushroom pizza followed by Kilwins Ice Cream and free samples of just about every wine, whiskey and moonshine offered in Gatlinburg. I think the town offers so many free alcohol samples to loosen tourists’ purse-strings. After 14 moonshine samples, who knows – you may just wake up owning a new airbrushed t-shirt that says ‘Sexy and I Know It’ (not that I did that).
Christine and I had tried to get into good hiking shape for our trip to the Smokies. We had grand ideas of all we wanted to accomplish – Christine had picked about 120 miles of hiking trails she wanted to do. Christine did a much better job than I of getting in to shape. Accomplishing this 10 mile hike after finishing about 11.5 miles of hiking through steep terrain up Mount LeConte the previous day, took a toll on me. Since this hike is almost all downhill until you reach the bald and the shelter, I was dreading the return trip.
We enjoyed our trip last year to Andrews Bald where we were able to relax at a scenic spot from the bald area. Silers Bald is not very “bald” at all. In fact, I would say it doesn’t even show much of a receding hairline. But, there were some nice views along the trail elsewhere.
As Christine mentioned, we started off the hike in the thick fog. Visibility was minimal. We were hoping that the hike would be similar to our first hike up Mount Rogers, where it felt like a different hike on the return trip. Luckily, the fog lifted to give us this same experience. It also made us feel that we were continuing to hike to get the best views; otherwise, this hike would have been more of a disappointment if we had the best views early.
We started off by hiking from the Clingman’s Dome parking lot up the steep hill for .5 miles. The walk on the paved road is short, but very steep. There is a reason there are benches on the side of the paved trail. – it can be a challenge for those out of shape. Most of the people that are visiting Clingman’s Dome will just walk up the paved trail and return without venturing further. Expect to see a ton of people on this part of the trail, but you’ll have a lot of seclusion for the rest of the trail. After you near the winding tower of Clingman’s Dome, take the trail to the left that begins your hike on the Appalachian Trail. You’ll stay on the Appalachian Trail throughout your hike. At .75 miles, the trail opens up into an area filled with views along the trail. Continue to go downhill (you’ll descend about 1100 feet over a little over the next two miles). At 2.75 miles, you’ll reach a junction with the Goshen Prong Trail. Continue to go downhill and at 3.25 miles, you’ll reach the Double Spring Gap Shelter. The trail goes up and down slightly over this next section and at 3.75 miles, you’ll reach a smaller bald area known as Jenkins Knob.
We found Jenkins Knob to be a little more impressive than Silers Bald in terms of views and openness. The trail continues to mostly go downhill until it finally bottoms out around 4.5 miles. At this point, the trail begins an uphill climb to Silers Bald. At 4.7 miles, you pass the junction with the Welch Ridge Trail. The trail becomes quite steep at this point until you reach the top of Silers Bald. We found a USGS benchmark on the ground to signify the top of Silers Bald. The trail begins to descend from the benchmark and opens up to the area that is Silers Bald. The trail goes through the small bald area and reaches the Silers Bald overnight shelter at 5.1 miles. Retrace your steps, largely uphill, to make your way back.
We were dreading the climb back up, especially after hiking up Mount LeConte the day before, but we were rewarded with great views as the fog and clouds lifted. As we reached the paved trail to Clingman’s Dome, we climbed up to the top of the tower and we really felt like we earned the 360-degree views. The elevation is 6643 feet (the tower adds another 45 feet) and you can stand at the top of the tower knowing you are at the highest part of the Great Smoky Mountains. This spot is actually the third highest peak east of the Mississippi, to only be beaten by Mount Mitchell and Mount Craig. We enjoyed spotting Mount LeConte from the tower, since it is the sixth highest peak east of the Mississippi. We were ecstatic to see views from Clingman’s Dome, since the last two times we had visited we had clouds hanging on the mountain. The clouds were still taking up a lot of the skies, but it didn’t prevent us from seeing miles of mountain ranges around us.
Christine mentioned that we enjoyed going back to Gatlinburg, TN and eating some pizza and drinking some free moonshine and whiskey samples. While we didn’t feel the need to buy cheesy T-shirts, I definitely felt the need to visit the Hollywood Star Cars Museum. While Christine waited for me, I toured around quickly but the highlight for me was to sit in the Batmobile from the 1966 TV show with Adam West. I grew up watching re-runs of that show and it was my older brother’s favorite show as a child, so it was great to have something to make him jealous. You can pay a little extra on the tour to have your photo taken within some of the cars. I also got to see Ecto-1 from Ghostbusters, a DeLorean from Back to the Future, KITT from Knight Rider, and the General Lee from the Dukes of Hazzard. It’s a neat place to check out if you’re into Hollywood cars.
- Distance –10 miles
(Check out the stats from MapMyHike)*
- Elevation Change – About 2200 ft. – it looks like closer to 1500 ft on GPS, but with all the rolling climbs it adds up to quite a bit more!
- Difficulty – 4. The climbing and descending never seem to end on this hike.
- Trail Conditions – 4. This was mostly nice, well-worn Appalachian Trail walking. The climb to the observation tower in paved.
- Views – 3.5. Very nice, but not quite panoramic.
- Streams/Waterfalls – 0. None on the hike.
- Wildlife – 2. We saw a lot of fresh bear scat on the hike, but no bears. Clearly, they frequent the area.
- Ease to Navigate – 4. The trail is well-marked with white blazes and signed at each junction.
- Solitude – 3. Expect thick crowds at the observation tower, thinning toward Double Spring Shelter. After Double Spring, we only saw a couple people.
Directions to trailhead: From US-441, head south a short distance from Newfound Gap. Take a right on to Clingmans Dome Road. Go 6.4 miles until you reach the large parking lot area. The paved trail up to Clingmans Dome starts at the end of the parking lot, passing a visitors center/gift shop.
* MapMyHike is not necessarily accurate, as the GPS signal fades in and out – but it still provides some fun and interesting information.
This ten mile hike of Mount LeConte is challenging but lots of fun! The scenery is diverse and beautiful – streams, views, towering rock walls, an arched rock that you get to climb through, and a visit to the famous LeConte Lodge.
When we were planning our trip to Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the hike that we were most excited to do was the hike up Mount LeConte. We hiked this trail last year by taking the Trillium Gap Trail, so it was time to try an alternate route. Last time we had talked to several people that had taken the Alum Cave trail, so we thought it may be a good option.
The weather was gorgeous this day, but we knew we had a chance for thunderstorms in the afternoon, so we decided to get as early of a start as we could. When we had hiked up via the Trillium Gap Trail, we didn’t run into a lot of hikers; however, it was evident early on this route was going to be a different story. While Christine was taking advantage of the facilities near the trailhead, I was getting nervous as I saw large groups of people starting the trail. We’re fairly fast hikers and I was worried we were going to get stuck in a jam behind families with small kids that would slow us down. Christine arrived and we got on our way.
We both jumped into the hiking and started hiking at a frenetic pace. We wanted to get in a spot that was far enough ahead of others where we could stop periodically and snap some photos. It took us a while to get separated from the larger groups, so we didn’t take as much time to enjoy the scenery in the first mile. We convinced ourselves that we could have more time to amble along on the return trip.
Some of you that have been looking through the pictures and may be asking, “Why am I wearing a Grape-Nuts T-shirt?” Well, we were contacted to be part of an ad campaign. This is the 60th anniversary of Sir Edmund Hillary’s climb up Mount Everest. On this trip, he carried Grape-Nuts with him, so they are doing a “What’s Your Mountain?” campaign. About 60 people were given swag and Grape-Nuts samples to hand out on their climb. As I was telling people about our trip, I heard many people weren’t even aware that Grape-Nuts was still around. Personally, I remember my grandmother loving them but I didn’t like them as a kid (in comparison with my favorite sugar cereals like Fruit Loops, Cap’n Crunch, and Franken Berry). The samples they sent were for their Grape-Nuts Fit Cranberry Vanilla. After trying them out, they are quite tasty and a good trail snack with 6g of protein. Give them a try (Christine likes mixing a serving with her greek yogurt for breakfast).
The trailhead starts from the Alum Cave Bluff parking lot on US-441. At the trailhead, there is a larger map and some trail information guides you can purchase for $ .50. You will immediately cross a bridge over the Walker Camp Prong stream. The trail starts off very flat, but you know you’ll have lots of climbing to do later on in the hike. The first mile of the hike goes along the Alum Cave Creek. There are several options to jump slightly off the main trail to take in the scenes of the cascading creek. At 1.4 miles, you will reach a footbridge to cross Styx Branch before you reach the interesting geological feature known as Arch Rock. Arch Rock is basically a hollowed-out rock tunnel. You will climb up some steep stairs with a guideline as you go through to the top. Once you emerge out of the top, you go a little further and then reach another footbridge to cross Styx Branch one more time.
The trail begins to climb more steeply at this point as you make your way to Alum Cave Bluffs. At 2.4 miles, you start to come across a larger rock outcropping. As the trail starts to climb around this, you behold the enormous Alum Cave Bluffs. With the word “cave” being in the title, your initial expectations would be a large cave would be here. However, the cave bluffs are basically a humongous rock overhang. It is still jaw-dropping impressive and unlike anything I’ve seen. The ground underneath is dry and dusty. We saw a few drops of moisture come over the edge, but the overhang reaches out about 60 feet. Standing at one end of the outcrop looking at people at the other end, gives you a perspective of how large of an area this is.
From the Alum Cave Bluffs, you will see a sign that shows the direction to continue up Mount LeConte. The trail climbs steeply for the next .4 miles, passing some views of Little Duck Hawk Ridge. The trail reaches a peak and then descends into a saddle for another .4 miles. The trail begins to climb again rather steeply for a good portion of the remainder of the hike as you make your way up the mountain. Along the way, you will pass by a rock slide, which opens up to some gorgeous views with nothing but layers of mountain ridges to see. At 3.8 miles, you reach a set of stairs on a switchback to continue your climb. The trail eventually comes into a steep, rocky climb with cables put in to use as handrails (since this trail gets very icy with little sun in the winter).
The trail finally starts to level off at mile 4.75 as you enter into a tunnel of fraser fir trees. Continue on a short distance and then you’ll reach a junction with the Rainbow Falls Trail. Continue a few hundred feet and you’ll reach the LeConte lodge.
Getting a spot at the LeConte Lodge is competitive and highly coveted by Smokies visitors. Reservations are made by lottery and typically start booking in early October for the following year, so it takes some planning and a little luck to be able to stay in one of these spots on top of the mountain. We were lucky enough to get a spot here last year and we hope that we’ll do it again in the future.
From the cabin area, we wanted to get some nice views and headed up the main path until we reached a junction. Hang to the right to go to the Cliff Top trail. This trail is rocky and quite steep. The sign says that it is .2 miles to the top, but it feels longer than that. However, when you get to the Cliff Top area, you will have great views for miles on a clear day. After taking in the views and handing out some Grape-Nuts samples, we grabbed a sack lunch from the dining room to refuel for our trip back down. We talked with some fellow hikers at the top and relaxed for a while. After staying up there a previous year, it was hard to motivate ourselves to head back down.
On our way back down, the trip went by fairly quickly since everything was downhill. It’s always interesting when you see people hiking uphill that look like they are in complete misery. We spotted one woman, who was staring daggers at her husband (who I’m guessing convinced her to go hiking). Her daughter was hanging back with her and said, “I love you, mom”. The mother’s response was, “That’s nice”. She was definitely not having a good time hiking. We imagined how the father was going to get an earful for the rest of day.
If you are interested in geocaching, there are not a lot that are available in Great Smoky Mountains National Park since the national park prevents physical caches from being placed. However, there is a virtual cache on the trail to find – Alum Cave Bluff.
Monday morning dawned in spectacular fashion. It was cool, sunny and crystal clear. Even the typical haze that makes the Smokies seem smoky was absent. That was such a treat, because clear air really lets you appreciate the magnificent, green, lushness of the mountains in this area.
We kicked off our morning with breakfast at Mountain Perks – a little café and espresso bar across from the train depot in Bryson City. The owners, Jeff and Pam Pulley are so friendly and are ready to serve local tips alongside their tasty breakfast and even better coffee. I left there with a pound of their ‘Black Widow’ roast coffee to enjoy at home after the trip.
Fully fed and caffeinated, we made our way into the park. On the way to the Alum Cave Bluff trailhead, we spotted a couple elk grazing in a pasture just north of the Occonaluftee visitor center. What a treat!
We got to the Alum Cave Bluff parking area around 9:30, and found that it was already 100% full. We had to park a ways up the road on a pullout. We geared up, and hit the trail – along with dozens and dozens and dozens of other people. I’ve rarely hiked with so many people on the trail at the same time – even on Old Rag. I’ll admit, it made me a little stressed. As you might have guessed, I stop frequently to take photos along the way. Also, Adam and I are relatively fast hikers. So, when I stop to take photos, we end up leap-frogging the same people over and over again. That’s not a problem when there are only a few groups on a trail, but coming up on the heels of large multi-generational families time after time makes me feel bad. It’s easy to pass a couple, it’s more disruptive to squeeze past ten people, six of them kids under the age of ten. I probably didn’t take as many photos early in the hike as usual so that I could avoid being disruptive.
The first couple miles of the hike were relatively easy, following a stream and climbing very gently through the moss covered forest. The terrain changed when we reached Arch Rock. After crossing a log footbridge, stone steps led uphill steeply through an arch of stone. Very cool!
After the arch, the trail began to climb more steeply. In several places, wire was affixed to the rocky side of the trail to help you keep your footing over narrow, slick areas. We climbed uphill for about .7 of a mile before reaching the famous Alum Cave Bluff. Along the way, the trail alternated between rocky and forested. There was even one nice view on a rocky, sand myrtle-covered turn in the trail.
WOW! I had seen photos of the Bluffs, but they were even more impressive in person. The rock wall soared and arched overhead, forming an immense overhang. The terrain beneath the arch was dry and silty. It was tough to walk on and I imagine this area is tough to traverse when it’s wet and rainy.
I think a good number of people stop at the Bluff and then return to the parking area, so the trail traffic was much lighter after passing that area. We pressed on toward the summit of LeConte.
After the Bluff, the climbing is serious and steady. There are also a number of great views along the way. The Smokies really take my breath away. I kept thinking about how lucky and blessed I am to visit such places and have the physical capability to enjoy the tough climbs.
Eventually the trail turned a corner and leveled out and passed arrow-straight through an evergreen forest. The trail bed looked almost like cobblestones – white, round, smooth rocks. From that point, we had an easy .75 mile walk until we arrived at LeConte lodge.
At LeConte, we did all the obligatory things – took our photo in front of the dining hall with the elevation marker/date, said hello to the llamas, visited the office to get our exclusive summit-shop-only 2013 shirts, sat on rocking chairs, drank copious amounts of LeConte lemonade with our bagged lunches and made the .2 mile climb to enjoy the view from Cliff Tops.
Being at the top on a nice day was such a different experience than our 2012 visit in the rain! However, as the afternoon wore on, we noticed that some darker clouds were starting to build in the sky. We headed back down after about an hour at the summit.
The hike down went very quickly – all downhill! It’s amazing how much faster you can descend 2700 feet than you can climb it! We saw several cute red squirrels that took the time to chatter loudly at us. We scared a grouse from it’s resting spot – and the grouse scared us equally back! They really explode out of the brush when they startle!
We enjoyed passing back under Arch Rock and taking some time to enjoy the beautiful stream beside the trail. We were back at the car by 3:00, tired but really happy with our day.
That evening for dinner, we rewarded ourselves with a feast at the Smoky Mountain Brewery. I got the Brewery Ale Steak, which might be one of the tastiest steaks I’ve ever eaten. I also really liked their Tuckaleechee Porter.
- Distance –10 miles + a little extra for walking around the lodge grounds and up to the Cliff Tops Viewpoint
(Check out the stats from MapMyHike)*
- Elevation Change – About 2650 ft.
- Difficulty – 4.5. The hike up Mount LeConte is quite steep and the length of the hike makes this a tough one.
- Trail Conditions – 4. The trail is well-used and maintained, so we didn’t find much difficulty. During heavy times of rain or ice, parts of the rocky areas could be incredibly slick.
- Views – 4. The best views are along the hike up to Mount LeConte and at the Cliff Top overlook.
- Streams/Waterfalls – 3. Early in the hike, you do get some nice views of Alum Cave Creek and Styx Branch.
- Wildlife – 2. We did see some cute red squirrels, but last year people had seen a bear. There were some nice spots for birdwatching though.
- Ease to Navigate – 4. There are not many places to get steered wrong based on signage and the trail was always clear.
- Solitude – 0. On a nice day, expect heavy crowds on the way up to Alum Cave Bluffs. After that point, there should be fewer people on the way up Mount LeConte; however, this is definitely the most popular way up Mount LeConte.
Directions to trailhead: From Gatlinburg, TN take US 441-S into Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Go 11 miles. Parking is available in a large lot on the left or alongside the road. The trailhead starts near an opening on the southern side of the parking lot.
* MapMyHike is not necessarily accurate, as the GPS signal fades in and out – but it still provides some fun and interesting information.
The 4-mile Kephart Prong hike ascends gently along a beautiful stream and end at the backcountry campsite – Kephart Shelter. This hike offers lovely cascades, wildflowers and history.
Our second day in the Smokies was earmarked for a hike to the summit of Mount LeConte, but we woke to gloomy weather. We decided that we didn’t want to hike ten tough miles and not even get payoffs in terms of views, so we devised a new plan! After redoing our Deep Creek Waterfall Loop Hike to get better photos, we were still ready for more hiking.
I perused our hiking guide and found a trail called Kephart Prong. It sounded interesting – remnants of an old railroad and a CCC camp, a backcountry camping shelter and the trail followed a (possibly pretty) stream. After redoing the earlier hike, the 4-mile length of the Kephart Prong was appealing, too – short and sweet! Also, it had the benefit of being closer to the Bryson City side of the park where we were staying for the early part of our trip.
It was still morning, so we grabbed a snack and made our way to the trail. What we found exceeded my expectations. The stream was incredibly beautiful – rapids and small waterfalls tumbling over mossy rocks and fallen hemlocks. In at least four places, rough, hewn log bridges traversed the stream. The sounds of running water carried through the entire hike. We saw lots of wildflowers – pink lady slippers, wild geranium, ragwort and many others I couldn’t name.
The hike climbed gently the entire two miles until eventually arriving at the Kephart shelter – a sturdy stone and timber hut intended for backcountry camping. We chatted with other dayhikers using the hut for a lunch stop and one man who was there for an overnight stay.
Signs near the shelter showed that the Kephart Trail connects to the Sweat Heifer and Appalachian Trails. If we had continued to climb past the shelter, we would have arrived at Charlie’s Bunion in several miles.
Despite the draw of the Bunion, lunch was a higher calling, so we made our way back down the trail. It’s amazing how much faster the climb down always goes! We got back to the car around 1:00 and were back in Cherokee by 1:30. We couldn’t find anything that sounded good and was actually open on Sunday, so we pressed on back to Bryson City and ended up at a place we found on Yelp – The Bar-B-Que Wagon. They served great, traditional Carolina style pit barbecue with all the expected sides. We sat at a picnic table by the river and enjoyed an enormous, late lunch.
After lunch, we thought about going back to the hotel to shower, but instead we pushed on to visit the NOC (Nantahala Outdoor Center). The complex has a fantastic outdoor outfitter and a super cool riverside patio bar (Big Wesser BBQ + Brew). We got a few drinks and watched rafters and kayakers working the rapids. So relaxing! What a great day!
The Kephart Prong Trail is one of the most definitive picturesque, riverside trails you’ll find. The lush forests surround you in a sea of green in every direction you turn.
The trail starts off by crossing a large bridge, giving you great views of the Oconaluftee River. Once you cross the bridge, the trail starts off as wide and gravel-covered. At .2 miles, you will come across the remnants of the Civilian Conservation Corps camp that was here from 1933-1942. You’ll see signs of a stone plaque and a tall chimney, among other partial walls.
At the .5 mile mark, you’ll reach your first footbridge over the stream. As you continue further, the trail continues a slow, gradual ascent to the end. You’ll cross three other footbridges, but these consist of narrow, split logs with wood handrails. The last of these was the only one I was a little concerned with crossing, since the handrail required you to stoop to be able to touch it and the log bounced some in the middle. The trail leads to the Kephart shelter, which was well-constructed. From the shelter, you can proceed on the Sweet Heifer Creek Trail which joins the Appalachian Trail in 3.7 miles or take the Grassy Branch Trail to the Sluice Gap Trail for a total of 3.8 miles to reach Charlies Bunion. Since this is a nice junction for an overnight trip, expect other people staying at the shelter in the nice summer-fall weekends. Backcountry reservations for overnight campers is $4/night and is required to be made in advance. See here for further regulations regarding backpacking permits.
The Kephart Prong is named after Horace Kephart, who was instrumental in the establishment of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. He was an extremely intelligent man, enrolling in graduate school at Cornell University at the age of 17. He became the head of the St. Louis Mercantile Libray, but he lost his job. He had turned to drinking and his wife and family left him for New York. He decided he wanted to re-establish himself in the wilderness of western North Carolina and Tennessee. There he wrote the book Camping and Wildlife, which was considered the “bible” of camping. When he became concerned that the Smoky Mountains were going to be heavily logged, he started writing letters to advocate for the establishment of this area as a national park. He soon became friends with a photographer, George Masa and together they started photographing and mapping this area. It was the partnering of Kephart’s words with Masa’s pictures that caught John D. Rockefeller Jr.’s attention, who donated $5 million to help purchase the lands to help secure the area to become a park. Kephart died in a car crash before the park was to be established, but Mount Collins was renamed Mount Kephart in his honor.
Another interesting spot almost immediately on the trail are the remnants of the site of the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) camp 411 here. You can see the large chimney and camp signboard on the side of the trail. This group of nearly 200 built rock walls, roads, trails, and footbridges that are still in use today. There is an interesting history of this from one of the leaders, James William Biggs.
We enjoyed this beautiful trail and I can see incorporating this trail as part of a backpacking trip in the future.
- Distance –4 miles
(Check out the stats from MapMyHike)*
- Elevation Change – About 770 ft.
- Difficulty – 1.5. The ascent on this hike is very gradual and easy.
- Trail Conditions – 4. The trail is well-graded and in great condition.
- Views – 0. No scenic views.
- Streams/Waterfalls – 5. Very beautiful!
- Wildlife – 2. We didn’t see anything other than chipmunks and squirrels.
- Ease to Navigate – 4. The trail is very easy to follow to the shelter. Once you reach the Kephart Shelter, you may decide to continue on.
- Solitude – 2. Because of the relatively short length and easiness of this hike, you will probably see a fair number of people.
Directions to trailhead: Head north on US-441 N from Cherokee, NC. Head 4 miles north of the Smokemont Campground. Parking is available on the shoulder of the road and the trail starts after crossing the bridge over the Oconaluftee River.
Deep Creek is an area of the Smokies popular with tubers, bikers, horseback riders and hikers. This (roughly) 5.4 mile hiking route provides spectacular views of three waterfalls and the beautiful streams that feed them. We ended up hiking this trail twice on our trip – the second time was mostly to get better photos. :-)
If you haven’t visited the Smokies before, check out our overview post from 2012 – Intro to Great Smoky Mountains National Park
We rolled into Bryson City, NC around 2:15 and almost immediately headed out for a hike. We were tired but our hotel wouldn’t let us check in even 45 minutes early. Evidently, the Microtel in Bryson City is very strict with their policies! We decided to do something close by, so we headed to Deep Creek campground for this hike with three waterfalls.
We knew we were getting close to the campground when we saw tons of “TUBES” signs. People were waving as we drove by, hoping that we would stop and rent tubes from them for floating down the river.
We arrived and got changed in the parking lot and made our way to the trailhead. The parking lot was crowded, mainly for tubing people. We followed the masses heading out carrying their inner tubes to their drop-in spots.
We started on the Deep Creek trail and soon passed the junction with the Juney Whank trail on the left. In just about .25 miles, we came across the first waterfall on the right, Toms Branch falls. This is a gorgeous waterfall that drops about 60 feet over several different rock shelves before plummeting into Deep Creek. We saw several people floating down the creek as we stopped for some photographs.
At .75 miles, we reached the junction with the Indian Creek Trail. This is actually the last spot where people can drop their tubes into the creek, but we continued on the Deep Creek trail. At 1.75 miles, this trail intersects with the Loop Trail. We took a right on to the Loop Trail which starts a steep ascent. At 2.4 miles, the trail reaches its peak and intersects with the Sunkota Ridge Trail. Continue on the Loop Trail which now descends at about the same rate as it ascended. At 3.0 miles, you reach the junction with the Indian Creek Trail. Take a right here.
At 3.8 miles, you’ll see a side trail that descends to Indian Creek Falls. Indian Creek Falls is a wide waterfall that has a gradual, sliding cascade into the water. After taking in the sight, head back to the trail and continue to the right. Shortly after passing the waterfall, you will reach the junction again with the Deep Creek Trail. Take a left here to retrace your steps. You could make this a shorter trip by initially taking a right at the junction, but we enjoyed putting a little extra effort to earn all three waterfalls.
Right before you reach the parking lot, you’ll see the junction trail again with the Juney Whank trail at 4.5 miles. Take the steep trail to the right up for .3 miles. Once you reach the top, you’ll see Asian which points you to the next waterfall. Descend down a short path and you’ll reach a footbridge and the waterfall. Juney Whank Falls is another great waterfall that plunges down after about a 80 foot cascade.
Continue to the other side of the footbridge and continue on the trail, heading left at the first junction. The trail descends rather steeply. You’ll see signs that lead you to the parking lot and back to your car.
We had a great time on this trail that maximizes your waterfall experience. The Deep Creek Trail and Indian Creek Trail both gave you great creek views almost the entire walk and it was fun to watch everyone float by us. I can see why this is such a popular place to hike and tube for families. We saw one person with a foot cast and met one woman with a pacemaker along the way, so most people should be able to handle this. If you want to see some great Smokies waterfalls, this is a hike for you!
We wanted to do this hike last year when we visited Bryson City, but with so much to do in the Smokies, we just ran out of time. This year, we knew the lay of the land a bit better, and we ready to hit the ground running (or hiking, so to speak!)
We arrived to the area mid-afternoon on the Saturday of Memorial Day weekend. We tried to get into our hotel one before official check-in, but the desk clerk turned us away. We decided to drive over to the Deep Creek Campground, and check out an easy loop hike that took us by a couple waterfalls – Toms Branch Falls and Indian Creek Falls.
I changed clothes in the crowded parking lot. Let me tell you… switching from jeans and a shirt into shorts, wicking shirt and sports bra without flashing anyone is quite a feat!
We started off along a wide, road-like trail that followed parallel to Indian Creek. It was packed with people out enjoying the warm, sunny weather. Apparently, the Smokies have had an exceedingly cold and wet spring, so the bright, 80-degree Memorial Day weekend was a great chance for everyone in eastern Tennessee to go outside. Deep Creek is very popular with tubers. All up and down the road leading to the campground, various vendors have set up shop renting tubes for roughly $5 a day. Once you have a tube, you walk about a mile up the trail, and then bob and bump along the shallow, but rapid-y river. It looks like a lot of fun! As hikers, we were in the definite minority.
Walking along the Deep Creek Trail for about .25 miles, we came to the lovely Toms Branch Falls. It’s a tall waterfall that enters Deep Creek from the bank opposite the trail. Very impressive!
We walked along the creek until reaching a junction that makes a lollipop loop on the route. We decided to follow the longer arm of the loop so that we could visit Indian Creek Falls closer to the end of our hike. The trail mostly followed the stream before turning and climbing steadily uphill for about half a mile. At the highest point, the trail met the Sunkota Ridge Trail, which leads to higher elevations and a larger trail system. We remained on the loop and descended another half mile to meet another trail junction.
At this junction, we met a group of horseback riders. One rider was really struggling with her mule. She had dismounted because he had become so skittish. When we passed, he was bellowing and dancing around. She eventually got him under control and was able to ride on. He looked like quite a handful though!
In a few more tenths of a mile, we came upon Indian Creek Falls. These falls are not as steep, and are made up of a couple of small ‘shelf-drops’ before falling into one larger fall. Very beautiful!
About a tenth of a mile past the falls, you join back up with the beginning of the lollipop loop. From there, just follow the trail and the tubers back to the parking area.
To be honest, I was really unhappy with my photos from this hike. Waterfalls, sunny conditions and photography simply don’t go together. So, I left this hike feeling a little disappointed with the photos I had to share. That regret quickly faded after a few beers at the Nantahala Brewing Company. What an awesome place! If you like craft beer, don’t miss a visit. After beers, we went for pizza at Anthony’s. It hit the spot and we loved our outdoor table facing the train depot.
I thought our experience with the waterfall hike was over, but the next morning we woke to gloomy, drizzly weather. Since it was such an easy hike, we went back and did it again so I could get better photos. And the second time, we added the .6 mile loop to visit Juney Whank Falls to the trip. These falls required a short, but steep climb, but may have been the prettiest of the three! And the better photos gained from a second trip around made this hike twice as nice!
- Distance –5.4 miles
(Check out the stats from MapMyHike)*
These stats are from the first time we hiked the loop, so Juney Whank Falls are not included in the MapMyHike mileage or elevation.
- Elevation Change – About 630 ft.
- Difficulty – 2. The only tough parts of this hike are the steep trail on the Loop Trail and the side trail to the Juney Whank falls
- Trail Conditions – 4. Most of the trail is gravel except for the Loop Trail. This is a multi-use trail and you will see hikers, bikers, and horses on this trail. The trails were in great shape with no blowdowns or rough footing.
- Views – 0. No scenic views from the trail, but this is more for the waterfalls.
- Streams/Waterfalls – 5. You’ll have the best stream views along Deep Creek and three gorgeous waterfalls.
- Wildlife – 2. Don’t expect larger wildlife due to the crowds of people on this trail. We did hear lots of pretty warblers in the tree.
- Ease to Navigate – 4. Good signage at the trail junctions for the most part except for coming off the Juney Whank falls trail.
- Solitude – 1. Expect to see lots of people for most of the trail. A lot of people choose not to do the Loop Trail.
Directions to trailhead: Take exit 67 off of NC-74 towards Veterans Blvd. Go .6 miles and take a right on Main Street/NC-19. Take the second left on to Everett Street. You’ll see signs directing you to Deep Creek Campground. Go .3 miles and take a right on Depot Street. This road makes a quick left on Collins Street and then a quick right to continue on to Depot Street. This becomes Deep Creek Road. Go .3 miles and take a left on to West Deep Creek Road. Continue 2.4 miles until you enter the Great Smoky Mountains National Park – Deep Creek campground. A parking lot is on the left. The trailhead starts near the drop-off roundabout next to this parking lot.
This 7.3 mile loop has a bit of everything – views, waterfalls, history! The route takes you over Hazeltop Mountain, along several streams and past President Hoover’s Rapidan Camp.
We love hiking in this part of Shenandoah! It’s the area we typically choose when we have out-of-town friends who want to visit Shenandoah National Park. It’s also a likely choice when we’re hitting the trail with hiking newbies. Why? Well… we think it’s pretty much perfect. The climbing isn’t difficult, so it helps convince non-hikers that hiking isn’t just torturous uphill climbing. This area is great for spotting wildlife. (In his portion of the post, Adam will tell you more about the exciting wildlife experience he shared with his office.) It’s also scenic, with lovely streams and a waterfall along the route. There is even a significant piece of American history sitting in the middle of the forest – the Rapidan Camp, which served as Herbert Hoover’s presidential retreat.
Our normal route in the area is a relatively easy 4 mile out-and-back to ‘Camp Hoover’. For this post, we decided to go the long way and make a 7.3 mile loop incorporating the Appalachian Trail, the Laurel Prong Trail and the Mill Prong Trail. This longer route added a nice view, many stream crossings and a bit more elevation gain.
We parked at Milam Gap. The hike started across Skyline Drive on the AT, headed southbound. Almost immediately, the trail began a long, gentle ascent to the summit of Hazeltop Mountain. The AT is so well-worn into the mountain that the path looked like a ribbon of dirt through the bright green of spring grass. On this particular May morning, the trail was abundantly lined with my favorite wildflower – Trillium. They were everywhere with big showy flowers in pink and white. We also saw (and heard) many birds. The prettiest songs came from the eastern towhees. This type of towhee has striking orange, white and black markings, which makes them easy to spot.
After almost two miles of climbing, we reached the high point of the hike on Hazeltop Mountain. There was one nice place to take in the view. It was really windy on the rocky outcropping, but I enjoyed looking out over the spring-green valley. From the viewpoint, we hiked downhill for almost half a mile to reach the junction of the AT and the Laurel Prong Trail.
The Laurel Prong trail descends all the way to Camp Hoover. Along the way, you’ll get some obstructed views from the trail, especially when trees are without their leaves. There are lots of rocks and boulders lining the path, especially right at the beginning. The lower parts of the Laurel Prong trail pass through a mix of open forest and mountain laurel thickets. As you approach the low point of the hike, you should begin to hear the sounds of water. Most of the time, streams along this trail will be shallow to non-existent. When we hiked, it was after several days of heavy rain. Single-step crossings became multi-rock hops and in many places the trail was under several inches of rain. It was fun to cross so much water!
At around the 5.25 mile mark, we reached Camp Hoover. It was a great spot to eat lunch, soak in the sunshine and enjoy the sound of rushing water. The camp is built at the headwaters of the Rapidan River, making it an ideal fishing spot. Most of the buildings that made up the camp have been lost to the ravages of time, but several cabins, including the president’s personal residence, have been renovated and preserved and are now open to the public (check park schedules for tour opportunities!).
While Adam napped in the sun, I went and did battle with my new carbon fiber tripod. It’s really light and stable, but it’s like an engineering puzzle to get it initially set up! I may have threatened to throw the tripod into the river. I guess I should look at this hike as the tripod’s dress rehearsal. It can prove its true worth on another hike. Besides, it really wasn’t a good day for taking photos of moving water (too sunny), but I think I was able to capture the impressive flow we witnessed on this day. I’ve never seen the streams around Camp Hoover flowing so powerfully! There were rapids and small waterfalls in places I’ve never seen them before. It was beautiful!
After leaving Camp Hoover, we walked the trail along the Mill Prong. There is one spot where the trail crosses the stream (right below Big Rock Falls). We probably could have rock-hopped if we were careful, but both Adam and I decided to take off our boots and put on our Crocs to wade across the stream. The water came over my knees, which is really high for this spot.
After crossing, we took a few minutes to enjoy Big Rock Falls and then made our way back toward Milam Gap. For much of the way, the trail stayed close to the stream. We had several more stream crossings to complete, but none that required a shoe swap. The last couple miles of the hike went quickly, and we were back at the car by early afternoon.
We were surprised by how few people we ran into on the hike. I would have expected big crowds on a perfect, sunny Mother’s Day, but we really only saw a handful of people – a few backpackers making a short overnight of the loop and a pair of birders at the camp. I suppose we saw a few more people as we hiked back up the Mill Prong trail, but overall the crowds were light.
If I were to recommend a version of this hike – the 4 mile out and back or the 7.3 mile loop, I think I’d probably stick with the shorter version. The longer version is nice, and great if you’re looking to pick up some mileage, but there’s really not a lot to see on the Laurel Prong and there are nicer views in the park than Hazeltop. The main reasons to hike in this area are Camp Hoover and beautiful stream scenery; and you get both of those on the shorter out-and-back.
The hike down to the Rapidan Camp is always one of our favorites in Shenandoah National Park. We have taken several groups of people down to this area. When I talk to people about Shenandoah National Park, they have no idea that a Presidential retreat was once here and how this helped to establish a national park in Virginia. This route adds a view to the hike for an extra bonus. If you would like a map of the hiking area in advance, download one here.
We’ve seen that on Hiking Upward and in our Hiking Shenandoah National Park Falcon Guide the hike was done in the reverse direction that we did the hike. But, our way has less of a continuous elevation climb and it puts Camp Hoover in the last third of the route (save the best for last!). We started off from the Milam Gap parking area and crossed Skyline Drive near the southern entrance to the lot to start on the Appalachian Trail. Heading southbound on the white-blazed AT, we quickly came across the junction with the Mill Prong Trail. This is your return route, so continue to go straight. The trail gradually climbs up a total of 450 feet. You reach a nice viewpoint to the right of the trail around 1.8 miles before you reach the Hazeltop summit in 1.9 miles.
The trail then begins to descend and at 2.6 miles, you reach the junction with the Laurel Prong Trail on the left. Take this blue-blazed trail which continues to descend. At the 3.6 mile, you will pass a junction with the Cat Knob Trail but stay on the Laurel Prong Trail. At 4.9 miles, you reach another junction with the Fork Mountain Trail, but again stay on the Laurel Prong Trail. The trail changes to yellow-blazed at this point, since it is now accessible to horses. At 5.3 miles, you will pass by a fire road on the left and then come up to a side trail for Five Tents. The Five Tents location was where some of the staff would stay at the Rapidan Camp, but there is no longer a building there. Christine took this route, but I stayed straight and we met up shortly at the Rapidan Camp, entering near the Prime Minister’s Cabin.
Upon leaving the Brown House at Rapidan Camp, we caught the trail heading past the Creel Cabin. Crossing the fire road, we picked up the yellow-blazed Mill Prong Trail which gradually ascends most of the way. At 5.5 miles, you will cross Mill Prong (which may require you to wade across the water after heavy rainfall) and reach Big Rock Falls on the other side. At 5.9 miles, you reach a junction with the Mill Prong Horse Trail. Continue straight instead of taking this trail, but the blazes change to blue as it is no longer a horse trail. The trail crosses Mill Prong again and then you will have a gradual climb back up. At 7.3 miles, you reach the Appalachian Trail junction again. Take a right and in a short distance you’ll reach the parking lot.
Last year, I brought a few of my co-workers down to the Rapidan camp for a team-building retreat. I felt that if it was good enough for the President, it should be good enough for us. When we arrived, a volunteer who stayed at the Creel Cabin, gave us a tour of the Brown House, where President Hoover stayed. We learned a lot about Hoover, the problems he faced during his presidency, and his relationship to Franklin D. Roosevelt. After the tour, we did some team-building and communication exercises to learn more about how to work best with each other. While we were in the middle of making some breakthroughs, a small snake fell down off the roof just a few feet from where we were working. One of my co-workers, who is not a hiker by any definition, jumped out of her seat and was constantly looking around for other animals. After we made our way back up, we were talking along the way. I heard some people say, “Adam, look out”. I nearly walked right into a mama bear with three cubs. The family of bears quickly took off up the hill. I had told my co-workers that I’m usually pretty good at finding bears and we may see some. They were thrilled to see the cubs, as a few of them had never seen a bear cub before.
Along with the possibilities of seeing bears, you can usually find this trail to be an excellent trail for birding. The Laurel Prong and Mill Prong trails were filled with beautiful songs as we hiked along. A couple that was hiking near us also recognized the song of a blackburnian warbler.
If you’re up for a longer hike to the Rapidan Camp, I would suggest this route. The views from near Hazeltop summit were expansive, you get to see a nice waterfall, hear the songs of birds, and learn about the history of one of our Presidents and how it helped create a national park in Virginia. This hike does have it all!
- Distance – 7.3 miles
(Check out the stats from MapMyHike)*
- Elevation Change – 1100 ft
- Difficulty – 3. This hike is not steep or difficult, but some hiking novices might find the 7+ mile distance a little challenging.
- Trail Conditions – 4. The trails were in great shape, despite being underwater in several place. We didn’t see any blowdowns or sloppy areas.
- Waterfalls/streams – 4. Big Rock Falls, the Rapidan River, Mill Prong and Laurel Prong are all lovely and offer lots of water scenery along this hike!
- Wildlife – 4. We didn’t see much on this particular day beyond birds, but we’ve seen lots of deer and bears on past trips.
- Ease to Navigate – 4. Trail directions are clearly marked at junctions with cement markers.
- Solitude – 2. This is a popular hike, both as a day trip and a short overnight loop.
Directions to trailhead:
The hike starts at mile marker 53 on Skyline Drive. Park in the Milam Gap lot, then cross the drive. The trail picks up on the other side of the crosswalk.
The drive to the trailhead is probably tougher than the actual hike, but this 2.4 mile out-and-back in the Canaan Backcountry has spectacular views and is well worth the bumpy ride to get to the trail’s start!
This hike was definitely one of those pleasant surprises you find once in a while. We have been going to Canaan Valley for years (my wife has been going since she was a kid) and we never knew about this great place for hiking that was just a short distance from where we always stay. I’ve driven by the Canaan Loop Road and thought to myself, “I wonder where that road goes.” If I had known earlier that it led to this area of hiking, we would have tried this out a long time ago.
We had picked up the Day & Overnight Hikes: West Virginia’s Monongahela National Forest book a couple of years ago and have done a few of the hikes before. This one led us right to the Canaan Loop Road for this great out-and-back hike. When we started on the road, we passed by a few houses on the gravel, pothole-laden road and then quickly came upon a school bus parked in the middle of the road, blocking any traffic. I thought this was odd (and possibly a little like the start to a horror movie), but I didn’t see anyone inside. I walked up and saw a man about halfway down the bus that was straightening some things up. I asked if he was moving and he darted up front, started the bus, and gunned it down the road. We followed the bus for a while, but it was quickly leaving us in the dust kicked up from the gravel road. After a few miles, we came upon the bus again as it was parking for a scouting group that looked like they were packing up after a large picnic. We continued past the group on a very bumpy and narrow road that has some precarious edges that you just pray that another car doesn’t come the other way. We only came across one other vehicle on the road, but I would warn you to be cautious as you make your way along the road and drive slowly.
After driving for exactly 10 miles on the Canaan Loop Road, we came to the parking area to the left for Table Rock. We started down the trail. The trail is technically blue-blazed, but you will likely only see a few of these blazes on the trees. The trail is fairly obvious, but I can imagine after the leaves first fall, it could be a little tough to find your way. The trail starts almost in a jungle of rhododendron, but that quickly opens up to an open forest of larger beech, maple, and birch trees. The trail stays relatively flat the entire way and there are a few areas of mucky ground or pools. Rocks and logs have been placed over in some of these to help you traverse, but in some areas after a good rain, you will likely need to get your shoes wet. After about 1.1 miles, you come across a campsite. Just ahead is Table Rock.
The outcropping has phenomenal views. The rocks have crevasses that can be quite deep, so watch where you are stepping and be careful around the edges since there are huge drops below. Since this place isn’t visited often except by locals, this will be a great off-the-beaten path hike that you can likely enjoy the views all by yourself. The spruce-covered mountain across the gorge is Green Mountain. Since this trail is flat, almost anyone could enjoy this hike.
It was quite breezy at the top and I had to hold my hat a few times as the wind picked up. You can tell that this area does get a lot of wind that funnels quickly through the gorge. We look forward to coming back to this area sometime soon and visit some of the other trails that crisscross around the Canaan Loop Road.
Normally when we visit the Canaan Valley area, it’s all about hiking and nature and waterfalls! This visit was all about… cleaning. Adam and I agreed to take care of the annual spring cleaning of my parents’ rental property in the area. In the three days we were there, we scrubbed, scoured, swept and probably did more than 20 loads of laundry. It wasn’t a fun trip, but we did manage to get out for one short, nearby hike.
I have no idea how the trails off the Canaan Loop Road escaped our notice. I guess when you’re close to Dolly Sods, Seneca Rocks, and Spruce Knob, other trails fall a bit by the wayside. But, I’m really glad we took the time to drive the ten bumpy miles to this trailhead.
The hike to Table Rock was short, but had a spectacular payoff in terms of views and solitude. The path led through gorgeous forest, alternating between dense stands of rhododendron and open, mossy forest. The whole route is flat and easy, so in about 20-30 minutes, you’re already at the overlook. The rocky shelf stands over a magnificent, undeveloped valley. When we visited in mid-spring, the emergence of leaves created the effect of green creeping up the mountainsides. So beautiful! There were tons of blooming blueberry bushes in the area, too. It would be nice to visit in August and pick berries!
I also enjoyed the Painted Trillium along the trail. Most of the trillium I see along the trails in Shenandoah is plain white or pink, so seeing a different variety was a nice change of pace. We were there a little too early to see the rhododendron bloom, but most of the plants were abundant with buds. It should be really pretty when they finally open!
- Distance – 2.4 miles
(Check out the stats from MapMyHike)*
- Elevation Change – 195 ft
- Difficulty – 1. This trail is very flat, so just about anyone could enjoy it.
- Trail Conditions – 3.5. The trail isn’t that well-used, but it was still a worn path. You may have to do a little rock-hopping to make it across some of the larger puddles.
- Views – 4. Breathtaking views are clear from this point. We enjoy not being able to see houses from great viewpoints and you shouldn’t see many signs of civilization from this outcropping.
- Waterfalls/streams – 0. Non-existent.
- Wildlife – 2. Other than a few birds, we didn’t see anything on the trail.
- Ease to Navigate – 3. There is only one trail on this hike, so there shouldn’t be any confusion. The only reason to downgrade this is because it is not blazed often at all and in the fall it could be a little challenging to follow the path.
- Solitude – 5. We didn’t see anyone on a beautiful weekend day in the afternoon.
Directions to trailhead:
From Davis, WV, head south on WV 32. In 3.2 miles, turn right on to Canaan Loop Road (Forest Service Road 13). Follow the road for exactly 10 miles. The parking area is on the left and there is a wooden sign that shows the beginning of the trailhead.
This easy 5.2-mile hike leads to a beautiful waterfall on the Hazel River. The falls are surrounded by towering rock walls and a couple small caves.
Every time I think we’re running out of nearby hikes to complete, we seem to stumble across something that has escaped our notice for one reason or another. That was just the case with this beautiful, easy walk to Hazel Falls! Typically, when you think of Shenandoah’s waterfalls, you think of Dark Hollow, White Oak Canyon or Doyles River-Jones Run. It’s not very common to see photos or hear people talking about Hazel Falls. After being there in person, I’m not really sure why. It was a great hike! Although the falls are not high, I found them to be nicer than some of the park’s more popular falls – I’m looking at you Lewis Springs Falls! It’s probably spring’s higher water flow, but this small waterfall was much more impressive than some of the park’s larger falls.
The hike mostly consisted of pleasant, gentle walking through pretty forest. The last time we hiked in this area was a few years ago when we went on our very first overnight backpacking trip with PATC. That trip made a loop of Hazel Mountain and Catlett Mountain. It’s funny – I remembered the trail being a lot steeper than it seemed this time. I guess I had a heavier pack and wasn’t in very good condition on that trip.
On this particular spring day, I enjoyed seeing all the early season wildflowers blooming along the side of the trail. We had perfect weather – sunny, crisp blue skies and a nice breeze. It was ideal for hiking, but not so ideal for waterfall photography. When we finally got down to the falls, I did the best I could to capture a few decent shots under the bright mid-day sun. It didn’t go that well.
I also really enjoyed the little caves adjacent to the falls and sunning on the big flat rock next to the smaller falls. It was a gorgeous spot and I’ll look forward to visiting again.
After our hike, we decided to stop by Big Meadows for Shenandoah’s famous blackberry ice cream. Even though the park has a new concessionaire for food/gift shops, the ice cream was just as good as it’s always been!
The hike to Hazel Falls was a pleasant surprise. When looking for hiking suggestions, we typically peruse our hiking guides, study maps, and explore the internet for ideas. The 2000 edition of the Falcon Guide for Hiking Shenandoah National Park didn’t include Hazel Falls in the book, but the updated 2012 edition does cover it. So, we have to give thanks to Bert & Jane Gildert, the authors, for including this one for us to explore. As Christine said, I feel that this is a great waterfall that really allows you to sit down and take in the beauty of the setting around you.
The trail starts off from the Meadow Spring Trail parking lot. This is a popular parking spot for many hikes and overnight backpackers; we have rarely seen this lot not packed with vehicles. If you are going with a larger group, try to carpool to minimize the number of parking spots you may need. The good news is that most of the cars will likely be heading down to Buck Hollow or doing larger loops around Hazel and Catlett Mountains. The trail goes just a few feet before you reach a junction with the Buck Hollow Trail. Instead of branching off, just stay straight on the trail and walk down the wide path. The trail is mostly a slight downhill grade with some flatter sections. At 1.5 miles, you will reach a junction with the White Rocks Trail on the left. Take the White Rocks Trail. At 2.4 miles, you will reach a junction post that will direct you to take the trail to the right for the falls. Climb down the steep trail and you should reach the first, small waterfall at the bottom. Continue along the path over the rocks and you will reach the larger Hazel Falls and see the cave to the right. Make your way back the way you came to get back to your vehicle.
Because of the uncomplicated, mostly gentle terrain, this might be a great hike to do with older children. The only strenuous part of the hike was hiking the last .2 miles (the climb down will challenge your knees and the climb back up will get the blood pumping). You can tell a lot of great trail work has been done to create the stone steps that allow you to climb down without it being too slippery. The picturesque setting of the falls will encourage you to take some time to relax, eat a snack, and enjoy the sound of rushing water. The pool at the larger falls could also be one to wade into fairly easily if you like getting your feet wet.
While Christine was busy taking a lot of photos, I enjoyed peeking inside the larger cave near the falls. Christine took some coaxing to go in, since she was worried that bats would fly out. I didn’t see any bats inside or guano on the ground, but I wouldn’t be surprised if a couple of them took refuge in the top of the cave on occasion. At the falls there is also a path that leads to a small rock opening that you can climb around to get closer to the falls. As I was climbing around there, I saw a bird’s nest tucked in the top of the rocks. Sure enough, within a few minutes, I saw a bird (I believe a sparrow of some sort) fly into the nest. I hope too many people don’t disturb the nest and it is able to raise some cute chicks.
I imagine we will go back to Hazel Falls many times in the future. If you haven’t been here before, this is a waterfall that is worth checking out.
- Distance – 5.2 miles
(Check out the stats from MapMyHike)*
- Elevation Change – 800 ft
- Difficulty – 2. The final .2 mile descent (and climb back out) into the stream gorge is very steep, but the rest of the hike is flat or very gently graded.
- Trail Conditions – 3.5. There were a few blow downs that required navigation, but most of the trail is smooth, easy footing. The descent to the waterfall showcases the great work trail maintainers do in the park. They turned a extremely steep piece of terrain into a giant staircase with a series of well-placed rocks.
- Views – 0. In the winter and early spring, you may catch some glimpses of mountainsides through the trees. Otherwise, this walk takes place exclusively in the woods.
- Waterfalls/streams – 4. Though the waterfall is not tall, it’s it a lovely setting surrounded by towering rock walls and small caves.
- Wildlife – 2. We didn’t see anything on this trip, but we have spotted bears and deer in the vicinity on past trips.
- Ease to Navigate – 4. Trail directions are clearly marked at junctions with cement markers.
- Solitude – 2.5. The parking lot was jam-packed on a pretty, sunny Saturday afternoon, but there are lots of trail options in this area. We saw about 15 people over the course of the hike.
Directions to trailhead:
From Skyline Drive proceed to mile 33.5. Parking is on the east side of the drive at the Meadow Spring parking area. The trail descends from the south end of the parking lot.