Loop trails are few and far between in the Smokies, but three small trails on Rich Mountain can be linked for a 8.6 or 10.8 mile day hike. Combining Rich Mountain Loop Trail (3.3 miles), Indian Grave Gap Trail (2.6 + 2.2 if the spur to the road is included), and Crooked Arm Ridge Trail (2.2 + 0.5 to Cades Cove Rd) creates a very pleasant day hike with interesting plants and scenic views of the cove. Before 8:00 a.m. on Monday, Clarence and I meet at the Cades Cove parking lot to do just that.
Rich Mountain Loop Trail — For the first mile and a half, Rich Mountain Loop Trail meanders along the floor of the cove crossing various stream branches and passes the John Oliver cabin. Lining this lower section of the trail in huge numbers is Miami Mist (Phacelia purshii), another annual fringed phacelia that is blue. It is just reaching its peak. Large, individual Mountain Laurels in full flower rise above the herbaceous plants in this flat section and demonstrate the beautifully gnarled form these shrubs can acquire given room and time. Since they are rarely seen in a setting like this, they must have been planted by cove residents many, many years ago.
A new plant for me along this trail is Cow Wheat (Melampyrum lineare) sporting a pair of white flowers with yellow lips in the leaf joints. Several plants in the Heath Family are flowering now including Woolly Blueberry (Vaccinium hirsutum) and Deerberry (Vaccinium stamineum). Bear Huckleberry (Gaylussacia ursina) is forming fruit. Flip over a leaf of Bear Huckleberry and closely examine the underside (a hand lens helps) to find bright gold scales that glint in sunlight like the real thing.
Since Clarence and I just completed the Birds class at Tremont, our ears are tuned to the feathered chorus about us. Before we hit the trail in the parking lot we see a Pileated Woodpecker take flight from a fence post and hear them drumming on trees throughout the day. We easily pick out the songs of Eastern Peewee, Red-eyed Vireo, Wood Thrush, and Black-throated Green Warbler. Our cool bird prize of the day goes to the Worm-eating Warbler. We hear his buzzy trill and spy him on a branch nearly even with the trail. He sits still and sings his heart out as we note his buff colored breast, short tail, and bright yellow-and-black-striped head.
The second half of Rich Mountain Loop Trail climbs 1400 feet to the junction with Indian Grave Gap Trail. Clarence and I take a brief break there. To the left, IGGT heads down 750’ to Rich Mountain Road for 1.1 miles. To the right, it climbs up along the crest of Rich Mountain and down to the junction with Scott Mountain and Crooked Arm Ridge Trails for 2.6 miles. It is another perfect hiking day – cool temperatures with mix of sun and clouds and a nice breeze, so we decide to do all of IGGT and head down to Rich Mountain Road after our break.
Indian Grave Gap Trail — It takes us an hour to hike down 1.1 miles, primarily because I am stopping every three feet to note another plant. The upper half mile just before the Rich Mountain Loop junction is incredibly…well, rich!! All kinds of spring, summer, and fall wildflowers and ferns clothe the forest floor. In June that section will be spectacular when all the Black Cohosh (Cimicifuga racemosa) flowers. Several clumps of Appalachian Bunchflower (Melanthium parviflorum) with its pleated foliage are poised to flower in August. The fruit of Spikenard (Aralia racemosa) will be showy in September. Further down a large chunk of the understory appears to be nothing but Sweetshrub (Calycanthus floridus), and Woolly Blueberry lines a dry rocky stretch of open trail.
Ironically, the return trip up takes just half the time, and we continue on IGGT along the crest of Rich Mountain. A short spur trail takes us to the former site of the fire tower where we have lunch. Flame Azaleas are in full flower, and we see fresh clumps of Squawroot. There are excellent views of Tuckaleechee Cove.
Crooked Arm Ridge Trail — At the final trail leg, we begin a serious descent. Crooked Arm is a good name for this narrow, rutted, switchbacked trail. We are fortunate to hike it in dry weather. Rain would quickly turn it to sloppy, slippery mud. However, there are nice flowers along the trail including Four-leaved Milkweed, Eastern Gray Beard-tongue, Cateby’s Trillium, Yellow Star Grass, Small’s Ragwort, Meadow Parsnip, and Maple-leaved Viburnum. At the bottom is a large sweep of Miami Mist, and we finish as we began arriving at the Cades Cove parking area.