The Pinnacle (NC)

North Carolina Hikes

The Pinnacle is a 6.6 mile hike with a strenuous climb for the first two miles. Hikers are rewarded on a clear day with spectacular views from a rocky ridgeline and overlook point.

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Split Rock
Split Rock is a landmark just a half mile into the hike. Below: The information board at Pinnacle Park. Make sure you fill out a free permit card before beginning your hike; Trail options starting from Pinnacle Park;

Pinnacle Park Permits Pinnacle Trail Sign

Adam Says…

This hike has an incredibly generic name.  I can’t recall how many hikes we have been on with the name “Pinnacle” in the title.  The same can be said about “bald” (“bald knob”, “bald rock”, etc.), “buzzard” (“buzzard rock”, “buzzard roost”, etc.), “black rock”, and “devil” (“devil’s marbleyard”, “devil’s stairs”, “devil’s bathtub”, etc.).  While the hike name lacks originality, by using the word, “pinnacle”, hikers should expect great views and this one doesn’t disappoint.

Getting there caused us a bit of confusion because the directions we had seemed to want us to drive on private property.  However, we stayed on the main road and it soon came to a dead end at Pinnacle Park.  We parked and completed the permit form at the kiosk, which were quite damp since they were exposed to the elements.  Just past the kiosk was the trailhead that led through a gate.  As we were starting our hike, there was also a couple of women that were getting started as well.  They had backpacks to help carry their toddlers and they were taking the trail all the way to the Blue Ridge Parkway, where they had dropped off another car. They said they were quite familiar with the trail. After we saw the steepness of the terrain, we were impressed with these young moms.

Pretty West Fork
The streams along this trail were incredibly scenic after LOTS of rain. Below: Adam hikes uphill in the fog and drizzle; Mountain Laurel were just starting to bloom; Another small waterfall and stream crossing.

Fog on the West Fork Trail Mountain Laurel Small Stream Crossing

The day started off foggy and incredibly humid from the recent rains, which made the footing a bit tricky for parts of the hike with either slippery rocks or muddy areas.  After going a short distance, you pass by a meadow and then reach a trail junction.  There are some shorter trails that break off to the right of the trail that some families take to get a short walk through the woods next to the stream.  We waited to confirm with the young moms, but our path led us steeply uphill to continue the hike.  As we hiked up, we passed Split Rock and we had several opportunities to get good views of the cascading stream on the left.  The hike had us breathing heavily due to the steepness of the terrain and the humidity made us work extra hard.

Around two miles, we reached the junction with the Pinnacle Trail taking off to the left.  The good news is that the hardest part of the climbing is done.  There is still more climbing to do on this spur trail, but it isn’t nearly as steep and some areas are quite flat.  This section had some places where the trail was under water or extremely muddy due to all the rain, but I’m guessing is damp during lots of the year.  After another 1.3 miles, the trail reaches the summit area.  As we were hiking, we didn’t see any hope of the sun coming out, but we at least thought we could have a nice hike in the woods.  Right before the summit, I decided to step off the trail a bit to urinate and as soon as I started, the sun came out.  Christine got a big laugh since she thought this act had summoned the sun to appear (if you run into the same situation, it is worth a shot).  So, we made a quick dash to the final summit area.  The clouds were still preventing us from getting remarkable views, but we could see some views as the clouds were rolling over the summit path.  We stopped here to eat a snack and take in the limited views.  As soon as we packed up to leave, the clouds completely covered in everything so we lucked out.  On our way back down, we ran into more hikers that were going up to the point.  We almost felt like we were running on the way back down and it amazed us how steep the terrain was in parts.

Hiking into the Clouds
Big clouds moved on an off the mountain throughout our hike.  Below: The trail junction for Blackrock and the Pinnacle; A lot of the trail to the Pinnacle was underwater; This beard-like moss was hanging on everything.

Trail Junction Water on the Trail Mossy

Christine Says…

This hike was quite an adventure and a good cardio-challenge! The trailhead is located in Pinnacle Park, which is an 1,100 acre plot of land owed by the town of Sylva, NC and maintained by the Pinnacle Park Foundation.  It used to provide the town’s watersource, but in the early 1990s it was put into conservation and opened for hiker access.  The park has several backcountry campsites for backpackers. They ask that both dayhikers and backpackers complete a free permit form before beginning their hike. Blank forms are available at the trailhead’s informational kiosk.

When we arrived at the park (which is essentially just the dead end of the road), we had humid, foggy, drizzly conditions. The whole area was under the unsettled outer arms of Tropical Storm Alberto, so the weather was extremely changeable during our visit.  We knew we had a big climb ahead of us, and really hoped the fog would clear off and let us have at least some views.  It always stinks to climb and climb and climb, and then not even get a view. But, that’s the thing about these mountains – even when the valley is sunny, peaks over 4500′ often stay in the clouds and mist. You just never know what your summit weather is going to be until you get there.

The Pinnacle
The Pinnacle is a cool crag with great views all around. Below: The view moved constantly in and out of the clouds; Looking down into the valley; Upon leaving the summit, we went back into the fog.

Moving Clouds Moving Clouds Back into the Fog

After passing a gate, the hike starts off immediately and relentlessly uphill. The first two miles of the hike follow what seems to be an old forest service or logging road.  It’s wide and covered with loose, round stones – a bit of an ankle-turner. In the first couple tenths of a mile, you’ll pass a stream with remnants of its history as a municipal water source.  There are gauges and concrete channels that are now being reclaimed by nature.  After that, you’ll make a wide switchback in a meadow.  There will be a trail that comes in from the left.  Stay to the right, climbing uphill, before eventually reaching a sign with trail mileage for the Pinnacle, Blackrock, and Waterrock Knob (on the Blue Ridge Parkway). Follow the trail toward Pinnacle.  At a half mile into the hike you’ll pass Split Rock – an enormous cracked boulder right along the trail. The crack is big enough for an adult to climb in.

Shortly after the Split Rock, we had our first stream crossing.  Even with the high water flow, all the stream crossings were safe and easy.  I think I remember there being three crossings in the first two miles of hiking.  The beauty of the stream along this trail is definitely something I’ll remember.  I’m sure the water is not normally as impressive, but when we visited it was gorgeous – rapids and little waterfalls everywhere!  Another thing I’ll remember from this hike is the CLIMBING!  The first two miles ascend nearly 2,000 feet before moderating on the Pinnacle spur trail.  It was definitely some of the steepest climbing we’ve done outside of New Hampshire. I guess the third memory from the hike is crossing paths with a Great Horned Owl!  It swooped across the trail. That was an enormous bird – for a minute, we thought it was an eagle because it was so much bigger than any owl or hawk we’d seen before.

Fallen Butterfly
This fallen butterfly still had perfect wings.  Below: There are five official campsites in this trail network; Blooming fire pink; A post hike stop at Innovation Brewing (after an excellent lunch at Haywood Smokehouse.)

Campsites Firepink Innovation Brewing

After climbing steeply for two miles, we were relieved to reach the junction with the Pinnacle Trail.  It was a traditional trail instead of a wide road.  It was very wet and muddy in a few places, but generally in good condition. It follows gentle rolling terrain for about a mile before a steep (but brief) descent into dense rhododendron.  On the other side of the rhododendron, the trail exits out onto a large rocky outcropping at just over 5,000′.  There are views (and precipitous drops) in every direction. We felt so lucky to have the clouds partially clear when we were at the viewpoint. What a gorgeous spot!

We spent some time enjoying the vista and a snack of trail mix before hiking back the way we came up.  Shortly after we left the view, the clouds rolled back around us and we were hiking in the fog again. The hike back went really quickly because it was all downhill! By the time we got to the bottom, it was full sun and blazing hot.  After packing up, we headed into Sylva for some barbecue at the Haywood Smokehouse (so amazing) and beers at Innovation Brewing.  These two places are both on my ‘must list’ for this area.

Trail Notes

  • Distance – 6.6 miles
  • Elevation Change – 2,441 ft
  • Difficulty – 4.  The first two miles of climbing is relentless and steep.  You’ll gain 1000 feet for each mile.  Once you reach the junction with the Pinnacle Trail, the climb becomes moderate to flat.
  • Trail Conditions –  4.  The trail follows an old road grade for most of the way.  The footing is a bit challenging with lots of football-sized rocks, but overall the trail is in great shape!
  • Views –  5 – We visited on a day with lots of fog and moving clouds, but still had excellent views at the top.
  • Streams/Waterfalls –  4.  We visited after a time of extremely heavy rain, so the stream along the trail was simply spectacular.  There were many small waterfalls and cascades to enjoy. The stream rating is probably not this high most of the time.
  • Wildlife – 4.  We saw a great horned owl swoop across the trail. There were also salamanders, a snake, and many small mammals.
  • Ease to Navigate –  3.  The first couple tenths of a mile of this trail are a little confusing, but if you keep climbing uphill, you’ll eventually come to a directional sign.  After the directional sign, the trail is very clear and easy to follow.
  • Solitude – 3.  We saw just a few people out for the day.

Download a Trail Map (PDF)

Pinnacle Elevation
Click to View Larger Elevation Profile

Directions to trailhead:  Parking is at Pinnacle Park in Sylva, coordinates: 35.422738, -83.191188

Coppermine Trail to Bridal Veil Falls (NH)

Special: New Hampshire Edition

Introductory Guide to Visiting the White Mountains

This was a pleasant hike to a pretty waterfall located near a scenic backcountry campsite.  At just under five miles with only 1100 feet of climbing, it’s one of the area’s easier hikes.

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Bridal Veil Falls
The water level was low from dry conditions, but the falls were still pretty. Below: Signage at the parking area; Early parts of the hike followed the road; The hike enters the woods.

Bridal Veil Falls Parking Coppermine Trail Coppermine Trail

Christine Says…

We stumbled across this hike in one of my parents’ hiking guide books. They had never done it, but the description sounded quite appealing for a quick morning hike. Trailhead parking is on Coppermine Road, a private gravel road off NH116. Be careful to park only in the designated area, so you don’t infringe on homeowner’s private property.

The first .4 mile of the hike follows the unpaved road.  You’ll pass a number of private cabins as you walk. Look for yellow blazes and a hiker sign on the left side of the road. Follow the path into shady woods. The trees are a mix of evergreens, maples, and white birches. It’s a peaceful setting and a gentle uphill. At 1 mile in, Coppermine Brook meets the trail’s right side.

The remainder of the hike stays close to the brook’s path, so this is a great hike if you enjoy the sound of bubbling water. There are lots of places to leave the trail and explore the boulder-strewn streambed. When we visited, water was running low, so it was easy to hop rocks and stand in the middle of the stream without getting wet.

At 2.2 miles, the trail crosses the stream via a sturdy wooden footbridge.  Another .2 miles beyond the bridge, you’ll reach Coppermine Shelter and the base of Bridal Veil Falls.  The shelter is a three-sided lean to for overnight campers. The falls are behind the shelter, tucked into a small cliffside.  The falls drop several times over granite shelves. To get to the prettiest view of the waterfall, you have to cross the bottom pool and climb up one of the granite shelves.

Coppermine Trail
The Coppermine Trail climbs gently and is only moderately rocky. This small bridge crosses the stream just a couple tenths of a mile before the falls. Below: Typical terrain for this hike; Stream scenery.

Coppermine Trail Coppermine Trail Coppermine Trail

When we visited, the granite was really slippery from a brief rain the night before.  We scrambled up to a viewpoint and surveyed the area.  Adam wanted to climb even further up to another higher pool at the point where the falls take their largest plunge. We discussed the best route, as it looked a bit perilous and tricky.

While we were talking about the scramble to the top, my parent’s hiking guidebook, which I had set next to my backpack, went sliding down the rocks and into the water. It careened down two drops of the stream before settling in a eddy in the pool at the very bottom of the falls. CRAP – the book was full of years’ worth of handwritten hiking notes!  Adam scrambled quickly back down to the bottom of the falls and retrieved it. It was completely sodden and I felt awful about not being more careful with it.

Adam eventually made it to the higher pool and took some closer photos of the falls, but worrying about the book kind of took the luster off the rest of the hike. Eventually, we headed back the way we came in. The hike back was quick and all downhill. When we got in the car, I turned the air conditioning on full blast to dry out the book’s pages before they stuck together. It was pretty hopeless, though.

Despite the mishap with the book, we enjoyed the hike and highly recommend it.

Adam Says…

This hike was one of the easiest hikes we have done in the area.  The hike to the falls is uphill, but very gradual.  We never felt out of breath on this one, so it may be a good one for a family hike.  The recent rain had left some of the trail quite slippery, especially near the final climb up to the falls.  When Christine mentioned it was slippery, we had to scramble on all fours to be able to make it up, because our feet could not find purchase on the slick rock.

This trail has an interesting, yet mysterious, past to it.  After hiking about 1.2 miles on the Coppermine Trail (a couple of tenths after the brook and trail meet), there is a plaque on a large boulder in the streambed.  While we didn’t see the plaque on our trip, we read about it later.  To find the plaque, look for an area that has a steep slope down to a flat area.  The boulder sticks out into the stream about halfway along the flat area and the plaque is facing downstream.  The plaque states, “In Memoriam to Arthur Farnsworth ‘The Keeper of Stray Ladies’ Pecketts 1939 Presented by a Grateful One”.  According to a 1987 Magnetic North article, there is an answer to the meaning behind this mysterious message.   Arthur Farnsworth worked at a resort called Pecketts, located in Sugar Hill.  Farnsworth’s job at Pecketts was to make his guests feel most comfortable.  The actress, Bette Davis stayed there in 1939 to relax after a tiring filming schedule.  Bette Davis fell in love with the beauty and anonymity of this area, feeling she could escape the burden of her fame.  The story to be told here is that she strayed away from a hiking party on this trail and Arthur Farnsworth was sent to find her.  They fell in love and were married in 1940 and moved to California, but often came back to the White Mountains to visit.  In 1943, Farnsworth died from a fall at their Sugar Hill home.  Bette Davis continued to visit this area afterwards, but eventually sold her home on Sugar Hill in 1961.  This plaque showed up during this time.

Bridal Veil Falls
The last bit of climbing to the falls can be slippery. Below: Boulders along the trail; The Coppermine Shelter; The pool at the base of the falls.

Coppermine Trail Coppermine Trail Coppermine Trail

As Christine mentioned,  our hiking book fell into the water.  To watch a book slowly go down the rocks and fall into the lower pool pictured above was worrisome.  Knowing how long her parents had spent hand writing notes as a journal of all the hikes they had been on, we felt so terrible.  Before we returned home with our soggy mess of a book, we stopped by the White Mountains Visitor Center and purchased two copies of the replacement book – AMC’s Best Day Hikes in the White Mountains.  We bought two because we thought we would be permanently banned from borrowing books in the future.  The book had been updated and now included a few more hikes.  To try and make amends, I spent several hours that evening transferring all the notes from their previous book (miraculously still legible despite wet pages).  Her parents were not upset, but I wanted to make sure we made it right.

We both highly recommend this hike if you want an easy day hike to do for a nice waterfall view.  Just please keep your hiking book (or printouts from this website) in a safe place.

Trail Notes

  • Distance – 4.8 miles
    (Check out the stats from Map My Hike)*
  • Elevation Change – 1100 ft.
  • Difficulty –  2. The climbing is gentle the whole way. The only challenge is scaling the rocks up to the base of the falls.
  • Trail Conditions – 4. This trail is only moderately rocky by New Hampshire standards.
  • Views –  0. There are no open views on this hike.
  • Waterfalls/streams – 4. The falls are small, but very pretty, The stream is also gorgeous. I wish we could have visited when there was more water running.
  • Wildlife – 2. Lots of birds and squirrels.
  • Ease to Navigate –  4. The trail is well-marked and easy to follow. 
  • Solitude – 3. We saw a handful of people on our hike back, but had the falls to ourselves for almost half an hour.

Download a trail map (PDF)

Directions to trailhead: Parking coordinates are: 44.180903, -71.755717.  Make sure you park in the designated parking area and nowhere else. This is a private road.

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

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.

Dolly Sods – Rohrbaugh Plains to Red Creek (WV)

This 10 mile (round-trip) hike takes you past some of Dolly Sods most beautiful scenery.  The dense rhododendron thickets, unblazed trails, and rugged terrain will have you feeling like you’re truly in the wild.  Camping along Red Creek is popular and can be crowded with weekend backpackers, but it’s still one of West Virginia’s most spectacular places.

View the Full Album of Photos From This Hike

Beautiful Red Creek
Beautiful Red Creek was our destination for this short overnighter. Below: Our excellent hiking crew (Maia the dog not included in the photo!);  Making our way onto the Rohrbaugh Plains Trail; The trail is only lightly maintained so you have to climb blowdowns and navigate without the help of blazes.

Our Hiking Crew Start of the Rohrbaugh Plains Trai Rohrbaugh Plains Trail

Day One…

Back in early June, we were at happy hour with our friends Christy and Brian.  Over beers, we cooked up a vague plan for a weekend backpacking trip in late July.  In the weeks to come, we added our mutual friend, Kris, into the mix and settled on a route.  The plan was to take two cars, and do a trans-navigation of Dolly Sods starting at the picnic area and ending at Bear Rocks.  It was about a 16 mile route with tons of camping options along Red Creek.

As it turned out, a heat wave settled over the mid-Atlantic that weekend.  It was the hottest, most humid weekend of the summer.  We still thought we could make the full 16 miles, so we met at Bear Rocks and shuttled in our car to the start point at the Dolly Sods Picnic area.  On the ride, we learned that you really can fit five adults, five big backpacks, and one German Shepherd in a Subaru Forester. It was like a clown car!

We parked at a small pullout near the picnic area, and picked up the Rohrbaugh Plains Trail on the opposite side of the road.  The trail meandered through dense rhododendron forest.  A lot of the rhododendron was Rosebay near the peak of its bloom.  So pretty! The air was thick, still, and heavy with humidity. It felt like walking through the jungle.  At one point, Kris said, “I feel like we might see monkeys!’

Meadows on the Rohrbaugh Trail
Walking through meadows. Below: Maia enjoys a shady pool under the rhododendrons; Walking across Rohrbaugh Cliffs; A nice spot for lunch!

Maia Enjoys a Shady Pool Arriving at Rohrbaugh Cliffs Lunch Stop

The trails in Dolly Sods are well-traveled but very lightly maintained.  There are no blazes.  The only wayfinding signs are at trail junctions.  There are lots of rocks, blowdowns, and mud pits to navigate. Even though the area is complete wilderness, the high traffic through the area keeps the trails apparent and fairly easy to follow.

We walked the Rohrbaugh Plains trail for about 2.5 miles before reaching the spectacular viewpoint off Rohrbaugh Cliffs.  The area is near and dear to my heart because it was one of the first places I ever camped in the backcountry. The cliffs offer great views across the valley to the Lions Head (another popular rocky outcropping in Dolly Sods) and down into the Red Creek basin.  Just past the cliffs, there is a patch of open forest with space for many tents.  It’s still one of the most beautiful campsites I’ve ever had the pleasure of staying at.

We decided to take a lunch break at the cliffs.  At first, the breeze across the open terrain felt nice.  Maybe the heat wasn’t so bad?  But after a few minutes of sitting in the direct sun, we were all pretty hot.  I could feel my shoulders starting to burn.  After lunch, we packed up and continued another .6 mile down the Rohrbaugh Plains Trail.  At 3.1 miles, we passed the junction with the Wildlife Trail.  We stayed to the left, continuing on the Rohrbaugh Plains trail.

We passed a small (mostly dry) waterfall and crossed over some extremely rocky footing. At 3.5 miles the Rohrbaugh Trail meets the Fisher Spring Run Trail.  We followed the Fisher Spring Trail to the left, beginning to descend for 1.2 miles.  At first the descent is smooth a gradual, but it becomes steeper and follows a couple switchbacks down to a rocky crossing of Fisher Spring Run.

Setting Up Camp
We set up camp at a large site along Red Creek. Below: Most of the trails in Dolly Sods are rocky; Crossing Fisher Springs Run before arriving at camp; Our campsite had a private swimming hole nearby.

Rocky Trail Crossing Fisher Spring Run Our Private Swimming Hole

After the crossing , the trail follows the stream on high ground.  There are several nice campsites at the bottom of extremely steep spur trails.  A few sections of this trail are quite eroded, leaving the trail narrow and precipitous.  Take your time and watch your footing, especially if you’re carrying a heavy pack.

At 4.7 miles the Fisher Spring Run Trail ends at the Red Creek Trail.  We took a right, following the trail down toward Red Creek.  In about three tenths of a mile, we passed the first of many stellar campsites.  At the very first one, I thought to myself, “That’s a really sweet campsite.  I wouldn’t mind sleeping here!’

Our group decided to take a break and discuss camping plans and how much of the route we wanted to cover on day one of our trip.  We all agreed that we were pretty hot, the campsite was ideal, and Red Creek looked really inviting.  We figured on day two, we could either hike 11 miles or hike out the way we came in and make our trip a short 10-mile out-and-back.

Adam and I explored several more campsites along the stream before agreeing that the very first site was the prettiest and most private.  There was easily space for four tents.  The ground was flat and clear.  We had easy access to water.  We even had a large fire pit with a stone couch someone had constructed. We all unpacked and set up camp. Maia, our friends’ German Shepherd, supervised the operations.  She was on her first backpacking trip ever, and she took to it like a pro!

Red Creek
Red Creek is a beautiful place to camp and swim.  Below:  Fun in the water and fun at camp!

Swimming in Red Creek Swimming in Red Creek Swimming in Red Creek
Swimming in Red Creek Enjoying Red Creek red creek 18

It was only around 2:30, so most of us spent the entire afternoon swimming and playing in Red Creek. The water was so cold and refreshing. The small rapids and waterfalls felt like hydrotherapy for our hot, tired muscles. Adam opted to restock everyone’s water and read a book at camp, but even he enjoyed splashing in the cold water near camp.

Around 5:00 we decided to get dinner started.  Everyone brought their own dinner, but Christy and Brian brought a shared dessert – Rocky Road pudding.  Kris contributed a two-bottle capacity bag of wine to the feast.  After dinner we played cards and sat around our campfire.  Even at 9:00 p.m., it was still 75 degrees.  That’s unusually warm for Dolly Sods at night!

Around 10:00 we let the fire die down, and everyone started retreating to their tents.  Adam and I opted to leave the rain fly off in hopes that it would keep us cooler.  Honestly, it didn’t really cool off until sometime around 3:00 a.m.  It was a steamy night and I was very glad to have left my sleeping bag home in favor of a light summer quilt.  I enjoyed falling asleep to the sound of the running stream.  Any time I woke up during the night, I took a moment to marvel at the brilliance and magnitude of the stars in the sky.  It’s such a gift to be able to visit places like this and have good friends to share the experience. I felt so fortunate that night in my tent.

Day Two…

The next morning we awoke at daybreak.  We thought Maia would have woken up the group, but she was a perfect camp companion and let us get up when we wanted.  We enjoyed some of Christine’s homemade granola with Nido and then made our way back to the car.  With a warm night and temperatures climbing quickly in the morning, we decided to get an early start to get back to our cars before the temperatures peaked in the afternoon.  It is always uncomfortable when you feel like you never had a chance to cool down, so everyone felt hot within a few minutes back on the trail.

Camp Dog
Maia did great on her first backpacking trip. Below: Hiking back out the way we came in!

Hiking Out Hot and Humid More Rocks to Cross

We climbed back up the steep Red Creek Trail and Fisher Spring Run trail very slowly as we were all quickly drenched with sweat.  We got back to the junction with the Rohrbaugh Trail in about 1.5 miles and we knew our toughest work was behind us.  In another .4 miles, we reached the junction with the Wildlife Trail and took a right to make our way to the Rohrbaugh Cliffs again.  We paused for a snack and some more pictures from Rohrbaugh Cliffs, which is probably my favorite spot in Dolly Sods.  Looking over the creek and seeing nothing but mountains around you is a scene that begs you to pause and appreciate nature.

Rohrbaugh Cliffs
Taking in the view from Rohrbaugh Cliffs. Below: The small waterfall along the Rohrbaugh Trail was running very low; Climbing on the rocks of Rohrbaugh Cliffs; Back to the Forest Road.

Small Waterfall Rohrbaugh Cliffs The End

With the strong sun beating down, we decided to press on and continue our journey back to the car.  We made our way back fairly quickly, passing by a group of about 10 women that were enjoying the weekend as well.  We got back to our car just a bit before lunch and carpooled Christy, Brian, and Maia back to their car.  We had a great adventure together and we were really glad to share this amazing piece of wilderness.  We parted ways with Christy and Brian, and Christine, Kris, and I headed to Lost River Brewing Company in Wardensville, WV for some celebratory beers and food.  It was a great trip, but we vowed to return when it isn’t the hottest weekend of the year to do the traverse across Dolly Sods like we originally planned.

If you are looking for a hike or overnight trip that combines majestic views, creeks with a waterfall and swimming possibilities, and great overnight camping, this may be a perfect one to experience.

Trail Notes

  • Distance – 10 miles
    (Check out the stats from Map My Hike [Day One] [Day Two])*
  • Elevation Change –  1480 feet
  • Difficulty – 3.  The elevation gain/loss is moderate, but the rugged nature of the footing adds difficulty to this route.
  • Trail Conditions –  2.  Trails are unblazed.  Be prepared for mud, blowdowns, and lots of rocks.
  • Views – 5.  The view from Rohrbaugh Cliffs is pretty spectacular!
  • Waterfalls/streams – 5.  You will want to spend all day enjoying the beautiful rapids and waterfalls along Red Creek.  This is some of the best stream swimming in West Virginia.
  • Wildlife – 2.  We saw a white tail doe with two fawns on the drive in, but generally the woods were quiet and we didn’t feel like there was much wildlife in the camping area.
  • Ease to Navigate – 2.  There are no blazes, but junctions were marked, and the trail was generally easy to follow.  Navigation gets trickier near Red Creek where you depend on cairns to mark stream crossings.
  • Solitude – 3.  This is tough to call!  We saw almost nobody on the trail when we were hiking, but there were many people camped along Red Creek.

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

Download a trail map (PDF)

Directions to trailhead:  GPS Coordinates for Parking are 38.962019, -79.355024. From Seneca Rocks, go North on WV 28 for 12 miles.  Take a left on Jordan Run Road.  Go one mile up Jordan Run Road and take a left on to Forest Road 19.  In 6 miles, Forest Road 19 comes to a T on to Forest Road 75.  Take a right, heading north on Forest Road 75.  Drive for about eight miles until you reach the Dolly Sods Picnic Area. The Rohrbaugh Plains Trailhead will be across the road from the picnic area.

Zealand Falls (NH)

Special: New Hampshire Edition

Introductory Guide to Visiting the White Mountains

This 5.6 mile route to Zealand Falls is one of the easiest hikes we’ve done in New Hampshire.  Most of the footing is smooth, soft, and flat!  It was a real treat after climbing Pierce and Madison.

View the Full Album of Photos From This Hike

Adam on Zealand Falls
Adam sits at the top of Zealand Falls and takes in the view of mountains beyond and wetlands below.  Below:  Zealand Falls Hut is a popular hut for people who want to stay at an AMC Hut, but don’t want a tough hike;  Christine hikes along; While the trail was generally flat and smooth, there were occasional roots and rocks to negotiate.

Zealand Trail Boardwalk Roots

Christine Says…

The hike to Zealand Falls is doubtlessly the easiest ‘hut hike’ in the White Mountains.  The elevation gain is barely discernible until the last couple tenths of a mile.  The route offers mountain views, waterfalls, stream scenery, and lovely ponds.  Guidebooks say it’s a great place to bird-watch and spot a moose (though I have my doubts about the actual likelihood of seeing a moose!)

The hike starts out at a parking area at the end of Zealand Road.   It’s a fee area, so make sure you bring cash to pay at the self-service parking station.

We made our way along the trail, marveling at how smooth and soft the footing felt.  There were certainly some spots with roots and rocks, but generally the trail was level and covered with a bed of pine needles.  We could hear the Zealand River, but didn’t reach a close view of the water until .8 miles into the hike.  When we hiked (early August), the water was low, clear and running quietly along. Almost all of the water crossings we encountered on this trail were assisted by wooden footbridges – no wading and very little rock hopping necessary!

Christine Checks out the Wetlands
The Zealand Falls trail passes many ponds and marshes.  Below: Several views of the ponds and marshes along the Zealand trail.

Wetlands Wetlands Wetlands

As we walked along, the terrain became marshier.  At about 1.8 miles in we passed a lovely beaver pond.  We could see the dam from the trail, but didn’t see any beavers.  The reflections of trees and mountains in the water were especially beautiful!  With all the wetlands, I expected biting flies, mosquitoes and gnats to be a major issue, but we didn’t have any trouble at all. Maybe there was just enough of a breeze to keep the bugs at bay.

At 2.3 miles we passed the junction with the A-Z trail, where we continued on the Zealand Trail.  A couple tenths of a mile later, we passed Zealand Pond and reached the junction with the Twinway (which is also the Appalachian Trail in this area) and Etlan Pond Trails. The last couple tenths of a mile to the hut follow the Twinway Trail.

Almost immediately after the junction, we reached the bottom of Zealand Falls.  The water was running low, but it was still beautiful.  There are two places to stop and admire the falls on the way up.  The first stop is a view of the gradual, slide-like lower falls.  The view of the upper falls is a bit more dramatic. The rocks around the falls are blocky and reddish-orange in color. The water comes plunging steeply over a cliff-side. The last tenth of a mile up to the hut is steep and rocky – honestly, it’s the only challenging part of the hike.

Zealand Falls
Zealand Falls make a couple distinct drops.  Below: New signs were recently posted to mark trails in the area; Adam checks out the falls; The final ascent to the hut was the only steep part of the hike.

New Signs Zealand Falls Final Climb to Hut

Zealand Falls Hut enjoys a lofty perch looking out across two notches.  You can see the Bonds and Mt. Carrigain. There’s even a bench available for anyone who wants a nice seat to enjoy the view.  We spent some time poking around the hut.  The Croo had just made cinnamon rolls and purple frosted blueberry cake, but we weren’t quite ready for a snack.  Instead, we decided to take the little side trail to the ledges of Whitewall Brook.  It’s just a 25-30 foot walk through the trees.  The brook passes over immense slabs of rock.  It’s a nice place to sit, soak in the sun, and enjoy the view of the pond below and distant mountains beyond.

After spending some time enjoying the hut, we returned the way we came.  The walk back was all downhill, so we made quick work of it.  I would highly recommend Zealand Falls to anyone looking for a low-key hike without much climbing.  In fact, we gave it such glowing reviews that my parents tried the hike a few weeks later.  They enjoyed it and felt it was very approachable for hikers of any level.

Adam Says…

When we go about trying to cover a lot of hiking mileage on our vacation trips, we like to alternate some easier hikes with the tougher ones.  Since we had just climbed Mt. Madison, our feet and joints were happy that we chose this easier leg-stretcher.

Christine and I do like to hike with goals in mind.  Since we have climbed a few of the 4000-footers in New Hampshire (there are 48), we have thought about possibly trying to bag all of those peaks.  Last year on our visit, I picked up AMC’s Passport to AMC’s High Huts in the White Mountains.   That book describes each of AMC’s huts through the White Mountains and details the history, features, and interesting stories about each of the huts.  It also serves as a passport that you can have stamped at each location to mark that you have been there (you can even earn a patch when you’ve visited them all).  This was definitely enough of an incentive to try and reach all the huts.

Zealand Hut
Zealand Falls Hut sits at the top of a waterfall.  A short trail from the side of the hut leads to the streambed; Inside the hut; View from the hut; Christine at the top of the falls.

Inside Zealand Hut View from Hut Christine at the Top of Falls

As Christine mentioned, this trail had nice footing compared to what we were used to in the White Mountains.  The trail was fairly smooth as it started through the woods mixed with pine and birch.  The trail eventually opened up into some great views over marshy ponds.  There was a large boardwalk to walk across that I thought would be a perfect vantage point for spotting a moose.  There were such nice views over the dammed-up ponds and it reminded me that we were in a state filled with lots of lakes, ponds, and streams.  We took a while to enjoy the scenery around us.  The trail continued to give us lots of similar views and short step-offs to pond views.  The trail eventually goes back into the woods as you get closer to Zealand Falls Hut.

At 2.3 miles, we reached the junction with the A-Z trail, which I came to realize after looking at our map that it connects the Avalon and Zealand trail, hence the A-Z name.  At 2.5 miles, we reached a short side trail to check out Zealand Falls.  The falls here were a nice place to get sidetracked.  We crossed a few rocks and enjoyed climbing around the rocks at the base of the falls.  Looking up towards the top of the fall is where this hike ends, but you should stick to the trail rather than trying to climb up the falls.

We continued our last piece of the hike, which was a steep and rocky .2 miles until we reached the Zealand Falls Hut at 2.8 miles.  There were a few day-hikers at the hut, recounting tales of all the places they had visited around the world.  We decided to take the short trail from the hut to the streambed of Whitewall Brook, which is the top of the falls we had seen below.  Christine got a lot of pictures while I walked around climbing on some of the rocks and collecting a few blueberries from the nearby bushes.  We then found a picturesque spot on the large rocks to take in the view of mountains ahead and the waterways below.

Beautiful Forest
The woods along the trail were so beautiful! Below: Adam rock hops; Beautiful, tall, straight trees; A beaver dam.

Adam Rock Hops Beautiful Trees Beaver Dam

We stopped back in to the hut to talk to the Croo members who were cleaning up breakfast and starting to prepare some food for lunch.  I know they have some busy days, preparing meals, cleaning the hut, and transporting supplies on their backs to and from the hut.  I talked to one of the members about how this hut was so much easier to reach than most of the others we had seen.  I wondered if there was a selection process that was made to match up Croo members to the huts or if they even had a choice.  It seems like maintaining this hut and transporting supplies would be made for those that wanted or needed an easier experience.  We made our way back to our car the same way we came up.

I would recommend this hike to anyone that would like to see what one of the AMC huts looks like.  It is the easiest one to reach, so people of most abilities should be able to attain the top.  This is one I could see us doing many times in the future due to the ease and the serenity that the scenery of the marshes and waterfall evokes.

Trail Notes

  • Distance – 5.6 miles
    MapMyHike Stats *
  • Elevation Change –  650 feet
  • Difficulty –  2.  This is a pleasant, easy walk until the last couple tenths of a mile.  The last push to hut is short but steep.
  • Trail Conditions – 4.  The trail is so nicely built and easy to walk.  Most of the water crossings and marshy areas are traversed by sturdy bridges and boardwalks.
  • Views –3.5.  Views from the hut and Whitewall Brook are nice, as are several views across the wetlands, but generally the views here are less dramatic than other spots in the White Mountains.
  • Waterfalls/streams 4.5.  The river, pond, wetlands, brook and waterfalls are all lovely!
  • Wildlife – 3.  It’s supposed to be a nice area to spot wildlife, but we just saw birds and squirrels.
  • Ease to Navigate – 4.  Trail junctions are clearly marked and easy to follow.
  • Solitude – 3. We saw relatively few people, but we hiked on a weekday in August. I think this is generally a popular trail.

Download a trail map (PDF)

Directions to trailhead: From I-93: Take Exit 35 for Twin Mountain. Follow 3N for 10.4 miles. Turn right onto 302E for 2.2 miles.  Turn right onto Zealand Rd. and drive about four miles.  The road will turn to gravel.  The parking area is at the dead end of the road.  There is a $3/day fee to park at the trailhead.

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

Linville Falls (NC)

North Carolina Hikes

This wonderful little network of trails gives you the opportunity to view Linville Falls from every angle!  You can choose short/easy routes or longer/harder routes depending what you’re in the mood to do.  When all was said and done, we hiked a little over 3.5 miles and enjoyed several views of the falls.

View the full album of photo from this hike

Adam Enjoys a View of Linville Falls
Adam enjoys a bird’s eye view of Linville Falls. Below: The forest service information station; the trail network offers many options; beautiful blooming rhododendron.

Forest Service Info Station Trail Network Flame Azalea

Adam Says…

To finish our trip to North Carolina, we had to visit Linville Falls along the Blue Ridge Parkway.  While overcast days are better days for photographing waterfalls, we had to take what we were given.  The sun was high in the sky and it was quite hot on the hike, but we knew this wasn’t going to be too long of a hike.

We drove up the gravel Wiseman’s View Road and went first to the USFS Visitor’s Center.  Two women were inside and gave us some information on how to tackle the falls.  We were looking for a place to eat lunch before the hike and they recommended Famous Louise’s Rock House, especially for their pies.  We took their advice and refueled for the hike.  We ventured back up Wiseman’s View Road and parked in the large gravel lot at the to the left of the road.  The trail starts from the eastern side of the lot and begins with a steep descent.

At about .2 miles of a descent, we reached a junction.  We took a right here to make our way to the series of overlooks of the falls.  In a short distance, we reached another smaller junction with the trail to the Upper Falls, but we decided to approach that on the way back.  Since there are so many choices to make about the order in which you take in the views, I will not list all the distances; but you can tell from the downloaded map the distances to each.  We opted first to take a left for the trail to Chimney View, which provided a viewpoint to see the upper and lower falls.  From this point, we backtracked to the main trail and took a left.  Shortly, we came on to the side trail on the right for the Gorge View.  The views from here showed the canyon of the gorge but the views didn’t allow you to see the bottom of the canyon.  Next was the end of the main trail, which ended at Erwins View.  This view gave you the furthest view away from the falls, but it was still spectacular.  We backtracked and made our way back to the Upper Falls viewpoint.  From here, you could see the water plunge down the falls from a closer distance.

Upper Falls View
The upper falls view. Below: A view into the gorge; Adam hikes along.

Gorge View Linville Trails

From seeing people on the opposite side of the water and very close to the falls, we decided to take the trail down to the Linville Falls Visitor Center.  The trail was wide, road-like and going slightly downhill.  We eventually came to a bridge over the Linville River and the Visitor Center was on the opposite side.  We grabbed a few cold waters from the center and talked to the rangers about the trails on the other side.  We were fairly tired by this point, since we had done so much hiking during the week, but the temptation of the falls kept us pressing forward.  From the front of the Visitor Center, the trail headed into the woods on the eastern side of the building.  In a few feet, the trail branched and we took a right to head to the next overlook.  This trail branched off after about .3 miles.  We took a right at the junction, descending to reach the Plunge Basin overlook at .5 miles.  This point gave you a vantage point to see the water shoot through the gorge and down below.  We watched one man standing on the cliffside below, fishing from a precarious position.  We then made our way back to our car by returning to the Visitor Center, back across the bridge, and taking a right to the trail junction that led us back to our vehicle.

We had a great time visiting Linville Falls and this is definitely a hike that most people could do with their families.  A return trip in the peak of fall color with an overcast sky is something we will try to do.  While many waterfalls allow you to get very close to them, the trails here mostly keep you at a distance.  However, the view of the gorge with the waterfalls is breathtaking.

Christine Says…

Linville Falls was a perfect hike to end our trip through Tennessee and North Carolina – short and very easy! Ten hikes packed into eight days was pretty rigorous and I had the sore knees, bruises and sunburned arms to show for it!  Truth be told, I was secretly pleased that the ninth day of our voyage was stormy and rainy, because it meant we’d go home a day early instead of biking the 33+ miles of the Virginia Creeper.  Don’t get me wrong – I LOVE biking the Creeper, but I was exhausted from our whirlwind trip.  Maybe we ought to relax more on vacations – like normal people!  Nah…. probably not.  🙂

Linville Falls were a gift to the National Park Service from John D. Rockefeller.  So many of our favorite parks would not have existed without his generosity. Acadia, Shenandoah, Yosemite, the Grand Tetons, and the Smokies were all established, in part, due to his financial support.

Plunge View
The plunge view of the falls. Below: The Linville River; Beautiful desserts from Storie Street Grille.

Linville River Dessert

Adam did a thorough job describing all the different paths we took, so I don’t have a lot of details to add about the terrain. The only thing I would say is that you can walk to the bottom of the falls.  It’s about about .8 miles of hiking (some steep).  We opted to skip the view from the bottom on this trip, mainly because we were tired and could tell that the base of the falls was extremely crowded.

I enjoyed stopping in the visitors center and talking to the park ranger.  He was a pretty serious hiker and we enjoyed trading trail tips.  He suggested Crabtree Falls, NC for a future hike.  I was also fascinated by the cross section of an enormous tree hanging in the center. It fell when the Linville Gorge flooded in September of 2004. The hurricane-related flooding was so severe, that it washed away half of the visitor’s center and left many gigantic, toppled trees in its wake.  Water is such a powerful force!

Linville Falls has one of the highest water volumes of any waterfall in the Blue Ridge, so it’s not surprising that it floods so easily.  The high volume of water also makes the gorge perilous for people. Swimming is not allowed in the river near the falls, but numerous fatalities have still occurred in the area.

After finishing our hiking for the day, we retreated back to our cabin at the Pineola so we could get showered and dressed for dinner.  We decided to go fancy for our last evening in the area, and enjoyed a fabulous dinner at the Storie Street Grille in Blowing Rock, NC.  In addition to lovely outdoor patio seating, hey had a great wine line, beautifully prepared entrees, and amazing desserts.  Even though I’d already had pie a la mode earlier in the day, I could not pass up their dark chocolate – coconut bread pudding.  Adam’s banana creme brulee was equally delicious.  It was a fitting end to a fabulous trip!

Our next post will actually be a Virginia hike – shocking!  But then we’ll be going back to some more out-of-state posts.  We’re headed for the White Mountains of New Hampshire in a couple weeks, and are hoping to bring back at least a couple posts from that area.  Stay tuned!

Trail Notes

  • Distance – 3.65 miles
    (Check out the stats from Map My Hike)*
  • Elevation Change – 350 ft.
  • Difficulty –  1.  The trail does have a little climbing up and down on the trail, but most people should be able to do it without too much trouble.  We saw people of all ages and all levels of fitness on the trail, so it should be doable by anyone willing.  The options for different viewpoints allow for people to choose what they can handle and decide when to stop.
  • Trail Conditions – 4.5.  Most of the trail is either gravel or dirt and is well-worn.
  • Views – 4.  Great views of the gorge and waterfalls.
  • Streams/Waterfalls – 5.  There are many viewpoints to see the waterfalls.  The only challenge will be to enjoy it with few others around.
  • Wildlife – 1.  You may see squirrels and some birds flying around, but it would be unlikely to see much else.
  • Ease to Navigate – 4.   There is a large branching of side trails here, but using the map should guide you along.
  • Solitude – 0.  With such a close proximity to the Blue Ridge Parkway along with the ease of difficulty, this hike is crowded. 

Directions to trailhead:  From US 221, turn on to NC 183.  In .7 miles, turn right on to Wisemans View Road at the large curve.  The parking lot is a short distance on the left and the trail starts from the eastern side of the parking lot.

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

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.

Alum Cave to Mount LeConte (TN)

Special: Smokies Edition

Introductory Guide to Visiting Great Smoky Mountains National Park

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

View the full album of photos from this hike

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

Pretty Stream Open Views LeConte Llamas

Adam Says…

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

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

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

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

Rooty Trail Christine Crossing Hiking with Crowds

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

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

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

Beautiful, rugged Smokies

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

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

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

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

Cable Assist Narrow Trail Nearing the Summit

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

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

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

Christine Says…

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

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

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

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

Arriving Obligatory Pose Bag Lunch

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

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

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

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

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

Leaving the Lodge Huge Fallen Tree  Steep Going Down

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Climbing Down Through the Arch Painted Trillium Pretty Stream

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

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

Trail Notes

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

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

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

Kephart Prong (NC)

Special: Smokies Edition

Introductory Guide to Visiting Great Smoky Mountains National Park

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

View the full album of photos from this hike

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

Trailhead Oconaluftee River Mushrooms and Mosses

Christine Says…

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

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

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

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

CCC Camp Ruins Railroad Parts Mossy Bridge

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

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

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

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

Adam Says…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Carolina 'Cue

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

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

Trail Notes

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

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

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

Deep Creek Area Waterfall Loop (NC)

Special: Smokies Edition

Introductory Guide to Visiting Great Smoky Mountains National Park

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

View the full album of photos from this hike

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

Toms Branch Falls Horseback Riders
Tubers Christine on Deep Creek

Adam Says…

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

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

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

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

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

Pink Lady Slipper Climbing the Trail

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

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

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

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

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

Butterflies on Manure Deep Creek Loop Trail

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

Christine Says…

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

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

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

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

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

Adam at Juney Whank Juney Whank Juney Whank

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Trail Notes

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

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

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