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.