I’m back in the Smokies for a quick visit. The impetus for this trip, a Saturday bushwhack into Raven Fork watershed with Ken McFarland, had to be cancelled at the last minute, but I elect to come anyway and hike the trails I’d planned for Sunday and Monday. The weather forecast for those days is simply too perfect to pass up. Rain Friday and Saturday morning is moving out, leaving clear blue skies and cool breezes. I will stay at Smokemont campground Saturday evening and arrive late afternoon with the intent to check 1.5-mile Oconaluftee River Trail off my list.
The trailhead is located behind Oconaluftee Visitor Center at the Mountain Farm Museum, and the sign clearly directs trail hikers to the right and farm visitors to the left. In my haste, I ignore this and walk to the farm entrance. From there, several root-filled dirt paths braid along the river, and though surprised to find such a rough, confusing surface, I gamely strike out thinking I’m on trail. However, it doesn’t make sense, and being a somewhat intelligent person, it doesn’t take long for me to realize the error and join the real path farther up the bank. From the true beginning, the trail loops around the outer fence of the farm museum then turns southeast beside the river on a wide, silky smooth, packed gravel route to the park boundary and town limits of Cherokee, NC.
The river is never far away, though not always in sight, and neither are roads. Sandwiched between Highway 441 and Big Cove Road (NC 1410), the trail dips under the Blue Ridge Parkway and crosses Saunooke Bridge Road near Cherokee. Road noise is inescapable, but absent after-market motorcycles, it isn’t intrusive either. The path is perfect for families or people of limited mobility, as the surface easily accommodates wheels of chairs, walkers, or strollers, and there are benches.
Just as the farm museum exemplifies the lifestyle of European settlers in the Appalachians, interpretive signs on the trail relate Cherokee legends of Rattlesnake Mountain, rivers, the origin of the mountains, trees, and water to illustrate the spiritual relationship the Eastern Band of Cherokee have with this land. Signs are written in both English and Cherokee languages. The word Oconaluftee is an English corruption of the Cherokee Egwanulti, “By-the-river Towns,” applied to the native villages that were once found along the river.
After the Oconaluftee River passes Smokemont, its floodplain widens, and at the confluence with Raven Fork becomes an open valley near the visitor center and Mountain Farm Museum. The river trail meanders that floodplain and features plants quite at home in these moist lowlands. Sycamores line the river, their white upper trunks glowing through late May’s flush of green. Hornbeams (Carpinus caroliniana) dangle racemes of winged fruit resembling little Chinese pagodas.
Sprays of tiny fruit clusters hide beneath thick tufts of compound foliage on knee-high patches of Yellowroot (Xanthorhiza simplicissima). Elderberry, Wild Hydrangea, and Hearts-a-bustin’ shrubs are in flower or preparing to. Herbaceous lovelies Cream Violet, Spiderwort, Woodland Bluets, and Hairy Woodmint join them, while Cutleaf Coneflower, Bee Balm, and Jewelweed bide their time until summer. Robust populations of Sensitive Fern (Onoclea sensibilis), a scarce species in the park, are found on the river trail. Only sterile fronds are present. Leaflets of the fertile fronds roll into tiny tight balls enclosing spore-producing structures. These fronds look like linear clusters of beads, accounting for its other common name, Bead Fern.
Disturbed areas in the park are often havens for a native plant no one likes, Poison Ivy. Rhus toxicodendron loves the river trail, growing lush and large up trees and on the ground. Unfortunately, no disturbed area is complete without a few invasive species. Multiflora Rose, Vinca, Japanese Stiltgrass, Japanese Honeysuckle Vine fit that bill, though native Jewelweed and violets are putting up a good fight.
A crow flailing in the water’s edge catches my attention. It’s dragging what appears to be a dead fish onto the rocky shore for an evening meal. On my way back, it has attracted a few friends looking to score a dinner invitation. Oconoluftee River Trail is one of only two official trails in the park that allow dogs. One owner has taken the trouble to bag his pet’s waste then left it sitting trailside. Unintentional? Deliberate? What a sad commentary that it could be the latter.
Just past the Saunooke Bridge Road crossing, the trail ends at the park boundary as shady forest gives way to sunny landscaping and asphalt in Cherokee, NC.