I never got around to writing the account of my hike on Cove Mountain Trail before the Pilgrimage and am picking it up here a bit out of order. It is the last day of my March trip. Clarence and I have debated which trail to tackle for our final hike – Cove Mountain or Lower Mt. Cammerer. The temperature will be higher today, and I want to test my stamina hiking uphill in warmer conditions. The profile of Cove Mountain suggests it as the best option.
From its trailhead on the road behind Park Headquarters at Sugarlands, Cove Mountain offers a steady climb of 2,650 feet (1450 to 4100) over 8.5 miles to the summit of said mountain and the old fire tower repurposed as an air quality monitoring station. While I am hoping for a challenge today, a heart pumping workout uphill to reveal any potential flaws before our AT hike in May, what I get is a relatively tame trek that barely breaks a sweat. Either the Little Brown Book’s profiles are much tougher looking condensed on the page, or I have become a better, stronger hiker. It’s probably both. Divided out by miles, the average elevation gain per mile on this trail is just 312 feet. There are sections twice that steep, but they pose no difficulty. I’ll take this as a sign of my improved conditioning.
The trail meanders through a flat area at the start passing the base of Cataract Falls within the first 0.2 mile. Cataract Branch drains a narrow valley below the hilariously named Holy Butt, more on that later, and spills over a rocky cascade before joining Fighting Creek and merging immediately into Little Pigeon River’s West Prong. Waterfalls of the Smokies says Cataract Falls is 40 feet tall. The Little Brown Book says 12 feet. Given what is visible from the trail, the smaller number seems far more accurate, but there may be a long run of cascading water above this.
The first 1.5 miles of Cove Mountain Trail head north toward Gatlinburg and the park boundary. Once there, it hangs a left and continues west for seven miles to the monitoring station, hugging the park’s northern edge. At times, the trail is so close to magnificent homes, you could conduct a casual conversation with owners relaxing on their back decks without raising your voice.
So what’s the story behind Holy Butt? There is a creek just outside the park called Holy Branch. Both the Butt and Branch at one time had the first name Holly after the evergreen tree. According to Place Names of the Smokies, a resident named Aunt Lydia dropped an ‘l’ and christened the Branch as Holy. The Butt followed suit. Holy Butt is a small knob just under 3,000 feet. The boundary trail continues past Mt. Harrison (3,510 feet) and a spot called Phil’s View (3,883 feet).
I don’t think I’ve hiked on a more foot-friendly trail in the Smokies. The path is wide and smooth and for long stretches is carpeted in a soft mat of cushy grasses. Obviously this trail does not receive the level of use others do, perhaps because of its length or the perceived steepness. We saw only a few fellow hikers on this lovely spring day during spring break week.
Given the incredible March weather, April wildflowers are uncharacteristically in their prime a good three weeks early. Crested Iris, Robin’s Plantain, and Bluets are lovely. I am excited to discover a patch of Birdfoot Violet (Viola pedata) in the middle of the trail with large, purple flowers.
The last couple of miles parallel old roadways just outside the boundary, and near the trail’s end, the station’s current access road is clearly visible. There are a two old fence posts with braided wire to either side of the trail that appear to have functioned as a gate long ago.
Clarence and I visited the monitoring station earlier in the year when we hiked up Laurel Falls Trail on a gorgeous February day. We skip the tower this trip and make quick work of a hike down Laurel Falls to my car.