I’ve hiked Cucumber Gap Trail on several occasions — pilgrimage hikes, fern forays, and solo hikes, completing it three times before the official start of my 900 Mile Club quest. Today’s hike is for the record book. I arrive at Elkmont Campground about noon, set up my new four-person tent (luxury!), and eat lunch. The weather is typical for summer in the Smokies — clouds, sun, and distant thunder. My campsite is on the far side of Little River, and I can quickly access Little River and Jakes Creek trailheads via a short path across from site N4. The plan is to see the Avent Cabin off Jakes Creek first, then hike Cucumber Gap and return on Little River Trail.
At the Cucumber Gap junction after my cabin visit, deep gray clouds obscure the sky and thunder is closing in from the west. The forest is so dark, lightning brightens the understory, and photography without flash is almost impossible. The storm’s extended prelude gets me thinking it’s going to be “all show and no go.” A slight rain begins to fall as the thunder fades, yet I hike for some time without getting wet. Raindrops finally filter through the canopy necessitating an umbrella.
Miry Ridge Trail extends from the Smokies Crest in a wide sweeping curve heading northeast, then north, and finally west over Dripping Spring Mountain. It looks a bit like a question mark on the map. Where that trail begins its turn west, another ridge called Bent Arm strikes a due northeast course for 1.3 miles then crooks northward at a 4,726-foot elevation peak and descends to Cucumber Gap. Bent Arm and its spread of finger ridges fan into a wide arc that drains into Goshen Prong, Huskey Branch, Jakes Creek and other feeder streams reaching Little River. Cucumber Gap Trail follows the northern end of that arc through the low gap between Bent Arm and Burnt Mountain (3,373). That short mountain and two other small hills occupy a skinny triangle of land that separate the gap from Little River.
Cucumber Gap Trail is 2.4 miles long, rises 500 feet in the first mile (from Jakes Creek Trail) to 3,000 feet and makes a gradual descent to its junction (2,550) with Little River Trail. The three-trail combo makes a fantastic 5.6 mile loop from either parking area. Cucumber Gap is the only real dirt trail of the three, and its mostly smooth path presents no real challenge outside a rock hop or two. Crossing Huskey Branch near Little River can be wet when water is high — no problem today.
Not much flowers in June; spring is king on Cucumber Gap. That first mile climbs through a cove hardwood forest bedecked with bountiful wildflowers — Doll’s Eyes, Wood Anemone, Jack-in-the-Pulpit, Blue Cohosh, Speckled Wood Lily, Toothwort, Trout Lily, Wild Geranium, Liverleaf, Bishop’s Cap, Creeping Phlox, May Apple, Solomon’s Seal, Nodding Mandarin, Brook Lettuce, Solomon’s Plume, Rue Anemone, Foamflower, three trillium species, and a wide array of violets.
One of those wildflowers, small and low-growing Dwarf Ginseng (Panax trifolius), barely clears the leaf litter with its whorl of three compound leaves and starry ball of white flowers in April. It is quite easy to miss this scarce little plant, yet once eyes become adjusted to its look, it can be found sprinkled among other wildflowers on this trail. Andro-dioecious, clusters of male flowers (stamens with nonfunctioning pistils) appear on separate plants. Other plants have mostly perfect flowers (functioning pistils and stamens). Reportedly, plants can change sex, staminate one year and perfect the next. Leaves have three to five leaflets, and fruits are yellow. Unlike American Ginseng (P. quinquefolius), this species isn’t touted for medicinal benefits.
In late June, it is possible to find Downy Rattlesnake Plantain, Summer Bluets, and Black Cohosh in flower and maybe a few late Umbrella Leaf and Indian Cucumber Root flowers. Hydrangea shrubs are in their glory. Ferns dominate in summer with at least 13 species here including Southern Lady Fern, Silvery Glade Fern, and Cinnamon Fern. Strappy dark-green leaves of Fraser’s Sedge (Cymophyllus fraserianus), a rare plant in Tennessee, stand apart from the rest of the summer green, and in spring are adorned with showy flower heads like white tassels waving atop long stalks.
A personal favorite, Seersucker Sedge (Carex plantaginea), loves rich forests. Wide grass-like foliage is pleated and puckered along their length imparting a wonderful texture. It stills looks so fresh and lush along the trail.
Both Fraser’s and Cucumber Magnolias occur in Cucumber Gap, and their bumpy green fruit might have prompted the gap’s name. Yellowwood (Cladrastis kentukea) is scattered lightly throughout the lower Elkmont area. I mainly notice young saplings distinguished by compound foliage with alternate leaflets. I’ve not seen trees of any size, much less flowering, yet they must be here. Fragrant chains of white flowers produce clusters of flat seedpods.
The descent to Little River runs through a drier, less diverse forest with fewer spring flowers. However, a scattering of Painted Trilliums in spring and Flat-branch Ground Pine reward observant hikers.
One of the first trails I hiked in the Smokies, Cucumber Gap remains a favorite any time of year but especially in spring.