Road to Nowhere – Goldmine Loop (NC)

Special: Smokies Edition

Introductory Guide to Visiting Great Smoky Mountains National Park

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

View the full album of photos from this hike

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

Adam Says…

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

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

Trailhead Rosebay Tunnel Headlamp

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

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

Junction Wet Trail

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

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

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

Tons of Rosebay Storm Clouds Goldmine Loop

Christine Says…

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

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

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

Fontana Lake Hog Trap Chimney

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

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

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

Trail Notes

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

Download a Trail Map (PDF)

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

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

Mouse Creek Falls & Midnight Hole (NC)

Special: Smokies Edition

Introductory Guide to Visiting Great Smoky Mountains National Park Area

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

View the Full Album of Photos From This Hike

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

Christine Says…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Big Creek Big Creek Scenery Big Creek Scenery

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

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

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

Adam Says…

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

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

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

Midnight Hole Picnic Area Bridge

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

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

Trail Notes

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

Download a Trail Map (PDF)

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

Azaleas Atop Gregory Bald

Gregory Bald (TN)

Special: Smokies Edition

Introductory Guide to Visiting Great Smoky Mountains National Park Area

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

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

View the Full Album of Photos From This Hike

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

Christine Says…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Snail Rattlesnake Stream

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

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

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

Adam Says…

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

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

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

Sheep Pen Gap Arriving at Gregory Bald Views from Gregory Bald

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Horse Camping Rhodie Tunnel Horses Going Uphill

Trail Notes

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

Download a Trail Map (PDF)

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

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

Ramsey Cascades (TN)

Special: Smokies Edition

Introductory Guide to Visiting Great Smoky Mountains National Park Area

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

View the Full Album of Photos From This Hike

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

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

Adam Says…

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

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

Stream Below the Bridge Almost Across Tulip Poplar

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

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

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

Rocky Trail Another Easier Log Bridge
Steep and Rocky Warning Sign

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

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

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

Christine Says…

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

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

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

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

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

Christine at the Falls

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

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

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

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

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

Hike Back Hike Back green smokies

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

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

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

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

Beers pretzels

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

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

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

Trail Notes

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

Download a Trail Map (PDF)

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

Porters Creek to Fern Branch Falls (TN)

Special: Smokies Edition

Introductory Guide to Visiting Great Smoky Mountains National Park

This 4 mile out-and-back follows beautiful Porter Creek to a small waterfall at Fern Branch.  The waterfall itself was barely a trickle when we visited, but the lush Smoky Mountain forest was especially beautiful here.  This hike also takes you by a historic barn and an old hiking club cabin.

View the Full Album of Photos From This Hike

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

Porters Creek Tall Trees Messer Barn

Christine Says…

With our week in the Smokies winding down, we wanted to hike something special and something we had never hiked before.  I found myself referring to the ‘Hiking In the Smokys‘ website again.  They have a list of their personal top 10 favorite hikes.  We didn’t want anything over 10 miles, so that ruled out Gregory Bald, Rocky Top and Mt. Cammerer.  We had already hiked six of the others (LeConte, Charlies Bunion, Andrews Bald, Chimney Tops, The Jump Off, and Alum Cave).  So that left just one from the favorites list – Porters Creek.  It sounded like a lovely trail – old growth forest, streams, a waterfall and lots of history.

Before setting out on our hike, we got donuts from The Donut Friar.  This made me exceedingly happy and was the perfect start to the day.  There is something magical about their chocolate crullers.  After donuts, we were on our way to the Greenbrier section of the Smokies.  We’d never hiked anything in that area before, so we were excited to try someplace new.

The road into Greenbrier is mostly gravel, but is well-maintained and easy to drive.  It’s also very scenic and follows the Little Pigeon River.  The trailhead is about 4 miles down the road.  It’s clearly marked and there is plenty of parking.

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

Trailhead Porters Creek from Above Old Stone Wall

The trail starts off as a wide, gravel road through the woods.  Porters Creek runs along the trail, offering plenty of scenic water views. About .6 of a mile along the way, you’ll see signs of old stone walls and stairs on the right side of the trail.   The remnants date back to the early 1900’s when Elbert Cantrell built a farm in this area.  Immediately past the farm, you’ll pass the Ownby cemetery.  Adam and I walked around the cemetery and noticed that most of the graves belonged to very young children.  Sad – it really makes one appreciate modern medicine and vaccinations.

About a mile into the hike, you’ll cross a log footbridge over the creek and come to a Y-junction in the gravel road.  The trail to the right goes to more historical structures, but we’ll cover those on the way back.   We took the trail to the left and arrived almost immediately to another trail junction – continue bearing left on the Porters Creek Trail.  At this point, the gravel road ends and becomes a ‘real’ trail.

This section of the hike is beautiful – lots of big old, trees.  It’s so green, shady and peaceful. At 1.6 miles we crossed another log footbridge.  This one was much longer and crossed the stream crookedly.  From there, the trail ascended gently until we reached Fern Branch falls at 2 miles.  The falls are on the left side of the trail and set back a bit in the woods.

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

Ownby Cemetery Junction Pretty Porters Creek

When we visited the falls were not flowing very heavily.  It was still a beautiful spot – especially with the sunlight filtering into the woods at the crest of the falls.  We took some photos and then headed back the way we came.

On the return arm of the trip, we stopped at the Y-junction and visited the John Messer farm site.  The cantilevered barn is in excellent condition.  Just past the barn, you can visit a springhouse and an old cabin built by the Smoky Mountain Hiking club.  Overnight stays at the cabin are no longer permitted.

After visiting the barn and cabin, we made our way back to the car and headed back into town for lunch.  We ended up at Hungry Bear Barbecue.  It was great and definitely deserves the top ratings it has online.

Porters Creek was definitely beautiful and we would recommend the hike for a low-key, easy day. It would also be our last new hike of our 2014 spring trip. The next day, we chose to re-hike an old favorite – Charlies Bunion.

Adam Says…

Staying in Gatlinburg, TN for a few days, we wanted to explore some different sections of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.  We decided to check out the Porters Creek after reading about Fern Branch Falls and the wildflowers on the trail.  When we got out of our car, we could tell from the wetness of the area and the humidity that it would be a good idea to douse ourselves in bug spray.

We crossed the gate and started along the wide fire road.  As Christine mentioned, during the first mile you do get some stream views, ruins of an old farm, and a family cemetery.  The trail does ascend, but very slowly, so it is not very challenging.

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

Crooked Foot Log Wildflowers Fern Branch Falls

At the .9 mile mark, there is a small footbridge you can use to cross a small stream (or you can rockhop across).  At the 1.0 mile marker, you reach a large junction.  There is a side trail to the Messer Barn and hiking club cabin and also a junction with the Brushy Mountain Trail.  Take the left Porters Creek Trail.  At 1.5 miles, you come to a large footbridge that crosses Porters Creek.  This footbridge was much longer and can be a little unsettling since it is fairly high above the creek in some points.  The railing for me was also below my hip in some spots, which didn’t give me the feeling that it would protect me if I did slip.  After you cross the footbridge, the trail seems to change environments as you walk through a large area of wildflowers and fern.  The forest floor was exploding in green!  The trail then becomes steeper, narrower, and rocky through this portion until you reach the falls.

As we were walking along, we could hear a waterfall off to our right and got a faint glimpse from a distance, but this was not Fern Branch Falls.  Instead, at 1.8 miles, we reached the large waterfall on our left.  The trickle from the waterfall wasn’t overly impressive, but it was a nice scenic spot.  We made our way back the way we came.

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

Crossing Messer Barn Inside the Hiking Club

When we returned to the junction with the Brushy Mountain Trail, we took the short side trail that led to the barn.  Behind the barn, you cross a small stream and then can find the hiking cabin and springhouse.  Both the cabin and barn are open, so we enjoyed exploring the abandoned buildings.

We made our way back to our car and found several cars that were arriving to hike this trail.  With the cabin, farm, ruins, and graveyard, this hike really does give you a glimpse into the life and environment of families that lived in this area and used these facilities in the late 1800s through the early 1900s.  The hiking cabin actually permitted members to stay here until 1981.

Trail Notes

  • Distance – 4 miles
    MapMyHike Stats
  • Elevation Change – About 800 ft.
  • Difficulty – 2.  The climbing is gradual and gentle.
  • Trail Conditions –  3.5.  The section from the trailhead to the Messer farm is essentially a road.  The section from the farm to the falls is trail, but it’s in good shape.  The only part that may challenge some hikers are the two log footbridges.
  • Views – 0. None
  • Streams/Waterfalls – 3.5.  Porters Creek is lovely.  Fern Branch falls would probably be more impressive in wetter weather.  It was fairly small when we visited. 
  • Wildlife – 3.  We saw a couple salamanders and a big black snake.  There are bear sightings in all parts of the Smokies.
  • Ease to Navigate –  4.  Trails are well-marked and easy to follow.  You may miss some of the historical remnants if you’re not paying attention.
  • Solitude – 3.  We hiked on a pretty Thursday in late May and only saw a few other people.

Download a Trail Map (PDF)

Directions to trailhead:   From Gatlinburg, go east on 321 for 6 miles.  Take a right at the Greenbrier entrance to GSMNP.  The road will turn to gravel.  The road will fork at 3.1 miles, but continue straight at the fork to reach the Porters Creek parking area at about 4 miles.

Rich Mountain Loop (TN)

Special: Smokies Edition

Introductory Guide to Visiting Great Smoky Mountains National Park

This 8.7 mile loop didn’t offer much in the way of natural scenery – no great views, no plunging waterfalls, but we did see a bear!  Apparently, this is a great trail to spot bears, as all ten hikers we spoke to on the loop saw at least one bear over the course of their hike.  This trail also passes the historic John Oliver cabin.

View the Full Album of Photos From This Hike

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

Adam Says…

The Cades Cove section of Great Smoky Mountains National Park has a lot to offer – camping, drives around the loop to view wildlife, biking (covered in a previous post), and a historic view into the way people lived and farmed in this area.  Honestly, I have a little love/hate relationship with this section.  The biking and wildlife viewing can’t be beat around this area.  However, the traffic is so incredibly slow through this area.  Expect people to go WAY below the posted speed limit, so getting to Cades Cove can take a lot longer than expected.  I think most of the way traveling from the Sugarlands Visitors Center, multiple people were driving about 10-15 mph for the entire 17 miles, so it was a drag getting there.  Christine and I typically like to get out early in the morning to beat traffic and heat through the day, so I would recommend the same if visiting Cades Cove.

Since we had biked the loop and hiked Abrams Falls (also on the Cades Cove loop) before, we looked for some other options for hikes.  Our book Day Hikes in the Smokies (by Carson Brewer) had this listed as a nice option for a hike.  According to the description, there was a waterfall, some views, and a historic homestead so we felt this would be a nice option to take.

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

Trailhead Meadow View Stream Crossing

We parked in the lot past the information kiosk as you enter the Cades Cove loop.  There was plenty of parking in the lot, as most people either park their car to bike the loop or just ask the rangers at the kiosk some questions about the area.  We parked at one of the furthest parking spots and then crossed the road.  In a short distance, the trailhead appeared and we started off on the Rich Mountain Loop trail.  This trail was relatively flat.  It was mostly wooded, but there were a few spots where it opened up to views of meadows.  In .5 miles, the trail reached a junction with the Crooked Arm Ridge trail.  We took a right here to start the Crooked Arm Ridge trail.  At .8 miles, you reach the Crooked Arm Cascade, which was no more than a small trickle when we viewed it.  This trail is the steepest section of the hike, as you are climbing up the entire trail gaining close to 1800 feet by the time you reach the end of the trail at mile 2.7.  The humidity this day was very high and there was no breeze, so we felt like we were pouring buckets of sweat on our relentless climb through many switchbacks along the trail.

At 2.7 miles, we passed the junction with the Scott Mountain Trail, but the junction wasn’t clearly marked to let you know it was the Scott Mountain Trail (Note: This might be because the Scott Mountain Trail is closed from campsite #6 to Schoolhouse Gap.  However, Campsite #6 is still open.  Check park information for the latest updates on trail closures.)  Staying straight, the trail turns into the Indian Grave Gap Trail.  It continues to climb gradually, and there are some occasional obstructed views from the ridge.  You finally reach the peak of climbing around mile four,  near Cerulean Knob (3686 ft. – no views).  We continued walking the ridge for a while, then the trail then starts its descent.   At 5.3 miles, the Indian Grave Gap Trail reaches a junction.  Continue on the Rich Mountain Loop trail.

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

Eroded Trail Ridgewalking Cute Toad

The trail continues to descend and you do get some nice views along the way of a branch that leads to Abrams Creek.  Around 7.2 miles, the trail leads to the John Oliver Place, a historic cabin.  If you are interested in learning more about the Oliver family and life in the 1800’s in Cades Cove, I would recommend checking out the history of the Olivers and the cabin and what pioneer life was like in Cades Cove.  We paused to check out the cabin and as you face the house, take the rightmost trail behind the house (there are several small paths here) to continue on to the Rich Mountain Loop.  You will have a few stream crossings (minor rock hopping is required) until you reach the first junction you met at mile 8.2.  Continue straight to take the Rich Mountain Loop trail to arrive back at your car at mile 8.7.

As mentioned in the short description at the top, we kept coming across people that had seen bears along the trail.  Until we started the descent from Cerulean Knob, everyone we crossed told us they had seen various bears across the trail.   Of course everyone also said they watched the bears and then they ran off.  Always excited to see bears, we felt like everyone else had chased them away.  As we were descending we were convinced that we probably wouldn’t see anything, but as soon as we voiced this doubt, Christine spotted a bear right off the side of the trail.  The bear just watched us indifferently while it ate some leaves.  Then it took a slow walk and then squatted to do what bears do in the woods.  As soon as it was done, it shot through the woods at a breakneck pace like its poop had scared him.  I guess that is why they call it “bear scat”, because he really did scat after doing his business.

One lesson that I quickly learned on this trail was that humidity is relative.  While we were doing the tough climb up to the ridgeline, we came across another couple (who of course were telling us about a bear they saw).   Feeling that I was quite the sight from all the sweat coming off my body, I commented on how hot and humid it was.  They said, “Wow.  We haven’t been sweating at all today.”  They then explained they were from Mississippi so they were more accustomed to the heat and humidity and thought it was quite comfortable.  Of course this reminded me on some of our trips to Maine and talking to people that couldn’t handle the heat of 85 degrees without humidity and we thought it was quite pleasant.

While we felt the hike wasn’t overly impressive based on the description we originally read, we felt grateful that we saw a bear in the Smokies.  If you’re looking for a bit of a challenge and some variety of terrain in this area of the Smokies, this is a hike to consider.

Christine Says…

After a third day of shorter, easier hikes, I was finally feeling better and we were on the move from Bryson City to Gatlinburg for the remainder of our week in the Smokies. We decided it was time to hike something a little longer/tougher. We considered a few trails on the northern side of the park, including Gregory Bald, Ramsey Cascades, and Rich Mountain. In the end, we settled on Rich Mountain because our guidebook said it had views, a waterfall and a historic cabin. I like trails with a variety of attractions, so it seemed like the perfect choice for the day.

Another perk of the Rich Mountain loop is that the trailhead can be accessed at the head of Cades Cove, before the start of one-way traffic.   The Cades Cove loop is something every GSMNP visitor should drive (or bike) at least once. It’s a great place to spot wildlife and it showcases the park’s fascinating human history. But, if I’m being fully honest, the traffic in Cades Cove can be insufferable when you just want to get to a trailhead and start your hike. On this particular day, I was very happy to be avoiding the gridlock!

We followed the Rich Mountain Loop trail for about half a mile to our first junction. At the marker, we took a right onto the Crooked Arm Ridge Trail. Most people seem to hike the trail clockwise, but we decided to go the other way for to get the climbing done a little earlier and a little faster in the loop.

One of the first landmarks we passed was Crooked Arm Falls, which our hiking guidebook described as ‘not Niagara, but still very nice’. That turned out to be quite the understatement! The ‘waterfall’ was barely a trickle of water over a short rock shelf. Maybe it’s more impressive when there has been a ton of rain!

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

Trail Junction Flame Azalea Mountain Laurel

After passing the waterfall, our climb began in earnest. Neither of us was used to hiking in the heat and humidity. Virginia had been having lots of cool, pleasant days that spring, so it was very tough going. When we got back to the car and had smartphone access again, I checked the temperatures and real feel estimates – it had been about 88 degrees with a real feel of 95. Honestly, that’s kind of the outer limit of heat in which I’m willing to hike.

We slogged along uphill for a couple miles. The air was really still and steamy, with any chance of a breeze blocked by the shoulder of the mountain. The trail was deeply eroded in several sections, with the middle of the footpath looking like a chute in the ground. The views promised by our guidebook were mostly closed in by the leaves on the trees and we started to think we may have picked a dud of a hike. I was feeling really overheated and crabby.

Eventually we reached the junction with the Indian Grave Gap Trail. At this point, the climbing became easier and we felt a breeze across the ridge. We started to see more wildflowers – mountain laurel and flame azalea. We spotted several cute toads hopping across the trail. We stopped for a snack near an opening in the trees. We had a decent view into Cades Cove. Along this section of trail, we passed two other hiking parties – both mentioned that they’d had bear sightings before the junction with the Rich Mountain Loop. One group had spotted an adolescent bear and the other a mother bear with two cubs.   Between the breeze, the wildflowers, and the likelihood of a bear spotting; my attitude turned a little more positive. Adam was more skeptical than I was, saying ‘If all these people already saw bears, we’ll probably be the only ones who don’t!’

We walked along, trying to stay quiet for the wildlife. We reached the junction of the Indian Grave Gap Trail and the Rich Mountain Loop Trail without spotting a bear. I figured that we were out of luck, and started chatting with Adam again. As we were descending toward a stream bed, I caught a shuffle of movement through the trees. I stopped abruptly, waved my hand up to stop Adam behind me and whispered ‘BEAR!’ Ten feet from the edge of the trail, we spotted a handsome yearling bear foraging for food. He knew we were there, but continued to move along at a normal pace. Other than once upward glance, he completely ignored us. Suddenly, he broke into a full gallop and went crashing deeper into the woods and out of view. It was a GREAT sighting and made the hike totally worthwhile.

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

Warbler Descent Woods

The rest of the hike between the bear and the John Oliver cabin was downhill, steeply at times. For a couple hundred yards, we were followed by a cute yellow warbler. The bird hopped from tree to tree right alongside us before finally flying off. We had a couple easy, shallow stream crossings on the section of trail.

We reached the Oliver cabin and were met with crowds of Cades Cove tourists. Most people visiting the cabin park along the loop road and then walk a short distance up to the house. I think this cabin is the oldest structure in the Cove.   After spending a little time exploring the cabin, we headed back onto the Rich Mountain Loop trail.

After the cabin there wasn’t anything remarkable left on the trail to see. I don’t think I took a single photo! It was just an easy walk for about a mile back to our first junction of the day, followed by a half mile stretch back to the parking area on the loop road. It felt great to be back in the air-conditioned car!

On our way out of Cades Cove, we stopped by the snack bar at the campground. I got a gigantic Gatorade and a bag of generic Cheetos. The Gatorade tasted miraculous after miles of drinking lukewarm Camelbak water! About an hour later, we were checking into our hotel in Gatlinburg. After showering, we headed out to the Smoky Mountain Brewery. On the way, we got caught in one of the biggest downpours I’ve ever experienced. We ate dinner soaked, but the beer and steak were so good I didn’t care.

So, I guess in closing… would I recommend the Rich Mountain Loop? Probably – it seems like a great place to hike if you want good odds of seeing a bear in the wild, but don’t go expecting great views and waterfalls.

Trail Notes

  • Distance – 8.7 miles
  • Elevation Change – 1800 ft.
  • Difficulty – 3.5  The hike up the Crooked Arm Ridge trail was tough.
  • Trail Conditions –  3.  The trail was clear, but there were some eroded parts on the climb up the Crooked Arm Ridge Trail.  On the hike down, there was some loose rock also.
  • Views – 2.  There were some obstructed views from the ridgeline.
  • Streams/Waterfalls – 2.  The Crooked Arm Cascade was a disappointment with little water, but the streams on the back end of the loop were nice. 
  • Wildlife – 4.5.  We did see a bear and it looked and sounded like a lot of bear activity here.  We also saw some deer along the way.
  • Ease to Navigate –  1.5.  Trails were not marked very clearly, especially at junctions.  Also, there is confusion around the John Oliver place on which way to go to complete the loop back.
  • Solitude – 2.5.  Cades Cove is a very popular area.  I would expect to see some people on the trail most days, but less in the upper elevations.  There will also be lots of people that will park on the main road to check out the John Oliver Place. 

Download a Trail Map (PDF)

Directions to trailhead:   From the Sugarlands Visitor Center in GSMNP, follow signs towards Cades Cove. Follow Little River Road for about 17 miles.  At the intersection near Townsend, the road will become Laurel Creek Road.  Follow Laurel Creek road for 7.4 miles to the parking area at the head of Cades Cove.  Park in the lot on the left hand side of the road right before the traffic becomes one way.  The trail starts about 25 yards ahead on the opposite side of the road from parking.

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.