Rocky Bald (NC)

Special: Smokies Edition

Introductory Guide to Visiting Great Smoky Mountains National Park
(while Rocky Bald is technically outside GSMNP, it’s still part of the greater Smokies region)

This hike turned out to be a fantastic “plan B” after the weather at the higher elevations turned out to be overcast and drizzly with gusting winds.  This section of Appalachian Trail was scenic with moderate grades and two nice vistas. The out-and-back route clocked in at just under six miles with 1,700′ of climbing.

View the Full Album of Photos From This Hike

Rocky Bald
The view from Rocky Bald.

Christine Says…

We initially planned to do the Blackrock Mountain hike at the southern end of the Blue Ridge Parkway, but unsettled weather forced us to find an alternative hike that stayed below the cloud shelf.  We skimmed our hiking books and searched a few websites before settling on an Appalachian Trail section in Nantahala National Forest.  The hike started at Tellico Gap, which is also the trailhead for the Wesser Bald hike.  We parked our car and made our way south along the white-blazed Appalachian Trail.

The terrain in this area was interesting because the road leading up to Tellico Gap had been the fire line during the cataclysmic forest fires that burned during fall 2016.  One side of the road was burned, while the other side was practically untouched.  At the parking lot, it was easy to see that the trail headed north to Wesser Bald was heavily charred and damaged, with entire hillsides of mountain laurel and rhododendron laid to waste.  Fortunately, the trail headed south from Tellico toward Rocky Bald was still green, fern-covered and lush.

Tellico Gap
The hike started at Tellico Gap. Below: Lots of snails in this lush, wet forest; Flame azalea nearing the end of its bloom; Adam walks along the Appalachian Trail.

Snail Flame Azalea 

The trail began climbing pretty quickly and steadily, as it so often does when you leave a gap. At 1.5 miles into the hike, we passed the Big Branch Campsite on the right side of the trail.  There was space for about four tents, a register log/box, a fire pit, and a water source. There are full shelters a few miles both north and south of the campsite, so I imagine the site is mostly in place to accommodate overflow during the busy thru-hiker season.

After we passed the campsite, the trail began to level out and follow a ridgeline.  In .2 miles, we reached a blue-blazed spur trail to the left leading to the viewpoint at Rocky Bald. The trail climbed for about a tenth of a mile over a wide shelf of rock before reaching another fringe of trees.  There were a few dry campsites tucked in to flat spots between the trees. At the outer edge of the line of trees, there was a rocky ledge with a log bench and an excellent vista.  There was sunshine, but there were also many fast-moving low clouds.  We weren’t sure how long the conditions would stay clear and dry, so we moved on to visit the next viewpoint.

Trailside Camp
This trailside campsite had a water source, tent space, and a log book.

The next vista was another 1.2 miles south along the Appalachian Trail.  It was all ridge walking, so the terrain was rolling and fairly easy without any big climbs or descents. Our guidebook called the next view Copper Ridge Bald.  It wasn’t really a bald.  It was just a rock jumble with a partly obstructed view. If you’re hiking for scenery, I’d probably suggest hiking to Rocky Bald and skipping the second view – it just wasn’t that impressive.  We stopped at the second view and ate lunch and watched the clouds thicken.  When we started to hear distant rumbles of thunder, we decided it was time to head back.

The return hike was quick and almost completely downhill. We flew along the trail and made it back to the car in half the time it took us to climb up.  Even though it wasn’t the day we planned, everything worked out perfectly.

Adam Says…

Christine mentioned that this was a “plan B” hike, but I thought I would elaborate on the “plan A”.  We drove for about an hour along the Blue Ridge Parkway early in the morning to get started on our hike.  However, there was heavy fog just about the entire drive up.  We got to the trailhead and pulled the car over.  I got out to try and find the trailhead, which was a challenge since at this point you could only see about ten feet in front of you.  After we finally found the trailhead, we decided to see if we could wait a bit to see if the fog would lift.  On some of these high elevations, the fog can blow over and clear out in a few minutes.  So, we waited about an hour and there was no lifting.  We knew we needed to do something else.  The week that we were in North Carolina, we felt the weather was spotty and there were lots of low hanging clouds, so we ended up doing lots of lower elevation hikes to try and embrace what nature was allowing.  So, we drove another hour and a half to get to a hike we hadn’t done yet.

Rocky Bald
Another look at the view from Rocky Bald. Below: The spur trail to Rocky Bald; Climbing the rock slab to get to the view; Nice views on the descent from Rocky Bald.

Rocky Bald Spur Trail Climbing Rocky Bald Descending Rocky Bald

We got to the Tellico Gap parking lot and it was a little more packed than we were accustomed – likely due to our now later start.  We got a parking spot and then headed south on the white-blazed Appalachian Trail.  The trail was an uphill slog for the entire way to Rocky Bald, but the green and lush forest around us gave us nice scenery along the way.  After we passed the campsite to the right, we arrived at the side trail to Rocky Bald at 1.7 miles.  We took this side trail to Rocky Bald, which was a steep scramble up to the viewpoint.  The viewpoint was marked with a nice log bench to sit on and view miles of mountains in front of us through the natural window.  We took in the sites and decided to press on to Copper Ridge Bald.  We rejoined the AT and continued south.  This terrain was a fairly flat ridgeline. 1.2 miles away we reached the small overlook for Copper Ridge Bald.  There was enough space for two of us to eat a snack, but the view was not as grand since some of the area was a bit overgrown.  We questioned if we had reached the correct viewpoint so I scouted ahead and came across a hiker with his dog that said there were no viewpoints for the next bit.  So, I returned and we ate our lunch (now joined by the dog begging for scraps) at Copper Ridge Bald.  After eating, we made our way back the way we came and arrived back at our car quickly.

Ferns
The walk to the second view was pretty. Below: The second view marked in our guidebook wasn’t as nice; Stopping at Wesser Brew and BBQ for beers after our hike; It’s our favorite outdoor riverside bar.

Second View  The NOC

This was definitely a “when life gives you lemons, make lemonade” hike or maybe “when nature gives you fog over high mountains, go lower” is a better description.  It wasn’t our original plan, but we had the ability to do some quick thinking and make a plan with what nature provided.  When we do a lot of hiking on our vacation trips, we usually make a list of several hikes and pick what we want to do that morning.  We didn’t have as much time to plan on this trip, so we had to do some “on the spot” planning.  While it was a bit stressful to do so, we made a great decision and were rewarded with some nice views (and beat the impending rain storm).  After the hike, we stopped at Wesser Brew and BBQ at the Nantahala Outdoor Center and enjoyed a beer under shelter by the riverside while the rain came down.

Trail Notes

  • Distance – 5.8 miles, round trip,  out-and-back
    (Check out the stats from Map My Hike)*
  • Elevation Change – 1709 feet
  • Difficulty – 3.5. The climbing is steady but always moderate.
  • Trail Conditions – 4.5. This is well-maintained, nicely graded Appalachian Trail
  • Views – 4. The views are nice, but not panoramic.
  • Streams/Waterfalls – 1. There is a water source at the campsite, but there are no scenic streams or waterfalls.
  • Wildlife – 2.  Your regular assortment of birds, squirrels, and chipmunks.
  • Ease to Navigate – 4.5.  The trail is well-blazed and easy to follow.  Look for blue blazes at the spur trail to Rocky Bald.
  • Solitude – 3.  We saw a few section hikers and a few day hikers, but the trail was generally lightly trafficked.

Download a Trail Map (PDF)

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 and Tellico Gap.

Road to Nowhere – Goldmine Loop (NC)

Special: Smokies Edition

Introductory Guide to Visiting Great Smoky Mountains National Park

While the Road to Nowhere is popular and well-known, the adjacent Goldmine Loop seems lightly traveled and mysterious. We had a hard time finding reliable information about the trail and did some guesswork along the route. As it turns out, it’s a beautiful, jungle-like trail that leads down to the shores of Fontana Lake. The total route ended up being 4.7 miles with a moderate amount of climbing.

View the full album of photos from this hike

Rainbow Over Fontana Lake
At the end of our hike, we enjoyed a rainbow over Fontana Lake.

Adam Says…

In early July, we made our way down to the southern end of the Smokies for a couple day stay in Bryson City, NC. There was lots of rain on and off during our trip, so we had to be strategic about timing our hiking possibilities. Our rental cabin was near a place in the Smokies called The Road to Nowhere.  This is not a Talking Heads song reference, but a road that has an interesting history. In the 1930s and 1940s, Swain County donated a lot of its private land to the federal government to help create the Fontana Lake area of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Hundreds of people were displaced from their homes when Old Highway 288 was covered by water after the creation of Fontana Dam.  The government promised to create a new road that would connect Bryson City to Fontana (30 miles away to the west). They began work on constructing Lakeview Drive, but came across numerous environmental issues – a study released stated that completing the road would have major, adverse, long-term impacts to topography, geology, and soils. Construction was stopped at the long, impressive tunnel that marks the beginning of this hike. The environmental issue was eventually resolved, but the road was never continued.  Ultimately in 2010, the Department of the Interior paid Swain County $52 million in lieu of finishing construction of the road.

The Road to Nowehere Tunnel
The road ends in the tunnel and you come out on trail. Below: The trailhead; Blooming Rosebay Rhododendron; The tunnel.

Trailhead Rosebay Tunnel Headlamp

The road ends at a gate before the tunnel, but before the gate there is a large parking lot on the right hand side of the road. You will see trail signs along the side of the road. We parked there, walked down the road, went around the gate, and made our way toward the tunnel. When you enter the tunnel, it will be quite dark.  We used headlamps so we could see where we were stepping but the tunnel floor was quite flat and smooth.  On the other side of the tunnel, the true Lakeshore Trail begins.  Continuing a bit further up the trail, we reached a junction at .6 miles that is the Tunnel Bypass Trail.  We took this trail which skirted alongside the hillside.  It was incredibly humid from the recent rains and my glasses were fogging up and the ground was wet in many places. It continued to drizzle on and off.

Graffitti
Graffiti in the tunnel. Below: The first trail junction; Wet trail.

Junction Wet Trail

As we walked along we could clearly hear the sound of a barred owl nearby. It remained out of sight but was moving up ahead of us on the trail.  At 1.8 miles, we reached the junction with the Goldmine Loop Trail. We took a right to get on this trail. The Goldmine Loop Trail descends for the next mile. At 2.4 miles we came to where Tunnel Branch runs alongside the trail.  It was a very picturesque stream with lots of blooming rhododendron all around. At 2.8 miles, we reached the lowest part of elevation as we came to Goldmine Branch, a larger stream that leads into the Tuckaseigee River, which is part of the larger Fontana Lake waterway. Even though this is a river, it feels very much like a lake due to the beaver dams and high water level. A short side path leads you to a serene place to enjoy a waterside view.  We continued back along the trail and our slow ascent began.  This area was very mucky from all the water near this low part of the elevation and we slogged through some mud in a few places.

Near the trail’s low point, we saw a large hog trap that was placed by the park service.  Wild hogs are destructive to the environment and have been known to be aggressive to humans.  Just a short tenth of a mile from seeing the hog trap, we noticed something crashing through the woods toward us, followed by a deep guttural sound of a wild hog.  Knowing how dangerous they are, we decided to move along quickly to leave the hog alone.  It was quite a rush and we have never heard such sounds.  At 3.2 miles, we reached a junction that leads to Campsite 67 (a site you must reserve through the GSMNP overnight camping permit system).  We passed on checking this out since it was a bit off the trail and just continued onward.  Shortly after this campsite trail, we came upon an old chimney from a home foundation. The ground was mucky and the area was heavily overgrown so we decided against checking out the site further. The trail then really began to ascend very steeply and we reached the junction with the Lakeshore Trail again at 4.1 miles. From here, we took a right on the Lakeshore Trail and then passed by the original Tunnel Bypass Trail junction just .1 mile later.  We continued back the way we came to reach the tunnel and then back to our car on the other side to make this about a 4.7 mile round trip.

Dense Rhododendron
The rhododendron thickets here are extremely dense. Below: Rhododendrons; Views of storm clouds; Pretty, lush trail.

Tons of Rosebay Storm Clouds Goldmine Loop

Christine Says…

We planned several amazing hikes for our whirlwind three-day Smokies trip… and not a single one panned out!  Stormy weather and low clouds forced us to revisit all of the high elevation hikes we considered doing. We are capable of hiking in bad weather, but when you have a trail blog you want to do your best to capture views and landmarks. We did a bit of logistical scrambling to find lower elevation hikes where views might be open beneath the cloud shelf.

The first one we settled on was the Road to Nowhere paired with the Goldmine Loop. They hike was just a few minutes from our rental cabin, so it was easy to tackle after the rain stopped in the late afternoon. We didn’t get on the trail until almost 4:00 p.m. Online and printed guides listed the trail anywhere from three to seven miles. With the long days of summer in effect, we knew we could finish a hike in that range before the sun set. We still packed headlamps… just in case! They turned out to be handy for walking through the long, dark tunnel.

Fontana Lake
Adam sits alongside the Tuckaseigee arm of Fontana Lake. Below: Another angle on the water view; A hog trap; An old homestead chimney.

Fontana Lake Hog Trap Chimney

I thought the tunnel itself was really cool. It looks relatively short to the naked eye, but when you’re inside you walk much longer than you expect. The tunnel is a full quarter mile long and produces the most excellent echoes! The amount of graffiti was disappointing and seriously – can’t people think of better things to draw than penises? There were more of those drawn than any other element of graffiti. After the tunnel, we proceeded a short way down the trail to its junction with the Tunnel Bypass Trail.

The Bypass Trail descended into ever thickening rhododendrons. By the time we reached the Goldmine Loop, I felt like we were in a veritable jungle. I would never want to get lost off-trail in an area like this. The denseness of the forest would be very disorienting.  I think the mist, the solitude, the hooting owl, the lack of good trail information, the hog sounds, and the thickness of the forest lent an eerie feeling to the entire hike. We’ve never hiked in the Smokies and seen so few people! I’ll admit, I felt a little bit uneasy on this hike. I rarely describe a hike as creepy, but this one may have approached that feeling!

I was pretty glad when the trail rejoined familiar terrain coming off the Goldmine Loop. On the return trip through the tunnel, we left our headlamps off and enjoyed the almost complete darkness. We just kept walking toward the spot of light at the far end of the tunnel. Soon we were back in the car and headed back to our little cabin in Bryson City.  On the way, we stopped at an overlook that peered down into the watershed we just hiked.  There was a gorgeous rainbow above and everything looked so peaceful below.  It definitely didn’t feel eerie from above!

Trail Notes

  • Distance –4.7 miles
    (Check out the stats from MapMyHike)*
    About a half mile of tracking was lost in the tunnel.
  • Elevation Change – About 1371 ft.
  • Difficulty –  3.  The ground conditions made it a little tough and there was a steep ascent before we rejoined the Lakeshore Trail.
  • Trail Conditions –2.  The trail was fairly well maintained, but the mucky conditions made for some times where we slogged along the trail at the lower elevations.
  • Views – 1.  We did get a few obstructed views alongside the Tunnel Bypass Trail, but nothing much mentioning.  Along the road leading up to the trail, there is a nice view of Fontana Lake alongside the road.
  • Streams/Waterfalls – 4.  There were some nice stream views along the way and the mountain laurel created some extra scenery.
  • Wildlife – 4.  This particular loop isn’t particularly well traveled, so don’t be surprised to find some wildlife.  The wild hog encounter definitely gives this a higher score for us.
  • Ease to Navigate – 3.  We had a hard time due to the lack of knowledge out there about the trail system.  Hopefully, the map we are providing will help.
  • Solitude – 4.  After we went through the tunnel, we only saw a few other people on the hike.  This could be due to the recent rains, but this isn’t a popular area of the Great Smoky Mountain National Park except for local populations.

Download a Trail Map (PDF)

Directions to trailhead: From the center of Bryson City, NC head north on Everett Street.  Everett Street becomes Fontana Road.  Fontana Road becomes Lakeview Drive.  Follow Lakeview Drive until you arrive at the parking lot before the road that closes off this Road to Nowhere, about 8.5 miles away from the center of Bryson City.  Park in the parking lot and continue on foot up the road leading to the tunnel.

* MapMyHike is not necessarily accurate, as the GPS signal fades in and out – but it still provides some fun and interesting information.

Mouse Creek Falls & Midnight Hole (NC)

Special: Smokies Edition

Introductory Guide to Visiting Great Smoky Mountains National Park Area

This is an easy 4.25 mile hike that take you to visit two special spots – a beautiful waterfall and one of the most popular swimming holes in the Smokies.

View the Full Album of Photos From This Hike

Mouse Creek Falls
Mouse Creek Falls may not be the largest or most impressive of the waterfalls in the Smokies, but it is still a beautiful spot.

Christine Says…

On our third day of the trip, we decided to head into the national park and explore an area we hadn’t visited before – Big Creek in Cataloochee.  This area is known for its population of elk, and for being much quieter than other parts of the park, like Cades Cove or Clingmans Dome.

The drive was  a bit further than our previous two hike, but we had heard that Mouse Creek Falls and Midnight Hole were both beautiful, worthwhile destinations.   As usual, we got an early start and beat the crowds to the trailhead.

Families Hike Up Big Creek
Easy terrain makes this a popular family hike. Below: Trailhead sign for Mouse Creek Falls; Adam standing along the stream; Horse hitch near the falls.

Trailhead Sign for Mouse Creek Falls Adam Stands Along Big Creek Horse Hitch Near Mouse Creek Falls

The hike up Big Creek really couldn’t be much simpler or easier.  It follows a wide, old road bed the entire way.  At first, you can hear the rushing sounds of the creek in the distance, but within several tenths of a mile, the trail begins to closely follow the water.

Like most creeks in the Smokies, Big Creek is a jumble of big boulders that create lots of cascading rapids and small waterfalls – so beautiful!  We saw a serious photographer hiking back from the falls with a large pack of gear and a heavy tripod.  He visited the falls on a perfect day for waterfall photography.  It was overcast and windless, which allows the opportunity for long exposure images.  I always love the silky misty effect a slow shutter speed lends to the water, and I was pretty happy with the shots I got on this hike!

On the hike up, we skipped Midnight Hole.  We figured we’d see the waterfall first, and then stop at other pretty spots on the hike back.  The falls were indeed lovely, though the mosquitoes and biting flies were abundant and aggressive!  This was the first and only time on the trip that I had to use bug spray.  We took tons of waterfall photos, and then made our way back down the trail.

Christine Enjoys the Rocks Around Mouse Creek Falls
Christine enjoys Mouse Creek Falls. Below: Pretty stream scenery along Big Creek.  Mouse Creek Falls are formed where smaller Mouse Creek pours into Big Creek.

Big Creek Big Creek Scenery Big Creek Scenery

On the way back, there were many more people out and about.  Lots of them were dressed in swimsuits and had water-wings and innertubes.  Apparently, this creek is one of the areas favorites for mountain swimming.  When we reached Midnight Hole, there was a family of five there.  The two youngest sons were taking turns plunging off rocks into the pool below.  It was a cool, cloudy day, so they squealed each time they hit the icy water.  The pool itself is deep and brilliant green – really an idyllic spot for a swim.

After leaving Midnight Hole, we stopped at a couple more pretty rapids along the stream for more photos.  When we were on the trail, we jogged to outrun the mosquito assault!  It was so buggy!

After this hike, we decided to drive into Asheville (yes… filthy and covered with bug spray) so we could visit a few breweries and get some lunch.  We also managed stops at Vortex Donuts and French Broad Chocolates.

Adam Says…

Mouse Creek Falls is an easy family hike that everyone can enjoy.  With the distance being only a little over two miles to the waterfall and very little change in elevation, it is a hike that even small kids won’t complain too much to do.

We started off early and had most of the trail to ourselves.  We saw there were lots of places to step off the side of the trail to get views of rocky rapids down Mouse Creek, but we decided to make a beeline for the main waterfall.  The trail had a slight incline, but never felt like a steep walk.  We arrived at Mouse Creek Falls and made a climb down to near the base of the falls to get some photos of the stream and the falls together.  If you don’t feel like climbing to the base, you can still get a distant, yet unobstructed view of the falls from the top.  When another family arrived, we decided to leave to give them the solitude that we enjoyed, but we were equally pressured by all the mosquitoes at the water.  We didn’t feel a ton of mosquitoes on the way up, but the entire trip back we were swarmed.

Midnight Hole
Midnight Hole is a popular swimming spot in the Smokies. Below: The water in Midnight Hole is clear and reflects the green of the trees around it; There is a picnic area along this lovely spot on Big Creek.

Midnight Hole Picnic Area Bridge

About .5 miles back on our return trip, we stopped to enjoy Midnight Hole.  A pond is created here by two small waterfalls that dump water into this serene swimming hole.  We lingered a bit at this spot before making our way back to our car, chased by a cloud of mosquitoes who seemed to not mind the bug spray we used.  We made it back to our car quickly at a little over four miles and saw many people making their way up.  I’m sure this is an extremely popular hike and swimming hole spot for many people.  If you want to miss the crowds, go as early as possible.

On our way out, we passed by several buses that were unloading people for whitewater rafting along the Pigeon River.  We saw probably a hundred people on the river in rafts and it looked like a great way to spend the day.  We headed into Asheville, NC from our hike to sample some beers.  It was Asheville Beer Week, so all of the breweries in the area were doing special events.  We started off with lunch at Wicked Weed, where we enjoy the food as much as the beverages.  From there, we stopped by a few more breweries to try one small sample at each – Green Man, Burial, and Hi-Wire.  While we were there, there was a disc golf competition where event organizers moved a portable basket and the competitors threw their discs down the streets and alleyways as they moved from one brewery to the next.  Luckily, the competitors were very accurate and I didn’t see any spectators beamed in the head.

Trail Notes

  • Distance – 4.25 miles
    (Check out the stats from Map My Hike)*
  • Elevation Change – 635 ft.
  • Difficulty – 1.5.  This is an easy walk along a gradually climbing path.
  • Trail Conditions – 4.5.  The path is wide and well-graded.
  • Views  0.  This is a waterfall walk, there are no views along the way.
  • Streams/Waterfalls – 4.5.  The falls are small but pretty.  Big Creek and Midnight Hole are also lovely.
  • Wildlife –3.5.  People regularly see elk and bears in the area.  We didn’t see any on our hike.
  • Ease to Navigate – 5.  You really can’t go wrong on this hike.  It’s a straight shot up the path.
  • Solitude – 1.  This area is popular with swimmers and families.  Expect lots of people.

Download a Trail Map (PDF)

Directions to trailhead:  GPS coordinates for this trailhead are 35.751094, -83.109993.  From Asheville, NC take I-40 West for 46 miles before taking exit 451 toward Waterville Road.  Turn left onto Green Corner Road at the end of the exit ramp which merges onto Tobes Creek Road. Take the first left to cross a bridge and stay on Tobes Creek Road.  Once you cross the bridge, take the first left onto Waterville Road.  Follow this for two miles and you will then enter the Big Creek Entrance Road.  Follow this for about a mile and you will reach the Big Creek Campground.  You will find a large parking lot on the right and just before entering the parking lot, you will pass the trailhead for the Big Creek Trail, which is your starting point.  This parking lot fills up quickly, so you may have to park along the roadside.

Wayah Bald (NC)

Special: Smokies Edition

Introductory Guide to Visiting Great Smoky Mountains National Park Area

Hiking from Wayah Gap to Wayah Bald is a fun, moderate 8.5 mile hike.  The view from a top the stone observation tower has to be among the best in the area.

View the Full Album of Photos From This Hike

The View from Wayah Bald
The view from Wayah Bald is majestic! Below: The Appalachian Trail cuts like a ribbon through the green of the forest; Adam looks at the rhododendron tunnel; Stairs climb back up to the trail after crossing a forest road.

Walking the Appalachian Trail Tunnel of Rhododendron Stairs on the AT

Adam Says…

This hike was a true gem!  When you are just reading text about a hike, you can’t get a great idea of how wonderful a hike will be (hopefully this write-up and pictures will help).  What we couldn’t believe through the day was how uncrowded this trail was, especially at the fire tower.  We went on a perfect weekend day and you can even drive up to the very top if you want to skip the hike but still get the views.  Having a spot like this to yourself just doesn’t seem right.

“Wayah” comes from the Cherokee word for “wolf”, since red wolves were once part of this area.  The tower was built in 1937 by the Civilian Conservation Corps and used as a lookout for fires in the area.

As we were driving on Wayah Road making our way to the top, we were both thankful that the drive up would take a lot of feet off the elevation.  The road winds around the mountain as it is taking many switchbacks to get up to the top.  At the crest was the sign for the Wayah Bald Fire Tower and a small parking lot to the side.   We started on the white-blazed Appalachian Trail going north (the same side as the sign and the parking lot).  You climb up a few water-bar stairs and then come to a sign for Wayah Gap.  The trail runs parallel to a national forest road on the left for the first portion of the trail (this is the same forest road you can drive to get to the top without hiking).

Red Trillum
There were many wildflowers and blooming trees along the trail. We enjoyed seeing red trillium, even though they were fading. Below: Flame azalea; Mountain Laurel; Something white?

Flame Azalea Mountain Laurel White Flower

The trail was filled with wildflowers and greenery everywhere you looked and overall the uphill climb was quite manageable.  At 1.75 miles, you make a steeper climb up to a forest road (the same forest road leading to the top).  The trail picks up on the other side, but there is a spring to the right of the trail if you need to refill water.  Crossing the road, you head up some stairs and up a steeper section looking down on the fire road, before it resumes the gradual climb.

At 2.15 and 2.35 miles, you will see junctions with the yellow-blazed Bartram Trail (a 110 mile trail that goes from Northern Georgia into Southwest North Carolina) and a forest road on the left side.  This trail loops around for an extra 5.4 miles, but stay on the main white-blazed Appalachian Trail.  Since the Bartram Trail joins the AT through this section, you will often see yellow and white blazes together.  At 2.5 miles the trail levels out and then starts to descend.

Bartram - AT Share a Course
The Bartram Trail shares course with the Appalachian Trail for a while. We though the joint blazes looked like a beer with a foamy head. Below: The junction of the AT and the Bartram Trail; There is a nice campsite near the junction; Views from the trail from an old burn.

Bartram Junction Campsite Log Views from the Trail

Descending through the forest, the trail then begins to skirt along the mountainside.  The trail became narrow and overgrown as you walk through some high grass and brush.  But, you do get some more open, yet obstructed views of the valley between the mountains.  At 3.5 miles, the trail reaches its bottom and then begins to ascend again.  At 3.8 miles, you cross the forest road again and at 4.15 miles, you reach the final junction with the paved forest road.  Going to the right leads to a picnic area with nice views (and a bathroom if you need it).  Heading to the left from the junction, leads to the Wayah Bald fire tower which we reached around 4.3 miles.

The views from the fire tower were amazing!  Some fire towers are rickety and you wonder if all the bolts have been screwed and tightened in the last few decades.  This structure was a nice stone fire tower with a few steps to the top.  From the top of the tower are maps that will help you identify the mountains in the ranges around you.  If you go on a clear day, you should be able to see for quite a distance.

We stayed at the top for quite a while and this was definitely my top hike from this trip.  We ate our packed lunch and talked to the few people we saw at the top, but it was hard to pull me away from the stunning landscape around me.  If you aren’t capable of doing the hike, this is still a place to visit on a trip in North Carolina.

Christine Says…

This was another hike I mapped out using my AWOL Guide for the Appalachian Trail.  You can practically drive up to the tower, but we wanted to put in longer trail miles, so we opted to start at Wayah Gap, about four miles south of Wayah Bald.

It turned out to be a beautiful hike!  There were tons of blooming wildflowers, a crisp breeze, abundant sunshine, and pleasant temperatures.  I was thrilled to see the last few red trillium blooms and the first of the flame azaleas lighting up the forest. The hike was perfectly timed to see lots of wildflowers.

View From the Wayah Bald Tower
The view from the Wayah Bald Tower is almost 360. Below: The views are also nice from the Wayah Picnic Area; The tower; Inside the Wayah Tower.

View from Wayah Picnic Area Wayah Tower Inside Wayah Tower

We started early and had most of the trail to ourselves.  Just a few tenths of a mile after starting, we passed a very early-season southbound thru-hiker.  I didn’t know it at the time, but we learned later that he was Mountain Man – possibly the oldest person to ever complete a winter thru-hike.  He finished about ten days after our paths crossed.

The terrain on the way to Wayah Bald was pretty gentle – moderate climbs and descents and lots of easy walking.  We passed several really nice campsites along the way, with the largest and nicest being located at the junction of the AT and the Bartram Trail.

We walked through an area that was recently burned, leaving behind some open views and lots of fast-growing tall grass to wade through.  Most of the sunny spots on the trail were pretty overgrown.

When we arrived at Wayah Bald, we took a wrong turn and ended up walking up to the picnic area.  It was a lucky mistake, because the picnic area offers a second beautiful vista.  Once we realized we were in the wrong place, we turned around an walked the opposite way up to the tower.

Layers of Mountains
We never get tired of looking at our beautiful, velvety rolling mountains. Below: No idea why there were so many worms/grubs in a pile. It was gross and fascinating; We liked this lone tree in a small meadow we passed; Post-hike lunch at Big Wesser Brew & BBQ at the Nantahala Outdoor Center – one of our favorite riverside lunch stops.

Worms Meadow and Tree Lunch at Nantahala Outdoor Center

There were only three or four other people at the tower, despite it being a beautiful holiday weekend.  We climbed to the top and ate a snack. We loved looking at and identifying the other mountains that made up the panoramic vista.  One of the most recognizable was Siler Bald – identified by the wide grassy swath leading to the summit. We spent a bit more time enjoying the spectacular view before making our way back.

After the hike, we decided to go to one of our favorite places – the Nantahala Outdoor Center. The place was hopping with Memorial Day activities, but we were still able to find a parking spot and a table at Big Wesser Brew & BBQ.

Trail Notes

  • Distance – 8.5 miles
    (Check out the stats from Map My Hike)*
  • Elevation Change – 1613  ft.
  • Difficulty – 3.  The length makes this rated a 3, but the overall climb was manageable.
  • Trail Conditions – 3.  The trail was well-maintained, but very overgrown from the junction with the Bartram Trail leading up to the summit.  There weren’t many rocky sections, so it made for nice footing most of the trail.
  • Views  5.  Panoramic, 360-degree views from the Fire Tower on a clear day.
  • Streams/Waterfalls – 1.  There were two adequate springs to use as water sources along the way.
  • Wildlife – 2.  Nothing spotted on this trail.
  • Ease to Navigate – 4.0. As long as you follow the white blazes for the Appalachian Trail, you should be in good shape. 
  • Solitude – 4.  Maybe we hit this on an odd day, but we had a lot of solitude on a “should have been busy” day and even had the fire tower to ourselves for about 15 minutes. 

Download a Trail Map (PDF)

Directions to trailhead:  GPS coordinates for this trailhead are 35.153662, -83.580462. From Highway 74 in North Carolina (near Cherokee/Bryson City) take the US23 S/US 441 S exit for Dillsboro/Franklin/Atlanta. Follow this road for 20.4 miles to the junction with US64 W.  Follow 64W for 3.7 miles.  Take a right on Patton Road.  Follow Patton for .3 of a mile and then turn left on Wayah Road.  Follow Wayah Road for 9 miles until you reach the well-marked trail crossing.  Follow the Appalachian Trail north from this point.

Standing Indian Mountain (NC)

Special: Smokies Edition

Introductory Guide to Visiting Great Smoky Mountains National Park Area

Standing Indian is a pleasant five mile (round trip) hike along the Appalachian Trail in North Carolina’s Southern Nantahala Wilderness.  There is plenty of camping and a beautiful viewpoint at the summit.

View the Full Album of Photos From This Hike

The View from Standing Indian Mountain
The view from Standing Indian was almost completely socked in by fog. We did get a couple moments of partial clearing that let us enjoy the view. Below: Camping along the road crossing is closed in Deep Gap, but signs point to nearby sites; Camping around the shelter has also been closed to allow reforestation; Adam makes his way up the Appalachian Trail. This was all before the downpour started.

Standing Indian Designated Campsites No Camping Restoration Standing Indian Before the Rain Started

Christine Says…

When we visited the Smokies this year, we decided to spend the entire trip – an unfortunately short four days – on the southern side of the park.  On our last few trips to the area, we enjoyed exploring the Appalachian Trail corridor just before it enters GSMNP.  We thought Wesser Bald and Siler Bald were both fun hikes with spectacular views, so before we traveled, I spent some time perusing my AWOL Guide to see if there were other nice view hikes close to easily accessible road crossings. One of the hikes I came up with was Standing Indian Mountain.

By the miles, the drive to the trailhead was pretty short, but the last six miles to get to Deep Gap were along a narrow, steep, and winding forest/logging road. It took about 25 minutes to reach the road’s dead-end at Deep Gap Primitive Campground.  There were some really nice campsites available, but the largest and flattest of the sites was closed for reforestation/restoration.  Quite a few of the overused backcountry tent sites in this area have been closed to allow them to return to their natural state.

Standing Indian Shelter
Standing Indian Shelter – there were tent sites behind the shelter. Below: The Appalachian Trail winds through the ferns; We saw dozens of these snails; Signage for the Southern Nantahala Wilderness.

Tons of Ferns Along the AT Snail on Standing Indian Southern Nantahala

We picked up the northbound Appalachian Trail at the end of the road. It was sunny and humid when we started hiking.  The trail climbed steadily and gently the whole way on this hike. Just under a half mile into the hike, we passed a piped spring coming out of the mountainside.  We passed a couple more closed campsites before arriving at the spur trail to Standing Indian Shelter at 1.1 miles.  The shelter is barely a tenth of a mile off the trail.  It had room for about eight people and was equipped with benches and a large fire pit.  There were lots of flat, grassy tent sites behind the shelter.  Supposedly there is a stream/water source 70 yards downhill of the shelter, but we didn’t take the time to explore.  We signed the shelter log and continued our hike up the mountain.

Shortly after the shelter, sun gave way to fog.  We figured it was just leftover moisture from storms the night before or a passing cloud.  At 5,499′, Standing Indian is the tallest peak along the Nantahala River and often gets different weather than the valley below.  We hiked on and the fog gave way to occasional raindrops.  We assured one another it was just a passing shower and pressed on.  By the time we reached a tunnel of rhododendron, the light shower had become a downpour.  Adam wanted to put on our rain gear and stay sheltered under the canopy of rhododendron, but I was getting cold and wanted to push on.  In the end, we decided to wait a little bit; hoping the storm would pass and allow us to enjoy the view that was to be the main point of the hike.

Bluets on Standing Indian
We saw lots of bluets on the hike up. Below: The forest was lush with ferns; A tunnel of mountain laurel gave us a little shelter from the rain; The trail soon was flowing like a stream.

Lush Ferns on Standing Indian Rain and Rhododendrons on Standing Indian Rain on the Appalachian Trail

After about 20 minutes, the rain still hadn’t slowed so I suggested we hike back to the shelter and wait a bit there.  On our way down, the rain stopped, so we turned around and climbed back up. It started pouring again almost immediately after we turned around, so we admitted defeat and decided to just roll with whatever nature threw our way.

So, we hiked to the summit of Standing Indian in a deluge! The summit was completely socked it, but after waiting about ten minutes the fog moved enough to give us a cloudy, misty view of the mountains beyond.  We enjoyed every second of the three minute vista before the fog fell back around.  The hike back was really quick – all downhill over easy terrain.  And wouldn’t you know it… the sun came back out as soon as we got to the parking lot!

Adam Says…

As Christine mentioned, this may not have been the best day for this hike.  The weather forecast predicted some late afternoon storms, so we really thought we could get in a hike before things turned for the worse. It was quite humid from the recent rain.  After we left the shelter, we noticed the clouds were getting thicker, but we pressed on hoping we could beat any rain. We made it to a large rhododendron tunnel and what started off as sprinkling rain quickly became a downpour.  The rain was unrelenting.  We talked about going to the top, but with all the rain, we didn’t think we would see anything, so we decided to turn around before reaching the summit.

As we made our way down, we came across a Appalachian Trail thru-hiker.  She looked college-aged and was carrying a pack that looked like it weighed 60 pounds.  The rain had soaked a bandana she was wearing as headband and the dye from the fabric was bleeding blue streaks all down her face.

The trail heading back was more like walking through a small stream in some spots as the heavy rain looked for a place to escape the steep slope of the mountain.  The rocks on the trail were slippery from the rain.  After making it back about halfway to the shelter, the rain slowed considerably so we changed our mind and decided to give the summit another go.

Campsite on Standing Indian Summit
What a great campsite on the summit of Standing Indian. Below: Standing Indian summit marker; Rhododendrons blooming near the summit; Christine checks out a cool, gnarled, old tree.

Standing Indian Summit Marker Rhododendron Blooming on Standing Indian Summit Big Gnarled Tree

At 2.45 miles, the trail comes to a junction with the Lower Ridge trail.  You will see a sign for Standing Indian Mountain.  Take a right off the Appalachian Trail to follow a path through a campsite area which leads to the summit of Standing Indian Mountain in just a tenth of a mile.  There was a large fire pit at the top and a small nook to catch a view of the mountains around you.  When we arrived, we were able to catch a quick view before the fog and clouds enveloped everything in a sea of gray.  We were at least thankful to be up there to appreciate the view for a few minutes.

The name “Standing Indian Mountain” comes from Cherokee myth.  An Indian warrior had been sent to the summit to watch for a winged monster that came from the sky and stole children.  The monster was captured and destroyed with thunder and lightning from the Great Spirit.  The Cherokee warrior had become afraid and ran away from his post and was turned into stone for his cowardice.  The Cherokee referred to Standing Indian Mountain as “Yunwitsule-nunyi”, meaning “where the man stood”.

Fog and Rain Along the Appalachian Trail on Standing Indian
Fog and rain along the Appalachian Trail on Standing Indian Mountain. Below:  A Blue Ridge two-lined salamander (we think); A black-chinned red salamander (we think): Post-hike beers at The Lazy Hiker (we know for sure!)

Blue-Ridge Two-Lined Salamander Black Chinned Red Salamander Lazy Hiker Brewery

The rain continued for most of the hike down.  But one treat the rain provided was the chance to see several salamanders hanging out on the trail.   We first spotted a Blue Ridge two-lined salamander, but the real treat was seeing a black-chinned red salamander.  The Great Smoky Mountains are known as the “Salamander Capital of the World”, so we were glad to catch a few species on this hike.  We have yet to spot a hellbender salamander (which range from 12-29 inches long) in the wild there, but maybe one day we will.

After we made it back to the car, we decided to drive over to Franklin, NC for the afternoon.  We stopped in a wonderful outfitter store called Outdoor 76.  When we had stopped to take pictures of the salamanders, I realized my backpack was completely soaked inside which ruined our copy of our AWOL guide.  So we purchased those as well as a couple of Pelican cases for our phones.  They even have several beers on tap at the back of the store.  It wasn’t until later that I thought about how my daypack has a built-in rain cover – ugh.  We then went to grab some lunch at Motor Company Grill (just an average 50s-style burger and sandwich place) and then went to the Lazy Hiker Brewing Company.  Since a lot of AT thru-hikers will spend a day off the trail to eat and resupply in Franklin, this place is a popular spot.  They had great trail and hiking information posted inside and had some of the coolest hiking-related pint glasses I have seen.   It is definitely worth a stop if you are in the area.

Trail Notes

  • Distance – 5 miles
    (Check out the stats from Map My Hike)*
  • Elevation Change – 1300 ft.
  • Difficulty – 2.5.  The climbing on this trail is all very gradual and well-graded. We were surprised it even came out to 1300 feet!
  • Trail Conditions – 4.   The local chapter of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy is working hard on restoration projects in this area and their work was definitely evident.
  • Views  4.  We are giving this the score it deserves on a nice day with good visibility.  We still had a pretty view, but it could have been much nicer if the rain had held off.
  • Streams/Waterfalls – 1.  There were a couple small springs (at least one was piped) that could be used as a water source.
  • Wildlife – 3. We saw a couple unique salamanders along the trail in the rain. They were both species we hadn’t seen before.
  • Ease to Navigate – 3. The trail is well blazed.  The view at the top is hidden behind a spur trail through a bunch of campsites.  If you don’t know to cut through the campsites, you would miss the view completely.
  • Solitude – 3.  There were a ton of cars parked at Deep Gap, but we only saw a handful of people on the trail – probably because it was *pouring*!

Download a Trail Map (PDF)

Directions to trailhead:  GPS coordinates for this trailhead are 35.039847, -83.552506. From Highway 74 in North Carolina (near Cherokee/Bryson City) take the US23 S/US 441 S exit for Dillsboro/Franklin/Atlanta. Follow this road for 20.4 miles to the junction with US64 W.  Follow 64W for 14.5 miles.  Take a left on Deep Gap Road.  It will become a gravel forest service road almost immediately.  Follow the forest road for almost 6 miles until you reach Deep Gap.  Follow the Appalachian Trail north from this point.

Siler Bald (NC)

Special: Smokies Edition

Introductory Guide to Visiting Great Smoky Mountains National Park Area

Not to be confused with Silers Bald in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, this 8.8 mile hike in Nantahala National Forest has some of the best views in the southern Appalachians – mountains roll out in every direction from the summit.  The hike is moderate and doesn’t require any tough climbing or tricky terrain.

View the Full Album of Photos From This Hike

We thought this video really showcased how amazing the view is from Siler Bald!  Sorry it’s so shaky!

Adam Says…

One thing we hoped to do on our trip was to hike some new piece of the Appalachian Trail.  While it would have been nice to complete a larger section of the trail, when you only have one car you are stuck with doing some out-and-backs.  When we were researching some different options we came upon Siler Bald.  My first thought was “Didn’t we already hike this another time?”  Oh, that was SilerS Bald, not Siler Bald.  I always get a kick out of how many mountains and hikes have similar names.  We have come across several Chimney Rocks in our travels.  It reminds me of the unoriginal naming of cities in New England.  You can find multiple Manchesters, Andovers, Portsmouths, Dovers, and Salems in the New England states, as if their goal is to get you lost when you try to navigate with your GPS.  The nice thing about both of these similarly-named balds is they have great views so you can’t go wrong.

There wasn’t a GPS signal when we started this hike, so it was a little difficult to find the starting point.  I had a map of the area and we were able to find the parking lot easily enough. The Appalachian Trail crosses over Hwy-64 near the parking lot.  The southbound path is easy to find, it takes off from the parking lot.  However, the northbound path was harder to find.  I crossed the road and walked down the road heading east for about a hundred feet.  Then, I saw the AT cut through on a small, overgrown path.  I signaled back up to Christine that I found it and we began our hike.

Small Waterfall near Winding Stair Gap
There was a pretty small waterfall near the beginning of the hike. Below: Winding Stair Gap; National Forest Information, Stream crossing and nice campsite.

Parking at Winding Stair Gap Nantahala National Forest Sign Stream and Nice Campsites

Heading into the woods, the white-blazed trail starts on a very gradual uphill slope.  Like many parts of the AT, this hike can be called a green tunnel – one path cutting through lush, green forest.  We reached a waterfall and forest service road in .2 miles, followed shortly by a stream crossing and a nice campsite area.  The trail then continues uphill as you pass by Swinging Lick Gap at 1.1 miles and Panther Gap at 2 miles.  Right before the sign of Panther Gap, we were startled as 5 grouse took off across the trail just ahead of us.  When you are walking along the trail with nothing but the sounds of the woods around you, a big move from the brush can you make you almost leap out of your hiking boots.  From Panther Gap, the trail then goes slightly downhill for about a quarter of a mile before going gradually uphill.  We eventually reached a junction trail at 4.2 miles.  The trail branches off to the Siler Bald Shelter, which is about .5 mile from this junction (this trail eventually loops around to the other side if you see it out after the summit).  We didn’t take the trip to the shelter since we were getting hungry and wanted to make our way to the views.

Scarlet Flycatch
There were still some colorful things growing and blooming along the trail.

Orange Azalea Fungus Yellow Wildflowers

Continuing on the AT, we met another junction with the Siler Bald summit trail.  From here, we took the path up the hillside, requiring us to almost bushwhack through this thick, tall grass and brush for a short distance before we came out of it.  We climbed a very steep .2 miles to reach the summit of Siler Bald at 4.4 miles.  As you are climbing up, if you look behind you the views start opening up of the mountains around you, but when you reach the summit the views are spectacular.  Having hiked without seeing anyone the entire day, we were surprised to see a thru-hiker at the top.  He was hoping to get a ride into town, having a craving for a pizza.  We talked with him for a while and were pleased to find out he was from Virginia as well.  He made a call to have someone meet him at the trailhead and he was off in a flash. We ate our lunch and enjoyed the views all to ourselves.  On our way back down, we did come across a few other people that were out for a backpacking trip.  This hike is one that has outstanding views for a minimal effort and is not as well-traveled.

Appalachian Trail Near Siler Bald
The trail was green and lush.  Below: Tunnels of mountain laurel;  There was a shelter on a side trail – we skipped visiting; Making our way up to the top of the bald.

Rhododendron Tunnel Siler Bald Shelter Sign Climbing the Bald

Christine Says…

Three and a half days in the Smokies just aren’t enough!  On our 2015 stay, we tried two new hikes in the park (Ramsey Cascades and Gregory Bald), revisited an old favorite (Charlies Bunion), and then picked something new! For our final hike of the trip, we chose a hike outside the park borders – Siler Bald.  This hike is located just south of the park in Nantahala National Forest. It offers a spectacular, panoramic vista from a spur just off the Appalachian Trail.

We parked our car at Winding Stair Gap.  There is a good-sized lot along Hwy-64.  From the parking area, we crossed the highway and picked up the Appalachian Trail heading north.  In the first couple tenths of a mile, we crossed a footbridge over a pretty small waterfall.  On the other side of the bridge, there was a kiosk with information about the forest. Shortly after the sign, we crossed a wider stream with a lovely backcounty campsite next to it.

Almost to the Top of Siler Ba
This was about the moment we realized ‘Wow… mountains everywhere!’ Below: Siler Bald scenery.

So Many Mountains from Siler Bald Lake Nantahala Summit Campsite and Marker on Siler Bald

We hiked along, enjoying the abundance of interesting wildflowers and fungi. The climb was steady and slow.  It was by far the easiest hike of our trip.  We chuckled at the random sign posts in the woods declaring that a particular spot was a ‘gap’.  None of the gaps really seemed to be low points between mountains, nevertheless their were signs indicating that we had passed through Swinging Lick Gap, Panther Gap, and Snowbird Gap. Other than enjoying the pleasant weather and small things along the trail, there’s nothing grand along the way to Siler Bald.  The grandeur all comes shortly after you reach a grassy clearing about 4 miles into the hike.

From the grassy clearing, climb the spur trail steeply up through the meadow for .2 miles.  When we visited, the meadow was full of tall grasses and daisies.  At the very top, we reached a flat opening that looked out across what seemed like all of the southern Appalachians. We had great views of Standing Indian mountain, Wayah Bald, Lake Nantahala, and even into Georgia.

Storm Clouds
Storm clouds started to roll in. Below: Mountain views on the descent; Small waterfall

Starting the Hike Down Bridge at the Bottom

There’s a marker at the top of the bald declaring the mountain’s name and elevation (5,216 feet).  There’s also an established fire pit and plenty of room for several tents.  What a place to watch both sunrise and sunset!

Adam and I ate our lunch (so many peanut butter and jelly sandwiches on this trip), took lots photos, and spent some time chatting with a fellow Virginian we met atop the summit.  Rambling Wreck was his name, and he was doing a flip-flop thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail.  He was really the only person we saw all day until we were almost done with our hike.

Nachos and Beers at the NOC
Nachos and Beers at the NOC.

The NOC

As we enjoyed the bald, darker clouds started to roll in.  We knew thunderstorms were forecast for later in the day, so we decided to make our way down.  The descent from the bald is nearly as magnificent as being on top – walking downhill with all the mountains laid out before me was breathtaking!  I was probably paying too much attention to the view, because the toe of my shoe got hooked on a root hidden by deep grass.  I took one of those epic falls that happen so fast you can do nothing to stop and catch yourself.  I faceplanted and ended up with several deep, painful bruises, but nothing that stopped me from hiking on.  When you’re a regular hiker, these things are bound to happen sooner or later!

The hike down went quickly and soon we arrived back at our car.  We decided to make the drive out to the Nantahala Outdoor Center (NOC) for our next stop.  On the way, we were pounded by thunderstorms.  I’m glad we missed them on the trail!  At the NOC we grabbed an outdoor riverside table at Big Wesser Brew and BBQ (one of our favorite spots) and shared nachos and a couple beers. Super day!

Trail Notes

  • Distance – 8.8 miles
    (Check out the stats from Map My Hike)*
  • Elevation Change – 1737 ft.
  • Difficulty – 3.  The climbing on this trail is all easy to moderate until the last couple tenths of a mile, up to the top of the bald.
  • Trail Conditions – 4.  The trail was nice, smooth, dirt with very few rocky sections.
  • Views  5.  Breathtaking, expansive, amazing, beautiful!
  • Streams/Waterfalls – 2.  There were a couple small streams and a small waterfall near the beginning of the hike.
  • Wildlife – 3. We saw some bear scat on the trail, so I’m sure bear sightings happen in this area.
  • Ease to Navigate – 3. The trail is clearly blazed and the spur to Siler Bald is pretty obvious.
  • Solitude – 4.  We saw one thru-hiker atop the bald and one group of four men backpacking together.  It has immensely more solitude than trails in GSMNP.

Download a Trail Map (PDF)

Directions to trailhead:  GPS coordinates for this trailhead are 35.12175, -83.54435. It is located on US 64,  11 miles west of Franklin, NC.  There is a spacious parking lot at Winding Stair Gap. From the parking lot, cross the road, head east about 100 feet, and begin hiking north along the Appalachian Trail.

Azaleas Atop Gregory Bald

Gregory Bald (TN)

Special: Smokies Edition

Introductory Guide to Visiting Great Smoky Mountains National Park Area

Gregory Bald is famous for its brilliant display of flame azaleas each June.  On prior trips to the Smokies, we were in the area too early to catch the bloom.  This time, we hit it just right, and enjoyed this wonderful, challenging 9.5 mile hike (includes .5 mile of walking the trails around the bald).  The views and blooms did not disappoint!

Update Spring 2016:  Parsons Branch Road (the route to this trailhead) is indefinitely closed to vehicular traffic.  It’s been determined by the National Park Service that towering dead hemlocks pose too great of a falling risk.  You may still walk up Parsons Branch Road or take the longer hiking route outlined here: http://www.hikinginthesmokys.com/gregory.htm

View the Full Album of Photos From This Hike

Azaleas Atop Gregory Bald
In June, the summit of Gregory Bald explodes with the color of blooming azaleas.

Christine Says…

Goodness… we’re doing a lot of hiking and not much writing!  Here we are in mid-August, still playing catch-up on hikes from June.  We have a backlog of twelve (yikes!) hikes to write about.

The first is this wonderful climb to Gregory Bald that we did on our Smokies a couple months ago.  Typically, we visit the Smokies in late May.  Mid-spring is a gorgeous time of year for cool temperatures, wildflowers, and smaller crowds.  This year, we had to put our trip off until mid-June.  It was much hotter and the park was more crowded, but the timing gave us the opportunity to finally climb Gregory Bald when the flame azalea was at peak.

There are a couple routes up to the bald.  The most common route is probably the ascent along the Gregory Ridge trail.  It’s an 11.3 mile hike with just over 3,000 feet of climbing.  It’s more popular because it’s easier to access by car and is supposedly a little more scenic along the way.  We chose to climb via the Gregory Bald trail from Parson Branch Rd.  It’s a shorter hike with less elevation gain. It’s also much harder to get to! Parson Branch Rd. is a one-way, seasonal road (closed in the winter) that requires 4WD/AWD.  We had four 8-9 mile hikes planned in 3.5 days, so the shorter/easy route appealed to us.  Thankfully, our little Subaru proved up to the challenge and we successfully jolted and bumped along the rugged road until eventually reaching the trailhead.

Rosebay Rhododendron
Rhodendron blooming along the lower trail. Below: Trailhead sign, Crowded parking along Parson Branch Road; Adam starts off down the trail.

Trailhead on Parsons Branch Road Parking on Parsons Branch Gregory Bald Trail

We got there pretty early, but there were already tons of other cars filling the small lot and lining the dirt road.  We geared up and hit the trail.  Honestly, there isn’t much to see along the 4.5 mile walk to the bald.  It’s a lovely wooded trail, but there aren’t any noteworthy features until you reach the bald.

Adam and I walked along, chatting and talking about past hikes.  Suddenly, Adam froze in his tracks and said ‘SNAKE!’.  It was a beautiful, dark-colored timber rattler sunning itself across the trail.  Adam hates snakes, but I find them beautiful and fascinating.  He stepped back while I tried to get a few photos – which proved difficult with my wide angle lens.  I tossed some small pebbles near the snake to encourage him off the trail.  He obliged and we were on our way!

Near the ridge, we passed Sheep Pen Gap campsite.  It was occupied by a group of extremely well-equipped horse campers.  They had a full camp kitchen, coolers, and canvas tents big enough to stand in – definitely the opposite of our ultralight gear!  There was a piped water source near the campsite.  It was flowing nicely, but it was definitely water you’d want to boil or filter due to the large amount of horse manure in the area.

Gregory Bald Trail
There was nothing remarkable about the trail to the top. Below: We did see lots of snails; And a timber rattler; We crossed one shallow stream.

Snail Rattlesnake Stream

About a half mile past the campsite, we emerged onto the bald.  It was absolutely exploding with color – azaleas in red, salmon, pink, orange, gold, and white!  I can understand why people come from all over to witness this display first-hand.  On top of the amazing floral display, the summit also offered panoramic views.  We ate our lunch overlooking Cades Cove and then spent some time walking around and admiring all the different colored azaleas.  We even met a fellow JMU grad on the summit.

The longer we stayed atop the bald, the more people arrived, and we decided it was time to make our way down.  The descent went very quickly, as the trail had easy, uncomplicated footing.  About a mile from the parking lot, we ran up on the JMU alumni we had met earlier.  He and his girlfriend were stopped in the middle of the trail.  A bear had just crossed in front of them and they were waiting and making sure it was safe to proceed.  Adam and I were disappointed that we had missed seeing the bear.

We ended up walking the last mile with them, chatting about hiking and the Bonnaroo festival they had just attended.  Before we knew it, we were back at the car!  The remaining stretch of one-way Parsons Branch Rd. was an adventure, too.  I think we must have driven our car through at least a dozen streams before eventually coming out on the famous Tail of the Dragon road.  I’ll let Adam talk more about that!  It was a fun day, and I’m so glad I finally got to see the famous Gregory Bald azalea bloom!

Adam Says…

The hike to Gregory Bald has been one we have been considering for years.  Some of the balds in the Smoky Mountains have been quite overgrown, since the park service has wanted to return them to their natural state over time.  I was preparing myself to be disappointed, but luckily that was not the case.  The day we visited was the peak of the blooming azaleas and the skies were so dramatic that it was a photographer’s paradise.

Gregory Bald is named after Russell Gregory, a resident of Cades Cove who died in 1864.  Russell lived in a stone house near the summit during the spring and summer, while his cattle grazed on the summit.  A Union support, Gregory was killed by a Confederate soldier while protecting his land and cattle.  The Cherokee had named this mountain “Tsitsu’yi”, meaning “Rabbit Place” and it was believed that the chief of all rabbits lived on the summit.

Abundance of Color
The azaleas bloom in many colors, but mostly oranges and reds. Below: Campsite at Sheep Pen Gap; Arriving at the bald; Beautiful azaleas.

Sheep Pen Gap Arriving at Gregory Bald Views from Gregory Bald

As Christine mentioned, the drive was a chore.  To access Parson Branch road, we had to go through Cades Cove most of the way.  Drives to me to Cades Cove are always frustrating to me.  Before you even get to the Cades Cove area, people were driving 12mph in an area where you can go much faster.  When we arrived in Cades Cove finally, we had more of the same.  Nobody would pull over to let us pass on the one-way road.  Instead, we had people in front creeping a long at 5mph with doors opened on both sides of their mini-vans to enhance their wildlife/scenery viewing.  What felt like 500 hours later, we finally were able to turn off the Cades Cove loop onto Forge Creek Road.  Once we turned on to Parson Branch road, the gravel road became extremely steep and filled with potholes and uneven road.  While we don’t do a lot of “offroad” driving for hiking, this was one of the roughest stretches of roads I’ve driven.  We made it to the top of the hill eventually and found the full lot and line of cars on the side of the road.  We parked along the side of the road as best we could, I crawled to the passenger’s side to escape the vehicle, and we made our way to the trailhead.

The hike up to Gregory Bald was a steady uphill, but the trail was in decent shape and not rocky, to allow for easy footing.  The trail was mostly shaded by trees all around, so it kept the sun and heat off of us for most of the day.  Other than seeing the rattlesnake, it was mostly uneventful – a nice walk through the woods without a lot to see.

Close-Up Gregory Bald Azaleas
Close-Up Gregory Bald Azaleas  Below: Orange azaleas; More views of the bald and the mountains beyond.

Orange Azaleas Views at the Top of Gregory Bald Mountain Views from Gregory Bald

Around the four-mile mark, we reached the Sheep Pen Gap campsite area on the right.  Shortly after the campsite, there is a junction with the Wolf Ridge Trail.  Take a left here to stay on the Gregory Bald Trail to reach the summit.  This short section of trail was much steeper, but the terrain was still comfortable.  After a couple of tenths of a mile, a side trail shot to the right leading to a small clearing with the first of the azalea blooms.  We decided to press on to the summit which was just ahead.  When we stepped into the scene from the summit, it was breathtaking.  The shape of the ridge doesn’t always give you the best views of mountains all around you, but the colors were all around.   There was lush green in the grass, reds and oranges around us in every direction from the azaleas, blue skies with large, puffy white clouds in the sky.  It reminded me of one of those beautiful yet sadistic jigsaw puzzles you get where you could only group things by  a few colors, taking forever to solve.  We ate our lunches under this gorgeous spectacle and then spent a long time exploring the summit on all of the interweaving foot trails, searching for all of the different color variations of azaleas.

We made our way back down the way we came.  When we got back to the car, we proceeded down the mountain on the one-way road.  The road was in a little better shape on this side of the mountain.  There were several stream crossings we had to make with our car; we weren’t scared to cross through the shallow water, but it reminded me of what you may see occasionally on SUV commercials.  When we got on to the main road, we took a right and found ourselves on the Tail of the Dragon on US-129.  This dangerous section of windy roads includes 318 curves over 11 miles.  Since it is a popular destination for motorcycles that like to live dangerously, we passed several photographers stationed on the side of the road that take pictures all day of all the cars and motorcycles that pass.  They sell the photos online for people to buy.  The first couple of ones I thought were ridiculous, but then I put up my “heavy metal” hand gesture and rock-out face to the last photographer.  When I got back to the hotel, I looked it up online and laughed -the Subaru Outback is not the epitome of a vehicle living on the wild side.

Tree at the Top
This neat tree provides shade atop the bald.  Below: Horse campers at Sheep Pen Gap; The descent; We saw another group of horse campers hiking up.

Horse Camping Rhodie Tunnel Horses Going Uphill

Trail Notes

  • Distance – 9.5 miles (includes distance to the bald, and a half mile of walking the network of trails on the bald)
    (Check out the stats from Map My Hike)*
  • Elevation Change – 2290 ft.
  • Difficulty – 4.  The climbing on this trail is relentless and moderate to strenuous.
  • Trail Conditions – 4.  The trail was smooth, uncomplicated dirt.
  • Views  5.  Gorgeous and made even moreso by the blooming azaleas.
  • Streams/Waterfalls – 1.  There were a couple very low streams that were usable as water sources, but not scenic.
  • Wildlife – 4.5. We saw a timber rattlesnake and the couple right ahead of us crossed paths with a black bear!
  • Ease to Navigate – 4. The trail is easy to follow and the one junction is well-marked
  • Solitude – 2.  The trail is one of the park’s most popular.

Download a Trail Map (PDF)

Directions to trailhead: Do not attempt to access this trailhead without an AWD vehicle.  Parson Branch road is one-way, gravel, and very rough.  You will traverse steep inclines, deep potholes, and many small streams in your vehicle.  Our Subaru Outback did fine, but I wouldn’t have wanted to attempt the drive with less.

From Gatlinburg, TN, take US-441S into Great Smoky Mountains National Park.  In 1.6 miles, take a right on to Fighting Creek Gap Road.  Stay straight until you reach Cades Cove as Fighting Creek Gap Road becomes Little River Gorge Road, Laurel Creek Road, and Cades Cove Loop Road over the next 30 miles.  Once you enter Cades Cove and pass the visiting station, stay on the loop road for 5.6 miles.  Then turn right on to Forge Creek Road.  In 2.1 miles, turn right on to Parson Branch Road (this road is closed November-March).  Continue up the one-way Parson Branch road for about 3.5 miles until you reach the small parking lot on the right.  The trailhead is across the road.  The parking lot only has room for a couple of cars, so you may need to park on the side of the road during weekends or the summer.

Ramsey Cascades (TN)

Special: Smokies Edition

Introductory Guide to Visiting Great Smoky Mountains National Park Area

We’re back in the Smokies region for the next three hikes! Ramsey Cascades is the tallest waterfall in the park.  It’s also one of the most popular – despite the fact that the hike is a strenuous 8-miler!

View the Full Album of Photos From This Hike

Beautiful Ramsey Cascades
We’ve seen a number of the big waterfalls in the Smokies. Ramsey Cascades might be one of the prettiest. Below: Adam at the trailhead; The first part of the trail was along an old road; You could see and hear water for most of the hike.

Ramsey Cascades Trailhead Easy Start to Ramsey Cascades Hike Pretty Stream Along the Trail

Adam Says…

Our May vacation plans fell through due to a sick pet, but we were fortunate enough to slip away on a last-minute four day trip to the Smokies in mid-June. When we vacation, we tend to go hard.  We try to pack in as much as we can during every waking moment of the day. While it may not be as relaxing as some people like on vacation, we feel we want as many experiences as possible.  We like to tell each other that we can be tired and act like zombies at work for the first day back, so we stay “on the go” during vacation.  So, to maximize our time, we woke up around 4:30 a.m., packed up the car, and headed out to the Smokies.  When we got to the trailhead, it was a little after noon and the temperature and humidity made it feel like over 100 degrees.  We typically like to start hiking (especially in the warmer months) early in the morning before you can feel the height of the day’s heat.  This time, we were stuck with it.  The small parking lot for the trail was packed with cars, so we ended up having to park a little down the road.  So, we quickly got on the trail and pushed on.  Most of the trail was fairly shady, so not being in direct sunlight helped.

Scary Bridge
The foot log across this chasm was narrow and long. Below:  The chasm beneath the log bridge; Another view of the bridge’s narrowness; Christine under the giant tulip poplar.

Stream Below the Bridge Almost Across Tulip Poplar

The trail starts on a wide gravel fire road which made for easy footing.  One family had ventured out before us when we were trying to find parking. We saw the mother of the family doubling back along the trail, looking for the rubber foot that was lost on one of her children’s trekking poles.  When we came upon the rest of the family, it looks like they sent the mom off about a mile to look for it.  We felt bad that the mom was spending all of this time searching while the rest of the group was just relaxing.  At 1.5 miles, you reach an area that comes to edge of the stream.  To the left, the trail goes through a deep tunnel of rhododendron.  It is here the trail begins to climb and the trail becomes narrower.

At 2.1 miles, we reached a long foot log bridge.  As I’ve stated before, I hate man-made things when it comes to heights.  We had just passed another family on the hike, so I thought I would try to cross before they got there.  I got a little ways along, chickened out, and returned to the start of the bridge.  I knew it would take me a while to muster the strength to do it and I didn’t want to feel the pressure of judging eyes as I made my way across.  I debated internally if I should just wait here and let Christine continue on, but I knew I would regret not making it to the falls.  We let two families go by, one boldly taking selfies on the log.  After they were out of sight, I decided to give it another try.  As you can tell from the picture above, the bridge is only wide enough for an average person’s feet.  I’m not sure how far the drop would be if you fell off, but I would guess you would likely break something if you fell.  I decided to shuffle my feet side-by-side, while gripping the handrail white-knuckled.  During half of the traverse, I could feel the bridge bounce slightly up and down with each step, not easing my comfort-level at all.  I finally made it across and double-checked my map.  I was hoping there was a loop on this hike, but since this is a straight out-and-back hike, I’d have to face this beast again.  I rested on the other side a while, because I felt like I had just burned 2000 calories through the stress and adrenaline used crossing the log.

Stone Stairs
After crossing the narrow log bridge, the trail became increasingly steep and rugged. Below: Hiking along the rocky part of the trail; The second L-shaped log footbridge; Rocky trail; Arriving at the falls.

Rocky Trail Another Easier Log Bridge
Steep and Rocky Warning Sign

At 2.6 miles, we came across the three large tulip poplars.  The size of these trees was truly impressive!  There was a large group of high school JROTC students stopping here, so we decided to take time to appreciate them more on the way back.  We continued up the steep trail, which was very tough in this muggy, hot weather.   Eventually, at 4.0 miles, we arrived at Ramsey Cascades.  The waterfall is probably 90 feet across and plunges down through cascading rocks over 100 feet.  The rock outcropping to view the falls was packed with people, but we waited a while and eventually most of them left.  This is one of the prettiest waterfalls in the Smokies, so it was worth the sweat and effort (and maybe even crossing that log bridge).

We made our way back fairly quickly since the hike was mostly downhill.  We stopped to enjoy the large tulip trees along the way.  When I got to the bridge this time, I folded up my trekking poles (which I didn’t do on the way across initially) and immediately went across.  I was much quicker this time across, but it still took a toll on me.  I rested again, ate some jelly beans to replenish my sapped energy, and continued back.  The rest of the trip was easy and we made quick time back to our car.

We cranked up the AC in the car and drove to our hotel in Gatlinburg.  Gatlinburg was even hotter than the trail, so it was hard to get cooled down for the rest of the day.  But, we were so glad we made the trip out to view Ramsey Cascades.

Christine Says…

It was a little nuts to hop into the car at five in the morning just so we could pack one more day of hiking into our whirlwind, too-short, almost-completely-unplanned trip to the Smokies.  We’ve visited the area for three consecutive years, but there are still so many mountains and streams for us to explore.  We love coming back to this area!

The first hike on deck was Ramsey Cascades.  It’s one of the park’s most popular and impressive waterfalls, and we’ve wanted to hike it for a while now.  We arrived to the area a little before mid-day, so we decided to fuel up with a quick lunch at The Sub Station.  It had great reviews on Yelp and it was right along our route.  We scarfed down pulled pork sandwiches and then made our way to the Greenbrier section of the Smokies.

Arriving right at noon, the parking lot was already jam-packed with cars, so we had to find a pull off further down the road.  As soon as I stepped out of the car, the heat and humidity hit me like a sucker punch. I looked at Adam and said, “We’re not used to this heat… this is going to be a brutal hike!”  The area went on to set several heat records during our visit.

The first part of the hike followed an old gravel road.  It climbed steadily uphill, but was nicely graded and easy to traverse.  We saw lots of rosebay rhododendron starting to bloom along the trail.  We also enjoyed the constant sound of running water from the Little Pigeon River.

Swimmers at Ramsey Cascades
Some people opted to swim in the basin beneath the falls.  Below: A vertical version.

Christine at the Falls

About a mile and a half in, the gravel road ended and the route became a narrow footpath through the lush green forest.  This section of the hike followed alongside the Ramsey Prong which drains down the side of 6621-foot Mt. Guyot – the second tallest mountain in the park.   As we walked, I tried to focus on the loveliness of the trail instead of how I was feeling.  I was utterly gassed.  The heat was getting to me and making me feel weak and lightheaded. I kept drinking water, but it just made the sandwich I’d had for lunch churn in my stomach. Maybe eating had been a bad idea.  I kept pushing my physical discomfort to the back of my mind and focusing on putting one foot in front of the other.  Sometimes, it just what you have to do!

At 2.1 miles, we reached the narrow log bridge that Adam described so thoroughly.  The Smokies are full of these split log bridges, but this was the longest and highest one we’ve seen!  I suppose these log bridges keep streams cross-able when water is high (as opposed to a rock hop) and are less expensive than real bridges to build/maintain.  I like the way they blend into the natural scenery so nicely.

After crossing the bridge, we soon reached a grove of giant, old growth trees.  There are three tulip poplars that you’ll notice immediately.  They rise, straight and proud, from the forest floor – all of them dwarfing the other trees around them.  They were such impressive trees!

The last mile to the falls was increasingly steep and rocky.  We climbed stone steps, crossed another L-shaped log bridge, scrambled over boulders, and stepped over a couple shallow streams before reaching the falls.  At first, we could just see it through the woods, but after climbing over one last large boulder, we came to a big clearing.

Giant Tulip Poplar
We stopped by the three giant tulip poplars again on the hike back. Below: Adam crossing one of the small streams; Back across the scary footbridge; Pretty green Smokies forest.

Hike Back Hike Back green smokies

The falls were so impressive, plunging over 100 feet down the mountainside into a beautiful pool.  There were tons of people gathered on the rocks.  It was hard to find a place to sit and relax, but we eventually did.   Despite warning about treacherous conditions, people were still swimming, wading, and climbing on rocks around the falls.  We saw one young teenager come very close to taking a terrible fall onto the rocks.  He was lucky that he caught himself at the last minute.

We stayed and enjoyed the falls for quite a while. This gave me a chance to cool off and eat a little sugary snack.  That definitely made me feel better and helped my dizziness and fatigue.  Eventually, the crowd thinned and we had the falls to ourselves.  Or I should say mostly to ourselves with the exception of bees!  I don’t know why it is, but there are massive numbers of bees living in hives around the falls.  There are hundreds of them and they’re constantly buzzing around.  Fortunately, they’re not aggressive and seemed happy to share the falls.   Just be careful about sitting or putting your hands down. I’m sure they’d sting if someone tried to squish them!

After taking a bunch more photos, we made our way back down the trail.  The downhill hiking went really quickly.  Adam crossed the scary log bridge boldly on the return trip. We were back at the parking lot in half the time it took us to climb up!

Post Hike Dinner
Great steak dinner at Smoky Mountain Brewery post-hike. Below: Smoky Mountain Brewery flight; Pretzels and beer cheese!

Beers pretzels

Before we got in the car, I was very tempted to jump into the Little Pigeon River.  The spot where we parked was right next to a deep, cool swimming hole.  Adam told me it was a bad idea and that I’d be soaking wet in the car – so phooey – I passed on my chance to plunge in!

We had a short drive into Gatlinburg from the hike.  Because we didn’t plan ahead for this trip, our choices for lodging were fairly limited – but we picked a winner.  We ended up stayed at the Mountain House Motor Inn.  It was clean and comfortable, with a super-strong air conditioner.  It was also located within walking distance of all the downtown restaurants and shops.

We checked in, showered, and headed out for a great dinner at the Smoky Mountain Brewery!  What a great first day of this mini vacation.

Trail Notes

  • Distance – 8 miles
    (Check out the stats from Map My Hike)*
  • Elevation Change – 2240 ft.
  • Difficulty – 4.5.  The trail starts off fairly easy and gradual, but becomes steeper and rockier after the first 1.5 miles.  The last few tenths of a mile to the falls are a scramble over boulders.
  • Trail Conditions – 3.  The trail is rocky in places.  There is also a long, narrow log bridge that might intimidate some hikers.  It crosses a chasm over a stream and feels precipitous to anyone afraid of heights.
  • Views  0.  No views here – it’s all about the stream scenery!
  • Streams/Waterfalls – 5.  The stream is beautiful and Ramsey Cascades is one of the park’s prettiest waterfalls.
  • Wildlife – 0. There were so many people on the trail we didn’t see any animals.
  • Ease to Navigate – 4. The trail is simple to follow. There aren’t any turns or junctions.
  • Solitude – 1.  The trail is one of the park’s most popular.

Download a Trail Map (PDF)

Directions to trailhead: From Gatlinburg, TN, take US-321 N/East Parkway for about 5.5 miles.  Turn right onto Greenbriar Road.  Follow this for 3.1 miles before turning left onto Ramsey Prong Road.  Go 1.5 miles and you should reach the parking lot for the trailhead.  The trailhead starts at the end of the parking area. Coordinates: 35.702730, -83.357599

Porters Creek to Fern Branch Falls (TN)

Special: Smokies Edition

Introductory Guide to Visiting Great Smoky Mountains National Park

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.

View the Full Album of Photos From This Hike

Fern Branch Falls
Fern Branch Falls was running low, but it was still beautiful! Below: Pretty rapids on Porters Creek; Tall trees provided a wonderful canopy of shade; The Messer Barn.

Porters Creek Tall Trees Messer Barn

Christine Says…

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.

Lush Green Woods
Adam hikes along the early parts of the Porters Creek Trail. Below: Porters Creek Trailhead – it ties into the larger trail system in the park; Overhead view of Porters Creek; Old stone walls.

Trailhead Porters Creek from Above Old Stone Wall

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.

Log Foot Bridge
The first log foot bridge you come to is short and easy to cross.  Below: The Ownby Cemetery; Adam at the trail junction before the path goes from old road to real trail; Little cascades on the creek.

Ownby Cemetery Junction Pretty Porters Creek

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.

Adam Says…

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.

Trail After Junction
After the trail junction, the path became narrower and steeper.  Everything was so green!  Below: The second log foot bridge was segmented and much longer; wildflowers; Adam at the base of Fern Branch Falls.

Crooked Foot Log Wildflowers Fern Branch Falls

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.

Hiking Club & Spring House
The Smoky Mountain Hiking Club used this cabin as an overnight camp until 1981.  Below: Crossing the bridge on the return trip; The Messer barn is well-preserved example of a cantilevered barn; Adam checks out the interior of the hiking club cabin.

Crossing Messer Barn Inside the Hiking Club

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.

Trail Notes

  • Distance – 4 miles
    MapMyHike Stats
  • 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.

Download a Trail Map (PDF)

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.

Rich Mountain Loop (TN)

Special: Smokies Edition

Introductory Guide to Visiting Great Smoky Mountains National Park

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.

View the Full Album of Photos From This Hike

View Into Cades Cove
There was one decent view into Cades Cove on the Rich Mountain Loop. Most views were obscured by trees.

Adam Says…

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.

The open meadows and mountain backdrops define Cades Cove.
The open meadows and mountain backdrops define Cades Cove.  Below: Adam at the trailhead; A meadow view early in the hike; Stream crossings were shallow and easy when we hiked.

Trailhead Meadow View Stream Crossing

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.

Crooked Arm Falls
Our hiking guide said that Crooked Arm Falls ‘was no Niagara’. They really weren’t kidding!  Below: The trail was eroded and had a deep chute in the middle; The ridge walking was pleasant and breezy; We saw several of these cute toads.

Eroded Trail Ridgewalking Cute Toad

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.

Christine Says…

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!

Bear
We spotted an adolescent bear along the trail!  Below: Adam checking out trail distances at one of the junctions; Flame azalea; Mountain laurel.

Trail Junction Flame Azalea Mountain Laurel

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.

John Oliver Cabin
The John Oliver Place is the oldest cabin in Cades Cove. Below: A friendly yellow warbler we spotted along the trail; Adam descends the Rich Mountain Loop Trail; The woods shortly before reaching the Oliver cabin were very pretty.

Warbler Descent Woods

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.

Trail Notes

  • 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. 

Download a Trail Map (PDF)

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.