Little River is a trail I both love and loathe. Its pluses are many — wide smooth surface, beautiful mountain stream, botanically rich valley, easy 1200-foot rise spread evenly over 6.2 miles. For these reasons and its Elkmont location, it also attracts nearly as many visitors as Laurel Falls or Alum Cave. Thank heaven there is no showy waterfall or, god forbid, tubing. The crowds would be unbearable. Little River Trail simply provides an exceptionally pleasant walk in the woods. My early start leaves behind most Elkmont campers (still snoozing) and less committed park visitors. I pretty much have the trail to myself. What joy!
While the smooth trail surface is marvelous, it does have a drawback. As I’ve mentioned before, these gravel roadbeds make it easy to strike a rhythm and become absorbed in private thoughts, walking right past interesting plants, animals, and fungi without a glance. It can be hard to stay in the moment during a cool, summer’s daydream stroll in the mountains.
At the beginning, Little River Trail nabs attention with the slowly decaying summer homes of Elkmont’s wealthier inhabitants. This section of the old resort community was called “Millionaires Row.” Decades later that distinction makes little difference, and the structures
are succumbing to the twin ravages of weather and neglect. Only the Spence Cabin, also known as the River Lodge, has been spared and refurbished for day use.
Some of these houses sit further back in the woods, but near the trail a not-very-old lawn chaise lounge molders among the boulders. I know the park service hesitates to remove historical artifacts indicative of life in the mountains — cars from the 1920s and 30s, tea kettles, and washtubs — but this more recent ‘artifact’ just looks trashy.
The first mile or so of the trail serves both wildflower and fern walks for the Spring Wildflower Pilgrimage. Eighteen fern species can be found. At least one resort resident enriched the native fern selection adding Royal, Sensitive, Cinnamon, and Bracken ferns to the landscape where these species were not naturally occurring and perhaps several of the others as well. The first two are scarce in the park. Two tiny ferns also scarce but not likely to inspire gardeners, Southern Adder’s-tongue (Ophioglossum pycnostichum) and Daisy-leaf Moonwort (Botrychium matricariifolium), grow there too.
In spring, clumps of Showy Orchis dazzle hikers and are now setting seed. Young Alternate-leaved Dogwood trees with their greenish bark are scattered up the trail. A very happy Dutchman’s Pipevine (Isotrema macrophylla) lives up to its scientific name, producing massive leaves twice the size of my spread hand.
Park vehicles can drive the road/trail about a mile from the gated entrance to a turnaround where large boulders block further wheeled traffic, but the wide gravel path continues as smooth and easy as ever. A short wooden bridge spans narrow Huskey Branch as it tumbles straight down the bluff into Little River. Cucumber Gap Trail junction is about 0.3 mile beyond.
Four-tenths mile further is a wide wooden bridge with no sides that crosses Little River. From its headwaters to its eponymous road, Little River drains a large chunk of the Smokies from Sugarland Mountain west to Miry Ridge and Blanket Mountain, yet I’ve always seen it as mild-mannered and kind. The view up river from the bridge is one of my favorites in the park. It’s a calming and beautiful scene. This crossing puts the river to the right of the trail where it will remain until the terminus at Campsite #30.
Next is Huskey Gap Trail junction. Expansive colonies of New York Fern carpet the ground in this area. Gravel in the trail surface thins, yet the path remains smooth and wide. Just off the trail, a boulder appears cut into precise 90-degree angles on three sides. White Bergamot, Summer Phlox, and Mountain Mint are in flower leading to the Goshen Prong Trail junction, and there are bridged crossings of feeder streams up to Rough Creek Trail junction.
Just before Rough Creek near Campsite #24, the trail becomes tricky for the first time as a small rill associated with Little River presents a jumble of rocks and shallow water to cross. The rock hop is easy, and the smooth trail resumes, though the track is narrower and grade a bit steeper. Two guys at #24 are preparing to break camp and wave hello.
In the final 0.4 mile, Little River Trail runs the gauntlet of three challenging creek crossings. The first, Meigs Post Prong, isn’t very wide, but the water is over boot tops and no simple rock hop appears possible. Some surefooted sprite might skip across successfully but not me. I came prepared and change into water shoes for the remainder of the trail.
The last two crossings are close together and both are channels of Little River. Today, the middle one is nothing more than a dry ditch of small boulders, though it could accommodate significant flow in high water. Ramp flower stalks emerge between rocks on the far bank.
The final river passage would be a bear in wet weather and probably impossible in high water. It isn’t wide at all, but the channel is cut deep into steep banks with large slippery boulders, pockets of deep water, and fast flow. Even on this dry day, it’s a struggle to cross.
Campsite #30 is perfectly positioned at the base of a bowl on a flat slab of land several feet directly above the river and its confluence with Grouse Creek draining numerous feeder streams from the fanned out flanks of Goshen Ridge and the Smokies crest. Pausing for a midmorning snack, I’m struck by the incredible noise these waters generate! It’s a great site, but this isn’t my idea of soothing burbles. Ear plugs would be essential for a good night’s rest.
It’s time to head back, and my second crossing of Little River doesn’t go as well. I slip and fall forward catching myself with both hands on a mossy boulder inches from a dip in the drink, scaring the daylights out of a salamander in the process. It pauses briefly right under my nose. Most people spread-eagled over a rushing mountain stream might be more concerned with finding a way out of the situation. My first thought, “Which species is it?” My second thought, “Could I possibly get to my camera?” The salamander shows more sense and runs away. It was dark colored and likely a Dusky of some sort. It’s the best ID I can manage under the circumstances given my limited knowledge of these amphibians.
Back across Meigs Post Prong, I dry my feet, put on my boots, and return to Rough Creek Trail, which climbs 2.8 miles (1,500 feet) to Sugarland Mountain Trail. The trail follows Rough Creek most of the way, crossing it three times (no bridges) and an unnamed feeder branch once. These crossings are not difficult. Rough Creek appears a gentle soul as does the trail…at least through the last creek crossing.
For the first two miles the trail’s condition and grade make for smooth sailing. Up to the first crossing, the area is rich with a variety of spring wildflowers. After the crossing, this richness fades but Doghobble remains. Variety returns past the second crossing of Rough Creek with large stands of Wild Geranium plus Blue Cohosh, Yellow Buckeye, and Sugar Maple. I lunch past the third crossing.
The last 0.8 mile demonstrates a ‘Mr. Hyde’ personality — steep, narrow, overgrown, uneven, rooty, and rocky. In places, the trail barely etches a line across the pitched flank of Sugarland Mountain. It’s slow going. I meet two backpackers coming down. They look tired and warn me of difficult passage at a downed tree. A small diameter trunk leans up slope requiring one step around and leaves me scratching my head how those guys could have found this “difficult.”
Mountain Wood Sorrel, Waxy-leaf Meadow Rue, Summer Bluets, Partridgeberry, and Whorled Loosestrife flowers brighten the taxing climb. It takes two hours and five minutes total to reach the top (counting lunch). I’m dreading the first part of the descent, but it isn’t bad. That 0.8 mile take 30 minutes, and 45 more for other two miles.
Back at Little River Trail, an easy 4.5 mile hike to Elkmont remains. Though late in the afternoon, I pass many people casually walking the trail. I look out of place with daypack and hiking poles. Somewhere past Cucumber Gap junction, I meet a park ranger. He asks me where I’ve been and if I’ve seen anyone needing help on the trail. They’d received a third-hand report of such. I tell him no and he walks on. His car is parked at the turnaround.
Maybe 0.7 mile from the trail’s end, I hear the crunch of tires on gravel and move over to let him pass. He slows beside me and asks if I’d like a ride. “You have to sit in back,” he says. Gate-to-gate, today’s hike would total 18 miles…a new personal best by a full mile, but how many chances might I get to ride with a ranger…not under arrest? I wriggle into the cramped back seat.
He’s been at the park a few years having served at Grand Canyon and Sequoia National Parks. Family brought him east, but he misses the West. I hop out at the gate and thank him for the lift. I hiked 17.3 miles, still a personal best!