December 8, 2009 – It had rained and constantly threatened more. The drive up was mostly drizzle, and upon arrival at Sugarlands Visitors Center, the sun popped out to greet me. A good sign for the official kickoff! The Gatlinburg Trail is perhaps the easiest trail in the park, running 1.9 miles from Sugarlands to the commercial edge of Gatlinburg. Locals use the trail to jog and walk their dogs. This and the Oconaluftee River Trail are the only two trails in the park where pets are allowed.
The Gatlinburg Trail is pavement for nearly a half mile winding through park headquarters and maintenance areas. Then it veers right into the woods alongside the West Prong of the Little Pigeon River. Here the trail remains wide and smooth, gently undulating on its overall downhill trajectory of less than 200 ft. elevation. There is nothing to trip over (barring downed limbs or trees, which are quickly cleared), and no rocks makes it very easy on the feet. Don’t let the lack of a hiking challenge impugn this trail. It presents a microcosm of the park – a lovely wooded walk next to the river, full of history (stone chimneys and foundations from early settlers), and a delightfully diverse assemblage of woody plants. I spotted several this day and walked it again a few days later with a tree expert who pointed out many more. My list contains 46 species of trees, shrubs, and woody vines growing along that simple 2 mile stretch! Mountain Camellia (Stewartia ovata) and Butternut (Juglans cinerea) are two pleasant surprises. No doubt there are more.
The spring and summer herbaceous flora may be equally impressive. On this very late fall day you could see Christmas Fern, Fancy Fern, Resurrection Fern, Grapefern, Heartleaf Ginger (Little Brown Jugs), Wood Betony, Partridgeberry, Pipsissewa, Two-leaved Toothwort, and the dying remains of Elephant’s Foot and various Asters and Goldenrods. With all the rain in 2009, hummocks of rich, verdant mosses were apparent everywhere in the spare winter understory.
Normally an active trail, few people were out this afternoon. The quiet walk back to Sugarlands was invigorating, a fabulous start for the journey.