We exit Long Bunk Trail in the center of a wide gravel road that serves as the Little Cataloochee Trail for half its length. To complete the entire trail, I need to turn left, walk 1.2 miles to the Mt. Sterling Road, and return. The guidebook elevation profile barely budges off the 3,000 foot mark for this section. Clarence walks with me, but Mary elects to amble the other direction and wait for us at the church. Before long, Clarence and I know why! That road is like a roller coaster. We’re huffing and puffing and sweating. At least we don’t have to watch our feet. The smooth gravel is otherwise easy to navigate.
In less than an hour, we have covered the 2.4 miles and move on up the trail. There is plenty of natural history along Little Cataloochee, but the main focus is the cultural history of settlers in this valley. Stone walls, restored cabins, cemeteries, a church, remains of farm buildings, and the occasional artifact (like rusted wash tubs) tell of the small but thriving community that lived here a century ago.
The trails guidebook provides an interesting overview of the area’s history. Settlement in Cataloochee Valley began in the 1830s, and a generation later, the children of these first residents, established their own homesteads in Little Cataloochee. Dan Cook, a carpenter of some skill, built his home there in the late 1850s. His daughter Rachel married Will Messer. Will bought 100 acres on the creek and started his own tiny community, Ola (after his daughter Viola), building a general store, blacksmith shop, and a post office. He built an eleven-room house with hot and cold water and acetylene lights. His barn has been restored and moved to the ranger station on Cataloochee Road.
The Hannah family lived in Little Cataloochee, and the John Jackson Hannah Cabin (built in 1864) is a short walk off the main trail. It was restored more than 30 years ago using period tools and techniques and features an uncommon brick chimney and wide puncheon floorboards. The first thing I notice, however, is the Slender Ladies’ Tresses (Spiranthes lacera var. gracilis) flowering in the cabin’s front lawn.
We meet Mary at the Little Cataloochee Baptist Church where she has been enjoying the shade and cool breezes on the picnic tables out back. The church was built in 1889 as a collective project by area residents including Will Messer. It is a fine building with a working steeple bell that Mary and I both ring. In front of the church to the left is a small cemetery.
The wide gravel road ends at the Dan Cook Cabin. Damaged by vandals in the mid 1970s, the park service reconstructed the cabin in 1999 using some of the original materials. Just across the road are partial walls of a stone apple house. Various plants — ferns, asters, even a small rhododendron — grow from the rock crevices.
From here the trail becomes an overgrown roadway with a narrow rocky path in the middle, and it begins the steep climb to Davidson Gap. Sweating and in dire need of a breather, the three of us rest on logs at the gap. The trip down does not seem quite as steep as the elevation profile would suggest. Near the bottom, there are many shallow stream crossings, and in places the trail more closely resembles a rocky stream bed.
I find these unusual white masses growing in globular clumps on two old stumps near one stream crossing. It is difficult to pull a small piece off to examine, and it appears to be nothing more than a dense mat of white fibers. These fibers collect into tufts with a drop of orange goo at the tip. It’s been a long day, and I don’t take enough time to note fine details thinking this would be easy to identify. Not so. My first assumption is a fungus or maybe slime mold, but I can find nothing remotely similar to it. It most closely resembles the Wool Sower Gall Clarence and I found on Rich Mountain Loop last year, but there are many major differences. Could it be another gall of some kind? I’ve got the pictures out to friends in hopes of finding an answer. If anyone recognizes it, please let me know!
I do recognize Spikenard (Aralia racemosa) setting fruit on Little Cataloochee, and it is maturing in a spectacular show of reddish-purple berries along the short section of Pretty Hollow Gap near the horse camp. As we pass the camp, we see turkeys and a female elk quietly grazing near several horses tethered to a hitch. The animals are at ease with one another and, except for one slightly skittish horse, don’t seem to mind a hiker taking their picture. Driving out of the valley, we see two male elk enjoying a quiet evening in the fenced pasture of the Messer Barn. My old friend No. 17 sits regally in the back near the tree line. No. 2, oblivious to a dried section of vine dangling from his antlers, relaxes calmly in front and listens to park volunteers tell visitors his story.