Those little Quiet Walkway signs on US 441 and Little River Road, each like the next, are so easy to confuse and conflate. I have never been able to ascertain just how many there are, much less where they go, how long each is, what’s to be seen, or why anyone would bother. Positioned on busy park roads, these nameless stops aren’t tempting enough to warrant pulling off in traffic. They aren’t established trails as such, don’t appear on park maps, aren’t detailed in any brochure I’ve found, and aren’t necessary for the 900 Club (at least I don’t think so). The only one I’ve hiked is across from Huskey Gap on 441 as part of the Spring Wildflower Pilgrimage. It’s a decent one-mile loop with interesting plants and good parking. The rest get a dismissive pass.
This is an elitist attitude unworthy of a true Smokies lover. If my goal is a thorough exploration of this park, these paths are as much a part of it as Alum Cave Trail. It is high time I hike the Quiet Walkways.
My shutdown-shortened October trip provides an opportunity to examine these unassuming and overlooked paths. To that list of qualifiers, it will soon become necessary to add ‘underestimated.’ Recalling two QWs on 441 and counting three on Little River, I hike and photograph these before returning home. Back in Nashville, I make a startling discovery.
First, each QW features a small square sign at the start stating, “A short walk on this easy trail offers close-up views, subtle aromas, and the serene quiet of a protected woodland. You will be walking in one of the last great wildland areas in the East, but you won’t need a backpack or hiking boots. Take your time. Have a seat on a rock or a log bench. The trail has no particular destination, so walk as far as you like and then return. Great Smoky Mountains National Park.”
At the end of Tremont Road starting my Lynn Camp Prong & Panther Creek hike, I had noticed one of these signs on the left side of Middle Prong Trail just past the bridge. Since Middle Prong is so wide and gently graded, it may often be used by people who don’t want to walk very far. There are benches along Middle Prong. I assume the park had made it a de facto QW.
While writing my Lynn Camp post, I consult National Geographic’s Trails Illustrated Map for Cades Cove and Elkmont. It is larger scaled and covers only the western end of the park. I am surprised to see a little hiker icon and “Thunderhead Prong Quiet Walkway” printed near the start of Middle Prong but attached to a dotted trail splitting to the right.
I’ve hiked this side trail on several occasions (Pilgrimage fungi walk and naturalist classes at Tremont) and always considered it to be a manway. In fact, it has been referred to as Sam’s Creek manway. My Tremont aquatic ecology class hiked to its end at thundering Thunderhead Prong to examine a third order stream.
Well, if this QW is noted on this map, are the others? They are indeed, with names and mileages! After consulting the companion Clingmans Dome/Cataloochee map for the eastern end of the park, I find there are several more. Instead of two QWs on 441, there are nine — four on the Tennessee side and five in North Carolina. In all, there are 14 Quiet Walkways in the park, six in North Carolina (another off Lakeview Drive) and eight in Tennessee (four 441, three Little River, one Tremont). They only appear on these half park National Geographic maps, not NG’s full park map.
After the orienteering class Saturday afternoon, I hit the three QWs on Little River Rd. The first one is 0.8 mile past Sugarlands Visitor Center on the left — Big White Oak Quiet Walkway, a half-mile loop. From the pull off, the trail drops to a long footbridge over Fighting Creek and turns left, rounding the base of a foothill from Sugarland Mountain to run alongside and cross Spring Branch four times. This area has little to no elevation change.
Past the first Spring Branch crossing, the trail accompanies the tiny creek straight back into the woods then stops abruptly, making a sharp right to double dip the branch and a ditch. It continues along the opposite side of the branch then angles right to skirt the base on another foothill and begin the loop back through tall thin tulip poplars. Since I wasn’t aware of its name during the hike, I did not know to look for a “Big White Oak” and did not notice one either.
The trail dips down to cross Spring Branch again and pop through thick Rhododendron lining the creek. At this point it rejoins itself. A left turn takes you back to the first Spring Branch crossing and the Fighting Creek bridge.
The second QW is Hickory Flats Quiet Walkway just a half mile beyond Big White Oak on the right. One of the main water courses draining Cove Mountain is Hickory Flats Branch. This and several smaller ones, like Bill Deadening Branch and Whistlepig Branch, feed into Fighting Creek before it joins the West Prong of the Little Pigeon River flowing through Gatlinburg.
The trail heads straight back from the road about a hundred yards or so, hops a tiny creek, and comes to a four-way crossing. The paths straight ahead and on the left show greater wear than the one on the right. I walk straight ahead.
The trail curves left and becomes rutted and eroded during a short but steep climb. A cemetery occupies a tiny rectangle of flat land at the top. Listed by the park as the Fighting Creek Cemetery, other sites claim it is the William Stinnett cemetery. There are several Stinnetts buried here along with Bohanan, Maples, Bradley, and Ownby. The trail circles back down to the four-way intersection, less than 0.2 mile altogether.
I walk straight again, this time on the less traveled path. The cemetery might account for the worn look of the circular path, but the overgrown and blown down aspect of this path certainly discourages casual walkers. The map shows Hickory Flats QW as a one-way, 0.3 mile trail to Hickory Flats Branch. I rock hop pretty Whistlepig Branch and encounter a large downed tree that provides most people an excellent reason to turn around. I can see the trail on the other side and climb over the trunk to follow. It joins an old roadbed with stone walls flanking either side, but saplings and broken branches give this QW an abandoned air.
At a small opening where herbaceous plants have eagerly claimed the sunlight and tower overhead, the trail becomes a thin slit through vegetation and begins working its way down to Hickory Flats Branch. The path dissolves before reaching the creek, appearing to end at the broken remnants of an old wash tub.
The final QW on Little River Road is less than a mile past Laurel Falls, 4.3 miles from Sugarlands Visitor Center, and is called the Laurel Falls Quiet Walkway, a tiny 0.3 mile loop. The trail is well marked and flanked by short grasses (likely sedges). It crosses one small creek and turns right to climb gently upstream next to Laurel Branch.
The trail comes to a halt and turns back sharply on itself to the right. Then things get tricky. The area opens a bit, but the trail seems to vanish. I explore several possible options that don’t go anywhere. However, there is a very large rock cairn stuck in the middle. Walking a short distance past it, I see a path just downslope. It goes both left and right. Following it to the left, I’m taken to a dead end at the creek. To the right, it circles around to the original trail, passing under a large downed maple bole.
I suppose the purpose of the cairn (barely visible in the woods from the downhill trail section) is to signal hikers from either end to the remainder of the loop. I imagine most people simply treat each path as a one-way hike and the low maple tree probably deters many from following that leg.
These short Quiet Walkways really do take visitors into the serene woodland without strenuous effort, providing a brief taste of these beautiful mountains, and during at least part of each hike, getting far enough from the road to experience a little quiet — maybe not Appalachian Trail quiet, but close enough.
More QWs in future posts.