Chasteen Creek Falls (NC)

Special: Smokies Edition

Introductory Guide to Visiting Great Smoky Mountains National Park

This 4 mile out-and-back is an easy hike to one of the Smokies’ lesser visited and under-appreciated waterfalls.  The walk begins from the Smokemont Campground and follows a lovely stream and eventually reaches a pretty 25′ waterfall.

View the Full Album of Photos From This Hike

Chasteen Creek Cascade
Pretty Chasteen Creek Cascade spills from the forest into a small pool below.  Below:  The trailhead at the end of Smokemont Campground.  Adam tucked his pant legs in to avoid ticks;  Mountain laurel along Bradley Fork; The trail is an old logging road.

Trailhead for Chasteen Creek Cascade Bradley Fork Lush and Green Bradley Fork Trail

Christine Says…

For the first few days of our trip, I wasn’t feeling great.  Even after easy hiking days on Mt. Pisgah and Wesser Bald, I still wasn’t myself.  Mentally, I had big hiking plans for every day of our trip, but in the end, my body dictated that we hike shorter, less strenuous trails.

On our second day in Bryson City, we woke up to lightning, rumbling thunder and torrential downpours.  The local weather said that the heavy rain would clear out and leave us with a hazy, mostly cloudy, unsettled day.  We decided that an easy waterfall hike would be perfect for those conditions.  After breakfast at Mountain Perks (probably my favorite breakfast spot in Bryson City), we drove into the park.

Our hike started at the far end (section D) of the Smokemont Campground.  For the first 1.2 miles, we followed the Bradley Fork Trail.   It went gently uphill along the stream.  The morning rain paired with the emerging sun made for a hot, muggy and buggy hike!  Whenever we stopped for photos or to take in the scenery, we were swarmed by gnats and mosquitoes.  Nonetheless, the trail was beautiful – so lush and green.

Adam Enjoys the Bradley Fork. Below: A marker for the Benton MacKaye trail along the shared portion of the hike; Someone built a ‘fairy house’ along the Bradley Fork; Trail junction with Chasteen Creek Trail; Campsite 50.

Benton MacKaye Trail Fairy House Junction with Chasteen Creek Campsite 50

The trail along Bradley Creek is popular with horseback riders.  In fact, the National Park Service concessionaire offers a trail ride from Smokemont Stables to the waterfall.  I bet it’s a wonderful, scenic ride!  The trail is also shared with the Benton MacKaye Trail – a 300 mile trail across the southern Appalachians.  Almost 100 miles of the Benton MacKaye Trail passes through the Smokies.  MacKaye, a forester from Massachusetts, is noteworthy because he came up with the idea for the Appalachian Trail… what a legacy to leave behind!

At 1.2 miles, the Bradley Fork Trail intersects with the Chasteen Creek Trail.  At this junction, take a right and follow the trail toward Chasteen Creek.  Almost immediately, on the right, you’ll pass Backcountry Campsite 50.  It’s a pretty streamside spot with a fire ring and bear cables.  The campsite can only be used if you have secured a paid permit. Evidently, permits in the Smokies can be hard to come by, so plan early!

After the campsite, walk another half mile along the Chasteen Creek Trail.  Shortly after crossing a footbridge, you’ll come to a split in the trail.   On the left side of the split, you should be able to see a hitching rail and mounting step for horseback riders – go in this direction.

From the clearing for horses, you’ll see a narrow footpath following the creek.  In just about a tenth of a mile, you’ll come out at Chasteen Creek Cascade.  It’s about a 25 foot waterfall.  It’s not the kind of waterfall that plunges dramatically; rather it slides over the rocks into a pretty pool below.  We had the waterfall all to ourselves and enjoyed the spot for about twenty minutes. Afterwards, we headed back the way we came and back into Bryson City for lunch at the Bar-B-Que Wagon.  They have great Carolina-style barbecue with all the expected sides.

Chasteen Creek Trail
Christine walks along the Chasteen Creek Trail.  Below: The split in the trail that leads to the falls; Hitching post and mounting block; Adam at the falls.

Trail Split Hitching Posts Chasteen Creek Cascade

Adam Says…

When we talk to people about the Smokies, they seem to be surprised that some of the best highlights of the park are the waterfalls.  In talking with the locals of the area, April and May tend to be very rainy seasons for the area.   Storms move in and out quickly through the park, but they typically expect a little rain most days during this season.  Rainy days are prime days for waterfall viewing and photography.

We started off our hike from the Smokemont Campground in the D section of the campground.  In the winter, this may be blocked off and you may have to park and leave from the C section.  The trailhead starts from a large gate near the designated parking area at the end of the campground.  We doused ourselves with bug spray and moved on.

Butterfly Swarm
We saw a swarm of butterflies on the trail. Below:  After lunch, we visited impressive Mingo Falls.  It’s probably the tallest waterfall in the area;  Nantahala Brewing Company and Anthony’s Pizza were the perfect way to end our time in Bryson City.

Mingo Falls Beers Anthony's

The trail was gradually uphill, but it mostly felt flat.  In fact, we were surprised to see the elevation gain on the hike afterwards.  The trail started off on a gravel road alongside Bradley Fork.  The forest was lush with green from all of the rain, so it was a pleasant stroll through the woods.  Because of the width of the trail, Christine and I could also walk side-by-side along the trail.  At 1.1 miles, we crossed a large footbridge and at 1.2 miles we came to the intersection with the Chasteen Creek Trail.  We took a right there and continued to walk on a wider trail, passing Campsite 50 at 1.3 miles.  At 1.9 miles, we reached the side trail to the left with the horse hitching area.  It was a short walk to get to the waterfall from there.  We headed back the way we came for an easy, scenic hike.

If you wanted to make this a longer hike, after you visit the waterfall, return back the way you came.  You could take a right at the junction with the Bradley Fork trail and connect to the Smokemont Loop Trail.  This would make the grand total of distance about 8 miles, but would loop back to a different section of the campground.

You may see people fishing for rainbow trout along the Bradley Fork or Chasteen Creek.  I can imagine many campers at the Smokemont Campground spend some time fishing in hopes of cooking some fish from the water.

After the hike, we had lunch then headed into Cherokee to check out the Qualla Arts & Crafts Mutual.  Their traditional work is fascinating and beautiful.  We always enjoy visiting.  After that, we stayed on the reservation and visited Mingo Falls, one of the tallest and most impressive waterfalls in the Appalachians.  It was a short walk, but there were many stairs!

Our wrap up for the day was a visit to Nantahala Brewery followed by pizza from Anthony’s.  We consider those two stops to be ‘must-do’ in Bryson City!  On to Gatlinburg tomorrow!

Trail Notes

  • Distance –  4 miles
    MapMyHike Stats
  • Elevation Change –  490 ft.
  • Difficulty – 1.5.  This is an easy walk along a very gently graded trail.
  • Trail Conditions –  4.5.  The trail is mostly wide and road-like.  It’s only narrow and muddy at the base of the falls.
  • Views – 0.  None.
  • Streams/Waterfalls – 4.5.  Bradley Fork, Chasteen Creek and the falls are all beautiful!
  • Wildlife – 3.  We didn’t see anything, but the Smokies have wildlife everywhere!
  • Ease to Navigate –  3.5.  The trail is easy to follow if you read the junction markers.  The shared/intersecting trails might be confusing if you’re not paying attention.
  • Solitude – 3.  Chasteen Creek Falls is not one of the park’s more popular trails.  You may see horses and occasional hikers from the campground, but generally this trail has less foot traffic than many others.

Download a Trail Map (PDF)

Directions to trailhead:   From Newfound Gap Road (Route 441), follow signs to Smokemont Campground.  The campground is located 3.5 miles north of the Oconaluftee Visitor Center and 26 miles south of the Sugarlands Visitor Center.  Park in the hiker parking area at the end of section D of the campground.

Wesser Bald (NC)

Special: Smokies Edition

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

This 2.8 mile out-and-back is an easy hike to one of the area’s best viewpoints.  The platform atop the defunct firetower on Wesser Bald offers panoramic views of the spectacular Smokies (and all the other mountains in the area).

View the Full Album of Photos From This Hike

Smokies View from Wesser View
You get classic Smoky Mountain views from the tower atop Wesser Bald.  Below: A sign points the way to Wesser Bald:  The parking area at Tellico Gap provided a view of powerlines and a ‘cloud sea’; The drive into Tellico Gap follows the extremely scenic Otter Creek.  It’s worth stopping to enjoy the rapids and small waterfalls.

Wesser Sign Tellico Gap Stream

Adam Says…

It is nice when you find a hike that the locals rave about.  During our trip to North Carolina, I heard three different people mentioning that we needed to hike Wesser Bald.  After getting to the top, I can see why this is so revered.

When we started off in the morning, it had been storming the night before.  A fog had settled on the lower elevations.  While we were driving, we were curious if we were going to get any views at all.  On our drive there, the cloudy conditions gave us great views along the Nantahala River as we passed several scenic spots and chances to catch some roadside waterfalls and rapids.  We made our way up Otter Creek Road and parked at Tellico Gap, where the Appalachian Trail crossed the road.

When we first parked, we noticed the sign that designated the start of the trail, but we noticed there was a white-blazed trail and a fire road to the left.  We knew our hike was on the white-blazed Appalachian Trail, so we took the trail to the left.   The fire road trail to the right also leads to the tower.  I’m not sure how the conditions are on it, but it did seem to be shorter, since we found a family with kids that left after us beat us back to the parking lot (and they didn’t seem like fast hikers).  The trail passed through a thick brushy area fairly quickly, but most of the trail was in a more opened-up wooded area.  The hike was fairly uphill as it skirted the mountainside, but I didn’t find any of the trail to be incredibly steep.  Instead, it winds There were a few switchbacks towards the end of the hike where it was a little steeper, but the switchbacks save you from going straight up the mountain.

Wesser Bald Trail
Adam walks along the Appalachian Trail en route to Wesser Bald.  Below: A cool, bent tree along the trail; Mountain laurel were just starting to bloom; In fact, there were many wildflowers blooming.

Bent Tree Mountain Laurels Wildflowers

When we reached the top of the spur trail at 1.3 miles, there was a great viewpoint that gives you a small sample.  If you are not willing to climb the fire tower, this would be the best views you would get on this hike.  As you reach the top, take a right and you’ll reach the fire tower in a short distance.  Make your way back to complete the out-and-back or you could press pass the fire tower to take the fire road back to make it a loop.

When we reached the fire tower, we could hear a couple people at the top of the tower.  Christine quickly made her way up.  I, on the other hand, needed to psych myself up.  As you’ve probably seen in many pictures, I don’t mind getting out on rocks that are on the edge of a huge precipice; however, I don’t trust man-made structures when it comes to heights.  I trust nature over man.  I went up halfway and then I could start to see the sky through the gaps in the stairs and I just turned back around.  But from the bottom, I could hear Christine and the others at the top of how beautiful everything was and I knew I needed to force myself to get up there.  So, I took a second attempt and made it up.  Christine and the others at the top applauded my efforts for overcoming my fear.  I’m so glad I made it to the top, because the scenery was breathtaking and some of the best mountain views I’ve ever seen.   We stayed up there a while and talked to a few different groups of people that made it up after we did.

After we made it back, we decided to head to the Nantahala Outdoor Center.  We had a nice lunch at the River’s End and then we enjoyed a beer at Big Wesser BBQ & Brew, while watching kayakers and whitewater rafts go down the river.  This is always one of our favorite spots while visiting near the Smokies and it is definitely a place you can spend hours during the afternoon.   You can also hike from Tellico Gap to the Nantahala Outdoor Center on the Appalachian Trail for a one-way total of 7.5 miles if you want to do a shuttle option.

If you are interested in geocaching, there are three you can find on the trail:

Christine Says…

The forecast for our week in the Smokies didn’t look good – stormy, rainy and unsettled every single day from Sunday to the next Saturday. So, when we woke up to dense fog on Monday morning, we weren’t completely surprised. However, the hourly forecast on weather.com made it look like the fog might burn off. We hoped that the odds would be in our favor, and headed off to hike a trail we’d been eying for a while. Wesser Bald is a short, moderate 1.4 mile hike along the AT to an old fire tower overlooking the southern Appalachians. It’s a spectacular view if you’re lucky enough to hit the spot on a clear day.

From Tellico Gap, we followed the AT as it made gradual, sweeping switchbacks through beautiful, lush forest. The trail was lined with wildflowers and blooming azaleas/rhododendron. I think I saw more pink lady slippers on this hike than I’ve ever seen anywhere else. It was gorgeous. The azaleas came in white, pink and orange and the rhododendron bloomed in their classic bright pinkish-purple color. I also spotted wild strawberries and some gorgeous purple spiderwort.

First View
Christine enjoys the first view along the trail. This spot is at the head of the spur trail to the tower.  Below: The fire tower is two stories high;  The stairs are open and a little rickety; Christine atop the fire tower.

Fire Tower Climbing On Top the Tower

The humidity took some getting used to! Even though it wasn’t particularly hot, the day was windless and the air was completely saturated. By the time we got to the top, I looked like I’d been dunked in a pool! Just before reaching the tower, we passed a nice view looking toward the Smokies and Fontana Dam. Near the overlook, a short spur trail took us to the top of Wesser Bald. This bald is no longer actually a bald – it’s been let go and returned to the natural forest environment. So while the view has closed in from the base of the tower, the view from the two-story viewing platform is superb!

I climbed up to the top and said WOW! Adam didn’t feel comfortable with the open, rattling stairs, so he hung out at the bottom while I chatted with a couple at the top. They had hiked up earlier from the NOC and were waiting to meet up with their son, who was on a solo backpacking trip. They were really fun to talk to – both were veteran AT thru-hikers and REI employees. We talked about favorite spots on the AT and chatted a bit about gear. I always love meeting people like them on the trail!

View from the Tower
Views from the Wesser Bald fire tower are majestic. Below: There were many pink lady’s slippers along the trail; Spiderwort: Christine enjoys a post-hike shandy at the Big Wesser Brew & BBQ at the Nantahala Outdoor Center.

Lady's Slippers Spiderwort Nantahala Outdoor Center

While we were chatting, Adam mustered the courage to climb to the top of the tower. He was so glad he did, too! The views really blew both of us away! Even though it was hazy, we could still see for miles in every direction. We spent a long while atop the tower, enjoying the views and the fresh mountain air.

After a while, we decided it was time to make our way down and seek out some lunch. One of our repeat stops ever time we visit the Smokies is the Nantahala Outdoor Center. We enjoy lunch at the Riverside Cafe, browsing the nice outdoor gear store, and (of course) drinking a few beers by the river at Big Wesser. It’s so fun to sit at an umbrella table, drink a nice craft beer and watch kayakers shooting through the rapids. It’s also a great place to people-watch in general. While we were sitting and enjoying our drinks, the skies opened up and dumped a huge amount of rain in just a few minutes. I’m sure glad we had the rain at the NOC instead of on top Wesser Bald!

Trail Notes

  • Distance – 2.8 miles out-and-back
  • Elevation Change – 777 feet.
  • Difficulty – 2.  The trail is mostly uphill, but not too steep.
  • Trail Conditions –  4.  The trail was in great shape and the footing was fairly solid.
  • Views – 5.  Absolutely spectacular views from the fire tower and another nice view right before the tower.
  • Streams/Waterfalls – 0.  Non-existent. 
  • Wildlife – 1.  We only saw some birds along the way. 
  • Ease to Navigate –  3.  The confusion of the fire road at the beginning gives it a lower score, but other than that you should be fine.  Follow the white-blazed AT. 
  • Solitude – 2.5.  Popular with locals, but this wouldn’t get the traffic that a hike in the nearby Smokies would. 

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.

Cucumber Gap Loop (TN)

Special: Smokies Edition

Introductory Guide to Visiting Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Cucumber Gap is a lovely 5.6 mile loop known for wildflowers, stream scenery and the historic Elkmont cabins.

View the full album of photos from this hike

A Peek Into Elkmont
A peek inside one of the dilapidated Elkmont cabins.  Below: Adam walks the Little River Trail; the Spence Cabin; We saw lots of big snails on the trail.

Walking the Little River Trail Spence Cabin Snail

Adam Says…

For our last day of hiking in the Smokies, we opted for something easy compared to our previous two days, which had us hiking over difficult terrain for 10+ miles each day.   We decided a hike along a pretty stream with a taste of history would be a nice choice.

The hike started on the Little River Trail. We crossed the gate that led to the gravel road.  Almost immediately to the left, you come across some of the Elkmont cabins.  There are signs posted asking that you not enter the houses.  These do look dangerous, with caved-in roofs and rotting wood, so don’t risk it.  The Little River Logging Company established this small town in 1908 to serve as a central location for its logging efforts.  In 1910, they started selling parcels of land to interested outdoorsmen, who established the Appalachian Club.  In 1912, the Wonderland Park Hotel was built and in 1919 a group of businessmen bought the hotel and established the Wonderland Club.  As the wealthy began traveling to this area, the Appalachian Club and Wonderland Club served as social outlets for the elite.  Most of these houses are in complete ruin, as the park has taken over the property after not renewing the leases of those previous owners.  There is a plan to maintain and renovate 19 of these houses (mostly in the “Daisy Town” area).

We continued along the trail that is flanked by the Little River to the left.  There are many places that you can duck off the main trail and enjoy watching the flowing river.   At 2.4 miles, you reach the junction with the Cucumber Gap Trail right after passing a bench.  Take a right and head on the Cucumber Gap Trail, which begins an ascent.  We came across a woman, who was glad to see us since she said we could “scare the bear away”.  She had been walking on this trail many times and has seen bears frequently here.  We were excited to possibly see a bear on the trail, but we weren’t lucky enough this time.

Adam Enjoys the Little River
Adam takes in the lovely Little River. Below: Huskey Branch Falls; Tall, lush trees on the hike.

Huskey Branch Falls Tall Trees

At 2.7 miles, you will rock-hop across Huskey Branch.  The trail continues to ascend, but slightly more steeply until you reach the top of Cucumber Gap at mile 3.8.  Off to the right, you may have an obstructed view of Burnt Mountain and the Bear Wallow Creek valley below.  Near the top of the gap, you may see Fraser magnolias, often referred as “cucumber trees”, giving this trail its name.  The trail descends at this point and crosses Tulip Branch at 4.4 miles.  At 4.8 miles, the Cucumber Gap Trail ends and you willl take a right when you reach this junction with the Jakes Creek Trail.   At 5.1 miles, the trail reaches another junction.  Head right again at this fork.  Soon, you will pass by more abandoned Elkmont houses until the trail opens up into the larger area of homes known as “Daisy Town”.  Walking down the main street, you will reach the Appalachian Club, which has a large wooden porch and some historical signs that you can read to learn more about this area.  From the club, make your way to the right and you should shortly reach your car again.

This was a nice leg-stretcher of a hike, and one that you’ll likely want to take slowly to enjoy the scenery along the way.  The houses are interesting to check out and you may want to take a few minutes to enjoy the heavy-flowing Little River.  If you are someone that is interested in the history of this area right before the park was established, this is a great hike to check out.

Christine Says…

After two days of long, tough hikes, we began our final day in the Smokies looking for something a little more relaxing and low-key.  While enjoying amazing (honestly… this is not an overstatement) donuts from The Donut Friar, we skimmed our guidebook.  In the end, we settled on the Cucumber Gap Loop.  It’s known as one of the Smokies’ nicest, more moderate hikes.  It boasts abundant wildflowers, beautiful river scenery and a chance to visit the historic Elkmont cottages.

The trailhead is just a short drive from Gatlinburg, near the Elkmont campground.  We set off on the Little River Trail, which is really more of a wide, gravel road than a trail.  Almost immediately, the Spence Cabin came into view.  This historic cabin has been restored by the park service, and is available for day-use special event rental.  The other cabins dotting the river alongside the Spence Cabin haven’t been so lucky.  Most of them are dilapidated, sagging and fading back into the forest.  ‘Keep Out’ signs are posted along the trail.  Although you cannot enter (or even touch) the buildings, you can still peek through the windows and imagine what life may have been like in the area’s heyday.

Rock Hopping
Christine does some rock hopping. Below: Violets were abundant on the hike; Adam crosses Huskey Branch; Heading into ‘Daisy Town’.

Violet Stream Crossing Heading Into Daisy Town

After spending a little time peering into the cottages, we continued along the path. I looked for wildflowers, but we really didn’t spot much beyond bluets, wild violets, sporadic mountain laurel and a few fading trilliums. It was several weeks past peak bloom in the park’s lower elevations.

We stopped several times to enjoy and photograph the beautiful Little River.  The water here tumbles over boulders and rock shelves, making many small cascades and rapids.  The day was sunny and cloudless, so it was hard to take decent pictures. I did manage to find a few shady spots that were nice for photos.  At one particular spot, I set up my tripod and sent Adam out to sit on a rock.  He noticed a brown snake, sitting half in and half out of the water.  I tried to get a photo, but as soon as I pointed my lens in his direction, the snake ducked into the water.  It popped its head up one last time before diving deeper and disappearing for good.  I did a little research on what kind of snake he might have been and came up with a common brown water snake.

We tried not to stop or stand still for too long, because the mosquitoes on this hike were outrageous. Even when we were moving, we were swatting. Standing still was almost unbearable. It was definitely the warmest, stillest, most humid day of our trip, so I suppose we shouldn’t have been surprised to find a riverside hike so buggy! I ended up putting a little DEET on my face. I’ve had a few mosquito bites on my eyelids that have swollen to softball size and stayed that puffy for days. It’s a very bad look for me. 🙂

We soon passed a small waterfall entering from the right side of the trail. I didn’t see it mentioned in our guidebook, but apparently it’s called Huskey Branch Falls. It’s a pretty spot!

Shortly after the waterfall, we came to the junction with the Cucumber Gap Trail.  Adam mentioned meeting the woman who passed along the bear warning.  What I didn’t know at the time was that the only fatal bear attack in the Smokies happened close to this spot.  I have a healthy respect for bears, but I’m not frightened of encountering them on the trail.  Fatal encounters are rare and tragic.  In the end, all we saw were lots of big snails, squirrels, and a couple pileated woodpeckers.

The Cucumber Gap trail contains the steepest climbing of the hike. About half the elevation gain on this hike takes place over a single mile on this section of trail. There wasn’t anything remarkable or unique about this part of the hike – pretty violets, tall trees, and a couple shallow stream crossings. We also managed to pick up a bit of a breeze, which helped keep the bugs away.

We soon found ourselves at a junction with a wide gravel road, we turned right and made our way to another junction with the Jakes Creek Trail. The remainder of the Elkmont cottages sit along this section of the hike. There are cabins in just about every rustic style imaginable. Apparently, Elkmont has been a controversial issue in the Smokies for years. Some people would like to see all of the buildings torn down, so that nature can take over. Others would like to see the homes restored so that the park’s origins and history can be visited and remembered. Currently, the plan lets each side of the argument win in a way.

Appalachian Club Porch
The Appalachian Club Porch has several nice rocking chairs.  Below: Another Elkmont cottage; Historical information at the site; A bear on the drive back into town!

Another Elkmont Cottage Appalachian Club History Bear!

Many of the cottages will be demolished and removed, but those that are in better condition or are historically significant will be repaired and eventually opened to the public.  The area has already been added to the National Register of Historic Places.

Near the end of the hike, we reached a paved road that passes through the densest section of Elkmont cottages.  This area is definitely worth a little exploration!  We enjoyed sitting on the chairs on the porch of the Appalachian Clubhouse.  This building, like Spence Cabin, has already been restored and is available for event rental.  The front of the building has a few signs with historical information and old photos.  It sounds like it was quite the place to be back in the day!

From the clubhouse, the return to our car was just a short walk along the road. While the Cucumber Gap Loop wasn’t the most thrilling hike of our trip, it was still fun and interesting.

On our way back into Gatlinburg, Adam spotted a mother bear and two tiny cubs along the road. So, even though we didn’t see bears on the hike, we didn’t leave the Smokies without a great look at wildlife. It was a fitting final experience!

Trail Notes

  • Distance5.6 miles
    (Check out the stats from MapMyHike)*
  • Elevation Change – About 900 ft.
  • Difficulty –  1.5.  The trail along Little River is fairly flat.  There is a little elevation on the Cucumber Gap trail, but it wasn’t too tough.
  • Trail Conditions – 4.  The Little River Trail and Jakes Creek Trail are both gravel fire roads that are very easy to walk on.  The Cucumber Gap trail was well-maintained, but somewhat overgrown in some areas.
  • Views – 1.  You may get an obstructed view of Burnt Mountain from the top of Cucumber Gap, but not much else.
  • Streams/Waterfalls – 4.  The Little River Trail has some of the best stream viewing you can see.  There were some rapids, but no significant waterfalls.
  • Wildlife – 3.  A great spot for birding.  Deer and bear have been spotted here often.
  • Ease to Navigate – 3.5.  There aren’t great signs around so that you know exactly how to get back to your car, but we were able to find it fairly easily (and now you should be able to as well).
  • Solitude – 3.  We saw a few people along the trail, but this is a little quieter than a lot of the popular trails in the park.  Many people on the trail may be camping nearby.

Directions to trailhead:  From the edge of Gatlinburg, enter Great Smoky Mountains National Park and head south on US-441 South for 1.7 miles.  Turn right on to Little River Road and go 4.9 miles.  Take a left onto Elkmont Road and continue on it past the campground for a total of 2.0 miles.  Park in the small parking lot and the Little River Trail is past the locked gate.

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

Silers Bald (NC)

Special: Smokies Edition

Introductory Guide to Visiting Great Smoky Mountains National Park

This ten-mile hike follows the Appalachian Trail along the Tennessee-North Carolina border.  Most of the hike is above a mile high, so in open spots you get some very impressive views of the Smokies.  The bald itself is rather disappointing, as it’s been mostly reclaimed by the forest, but we did enjoy the vistas and visiting two Appalachian Trail shelters.

View the full album of photos from this hike

Views from High
Since much of the hike is along a mile-high ridge, views can be spectacular (when you’re not in the clouds). Below: Adam climbs the foggy path to the Clingmans Dome Observation Tower, The tower looks kind of like a space ship; The Appalachian Trail in the fog.

Walking the Path to Clingmans Dome Clingmans Dome Observation Tower in the Fog Appalachian Trail in the Fog

Christine Says…

This is a hike we planned on doing on our Spring 2012 Smokies trip, but we had so much stormy weather that we didn’t want to risk a long, mostly unprotected hike along mile-high ridgeline. So, we settled for the shorter trip to Andrews Bald. In the end, it actually turned out that Andrews Bald was a larger, more scenic bald than Silers. But, we still found many reasons beyond the slightly disappointing bald to enjoy this hike.

We started pretty early on Tuesday morning, after a lavish breakfast at The Pancake Pantry (Swedish Crepes with lingonberries!!). It was sunny in Gatlinburg, but as we made the drive toward the summit of Clingmans Dome, clouds began to envelop the mountain. At the very top, we were completely socked in. We knew it would burn off over the course of the morning, so we started the climb up the paved road to the observation tower.

From there, we picked up the Appalachian Trail. We followed it, descending downhill, sometimes steeply and sometimes gently. There were some sections of descent that caused Adam and I to look at each other and say ‘This is not going to be a fun climb back up!’

Since we were completely in the fog, we had no idea what views or scenery the trail would have to offer on the return hike. It was almost like doing one hike in the morning, and a completely different hike in the afternoon. I kind of like that!  Also, the fog made the woods extremely beautiful and mysterious.  There’s just something about mist and evergreens!

Red Trillium
Because of the high elevation, a lot of earlier season wildflowers were still blooming. This red trillium was especially pretty! Below: Many different kinds of moss grow abundantly in the high country here; Flowering tree; Wildflowers along the trail.

Moss Flowering Tree Wildflowers

We saw lots of wildflowers, including some spectacular red trillium that Adam spotted. We listened to birds singing in the fog and watched the sky become increasingly brighter.

When we came to the first vista that wasn’t covered by fog, I got out my wide angle lens. Unfortunately, it had been sitting too close to my icy cold CamelBak water bag, so as soon as I got it out, it fogged up so badly I couldn’t take a single photo until it acclimated and dried out.

By the time we got to Double Springs Shelter, larger patches of blue were already opening in the sky. We took some time to read the shelter journal – lots of fun entries.

From Double Springs, the trail seemed to ascend and descend repeatedly. We watched the mileage on our GPS and thought that it was about time that we should be approaching the bald. Honestly, we could have passed it without notice. It wasn’t really much of a bald. It had been described in our guide as ‘a large, mostly grassy bald with a few heathers and berry bushes’. What we found was a small clearing with no grass, covered completely by tall bushes.

Mossy Woods
The forest is so beautiful, dense and ethereal.

We thought ‘This can’t possibly be it!?’ But, it was – as confirmed by GPS data and our imminent arrival at the second shelter – Silers Bald Shelter. We ate lunch at the shelter – Subway and these awesome locally-made trail bars by Granola Naturals (Toffee and Chocolate Granola Crunch Bar – YUM!) that we picked up at the NOC.

Right after lunch, we headed back the way we came. The hike back was tough, hiking ten miles after climbing LeConte the day before was probably not the best plan. But when we’re in the Smokies – we hike ‘til we drop.

Most of the way was hard, but not unbearably tough. However, the last push to Clingmans Dome was about a mile of very steep climbing. My legs were screaming and all I could think was ‘put one foot in front of the other, repeat, repeat, repeat’. The only thing that softened the pain of the climb were the spectacular views! These views made me oooh and ahhh repeatedly. Despite my exhaustion, I kept thinking ‘This is so darn gorgeous – worth every sore muscle and drop of sweat!’

There is nothing like hiking a mile-high ridge that offers views of the Smokies rolling out beneath you.

Inside the Double Springs Shelter
Adam checks out the shelter log at the Double Springs shelter.  Below: Arriving at the shelter; It was interesting to read entries.  Many thru-hikers struggled through deep snow in the Smokies.

Double Springs Log Book

Back at the Clingmans Dome observation tower, we were met by massive crowds. Lots of people had questions and made comments about our trekking poles. An older guy called us ‘show-offs’ – not really sure why, but it was done jokingly. Adam and I really enjoyed seeing our first clear view from the tower. The two previous visits had both been low visibility/cloudy, so this visit was a real treat!

After the hike, we headed back into town for a massive feast on Mellow Mushroom pizza followed by Kilwins Ice Cream and free samples of just about every wine, whiskey and moonshine offered in Gatlinburg. I think the town offers so many free alcohol samples to loosen tourists’ purse-strings. After 14 moonshine samples, who knows – you may just wake up owning a new airbrushed t-shirt that says ‘Sexy and I Know It’ (not that I did that).

Adam Says…

Christine and I had tried to get into good hiking shape for our trip to the Smokies.  We had grand ideas of all we wanted to accomplish – Christine had picked about 120 miles of hiking trails she wanted to do.  Christine did a much better job than I of getting in to shape.  Accomplishing this 10 mile hike after finishing about 11.5 miles of hiking through steep terrain up Mount LeConte the previous day, took a toll on me.  Since this hike is almost all downhill until you reach the bald and the shelter, I was dreading the return trip.

We enjoyed our trip last year to Andrews Bald where we were able to relax at a scenic spot from the bald area.  Silers Bald is not very “bald” at all.  In fact, I would say it doesn’t even show much of a receding hairline.  But, there were some nice views along the trail elsewhere.

Silers Bald
Silers Bald was less impressive than we expected.  Evidently, 100 years ago, balds stretched from Clingman’s Dome all the way over to Gregory Bald (which is hiked from Cades Cove).  The land was used for grazing.  Since becoming a park, nature had filled most of the bald terrain back in.  Below: One of our first views of the day not covered by clouds; As we approached Silers Bald, the forest changed from pines to grass and deciduous trees; Another view of Silers Bald.

First Views Forest Change Another Look at the Bald

As Christine mentioned, we started off the hike in the thick fog.   Visibility was minimal.  We were hoping that the hike would be similar to our first hike up Mount Rogers, where it felt like a different hike on the return trip.  Luckily, the fog lifted to give us this same experience.  It also made us feel that we were continuing to hike to get the best views; otherwise, this hike would have been more of a disappointment if we had the best views early.

We started off by hiking from the Clingman’s Dome parking lot up the steep hill for .5 miles.  The walk on the paved road is short, but very steep.  There is a reason there are benches on the side of the paved trail. – it can be a challenge for those out of shape.  Most of the people that are visiting Clingman’s Dome will just walk up the paved trail and return without venturing further.  Expect to see a ton of people on this part of the trail, but you’ll have a lot of seclusion for the rest of the trail.  After you near the winding tower of Clingman’s Dome, take the trail to the left that begins your hike on the Appalachian Trail.   You’ll stay on the Appalachian Trail throughout your hike.  At .75 miles, the trail opens up into an area filled with views along the trail.  Continue to go downhill (you’ll descend about 1100 feet over a little over the next two miles).  At 2.75 miles, you’ll reach a junction with the Goshen Prong Trail.  Continue to go downhill and at 3.25 miles, you’ll reach the Double Spring Gap Shelter.  The trail goes up and down slightly over this next section and at 3.75 miles, you’ll reach a smaller bald area known as Jenkins Knob.

Hiking Back
By the time we hiked back, skies had cleared and we had better views.  Below: Silers Shelter – our lunch stop; The return hike had some tough climbing.

Silers Shelter Lots of Clumbing

We found Jenkins Knob to be a little more impressive than Silers Bald in terms of views and openness.  The trail continues to mostly go downhill until it finally bottoms out around 4.5 miles.  At this point, the trail begins an uphill climb to Silers Bald.  At 4.7 miles, you pass the junction with the Welch Ridge Trail.  The trail becomes quite steep at this point until you reach the top of Silers Bald.  We found a USGS benchmark on the ground to signify the top of Silers Bald.  The trail begins to descend from the benchmark and opens up to the area that is Silers Bald.  The trail goes through the small bald area and reaches the Silers Bald overnight shelter at 5.1 miles.  Retrace your steps, largely uphill, to make your way back.

Back to Clingmans Dome
The views were much better from the tower on the return leg of our hike. Below: Adam at the end of the hike; Views from the observation tower.

Back at the Tower Views from the Tower

We were dreading the climb back up, especially after hiking up Mount LeConte the day before, but we were rewarded with great views as the fog and clouds lifted.  As we reached the paved trail to Clingman’s Dome, we climbed up to the top of the tower and we really felt like we earned the 360-degree views.  The elevation is 6643 feet (the tower adds another 45 feet) and you can stand at the top of the tower knowing you are at the highest part of the Great Smoky Mountains.  This spot is actually the third highest peak east of the Mississippi, to only be beaten by Mount Mitchell and Mount Craig.  We enjoyed spotting Mount LeConte from the tower, since it is the sixth highest peak east of the Mississippi.  We were ecstatic to see views from Clingman’s Dome, since the last two times we had visited we had clouds hanging on the mountain.  The clouds were still taking up a lot of the skies, but it didn’t prevent us from seeing miles of mountain ranges around us.

Christine mentioned that we enjoyed going back to Gatlinburg, TN and eating some pizza and drinking some free moonshine and whiskey samples.  While we didn’t feel the need to buy cheesy T-shirts, I definitely felt the need to visit the Hollywood Star Cars Museum.  While Christine waited for me, I toured around quickly but the highlight for me was to sit in the Batmobile from the 1966 TV show with Adam West.  I grew up watching re-runs of that show and it was my older brother’s favorite show as a child, so it was great to have something to make him jealous.  You can pay a little extra on the tour to have your photo taken within some of the cars.  I also got to see Ecto-1 from Ghostbusters,  a DeLorean from Back to the Future, KITT from Knight Rider, and the General Lee from the Dukes of Hazzard.  It’s a neat place to check out if you’re into Hollywood cars.

Trail Notes

  • Distance10 miles
    (Check out the stats from MapMyHike)*
  • Elevation Change – About 2200 ft. – it looks like closer to 1500 ft on GPS, but with all the rolling climbs it adds up to quite a bit more!
  • Difficulty – 4. The climbing and descending never seem to end on this hike.
  • Trail Conditions – 4.  This was mostly nice, well-worn Appalachian Trail walking.  The climb to the observation tower in paved.
  • Views – 3.5.  Very nice, but not quite panoramic.
  • Streams/Waterfalls – 0. None on the hike.
  • Wildlife – 2. We saw a lot of fresh bear scat on the hike, but no bears.  Clearly, they frequent the area.
  • Ease to Navigate – 4.  The trail is well-marked with white blazes and signed at each junction.
  • Solitude – 3.  Expect thick crowds at the observation tower, thinning toward Double Spring Shelter.  After Double Spring, we only saw a couple people.

Directions to trailhead:  From US-441, head south a short distance from Newfound Gap.  Take a right on to Clingmans Dome Road.  Go 6.4 miles until you reach the large parking lot area.  The paved trail up to Clingmans Dome starts at the end of the parking lot, passing a visitors center/gift shop.

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

Alum Cave to Mount LeConte (TN)

Special: Smokies Edition

Introductory Guide to Visiting Great Smoky Mountains National Park

This eleven mile hike of Mount LeConte is beautiful and lots of fun!  The scenery is diverse – streams, views, towering bluffs, an arched rock that you get to climb through, and a visit to the famous LeConte Lodge.

View the full album of photos from this hike

View from LeConte Summit
LeConte provides great vistas from the Cliff Tops viewpoint, located about .2 miles above the lodge. Below: The Walker Camp Prong at the very beginning of the hike; A lot of the hike had views; The famous LeConte llamas.

Pretty Stream Open Views LeConte Llamas

Adam Says…

When we were planning our trip to Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the hike that we were most excited to do was the hike up Mount LeConte.  We hiked this trail last year by taking the Trillium Gap Trail, so it was time to try an alternate route.  Last time we had talked to several people that had taken the Alum Cave trail, so we thought it may be a good option.

The weather was gorgeous this day, but we knew we had a chance for thunderstorms in the afternoon, so we decided to get as early of a start as we could.  When we had hiked up via the Trillium Gap Trail, we didn’t run into a lot of hikers; however, it was evident early on this route was going to be a different story.  While Christine was taking advantage of the facilities near the trailhead, I was getting nervous as I saw large groups of people starting the trail.  We’re fairly fast hikers and I was worried we were going to get stuck in a jam behind families with small kids that would slow us down.  Christine arrived and we got on our way.

We both jumped into the hiking and started hiking at a frenetic pace.  We wanted to get in a spot that was far enough ahead of others where we could stop periodically and snap some photos.  It took us a while to get separated from the larger groups, so we didn’t take as much time to enjoy the scenery in the first mile.  We convinced ourselves that we could have more time to amble along on the return trip.

Waiting to Pass Through Arch Rock
Adam waits his turn to pass through Arch Rock.  Below: Early parts of the hike have gentle elevation gain and lots of roots; Christine crosses a foot bridge; The trail was extremely crowded.

Rooty Trail Christine Crossing Hiking with Crowds

The trailhead starts from the Alum Cave Bluff parking lot on US-441.  At the trailhead, there is a larger map and some trail information guides you can purchase for $ .50.  You will immediately cross a bridge over the Walker Camp Prong stream.  The trail starts off very flat, but you know you’ll have lots of climbing to do later on in the hike.  The first mile of the hike goes along the Alum Cave Creek.  There are several options to jump slightly off the main trail to take in the scenes of the cascading creek.  At 1.4 miles, you will reach a footbridge to cross Styx Branch before you reach the interesting geological feature known as Arch Rock.  Arch Rock is basically a hollowed-out rock tunnel.  You will climb up some steep stairs with a guideline as you go through to the top.  Once you emerge out of the top, you go a little further and then reach another footbridge to cross Styx Branch one more time.

The trail begins to climb more steeply at this point as you make your way to Alum Cave Bluffs.  At 2.4 miles, you start to come across a larger rock outcropping.  As the trail starts to climb around this, you behold the enormous Alum Cave Bluffs.  With the word “cave” being in the title, your initial expectations would be a large cave would be here.  However, the cave bluffs are basically a humongous rock overhang.  It is still jaw-dropping impressive and unlike anything I’ve seen.  The ground underneath is dry and dusty.  We saw a few drops of moisture come over the edge, but the overhang reaches out about 60 feet.  Standing at one end of the outcrop looking at people at the other end, gives you a perspective of how large of an area this is.

Alum Cave Bluffs
The Bluffs are impressive! Below: The beautiful, rugged terrain of the Smokies.

Beautiful, rugged Smokies

From the Alum Cave Bluffs, you will see a sign that shows the direction to continue up Mount LeConte.   The trail climbs steeply for the next .4 miles, passing some views of Little Duck Hawk Ridge.  The trail reaches a peak and then descends into a saddle for another .4 miles.  The trail begins to climb again rather steeply for a good portion of the remainder of the hike as you make your way up the mountain.  Along the way, you will pass by a rock slide, which opens up to some gorgeous views with nothing but layers of mountain ridges to see.  At 3.8 miles, you reach a set of stairs on a switchback to continue your climb.  The trail eventually comes into a steep, rocky climb with cables put in to use as handrails (since this trail gets very icy with little sun in the winter).

The trail finally starts to level off at mile 4.75 as you enter into a tunnel of fraser fir trees.  Continue on a short distance and then you’ll reach a junction with the Rainbow Falls Trail.  Continue a few hundred feet and you’ll reach the LeConte lodge.

Getting a spot at the LeConte Lodge is competitive and highly coveted by Smokies visitors.  Reservations are made by lottery and typically start booking in early October for the following year, so it takes some planning and a little luck to be able to stay in one of these spots on top of the mountain.  We were lucky enough to get a spot here last year and we hope that we’ll do it again in the future.

Great Views
The Alum Cave Bluffs trail had lots of nice views along the way. Below: Some slick, rocky areas along the trail had cables to provide assistance with staying upright; Parts of the trail were quite narrow; The last stretch toward the lodge is flat and passes through evergreens.

Cable Assist Narrow Trail Nearing the Summit

From the cabin area, we wanted to get some nice views and headed up the main path until we reached a junction.  Hang to the right to go to the Cliff Top trail. This trail is rocky and quite steep.  The sign says that it is .2 miles to the top, but it feels longer than that.  However, when you get to the Cliff Top area, you will have great views for miles on a clear day.  After taking in the views, we grabbed a sack lunch from the dining room to refuel for our trip back down.  We talked with some fellow hikers at the top and relaxed for a while.  After staying up there a previous year, it was hard to motivate ourselves to head back down.

On our way back down, the trip went by fairly quickly since everything was downhill.  It’s always interesting when you see people hiking uphill that look like they are in complete misery.  We spotted one woman, who was staring daggers at her husband (who I’m guessing convinced her to go hiking).  Her daughter was hanging back with her and said, “I love you, mom”.  The mother’s response was, “That’s nice”.  She was definitely not having a good time hiking.  We imagined how the father was going to get an earful for the rest of day.

If you are interested in geocaching, there are not a lot that are available in Great Smoky Mountains National Park since the national park prevents physical caches from being placed.  However, there is a virtual cache on the trail to find – Alum Cave Bluff.

Christine Says…

Monday morning dawned in spectacular fashion. It was cool, sunny and crystal clear. Even the typical haze that makes the Smokies seem smoky was absent. That was such a treat, because clear air really lets you appreciate the magnificent, green, lushness of the mountains in this area.

We kicked off our morning with breakfast at Mountain Perks – a little café and espresso bar across from the train depot in Bryson City. The owners, Jeff and Pam Pulley are so friendly and are ready to serve local tips alongside their tasty breakfast and even better coffee. I left there with a pound of their ‘Black Widow’ roast coffee to enjoy at home after the trip.

Fully fed and caffeinated, we made our way into the park. On the way to the Alum Cave Bluff trailhead, we spotted a couple elk grazing in a pasture just north of the Occonaluftee visitor center. What a treat!

Llama
We were happily surprised to find the llamas still at camp! Below: Adam arrives at LeConte lodge; The obligatory pose with the elevation sign; We purchased bag lunches from the lodge for $10.00. Lunch came with bottomless lemonade -of which we took full advantage.

Arriving Obligatory Pose Bag Lunch

We got to the Alum Cave Bluff parking area around 9:30, and found that it was already 100% full. We had to park a ways up the road on a pullout. We geared up, and hit the trail – along with dozens and dozens and dozens of other people. I’ve rarely hiked with so many people on the trail at the same time – even on Old Rag. I’ll admit, it made me a little stressed. As you might have guessed, I stop frequently to take photos along the way. Also, Adam and I are relatively fast hikers. So, when I stop to take photos, we end up leap-frogging the same people over and over again. That’s not a problem when there are only a few groups on a trail, but coming up on the heels of large multi-generational families time after time makes me feel bad. It’s easy to pass a couple, it’s more disruptive to squeeze past ten people, six of them kids under the age of ten. I probably didn’t take as many photos early in the hike as usual so that I could avoid being disruptive.

The first couple miles of the hike were relatively easy, following a stream and climbing very gently through the moss covered forest. The terrain changed when we reached Arch Rock. After crossing a log footbridge, stone steps led uphill steeply through an arch of stone. Very cool!

After the arch, the trail began to climb more steeply. In several places, wire was affixed to the rocky side of the trail to help you keep your footing over narrow, slick areas. We climbed uphill for about .7 of a mile before reaching the famous Alum Cave Bluff. Along the way, the trail alternated between rocky and forested. There was even one nice view on a rocky, sand myrtle-covered turn in the trail.

WOW! I had seen photos of the Bluffs, but they were even more impressive in person. The rock wall soared and arched overhead, forming an immense overhang. The terrain beneath the arch was dry and silty. It was tough to walk on and I imagine this area is tough to traverse when it’s wet and rainy.

Cliff Tops View
The nice view from Cliff Tops.  Below:  Time to leave the lodge; Adam walks along the trunk of a fallen giant; The steep and rocky descent.

Leaving the Lodge Huge Fallen Tree  Steep Going Down

I think a good number of people stop at the Bluff and then return to the parking area, so the trail traffic was much lighter after passing that area. We pressed on toward the summit of LeConte.

After the Bluff, the climbing is serious and steady. There are also a number of great views along the way. The Smokies really take my breath away. I kept thinking about how lucky and blessed I am to visit such places and have the physical capability to enjoy the tough climbs.

Eventually the trail turned a corner and leveled out and passed arrow-straight through an evergreen forest. The trail bed looked almost like cobblestones – white, round, smooth rocks. From that point, we had an easy .75 mile walk until we arrived at LeConte lodge.

At LeConte, we did all the obligatory things – took our photo in front of the dining hall with the elevation marker/date, said hello to the llamas, visited the office to get our exclusive summit-shop-only 2013 shirts, sat on rocking chairs, drank copious amounts of LeConte lemonade with our bagged lunches and made the .2 mile climb to enjoy the view from Cliff Tops.

Being at the top on a nice day was such a different experience than our 2012 visit in the rain! However, as the afternoon wore on, we noticed that some darker clouds were starting to build in the sky. We headed back down after about an hour at the summit.

The hike down went very quickly – all downhill! It’s amazing how much faster you can descend 2700 feet than you can climb it! We saw several cute red squirrels that took the time to chatter loudly at us. We scared a grouse from it’s resting spot – and the grouse scared us equally back! They really explode out of the brush when they startle!

Adam at the Bluffs
Adam rests at Alum Cave Bluffs. Below: Climbing back down through Arch Rock. Notice the tiny people waiting at the bottom; Painted trillium; This pretty stream follows the beginning and end of the hike.

Climbing Down Through the Arch Painted Trillium Pretty Stream

We enjoyed passing back under Arch Rock and taking some time to enjoy the beautiful stream beside the trail. We were back at the car before 3:00, tired but really happy with our day.

That evening for dinner, we rewarded ourselves with a feast at the Smoky Mountain Brewery. I got the Brewery Ale Steak, which might be one of the tastiest steaks I’ve ever eaten. I also really liked their Tuckaleechee Porter.

Trail Notes

  • Distance11 miles + a little extra for walking around the lodge grounds and up to the Cliff Tops Viewpoint
    (Check out the stats from MapMyHike)*
  • Elevation Change – About 2650 ft.
  • Difficulty –  4.  The hike up Mount LeConte is a steady uphill.
  • Trail Conditions – 4.  The trail is well-used and maintained, so we didn’t find much difficulty.  During heavy times of rain or ice, parts of the rocky areas could be incredibly slick.
  • Views – 4. The best views are along the hike up to Mount LeConte and at the Cliff Top overlook.
  • Streams/Waterfalls – 3.  Early in the hike, you do get some nice views of Alum Cave Creek and Styx Branch.
  • Wildlife – 2.  We did see some cute red squirrels, but last year people had seen a bear.  There were some nice spots for birdwatching though.
  • Ease to Navigate – 4.  There are not many places to get steered wrong based on signage and the trail was always clear.
  • Solitude – 0.  On a nice day, expect heavy crowds on the way up to Alum Cave Bluffs.  After that point, there should be fewer people on the way up Mount LeConte; however, this is definitely the most popular way up Mount LeConte.

Directions to trailhead:  From Gatlinburg, TN take US 441-S into Great Smoky Mountains National Park.  Go 11 miles.  Parking is available in a large lot on the left or alongside the road.  The trailhead starts near an opening on the southern side of the parking lot.

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

Kephart Prong (NC)

Special: Smokies Edition

Introductory Guide to Visiting Great Smoky Mountains National Park

The 4-mile Kephart Prong hike ascends gently along a beautiful stream and end at the backcountry campsite – Kephart Shelter. This hike offers lovely cascades, wildflowers and history.

View the full album of photos from this hike

Adam Crossing Foot Log
Adam crosses one of several log bridges over Kephart Prong. Below: The trailhead is located on the side of Rt.441.  The first bridge takes you across the Oconaluftee River; The Oconaluftee is beautiful and cascading; So much of the Smokies seems to be wet, green and covered with moss.

Trailhead Oconaluftee River Mushrooms and Mosses

Christine Says…

Our second day in the Smokies was earmarked for a hike to the summit of Mount LeConte, but we woke to gloomy weather. We decided that we didn’t want to hike ten tough miles and not even get payoffs in terms of views, so we devised a new plan!  After redoing our Deep Creek Waterfall Loop Hike to get better photos, we were still ready for more hiking.

I perused our hiking guide and found a trail called Kephart Prong. It sounded interesting – remnants of an old railroad and a CCC camp, a backcountry camping shelter and the trail followed a (possibly pretty) stream. After redoing the earlier hike, the 4-mile length of the Kephart Prong was appealing, too – short and sweet! Also, it had the benefit of being closer to the Bryson City side of the park where we were staying for the early part of our trip.

It was still morning, so we grabbed a snack and made our way to the trail. What we found exceeded my expectations. The stream was incredibly beautiful – rapids and small waterfalls tumbling over mossy rocks and fallen hemlocks. In at least four places, rough, hewn log bridges traversed the stream. The sounds of running water carried through the entire hike. We saw lots of wildflowers – pink lady slippers, wild geranium, ragwort and many others I couldn’t name.

Wildflower
There were many kinds of wildflowers along the trail.  This might be a wild geranium?  Below: Adam explores the ruins of the old CCC camp in the area. This chimney was supposedly located in the barracks; There was once a railroad and a trout hatchery in this part of the Smokies, so look for abandoned rails, train parts and pipes from the hatchery. The item below appears to be an old pipe joint possibly; Another beautiful, mossy, log bridge over the stream.

CCC Camp Ruins Railroad Parts Mossy Bridge

The hike climbed gently the entire two miles until eventually arriving at the Kephart shelter – a sturdy stone and timber hut intended for backcountry camping. We chatted with other dayhikers using the hut for a lunch stop and one man who was there for an overnight stay.

Signs near the shelter showed that the Kephart Trail connects to the Sweat Heifer and Appalachian Trails. If we had continued to climb past the shelter, we would have arrived at Charlie’s Bunion in several miles.

Despite the draw of the Bunion, lunch was a higher calling, so we made our way back down the trail. It’s amazing how much faster the climb down always goes! We got back to the car around 1:00 and were back in Cherokee by 1:30. We couldn’t find anything that sounded good and was actually open on Sunday, so we pressed on back to Bryson City and ended up at a place we found on Yelp – The Bar-B-Que Wagon. They served great, traditional Carolina style pit barbecue with all the expected sides. We sat at a picnic table by the river and enjoyed an enormous, late lunch.

After lunch, we thought about going back to the hotel to shower, but instead we pushed on to visit the NOC (Nantahala Outdoor Center). The complex has a fantastic outdoor outfitter and a super cool riverside patio bar (Big Wesser BBQ + Brew). We got a few drinks and watched rafters and kayakers working the rapids. So relaxing! What a great day!

Adam Says…

The Kephart Prong Trail is one of the most definitive picturesque, riverside trails you’ll find.  The lush forests surround you in a sea of green in every direction you turn.

The trail starts off by crossing a large bridge, giving you great views of the Oconaluftee River. Once you cross the bridge, the trail starts off as wide and gravel-covered. At .2 miles, you will come across the remnants of the Civilian Conservation Corps camp that was here from 1933-1942.  You’ll see signs of a stone plaque and a tall chimney, among other partial walls.

At the .5 mile mark, you’ll reach your first footbridge over the stream.  As you continue further, the trail continues a slow, gradual ascent to the end. You’ll cross three other footbridges, but these consist of narrow, split logs with wood handrails. The last of these was the only one I was a little concerned with crossing, since the handrail required you to stoop to be able to touch it and the log bounced some in the middle.  The trail leads to the Kephart shelter, which was well-constructed.  From the shelter, you can proceed on the Sweet Heifer Creek Trail which joins the Appalachian Trail in 3.7 miles or take the Grassy Branch Trail to the Sluice Gap Trail for a total of 3.8 miles to reach Charlies Bunion.  Since this is a nice junction for an overnight trip, expect other people staying at the shelter in the nice summer-fall weekends.  Backcountry reservations for overnight campers is $4/night and is required to be made in advance.  See here for further regulations regarding backpacking permits.

Kephart Shelter
Kephart Shelter sits under the shady evergreens. You must have a permit to stay the night in this shelter.  The stream runs behind/left of the shelter.  There used to be a logging camp where the shelter now stands.  Below: Most of the trail follows the stream closely; Adam makes his way across the bridge; A trail sign near the shelter shows the directions to other trails higher up the mountain.

Walking Along the Stream Another Crossing of Kephart Prong Kephart Prong Trail Sign

The Kephart Prong is named after Horace Kephart, who was instrumental in the establishment of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.  He was an extremely intelligent man, enrolling in graduate school at Cornell University at the age of 17.  He became the head of the St. Louis Mercantile Libray, but he lost his job.   He had turned to drinking and his wife and family left him for New York.  He decided he wanted to  re-establish himself in the wilderness of western North Carolina and Tennessee.  There he wrote the book Camping and Wildlife, which was considered the “bible” of camping.  When he became concerned that the Smoky Mountains were going to be heavily logged, he started writing letters to advocate for the establishment of this area as a national park.  He soon became friends with a photographer, George Masa and together they started photographing and mapping this area.  It was the partnering of Kephart’s words with Masa’s pictures that caught John D. Rockefeller Jr.’s attention, who donated $5 million to help purchase the lands to help secure the area to become a park.  Kephart died in a car crash before the park was to be established, but Mount Collins was renamed Mount Kephart in his honor.

The Nantahala Outdoor Center
Big Wesser BBQ + Brew at the Nantahala Outdoor Center is a great place to enjoy drinks after a day on the trails.  You can see the canoe/kayak course gates in the river.  It’s fun to watch people coming down the rapids.  Below: Carolina-style BBQ in Bryson City.

Carolina 'Cue

Another interesting spot almost immediately on the trail are the remnants of the site of the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) camp 411 here.  You can see the large chimney and camp signboard on the side of the trail.  This group of nearly 200 built rock walls, roads, trails, and footbridges that are still in use today.  There is an interesting history of this from one of the leaders, James William Biggs.

We enjoyed this beautiful trail and I can see incorporating this trail as part of a backpacking trip in the future.

Trail Notes

  • Distance4 miles
    (Check out the stats from MapMyHike)*
  • Elevation Change – About 770 ft.
  • Difficulty –  1.5. The ascent on this hike is very gradual and easy.
  • Trail Conditions – 4.  The trail is well-graded and in great condition.
  • Views – 0.  No scenic views.
  • Streams/Waterfalls – 5.  Very beautiful!
  • Wildlife – 2.  We didn’t see anything other than chipmunks and squirrels.
  • Ease to Navigate – 4.  The trail is very easy to follow to the shelter.  Once you reach the Kephart Shelter, you may decide to continue on.
  • Solitude – 2.  Because of the relatively short length and easiness of this hike, you will probably see a fair number of people.

Directions to trailhead:  Head north on US-441 N from Cherokee, NC.  Head 4 miles north of the Smokemont Campground.  Parking is available on the shoulder of the road and the trail starts after crossing the bridge over the Oconaluftee River.

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

Deep Creek Area Waterfall Loop (NC)

Special: Smokies Edition

Introductory Guide to Visiting Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Deep Creek is an area of the Smokies popular with tubers, bikers, horseback riders and hikers. This (roughly) 5.4 mile hiking route provides spectacular views of three waterfalls and the beautiful streams that feed them. We ended up hiking this trail twice on our trip – the second time was mostly to get better photos. 🙂

View the full album of photos from this hike

Toms Branch Falls
Toms Branch Falls is the first waterfall you’ll come to on the loop. It’s only about a quarter mile from the parking area. Below: Another angle of Toms Branch Falls; Horseback riders love the Deep Creek area; Tubers on Deep Creek; Christine enjoys stream scenery.

Toms Branch Falls Horseback Riders
Tubers Christine on Deep Creek

Adam Says…

We rolled into Bryson City, NC around 2:15 and almost immediately headed out for a hike.  We were tired but our hotel wouldn’t let us check in even 45 minutes early. Evidently, the Microtel in Bryson City is very strict with their policies! We decided to do something close by, so we headed to Deep Creek campground for this hike with three waterfalls.

We knew we were getting close to the campground when we saw tons of “TUBES” signs. People were waving as we drove by, hoping that we would stop and rent tubes from them for floating down the river.

We arrived and got changed in the parking lot and made our way to the trailhead.  The parking lot was crowded, mainly for tubing people.  We followed the masses heading out carrying their inner tubes to their drop-in spots.

We started on the Deep Creek trail and soon passed the junction with the Juney Whank trail on the left. In just about .25 miles, we came across the first waterfall on the right, Toms Branch falls.  This is a gorgeous waterfall that drops about 60 feet over several different rock shelves before plummeting into Deep Creek.  We saw several people floating down the creek as we stopped for some photographs.

Indian Creek Falls
Adam enjoys beautiful Indian Creek Falls. Below: We spotted pink lady’s slippers along the trail. They were a little tattered at the end of their blooming season; Adam climbs the trail.

Pink Lady Slipper Climbing the Trail

At .75 miles, we reached the junction with the Indian Creek Trail. This is actually the last spot where people can drop their tubes into the creek, but we continued on the Deep Creek trail.  At 1.75 miles, this trail intersects with the Loop Trail.  We took a right on to the Loop Trail which starts a steep ascent.  At 2.4 miles, the trail reaches its peak and intersects with the Sunkota Ridge Trail. Continue on the Loop Trail which now descends at about the same rate as it ascended.  At 3.0 miles, you reach the junction with the Indian Creek Trail.  Take a right here.

At 3.8 miles, you’ll see a side trail that descends to  Indian Creek Falls.  Indian Creek Falls is a wide waterfall that has a gradual, sliding cascade into the water.  After taking in the sight, head back to the trail and continue to the right.  Shortly after passing the waterfall, you will reach the junction again with the Deep Creek Trail.  Take a left here to retrace your steps.  You could make this a shorter trip by initially taking a right at the junction, but we enjoyed putting a little extra effort to earn all three waterfalls.

Right before you reach the parking lot, you’ll see the junction trail again with the Juney Whank trail at 4.5 miles. Take the steep trail to the right up for .3 miles. Once you reach the top, you’ll see Asian which points you to the next waterfall. Descend down a short path and you’ll reach a footbridge and the waterfall.  Juney Whank Falls is another great waterfall that plunges down after about a 80 foot cascade.

Continue to the other side of the footbridge and continue on the trail, heading left at the first junction.  The trail descends rather steeply.  You’ll see signs that lead you to the parking lot and back to your car.

Deep Creek
The streams in the Smokies are so beautiful! Below: Since the trail is popular with horseback riders, there is a lot of manure along the way.  Butterflies apparently love manure!; Beautiful Deep Creek; Adam on the loop portion of the trail.

Butterflies on Manure Deep Creek Loop Trail

We had a great time on this trail that maximizes your waterfall experience.  The Deep Creek Trail and Indian Creek Trail both gave you great creek views almost the entire walk and it was fun to watch everyone float by us.  I can see why this is such a popular place to hike and tube for families.  We saw one person with a foot cast and met one woman with a pacemaker along the way, so most people should be able to handle this.  If you want to see some great Smokies waterfalls, this is a hike for you!

Christine Says…

We wanted to do this hike last year when we visited Bryson City, but with so much to do in the Smokies, we just ran out of time. This year, we knew the lay of the land a bit better, and we ready to hit the ground running (or hiking, so to speak!)

We arrived to the area mid-afternoon on the Saturday of Memorial Day weekend. We tried to get into our hotel one before official check-in, but the desk clerk turned us away. We decided to drive over to the Deep Creek Campground, and check out an easy loop hike that took us by a couple waterfalls – Toms Branch Falls and Indian Creek Falls.

I changed clothes in the crowded parking lot. Let me tell you… switching from jeans and a shirt into shorts, wicking shirt and sports bra without flashing anyone is quite a feat!

We started off along a wide, road-like trail that followed parallel to Indian Creek. It was packed with people out enjoying the warm, sunny weather. Apparently, the Smokies have had an exceedingly cold and wet spring, so the bright, 80-degree Memorial Day weekend was a great chance for everyone in eastern Tennessee to go outside. Deep Creek is very popular with tubers. All up and down the road leading to the campground, various vendors have set up shop renting tubes for roughly $5 a day. Once you have a tube, you walk about a mile up the trail, and then bob and bump along the shallow, but rapid-y river. It looks like a lot of fun! As hikers, we were in the definite minority.

Juney Whank Falls
Juney Whank may be the prettiest waterfall on the loop. Below: Adam enjoys the falls from the bridge; Juney Whank is beautiful from every angle; Below the falls.

Adam at Juney Whank Juney Whank Juney Whank

Walking along the Deep Creek Trail for about .25 miles, we came to the lovely Toms Branch Falls. It’s a tall waterfall that enters Deep Creek from the bank opposite the trail. Very impressive!

We walked along the creek until reaching a junction that makes a lollipop loop on the route. We decided to follow the longer arm of the loop so that we could visit Indian Creek Falls closer to the end of our hike. The trail mostly followed the stream before turning and climbing steadily uphill for about half a mile. At the highest point, the trail met the Sunkota Ridge Trail, which leads to higher elevations and a larger trail system. We remained on the loop and descended another half mile to meet another trail junction.

At this junction, we met a group of horseback riders. One rider was really struggling with her mule. She had dismounted because he had become so skittish. When we passed, he was bellowing and dancing around. She eventually got him under control and was able to ride on. He looked like quite a handful though!

In a few more tenths of a mile, we came upon Indian Creek Falls. These falls are not as steep, and are made up of a couple of small ‘shelf-drops’ before falling into one larger fall. Very beautiful!

About a tenth of a mile past the falls, you join back up with the beginning of the lollipop loop. From there, just follow the trail and the tubers back to the parking area.

Nantahala Brewing Company
The Nantahala Brewing Company – a good post-hike stop in Bryson City.

To be honest, I was really unhappy with my photos from this hike. Waterfalls, sunny conditions and photography simply don’t go together. So, I left this hike feeling a little disappointed with the photos I had to share. That regret quickly faded after a few beers at the Nantahala Brewing Company. What an awesome place! If you like craft beer, don’t miss a visit. After beers, we went for pizza at Anthony’s. It hit the spot and we loved our outdoor table facing the train depot.

I thought our experience with the waterfall hike was over, but the next morning we woke to gloomy, drizzly weather. Since it was such an easy hike, we went back and did it again so I could get better photos. And the second time, we added the .6 mile loop to visit Juney Whank Falls to the trip. These falls required a short, but steep climb, but may have been the prettiest of the three! And the better photos gained from a second trip around made this hike twice as nice!

Trail Notes

  • Distance5.4 miles
    (Check out the stats from MapMyHike)*
    These stats are from the first time we hiked the loop, so Juney Whank Falls are not included in the MapMyHike mileage or elevation.
  • Elevation Change – About 630 ft.
  • Difficulty –  2.  The only tough parts of this hike are the steep trail on the Loop Trail and the side trail to the Juney Whank falls
  • Trail Conditions – 4.  Most of the trail is gravel except for the Loop Trail.  This is a multi-use trail and you will see hikers, bikers, and horses on this trail.  The trails were in great shape with no blowdowns or rough footing.
  • Views – 0.  No scenic views from the trail, but this is more for the waterfalls.
  • Streams/Waterfalls – 5.  You’ll have the best stream views along Deep Creek and three gorgeous waterfalls.
  • Wildlife – 2.  Don’t expect larger wildlife due to the crowds of people on this trail.  We did hear lots of pretty warblers in the tree.
  • Ease to Navigate – 4.  Good signage at the trail junctions for the most part except for coming off the Juney Whank falls trail.
  • Solitude – 1.  Expect to see lots of people for most of the trail.  A lot of people choose not to do the Loop Trail.  

Directions to trailhead:  Take exit 67 off of NC-74 towards Veterans Blvd.  Go .6 miles and take a right on Main Street/NC-19.  Take the second left on to Everett Street.  You’ll see signs directing you to Deep Creek Campground.   Go .3 miles and take a right on Depot Street.  This road makes a quick left on Collins Street and then a quick right to continue on to Depot Street.   This becomes Deep Creek Road.  Go .3 miles and take a left on to West Deep Creek Road.   Continue 2.4 miles until you enter the Great Smoky Mountains National Park – Deep Creek campground.  A parking lot is on the left.  The trailhead starts near the drop-off roundabout next to this parking lot.

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

Cades Cove Loop by Bike (TN)

Special: Smokies Edition

Introductory Guide to Visiting Great Smoky Mountains National Park

On Wednesday and Saturday mornings from May through late September, the eleven-mile Cades Cove Loop Road is closed to vehicles until 10:00 a.m.  Don’t miss the opportunity to rent a bike and tour this scenic area without the nuisance of heavy car traffic!

Cyclists in Cades Cove
Biking the Cades Cove Loop is a popular activity on Wednesday and Saturday morning when the road is closed to vehicle traffic. Below: The Cades Cove visitor center; Horses heading from the paddocks back to the barn; A distant view of a homestead.

Horses Headed In Homestead

Christine Says…

On the Saturday we were due to drive home from vacation, we woke up a few minutes before 5:00 a.m.  I was comfortable – the room was pleasantly cool, the bed was soft and I felt relaxed and still pretty sleepy.   Adam rolled over and asked me ‘So… are we going or not?’  The issue at hand was whether we should sleep in, have a leisurely breakfast and then drive home or if we should get up, grab something quick to eat and make the hour long drive into Cades Cove to rent bikes and ride the eleven-mile scenic loop on one of the mornings it’s closed to vehicle traffic.  My inner dialogue went something like this…

‘Stay in bed, Christine!  You can go to Pancake Pantry again! You love crepes!’

‘Nooo… this is your last day in the Smokies – you must pack in more fun activities.’

‘If you go biking, you’ll have to ride in the car for almost seven hours all sweaty and dirty.  You can come back to the Smokies another year and ride the loop then.’

‘But Adam already bought a collectible patch that says we biked the Cades Cove Loop.  You can’t have a patch for something you didn’t do.  That would make you a liar!’

‘But I’m tired. We’ve already been on six hikes! I just want to take a shower and eat breakfast’

‘Get your butt out of bed and onto that bike! It will be fun and I bet you’ll see cool stuff.  Eleven miles of biking is nothing!’

‘Alright…  let’s go do this thing!’

With that discussion done, we got up, packed the rest of the stuff in our room, checked out and headed toward Cades Cove.  As I mentioned before, Gatlinburg starts breakfast late – even our hotel didn’t put the complimentary breakfast out until 7:00 a.m.  The only choice we found for breakfast (other than gas station food) was ‘The Donut Friar.’   That turned out to be quite fortuitous! I’ve never eaten such delicious donuts.  Even now… the thought of those donuts makes me feel a wistful sense of longing.   I could write an entire post about those donuts, but I’ll move on to the biking.

Mountain View in Cades Cove
Cades Cove offers beautiful mountain and meadow views. Below:  One horse (Ted) got loose and walked outside the fenceline; Christine coasting along; Three does make a run for it!

Ted Christine Biking Running Deer

When we had initially inquired about bike rentals, the attendant told us that the rental shop opened at 7:00, but that we should plan on getting there about 15 minutes early. Since it was Memorial Day weekend and the campground was full, they expected rentals to sell out quickly.  For almost three quarters of the drive into Cades Cove, we didn’t see a single car.  But at the junction with incoming cars from Townsend, we started seeing many.  It was a line of moderate traffic rolling toward the cove.  We were anxious enough that we didn’t even stop when we spotted a bear climbing a tree alongside the road.  No way was I going to miss the chance to rent a bike after giving up my leisurely morning!

Ironically, we ended up first in line at the bike rental shop.  They opened promptly at 7:00 and we were on our way with bikes and helmets by 7:15.

The one-way road through Cades Cove is normally a real log jam of cars.  It can be maddening to go so slowly.  So, breezing along on a bike was a true treat.  While there aren’t bike jams, do be prepared to share the road with lots of other bikes.  Biking the loop is very popular!

When we first entered the Cove, it was a beautiful misty morning.  A thin veil of low fog was floating across the open meadow.  The rising sun made everything look golden and shimmery.  One of the first stops we made was to watch all the horses being herded from the field up to the barn for the day.  One horse, a big draft-cross named Ted, decided to take an alternate route.  Instead of following his buddies through the field, he walked right out the gate and headed up the road.  One of the volunteers who help keep the road safe radioed back to let others know a horse was on the loose.  Ted didn’t look like much trouble though.  I’m sure someone caught him and ushered him back to where he belonged.  I sort of gathered from the conversation that this was not Ted’s first foray out onto the road.

Along the way, we passed old churches, old homesteads, and old barns.  Normally, I’m pretty interested in history and park-lore, but on this particular morning I was in the mood to keep biking.  I was having fun coasting down the steeper hills.  It felt great to pick up some speed and feel the wind against my face.

Homestead
There are lots of old homesteads in the Cove.  Below: There are also lots of churches;  And evidently, lots of invasive wild hogs!

Church Another Church Wild Hog Trap

We also saw lots of turkeys and deer.  The turkeys were especially impressive putting on their mating displays.  Most of the time, turkeys aren’t what you would call ‘beautiful’, but a Tom turkey all puffed up and putting on a show is truly something to behold.  You can almost understand why Benjamin Franklin put the turkey forth as a candidate for our national bird. (Though, I think the bald eagle was still probably the better choice.)

We had hoped to see more bears on this ride around Cades Cove, but we struck out.  Thankfully, we had already seen seven bears during our week, so we didn’t feel too disappointed.

The one thing that surprised me about biking through Cades Cove was that some of the hills were actually pretty challenging.  When you drive around the cove, it seems mostly flat or perhaps ‘rolling’.  While none of the hills are long, there are a number that are quite steep and require some power-pedaling.  The rental bike I used didn’t have quite as many gears as my normal bike, so that made things a bit tougher.  We biked most of the hills without stopping or getting off, but there were two hills near the end where it just seemed more efficient to dismount and walk our bikes up the hill.  When you can’t shift your gears anymore, and people are walking by while you valiantly pedal, it’s time to revisit your pride!  Besides, it seems that the majority of people walk their bikes a little bit in Cades Cove, so I didn’t feel too bad.

The whole loop took us less than two hours to bike – even with plentiful stops for scenery and wildlife.  It was really a nice way to spend our final morning in the park, and I’m glad we made time to do it!  Although, I was too exhausted to help with the drive home.  I ended up sleeping in the car about half the way home – which is very unusual for me!

Adam Says…

Some of you may have thought we were done with our Smokies Edition posts and based on Christine’s inner-dialogue you can see that was almost true.  But, we thought this opportunity was too good to pass up.  We have always treated our vacations as days that we should run ourselves ragged.  You can always be exhausted when you’re sitting behind your desk at work.

At 7:15 when we started off, there were already plenty of bikes on the road.  Since we didn’t have the foresight to bring our own bikes along, we had to rent them.  The bike shop opened promptly and was very well-organized.  The shop requires you to either put down a $50 cash deposit or leave your car keys.  You pay for the first hour in advance and then pay the rest when you check back in.  We ended up paying less than $30 for less than two hours, so it is quite affordable.

We left the campstore and biked up to the Orientation shelter to start our loop ride.  The road starts off fairly flat with large views of open farms.  At 1.1 miles shortly after passing the intersection with Sparks Lane , you come across the John Oliver cabin on the right.  Built in the early 1820s, this is the oldest building along the loop.  The road becomes more like rolling hills at this point and some of the hills can be steep going up or down.  Around the 2 mile marker, you come to the Primitive Baptist Church on your left, shortly followed by the Methodist Church on your right.  The Primitive Baptist Church was first established in 1827 as a log building, but the building that is there now replaced it in 1887.  During the Civil War, this church closed since the church officials were Union supporters amidst a land filled with Confederate supporters.  The Methodist Church was established in the 1820s as log building but was replaced by this building in 1902.  Baptists outnumbered the Methodists in this area, but the populations were enough to keep many churches around.  At 2.75 miles, you reach an intersection with Hyatt Lane, which does allow you to shorten the loop.  A short distance later, you come to the Missionary Baptist Church on the left.  Continuing on, the road begins to lead out of the woods again into more open areas.  At 4.25 miles, you do reach a trailhead on the right of the road that leads to the Elijah Oliver Place.  Elijah Oliver was the son of John Oliver, whose cabin you saw first.  At 5.0 miles, you reach a junction with a road that leads down to the parking lot for the Abrams Falls trail.

Solo Buck
This solo buck enjoyed grazing in a misty meadow. Below:  Some of the downhills are steep and curvy, so warnings are posted;  Old cabins are abundant in the cove.

Peril Cabin Another Cabin

Within another half mile, you reach the large Cable Mill Historic Area and Visitor Center.  You can take a while to walk around the many buildings that are here including the Visitor Center, Gregg Cable House, grist mill, and LeQuire Cantilever Barn.  Leaving the Visitor Center and rejoining the road, the trail becomes much steeper for a good portion of the remaining ride.  At 7.0 miles, you will pass the Dan Lawson Place.  At 7.5 miles, you reach the Tipton Place, a home built by a colonel in the Mexican War that housed his two daughters and was later rented out to others.  At 8.25 miles, you will see the Carter Shield cabin on your right, one of my favorite buildings to see on the ride.  This cabin was built by George Washington Shields, who was wounded at the Battle of Shiloh.  Continue your ride which re-enters the forest for the remaining trip until you reach the junction that leads back to the campstore at 11.0 miles.

Tom Turkeys
The male turkeys were putting on quite a show!  Below: Bikers are treated to many open views – perfect for wildlife watching; Christine and her rented bike after the ride.

Pretty Meadow View Christine and Her Rented Bike

One thing that makes this part of Great Smoky Mountain National Park so popular is the ability to see wildlife.  Due to the large open areas here, wildlife viewing is prime.  We had driven through the area an earlier day and we did see lots of deer, a few bears, and wild turkeys.  When the road is open to cars, you should expect a slow drive around the loop.  We even had people in a truck in front of us sitting in lawn chairs in the back creeping along to try and spot wildlife.

I would strongly recommend if you want to avoid some crowds on the road normally, get up early and get here to bike the loop.  You’ll be able to take in all the beauty and hopefully see some wildlife along the way before the crowds descend.  When we were leaving, we were already seeing cars lining up to get ready to drive the loop.

After we left the loop, we headed back to Virginia passing through Townsend and Pigeon Forge, TN.  It is amazing that such a commercialized area is so close to such a gorgeous national park.  I’m just glad that the National Park Service protected this land before it became overrun with visitors.  Like Shenandoah National Park, some of the people in Cades Cove were displaced by the national park service as they bought their land.  Some were given the option to stay in their houses until they died, but their offspring were not allowed to live there.

Trail Notes

  • Distance11 miles
  • Elevation Change – lots of rolling terrain
  • Difficulty –  3.5.  There are many flat sections and downhills. The uphill sections are short, but quite steep.
  • Trail Conditions – 5. The road is paved and in great condition.
  • Views4.  Lot of open meadows and views looking up to the mountains.
  • Streams/Waterfalls – 1.  There are a few small streams along the route.  Nothing amazing or photo-worthy, though.
  • Wildlife – 5.  This is a great place to see all kinds of Smokies wildlife.
  • Ease to Navigate – 5.   Very simple – just follow the road and all the other bikers!
  • Solitude – 0.  Expect to see lots of other folks.

Directions to trailhead:  The Cades Cove loop is located on Laurel Creek road, 7.5 miles west of the junction of Little River Road and Tennessee Route 73 (leading to Townsend).   Once you approach the main entrance, you will see a road leading to the campstore if you are renting bikes.  Start the loop at the main entrance, near the Orientation shelter.

Chimney Tops (TN)

Special: Smokies Edition

Introductory Guide to Visiting Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Chimney Tops is a steep four-mile hike that leads to great views from a pinnacle.  Rock scrambling and climbing are required to reach the view.

The Climb Up Chimney Tops
Photos don’t do the steepness of Chimney Tops justice. If you look closely, you’ll see tiny people about two-thirds of the way up. Below: The parking lots was overflowing. We had to park at an overlook further up Newfound Gap Road and walk back to the trail; When we visited, the trail up Chimney Tops was undergoing rehabilitation; A bridge over the river -much of this hike followed flowing water.

Crowded Lot Trails Forever Initiative Bridge Over the River

Adam Says…

After we made our hike to Laurel Falls, we decided to add another hike to Chimney Tops.  There were signs up on both sides of the park stating that the Chimney Tops trail was closed on Monday-Thursday for trail maintenance from late April through Mid October.  The Trails Forever crew (which is a partnership of the park and Friends of the Smokies)  is working on improving the trail conditions. Since it was a Friday and the first day that week the trail was open, we expected a lot of people on this trail.

The parking lot for the trail was full, so we had to drive further up the road until we reached an overlook that provided space to park.  We made it back down to the trailhead and began our hike.  At the entrance, there is a large sign that shows a description of the trail and also demonstrates the steepness of the climb at the top and that it will require rock scrambling.  The sign is not a joke at all and should deter people that aren’t able to handle the steep incline of the trail.

The hike starts off going downhill and quickly comes to a wooden bridge over the West Prong of the Little Pigeon River.  The first half mile of the trail gives you many spots to view the rapidly flowing waters of the Road Prong of the Little Pigeon River.  The trail continues to ascend steadily and leads away from the Road Prong.   At .9 miles, the trail intersects with the Road Prong trail.  Take a right and head up the Chimney Tops trail.  The trail will become very steep at this point and not stop until you are near the top.  You will witness some very tough climbing for the next 1.1 miles that will have you taking regular breaks to keep your heart from pounding out of your chest as you navigate up a rocky slope up the mountain.    You gain about 1000 feet of elevation in this distance.  Eventually, the trail flattens at 1.8 miles and even goes slightly downhill before rising again to reach the slate pinnacles of Chimney Tops in 2.0 miles.

Pretty Cascades
There were lots of pretty cascades to view along the hike. Below: Another pretty, tiny waterfall; Adam spotted this newt/salamander on the bridge.  We nudged him to safety so he wouldn’t get stepped on; The trail was very rocky and steep (although this photo doesn’t look it)

Tiny Waterfall A Newt Rocky Trail to Chimney Tops

Signs warn visitors again to be cautious and not venture past the first pinnacle. You can only imagine how hazardous this rock scramble is, since it is a sheer drop if you make a mistake.  The slate had a lot of handholds and footholds to grab onto and help propel yourself up the rock face.  In the mid-day sun, the black surface was quite hot and I didn’t want to keep my hands in one place too long.  We made our way up about 75% of the way and then felt that we didn’t want to risk things any further.  The views were simply astounding though.  We scooted back down on our butts very carefully.  Most people decided on not going all the way to the top but there were a few brave souls that pushed themselves up to the peak.

I will say that this hike did have wonderful views and a fun rock scramble at the end.  However, the Chimney Tops trail climb was quite brutal.  I’m sure a lot of people are not able to make it all the way up due to the steep incline.

Christine Says…

Chimney Tops is another trail that seemingly everyone visiting the Smokies wants to hike.  Although it’s only four miles, the route to the top is deceptively steep and challenging.

The four-days-a-week closure of the trail definitely causes more people to queue up for the hike on Friday through Sunday.  The parking lot was completely full when we arrived around 10:15.  But it was well worth the wait and facing the crowds. The trail rehabilitation being done in the Smokies is amazing!  We had seen the work done recently on Forney Ridge, and are sure Chimney Tops will be just as nice when it’s completed. Friends of the Smokies is a large part of the effort to maintain and rebuild trails.  They are a non-profit organization to help protect and maintain the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

The trail starts off crossing a number of small bridges over rushing streams.  The water in the Smokies is truly spectacular!  I’ve never seen a place with so many cascades, rapids and waterfalls.  I enjoyed stopping and photographing a few spots along the water.  Whenever I found a spot in the shade, I got out my mini-tripod and played around with long exposures.  We even spotted a newt/salamander on one of the footbridges. That was neat to see!

The View from Chimney Tops
The view from the pinnacle on Chimney Tops. Below: We saw a few red squirrels in the Smokies.  They are way cuter than our grey squirrels; Adam carefully climbs the pinnacle;  People scoot back down on their rear ends.  Falling here could possibly be fatal.

A Boomer or Red Squirrel Adam Climbs the Pinnacle at Chimney Tops People Carefully Climb Down Chimney Tops

After a short descent from the parking lot, the first bit of the trail is uphill, but for the large part is gradual with decent trail conditions.  The middle mile of the hike is pretty tough!  Although this was one of the shortest hikes we did during our week in the Smokies, this section of climbing was doubtlessly the steepest.  Much of it traversed wet, slick, muddy, rocky, rooty terrain and it was relentlessly uphill.  Terrain like this is the reason I became a dedicated trekking pole user.  Poles take so much strain off your knees and make traversing trail like this much safer and easier.

After a short section of tough climbing, the trail became more moderate and continued to climb uphill via a series of switchbacks.  At the top of the ridge, the trail became nearly level and passed through gorgeous stands of blooming Catawba rhododendron.  A warning sign threatening injury and/or death let us know that we had arrived at the pinnacles on Chimney Tops.  This sign is 100% serious.  The pinnacle of Chimney Tops is steep, slick and long enough for a fall to result in death.

We stashed our trekking poles behind a tree because we knew we’d need all four limbs free and available to climb the rock face.  I looked at the pinnacle for a while, debating on whether or not I was going to climb up to the top.  I knew if I didn’t climb up, I would miss the views and would have done all that uphill hiking for nothing.  But, a view isn’t worth getting hurt (or worse).  Some long-time readers of this blog might remember that I have vertigo and really struggle with maintaining my sense of balance and equilibrium on terrain like this.

In the end, I decided I was feeling pretty secure.  The rock face, while steep and precipitous, had plenty of solid toe and hand holds.  I climbed up the rocks, sticking close to the ground and testing every single toe and handhold before committing to my next move.  Eventually, I reached a perch that offered a beautiful view of distant mountains and decided that I had climbed high enough.  I probably stopped about three quarters of the way up.

I snapped a few photos and told Adam it was time for me to climb down.  I was starting to feel dizzy and a little uneasy.  I had been sitting facing downwards on the rock, and I think looking at the sheerness of the descent made my head spin a bit.

A View of Chimney Tops from the Road
A view of Chimney Tops from the road.

I sort of crab-crawled and slid down the pinnacle on my rear end, carefully placing my toes and hands into sturdy grips.  After a minute, I realized that the downward going was actually pretty easy and secure.  That allowed me to pick up my pace a bit.

At the bottom, we saw quite a few people who hiked up and then decided not to tackle the pinnacle.  While they missed a spectacular view, it’s definitely smart to not push beyond what you feel is safe.

The hike downhill went pretty quickly – again, thanks to the trekking poles’ added support and balance.  We saw so many people hiking up that were clearly not regular hikers – skinny jeans, sandals, no water, etc.  A lot of people stopped us to ask ‘How much farther?’ I salute all of the hiking newbies who make it to the summit of Chimney Tops.  While the hike is on the shorter side, it definitely provides some more technical terrain and some serious elevation gain over a short distance.  If I were to recommend hikes for beginners, Chimney Tops would probably not be one of them.

Don’t get me wrong, it was a fun, rewarding hike with excellent views and beautiful streams and cascades, but I think there are probably better hikes for people just starting out.  I think that newcomers often look at total distance and think ‘Oh… I can walk four miles’, when in reality an eight mile hike with easier terrain and less climbing would probably be more suitable and enjoyable.

Trail Notes

  • Distance4.0 miles
  • Elevation Change – 1300 feet
  • Difficulty –  4.  The second mile of the hike is very steep.
  • Trail Conditions – 3. There is some loose rock on the steep climb.  Use caution on how secure your footing is going up and down.  The trail is very worn due to its popularity.
  • Views– 4.  From the peak of Chimney Tops, you will get great views of mountains for miles.
  • Streams/Waterfalls – 3.5.  The prongs of the Little Pigeon River give you lots of opportunities to watch the water flow rapidly.
  • Wildlife – 2.5.  You will not see larger fauna up here normally due to the popularity of the trail, but we did see a cute red squirrel, heard the cackling of a pileated woodpecker, and many other birds.
  • Ease to Navigate – 4. There is only one trail junction to turn, so this should be very easy to follow.
  • Solitude – 0.  One of the most popular trails in the Smokies.  In 2012, with a limitation on the days it is open, it will likely be even more crowded. 

Directions to trailhead:  The parking lot is 6.7 miles south of the Sugarlands Visitor Center on Newfound Gap Road.  Park in the large parking lot and you should see the opening to start the hike.

Laurel Falls (TN)

Special: Smokies Edition

Introductory Guide to Visiting Great Smoky Mountains National Park

This paved, easy 2.6 mile (round-trip) walk leads to Laurel Falls.  The 80-foot tall cascade is one of the Smokies most popular waterfalls.

Laurel Falls
Laurel Falls is easily accessed and one of the park’s prettiest waterfalls.

Christine Says…

If there is a trail most everyone does when visiting the Smokies,  it’s Laurel Falls.  This hike is popular for a number of reasons: 1) the falls are gorgeous 2) the trail is short, paved and not very steep and 3) the trailhead is close and easily accessed from Gatlinburg.

Adam and I always enjoy solitude when we hike, so we cooked up a plan to eat breakfast early and get to the falls before the crowds.  However, it turns out it’s very hard to find breakfast in Gatlinburg that starts serving before 7:00 a.m.  Even the free breakfast at our hotel wasn’t put out until 7:00.

We decided we would have to go with the flow and hope that most people would have a 9:00 a.m. breakfast and take their time starting their activities for the day. It turned out to be a great decision because we had an amazing breakfast at the Pancake Pantry.  Let’s just say, I was still very full on strawberry crepes and bacon when we got to the Laurel Falls trailhead.

I guess most people do prefer a more leisurely start to their day, because there were only a few cars in the lot when we arrived.  The trail climbs several hundred feet over the course of 1.3 miles.  The entire path is paved, making this trail ideal for families with children in strollers.  A person might be able to get a wheelchair up the trail, but the paving is not smooth and while the grade is gentle, it’s still all uphill until the very end.

Laurel Falls Trailhead
The hike begins with distance markers, interpretive brochures and bear warnings. Below: These Pancake Pantry pancakes are too yummy not to share, and they made a perfect pre-hike breakfast!

Pancake Pantry

There really isn’t much to say about the actual hike to the falls.  It was typical Smoky Mountain forest with a few glimpses of bigger mountains through the trees.  I imagine most people would be able to cover the distance in about 30 minutes.

The falls are spectacular and tumble down over several rocky tiers.  The upper falls are accessed directly by the trail.  Viewing the lower half of the falls requires a short boulder hop downhill off the trail.  Both parts of the falls are well worth visiting up close, so if you feel confident doing a little rock scrambling, do take the time to climb down.

We were lucky enough to have the falls mostly to ourselves.  A few people came by while we were there, but no one stayed long.  The heavier traffic started rolling in on our walk back down.  We passed so many people – dozens and dozens – making their way up the trail by 9:00 a.m.

In short, Laurel Falls is definitely worth a visit, but I recommend arriving early.  If you’re a photographer and want to take long exposures on the waterfall, the area is completely in the shade in the early morning, but I’m pretty sure sun would hit the falls by mid-day.

Adam Says…

We have just started to purchase art prints from all of the national parks we have visited.  The ones we have been buying are produced by Lantern Press and are for sale in the national park visitors centers.  We are hoping to one day frame and hang them in an area of our house.  When we were deciding which one we would get to represent the Smokies, we decided on the Laurel Falls print.  So, we definitely had to hike this one since we had the iconic image.

Christine Hiking the Paved Trail
Christine hikes along the paved path to Laurel Falls. She carried her big, heavy-duty tripod on this outing. Below: Christine jumped in the photo to add a sense of scale to Laurel Falls.

Laurel Falls and Christine

As Christine said, the hike just to the waterfall stays on the concrete path and it is uphill almost all of the way.  We saw several families on the way back that were not in the best of shape that were huffing and puffing their way to the falls and asking how much further.  However, I do think that most people should be able to make the hike.

If you are interested in making this a longer hike, you can continue past the falls to the top of Cove Mountain, making it a 8.0 mile out-and-back hike.  The trail after the falls isn’t paved and you would be looking at 2300 feet of elevation gain in the remaining 2.7 miles.  At the top of the mountain is a tower, but from what I have read part of the tower has been blocked off for a weather station and the views are not that remarkable.

Lower Laurel Falls
Accessing the lower falls requires a short, simple scramble from the trail.

There is a reason that this waterfall is so popular – it is one of the prettiest you will see.  The upper falls drop down 75 feet over three tiers.  The water running down is the Laurel Branch that is coming down from Cove Mountain and it will eventually feed into Little River.  I would encourage you to go after some rain has hit the Smokies to get the most water flowing through.  The lower part of the falls does take careful navigation to get down to the bottom, but if you want to venture down below, backtrack about 50 feet and you will see a common path to reach the bottom.  We witnessed a couple that tried to hike down to the bottom another way and the man fell hard on his way back up.

We had the falls for a few minutes by ourselves (it does pay to start early), but we soon met a newlywed couple.  Christine showed the wife how to do some long exposure pictures and then we went on our way.  We saw the hoards of visitors coming up the path and I could tell it was going to be a busy day at this popular spot.

Trail Notes

  • Distance2.6 miles
  • Elevation Change – about 300 feet
  • Difficulty –  1.  This is a short, easy hike with not much elevation change.
  • Trail Conditions – 5. The trail is paved and is suitable for strollers.
  • Views1.  A couple peeks through the trees.
  • Streams/Waterfalls – 5.  The falls are gorgeous!
  • Wildlife – 2.  Because of the popularity of this hike, I would guess a lot of animals are scared away.  Although… bear warnings are posted in the area.
  • Ease to Navigate – 5.   Very simple – just follow the path and you can’t get lost.  The trail continues past the falls, but we didn’t go that far.
  • Solitude – 0.  Expect to see masses of people!

Directions to trailhead:  Past the Sugarlands Visitor Center, take the Little River Road for 3.5 miles until you see signs for the falls.  Parking was available on both sides of the road.