Rich Mountain Loop
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.