Azaleas Atop Gregory Bald

Gregory Bald (TN)

Special: Smokies Edition

Introductory Guide to Visiting Great Smoky Mountains National Park Area

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

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

View the Full Album of Photos From This Hike

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

Christine Says…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Snail Rattlesnake Stream

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

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

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

Adam Says…

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

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

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

Sheep Pen Gap Arriving at Gregory Bald Views from Gregory Bald

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Horse Camping Rhodie Tunnel Horses Going Uphill

Trail Notes

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

Download a Trail Map (PDF)

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

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

Porters Creek to Fern Branch Falls (TN)

Special: Smokies Edition

Introductory Guide to Visiting Great Smoky Mountains National Park

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

View the Full Album of Photos From This Hike

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

Porters Creek Tall Trees Messer Barn

Christine Says…

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

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

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

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

Trailhead Porters Creek from Above Old Stone Wall

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

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

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

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

Ownby Cemetery Junction Pretty Porters Creek

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

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

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

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

Adam Says…

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

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

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

Crooked Foot Log Wildflowers Fern Branch Falls

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

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

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

Crossing Messer Barn Inside the Hiking Club

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

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

Trail Notes

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

Download a Trail Map (PDF)

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

Rich Mountain Loop (TN)

Special: Smokies Edition

Introductory Guide to Visiting Great Smoky Mountains National Park

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

View the Full Album of Photos From This Hike

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

Adam Says…

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

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

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

Trailhead Meadow View Stream Crossing

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

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

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

Eroded Trail Ridgewalking Cute Toad

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

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

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

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

Christine Says…

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

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

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

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

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

Trail Junction Flame Azalea Mountain Laurel

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

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

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

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

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

Warbler Descent Woods

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

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

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

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

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

Trail Notes

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

Download a Trail Map (PDF)

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

Roan Mountain (TN)

Tennessee Hikes

This might be one of the most beautiful view hikes we’ve done in the Appalachians!  The moderate 5.1-mile climb along a smooth, easy trail takes you over three lofty balds that will make you feel on top of the world!

View the full album of photos from this hike

Roan Views
The views on the Roan Mountain hike are amazing! There are open views of the mountains in every direction. Not many mountains in the area are as tall as Roan, so you’ll feel on top of the world this entire hike. If you look closely at this photo, you can see the Appalachian Trail meandering across ridgeline off in the distance. Below: Carvers Gap is on the Tennesse-North Carolina state line; Adam passes through one of the only tree-covered parts of the hike.

Carvers Gap Thick Pines

Christine Says…

After five exciting, action-packed days in the Smokies, it was time to move on to the third stop on our Southern Appalachians tour.  We took our time leaving Gatlinburg.  We bought more donuts from The Donut Friar (yay!) and did some laundry at the hotel (boo!).  It’s no fun doing laundry on vacation – but five days of hiking creates quite a large heap of dirty clothes. After checking out, we meandered through Pigeon Forge.  That town is loaded with crazy tourist attractions.  I saw the Titanic, King Kong, an upside down building and even fed grapes and Milkbones to a trio of black bears (yes… it was safe and legal). [See a few amusing photos of Pigeon Forge] We even stopped at Wal-Mart to pick up extra memory cards for the camera.  This turned out to be one of the wisest decisions on the trip – more about that later!

By 11:00 we were cruising along, headed in the direction of Roan Mountain.  I’d long heard tales about the mountain’s famous balds and stellar views, and was so excited to finally have a chance to see for myself.

We finally got to Roan Mountain around 1:30 in the afternoon.  Our hike started off at Carvers Gap, straddling the North Carolina/Tennessee line at 5,512 feet.  Even from the parking lot, I could tell that this was going to be a special hike.  First of all, we had amazing weather!   Lower elevations were hot and sunny (mid-90’s back home in Virginia!), but Roan Mountain was sitting in the low 70’s with a pleasant breeze, brilliant blue skies, and puffy clouds.  It was truly perfect hiking weather.  Second of all, the view from Carvers Gap was lovely – hinting at the amazing vistas yet to come.

I put on a hat and lots of sunscreen, packed snacks and filled my CamelBak.  As it turns out, I missed a large spot on my shoulder with the sunscreen, and ended up with an incredibly stupid-looking sunburn for the remainder of the trip.

Awesome Roan Views
Christine takes in spectacular mountain views. Below: A photo similar to this, but including colorful Catawba rhododendrons was recently featured in Backpacker Magazine; Funny portrayal of an AT Thru-Hiker on the sign.

Backpacker Mag Photo Funny Sign

The hike climbs uphill from the parking lot, following the Appalachian Trail, before quickly entering a thick stand of evergreens.  This small patch of forest is one of the only spots on the hike that does not have a 360 degree panoramic view.  Once you clear these trees, the remainder of the hike is a spectacular, mile-high stroll along one of the most beautiful view trails I’ve ever seen.  Photos don’t come close to capturing how breathtaking views are along this stretch of trail.  If I’ve ever been any place that inspired me to have a Julie Andrew’s moment (you know… the opening scenes of the Sound of Music where she’s twirling around singing ‘The Hills are Alive’) – this was the place.  Of course, I didn’t actually do that, because truth be told, I don’t like musicals.  But, I kind of understand the urge to burst into song when I see someplace this beautiful!

The first bald you come to is Round Bald at 5,826 feet.  The views were wonderful, and I loved seeing the Appalachian Trail winding like a ribbon across the balds in the distance.  From Round Bald, we descended into a small gap before climbing right back up to the summit of Jane Bald at 5,807 feet.

On Jane Bald I recognized a spot that had recently been featured in a photograph in Backpacker magazine.  I took my own, less exciting version of the shot.  Why less exciting, you ask?  Well, in addition to being famous for balds and view, Roan Mountain is also famous for its dramatic Catawba Rhododendron bloom.  The mountain is home to the world’s largest natural rhododendron garden.  Roan Mountain State Park even holds a festival every June to celebrate the peak color.  Many of the most memorable photos of Roan Mountain include the famous rhododendrons, including the one I had spotted in the magazine.  Our hike took place a couple weeks before the bloom began, so while we missed the color, we benefited from lower traffic on the trail.  I’ve heard Roan Mountain is crawling with crowds at bloom time!

After enjoying the views from Jane Bald, we descended again to a split in the trail.  To the left, the Appalachian Trail continues, to the right a park trail continues to the third, and highest/largest of the three balds – Grassy Ridge Bald.  There was a funny, hand-drawn illustration of a thru-hiker on the trail junction sign.  I wonder if it was drawn by a thru-hiker or someone who was simply familiar with standard thru-hiker smells.

The climb to Grassy Ridge Bald (6,189 feet) is the only significant ascent on the hike.  An elevation gain of about 500 feet leads you a large grassy bald dotted with rocks. Adam did some hunting for geocaches, while I found the perfect rock perch for eating cookies.  I still had a pack of Oreos that had been part of my LeConte bagged lunch.  They were a nice treat to enjoy in such a beautiful place!

We spent a lot of time on Grassy Ridge enjoying the views and chatting with a local teacher we met at the summit.  He shared tales of running whitewater in the Smokies and hiking Half Dome in Yosemite.  He also told us a bit about how the balds are maintained.  Apparently, Roan Mountain uses a combination of mower and goat grazing to keep the balds cleared. I was hoping we’d spot the goats, but we never did.

As late afternoon approached, we slowly made our way back down the trail.  The light was so beautiful on the mountains!  I still can’t believe how many ridges and layers of mountains we could see from the trail.  We recognized Mt. Mitchell by its height and Grandfather Mountain by its shape.

The walk back to the car went by way too fast for my liking!  As soon as we were back I told Adam, ‘I want to hike it again!’  And, I’m certain we will – Roan Mountain was far too perfect to visit just once.

Enjoying Grassy Ridge
Grassy ridge offered plenty of rocks to sit on while enjoying the views. Below: Adam checks out the Peake Memorial; Walking along wide, open trail!

Peake Memorial Top of the World

After leaving Roan Mountain, we had a fairly short drive to our lodgings in Pineola, NC.  We decided to stay in the same log cabin at the Pineola Inn that we rented when we visited the Linville area last fall. It’s such a nice, cozy place to stay in that area.

We grabbed some dinner at Nick’s in Banner Elk and then settled in for the evening.  Right after I downloaded my photos from the day, the screen of my laptop went black. As it turned out, the hard drive on my MacBook Pro chose the middle of vacation to call it quits.  Thank goodness I had picked up that extra memory card before starting the Roan Mountain hike!  If I hadn’t, I would have erased memory cards from earlier hikes and ended up losing files for good.   I am so glad that didn’t happen!

Adam Says…

This has been one of my favorite hikes of recent memory.  And that is saying a lot just coming from the Smokies.  As I was waiting for Christine to get started, I was looking up the hillside and knew we were in for an amazing trip.

We crossed the road and went through the fence opening to start our hike.  The hike climbs along the Appalachian Trail through an open area and then ducks quickly into a small grove of woods.  Once you emerge out of the dense trees, the hiking is on open ground.  It was just a few minutes along this trail that I proclaimed to Christine that this may be the best views I’ve ever had on a hike.  It took her a little longer to admit the same thing, but soon she agreed.  The views were all around us and in every direction you could see miles of layered mountain ridges.   Since this hike straddles the border between North Carolina and Tennessee, I could see both states wanting to claim this hike for their own.  About .5 miles along the hike, you arrive at the summit of the first bald, Round Bald.  The views were great from here, but we knew we were just getting started.

Hiking Back
The hike back was so pretty… nothing like late afternoon light on mountains! Below: Taking in some final views; Dense rhododendron.

Super Views Rhodies

We continued along the trail, which descended through a clear path and ascended again when we reached Jane Bald at 1.3 miles.  The views continued to be amazing from near the summit of Jane Bald.  The trail then continues to climb as you are making your way to Grassy Ridge.  At 1.9 miles, you reach a junction – the left continues the Appalachian Trail, but take the right branch to reach the summit of the Grassy Ridge Bald.  The trail cuts through a thick area of rhododendron before emerging to the larger bald area at 2.5 miles.  At the summit of this bald, you’ll see a large rock that has a bronze plaque dedicated to Cornelius Rex Peake, who was a high-country farmer of this area.  What a nice tribute at such a scenic spot.

This is a place that you will want to spend some time.  The breathtaking views are in every direction and you will want to explore around the balds to take in views from a slightly different angle. Christine’s dad likes to sit and take in views for longer than we do.  We know we would literally need to drag him away from here if he visited or he would stay up here for days.  Head back the way that you came to reach your car in 5.1 miles.

If you enjoy geocaching, there are two that you can find on the trail – Zelda’s Double Blaze Treasure and Roan’s Revenge.  Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to claim either one after hunting a while, but hopefully they are being maintained.

We headed back down because of the time of day and wanted to make it to check into the Pineola Inn.  If you have a chance to visit this area, this is a great place to stay.  I know we are already getting excited about the next time we will come back here.  This is a place that you’ll want to visit more than once.

Trail Notes

  • Distance5.1 miles
    (Check out the stats from MapMyHike)*
  • Elevation Change – About 1150 ft.
  • Difficulty –  2.  The climbing on this hike was relatively gradual and gentle.
  • Trail Conditions – 4.  Very nice – well traveled and smooth.
  • Views – 5+.  Maybe the best views Virginia Trail Guide has ever seen
  • Streams/Waterfalls – 0.  None.
  • Wildlife – 1.  We didn’t really see anything beyond birds.
  • Ease to Navigate – 4.  Good signage at the one trail junction.  Each bald is marked.
  • Solitude – 2.  We saw a fair number of people, but I gather this was a lighter than usual crowd for Roan Mountain.

Directions to trailhead:  From Roan Mountain, TN (located on US-19E), head south on TN-143.  Go for 12.6 miles until you reach the top of the mountain and the parking lot for Carver’s Gap.  You should see a “Welcome to North Carolina” sign nearby.  Park in the lot on the right side of the road.  Cross the road and go through the fence opening to start your hike heading north on the Appalachian Trail.

* 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.

Silers Bald (NC)

Special: Smokies Edition

Introductory Guide to Visiting Great Smoky Mountains National Park

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

View the full album of photos from this hike

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

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

Christine Says…

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

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

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

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

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

Moss Flowering Tree Wildflowers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Double Springs Log Book

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

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

Adam Says…

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

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

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

First Views Forest Change Another Look at the Bald

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

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

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

Silers Shelter Lots of Clumbing

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

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

Back at the Tower Views from the Tower

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

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

Trail Notes

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

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

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

Alum Cave to Mount LeConte (TN)

Special: Smokies Edition

Introductory Guide to Visiting Great Smoky Mountains National Park

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

View the full album of photos from this hike

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

Pretty Stream Open Views LeConte Llamas

Adam Says…

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

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

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

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

Rooty Trail Christine Crossing Hiking with Crowds

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

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

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

Beautiful, rugged Smokies

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

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

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

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

Cable Assist Narrow Trail Nearing the Summit

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

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

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

Christine Says…

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

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

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

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

Arriving Obligatory Pose Bag Lunch

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

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

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

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

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

Leaving the Lodge Huge Fallen Tree  Steep Going Down

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Climbing Down Through the Arch Painted Trillium Pretty Stream

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

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

Trail Notes

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

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

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

Cades Cove Loop by Bike (TN)

Special: Smokies Edition

Introductory Guide to Visiting Great Smoky Mountains National Park

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

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

Horses Headed In Homestead

Christine Says…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Alright…  let’s go do this thing!’

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

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

Ted Christine Biking Running Deer

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

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

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

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

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

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

Church Another Church Wild Hog Trap

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

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

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

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

Adam Says…

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

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

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

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

Peril Cabin Another Cabin

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

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

Pretty Meadow View Christine and Her Rented Bike

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

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

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

Trail Notes

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

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

Chimney Tops (TN)

Special: Smokies Edition

Introductory Guide to Visiting Great Smoky Mountains National Park

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

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

Crowded Lot Trails Forever Initiative Bridge Over the River

Adam Says…

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

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

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

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

Tiny Waterfall A Newt Rocky Trail to Chimney Tops

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

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

Christine Says…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Trail Notes

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

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

Laurel Falls (TN)

Special: Smokies Edition

Introductory Guide to Visiting Great Smoky Mountains National Park

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

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

Christine Says…

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

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

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

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

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

Pancake Pantry

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

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

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

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

Adam Says…

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

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

Laurel Falls and Christine

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

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

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

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

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

Trail Notes

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

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