Archive for the ‘GSMNP Trail Hikes’ Category

Thunderhead Prong Quiet Walkway forks right from the Middle Prong trailhead, but the quiet walkway sign is visible a short distance up Middle Prong Trail.

Twelve of the 13 Quiet Walkways are found along the park’s two primary thoroughfares — Highway 441 and Little River Road. Thunderhead Prong Quiet Walkway is tucked far off the beaten path at the end of Tremont Road, where Lynn Camp Prong and Thunderhead Prong converge into Middle Prong Little River. It shares a trailhead with Middle Prong Trail, which forks left to follow a wide road beside Lynn Camp Prong. TPQW forks right along a narrower gravel path that follows Thunderhead Prong.

It’s always surprising to read about the small but thriving communities that grew around logging operations in the Smokies and the amenities they contained — doctor’s offices, stores, hotels, schools, post offices — and to stand in that same location today with nary a visual hint of any of it beyond an iron bridge or two and the gentle graded incline of a long-gone railroad. It takes real imagination to erase the now dominant forest and resurrect ghost structures within this narrow river valley.

Metal bridge over Thunderhead Prong

Tremont (also called Tarpaper Camp) was one of three such logging towns built by Little River Lumber Company. It began operation in 1926 as logging work shifted from Elkmont. Rail tracks mirrored the three streams and centered the little town with all buildings sited in close proximity. There were some actual houses, but many workers and their families lived in portable “car shacks” lining the tracks. The school building, serving triple-duty as a church and movie theater, was cleverly referred to as the “house of education, salvation, and damnation.” A two-story hotel had 22 rooms for company employees, and like Elkmont before it, briefly attracted the interest of outside resort goers as logging drew to a close in the late 1930s.

Thunderhead Prong

Once the decade of disturbance ended, Mother Nature wasted no time repairing the damage done. Now, 80 years after the last logs left the park, it takes a keen eye knowing just where to look to find evidence of this area’s industrial past. Lynn Camp and Thunderhead prongs’ ebullient confluence dominates the soundscape and entices hikers to explore each upstream.

Quiet Walkways are designated by small square signs inviting visitors to take “a short walk on this easy trail…as far as you like” and enjoy the “serene quiet of a protected woodland.” The sign here is positioned maybe 20 yards up Middle Prong Trail, well past the trail split for Thunderhead. National Geographic maps show TPQW following the split along Thunderhead Prong. Was MPT intended to serve as the QW or was the sign misplaced? It wouldn’t be the first time I’ve found a misplaced sign in the Smokies. Middle Prong Trail does have benches positioned in a couple of places on the lower reaches of the trail, a feature often associated with quiet walkways. However, no other QW follows an established park trail, and the Thunderhead Prong path, perfectly noted on the map, is well-traveled.

American Hornbeam grove

Regardless of the park’s intent, Thunderhead Prong Quiet Walkway is a wonderful and easy, one-way, 0.7-mile trail that terminates at the rushing, boulder-strewn bank of its namesake stream. Davis Ridge divides the two trails, their associated streams and watersheds, its last narrow finger providing immediate separation within a few yards of TPQW’s start, where several stalks of perfect Cranefly Orchids do their best to blend inconspicuously into the background.

The gravel path soon leads to a bridged crossing of Thunderhead Prong. A slim metal trough, lined on either side with rows of posts and cables, arches high over the stream on a concrete support that once served the railroad. On the other side, the trail follows Thunderhead Prong into a narrow valley squeezed between Defeat Ridge and Davis Ridge in a densely shaded acid cove forest and wends through two Hornbeam groves (Carpinus caroliniana).

The quiet walkway ends at the bank of Thunderhead Prong

Long Branch, a small feeder stream off Defeat Ridge, crosses the trail requiring a short rock hop. Past Long Branch, the valley opens a bit at the confluence with Sams Creek and a richer hardwood forest results with Carolina Silverbell, Alternate-Leaf Dogwood, and a more diverse herbaceous layer. A few side trails climb to a narrow bench on the right, and cursory inspections don’t reveal any hidden attractions.

The next encounter with Thunderhead Prong marks the quiet walkway’s end, perched above this natural sluice of clear mountain water racing through a gauntlet of sandstone boulders.

Skeletonized Grapfern with a small normal plant nearby

Grapefern (Sceptridium dissectum) is plentiful along Thunderhead Prong. Similar to spring’s Rattlesnake Fern (Botrypus virginianus), Grapefern produces two dissimilar fronds — one sterile, the other fertile. Unlike its relative, however, Grapefern’s two fronds emerge on separate stalks in mid to late summer. Once the fertile frond has released its spores, it will wither in autumn, but the sterile frond will remain through winter to photosynthesize on amenable sunny days.

Extra fertile fronds on a Grapefern

Grapefern has another interesting trait. Green leaf tissue on some of the sterile fronds is much more highly cut, nearly skeletonized, giving them a distinctive look quite different from the fern’s usual appearance. These two forms can occur side by side. Botanists now agree it’s the same species and have opted not to distinguish this morphological expression as a separate variety, though it is possible to find it referenced as Sceptridium [Botrichium] dissectum var. dissectum in older botanical sources.

One Grapefern on the trail is especially keen on distributing spores with two additional fertile heads forking from the frond’s stalk!


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Smokemont Nature Trail bridges over Bradley Fork

Smokemont Nature Trail

Located in Smokemont Campground and forming a 0.75-mile loop, Smokemont Nature Trail fits the typical pattern with one notable exception. There is more elevation change than most, about 125 feet. It climbs the last gasp of Richland Mountain petering out at the confluence of Bradley Fork and Oconoluftee River. The oblong loop ascends and descends the eastern slope, cruising the near level ridge line in between.

Smokemont Nature Trail ridge laurel tunnel

The signed trailhead is next to several parking spaces across from campsite B 32. Three log bridges span broken sections of Bradley Fork to connect the campground and trail. This is not a good time of year to assess wildflowers, but there seems to be little evidence for rich spring displays. Most of the plants indicate an affinity for acidic soil and the dark understory below Eastern Hemlocks and evergreen shrubs — Christmas Fern, Round-leaf Violet, Downy Rattlesnake Plantain, and Little Brown Jugs. Cinnamon Fern and Alumroot add a bit of variety. The ridge is a long tunnel of Rosebay Rhododendron followed by Mountain Laurel.

It’s a pleasant little trail that provides a shady retreat from the campground’s bustle. There does not appear to be a self-guiding brochure for Smokemont Nature Trail.

Balsam Mountain Nature Trail

Balsam Mountain Campground is the highest elevation campground in the Smokies at 5,300 feet, and as a result has one of the shortest seasons — late May to early October. This is the place to be on a hot summer day, where temperatures can be 10 degrees cooler than low country campgrounds and nights might require a jacket.

It’s a long way from anywhere. One mile inside the park boundary out of Cherokee, NC, take the Blue Ridge Parkway 11 miles to Heintooga Ridge Road and drive another 8 miles to the campground entrance. Just past the check-in kiosk, Balsam Mountain Nature Trail begins on the right, opposite the first couple of campsites.

Balsam Mountain Trail

The trail meanders approximately a half mile or so through the ‘northern hardwoods’ forest type. At one time, there had been a self-guiding brochure discussing as many as 12 stops along the trail. However, the brochure box minus its lid has only a splash of rainwater inside, and many of the numbered trail markers are missing or damaged. Nonetheless, its a pleasant stroll along a narrow path, mostly level but a bit rooty and slick in the rain. Foliage and fruit of spring flowering Canada Mayflower, Thyme-leaved Bluets, and Painted Trillium mingle with summer flowers of Pale Jewelweed and Bee Balm. Appalachian White Snakeroot will open soon. Fine-foliaged sedges, perhaps Pennsylvania Sedge, carpet parts of the trail. A hollowed old tree with gnarled burls inspires admiration.

Balsam Mountain Nature Trail terminus on Heintooga Ridge Road

Balsam Mountain Nature Trail is one way, ending on Heintooga Ridge Road near the picnic area, which marks the end of the paved road. Balsam Mountain Road begins here, a one-way gravel road snaking down the flank of Balsam Mountain and eventually tying into Straight Fork Road at Round Bottom and then Big Cove Road into Cherokee. From the nature trail’s terminus, it’s 0.4 mile back to the campground entrance on Heintooga Ridge Road.

Benton MacKaye Connector trailhead at the entrance to Smokemont Campground

Benton MacKaye Connector Trail

Benton MacKaye Trail incorporates nearly 300 miles of wilderness trails from Springer Mountain, GA, to Big Creek Campground on the eastern end of the park. Sharing its southern terminus with the Appalachian Trail and intersecting it twice more (in the middle and at the end), BMT offers a variety of lengthy loops for adventurous backpackers.

BMT enters the Smokies at Fontana Dam and follows Lakeshore, Noland Divide, Pole Creek Road, Deep Creek, Martin’s Gap, Sunkota, Thomas Divide, and Newton Bald to Highway 441 where it crosses the road to Smokemont Campground. To spare hikers a trek through the campground, BMT shares a one-mile access trail with horses from Smokemont Stables connecting to Towstring and Bradley Fork trails. For BMT hikers, Bradley Fork initiates the final stretch through the park, including Chasteen Creek, Enloe Creek, Hyatt Ridge, both Beech Gaps, Balsam Mountain, Mt. Sterling Ridge, and Baxter Creek trails.

Female Eastern Box Turtle

Turning off Highway 441, the road crosses Oconoluftee River and splits right to the stables, left to the campground, and straight ahead into a large paved area. A small sign with green and white Benton MacKaye markers in this paved area points the way to Bradley Fork. Upslope and out of sight the entire way, the trail parallels campground roads. At about 0.9-mile, Towstring Trail strikes off to the right, and the connector trail continues a short way before slipping down to intersect with Bradley Fork Trail 0.2 mile from its trailhead at the back of the campground.

I have the misfortune to hike this connector in the middle of a rainy spell. Much of it is wet, sloppy, goopy, and mucky. A female Eastern Box Turtle much better suited to the weather and ground conditions is the only bright moment in an otherwise tiresome insult to my boots. I stomp back to my campsite along the road hitting every rain puddle to dislodge mud from the soles.


Towstring Trail junction with Benton MacKaye Connector

Towstring Horse Trail

Given the sloppy shape of the Benton MacKaye connector, I’m dreading Towstring, a dedicated horse trail between a park horse camp and park trails. I intended to hike Towstring five years ago as physical conditioning for my 2013 hike on the Appalachian Trail. It was January and the start of the trail from the connector was a rocky, rutted climb masked beneath a thick layer of fallen leaves. I feared twisting an ankle and opted to forego it. Since it isn’t listed in Hiking Trails of the Smokies, I assumed it wasn’t an essential trail. The Smoky Mountain Hiking Club, apparent keepers of the 900 Mile Club, beg to differ.

Carolina Lily

At this time of year, leaf litter isn’t a problem, and I’m as prepared as I can be for the rutted mess that awaits. Towstring clings to the lower slope of Hughes Ridge and roughly parallels the connector trail and Highway 441 to the horse camp 2.2 miles away. I head up the rocky, rutted path. Within 0.1 mile to my delight, the trail smooths out along an easy grade and defies all negative expectations.

Concessionaire trails intersect Towstring

Plant surprises add to the fun. False Goatsbeard or Astilbe has finished flowering and Spikenard (Aralia racemosa) is just beginning. Yellow Fringed Orchid (Platanthera ciliaris) and Carolina Lily (Lilium michauxii) are in their prime.

Fenced field near horse camp Towstring trailhead

Other horse trails associated with concessionaire Smokemont Stables join or cross Towstring at various points. The trail passes a fenced grassy field near the end, turns left on a gravel road, and terminates at a gate next to a large turnaround accommodating horse trailers. This trailhead sits as the end of an access spur past the horse camp off Tow String Road, located on Highway 441 south of Smokemont Campground and north of Oconoluftee Visitor Center. This road tees at the base of Hughes Ridge. Turn left for the horse camp and Towstring Trail. To the right, Tow String Road exits the park and enters the Qualla Boundary, a land trust set aside for the Eastern Band of Cherokees.

Towstring trailhead at horse camp

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Cove Hardwood Nature Trail sign

Most designated “nature trails” in the park are general in scope and associated with the campgrounds, though two occur near Sugarland Visitor Center. Two others are dedicated primarily to the intrinsic biological identity (plant and animal communities) particular to their specific settings. Cove Hardwood Nature Trail and Spruce-Fir Nature Trail explore the elements that comprise these two iconic forest types in the park.

Cove Hardwood Nature Trail

Located in the Chimneys Picnic Area, Cove Hardwood Nature Trail is probably one of the most visited park trails without a waterfall or historic structure. Part of that allure may be attributable to its short length (0.7 mile), ease of access off Highway 441, and adjacency to a very popular picnic destination. Just as relevant as these selling points, however, is its rich spring wildflower display.

Sharp-lobed Liverleaf creates colorful carpets in early April

Carpets of white, pink, lavender, blue, and purple Sharp-lobed Liverleaf (Hepatica acutiloba) begin the show in late March, quickly followed by stunning displays of Fringed Phacelia and Large White Trillium among dozens of other spring wildflowers through early summer. This appeal lasts until October’s asters and goldenrods bid farewell amid colorful autumn foliage.

Cradled within Sugarland Mountain’s curve to the northwest and Chimney Tops to the east, the site’s northern exposure near the slope’s base provides the necessary protection from winds and solar radiation to maintain more consistent moisture and support this rich diversity of plant and animal life.

Aging Large White Trillium clothed in pink

Cove Hardwood is the park’s most challenging nature trail. The short loop traverses a narrow cove between two finger ridges descending from Sugarland Mountain and climbs 250 feet in elevation to the trail’s midpoint at about 0.4-mile. A few brief sections qualify as steep. It’s enough to raise the heart rate, generate some heavy breathing, and work up a sweat. The trail surface is also quite rough in a few places with patches of asphalt on the steepest pitches to provide better traction and slow erosion.

Carolina Spring Beauty

The lower part of the trail has a gentler grade and once grew corn and potatoes for a family in Sugarland Valley. The lower half was also selectively logged. The younger denser forest resulting from these impacts provide a comparison with the forest at the trail’s apex where characteristics of older growth such as larger, more widely spaced trees and a more open understory can be appreciated.

Dwarf Ginseng

In 1950, Kentucky plant ecologist E. Lucy Braun published Deciduous Forests of Eastern North America, a seminal work examining forest composition distinctions among 9 different regions. The Allegheny and Cumberland plateaus and mountains of Tennessee, eastern Kentucky, West Virginia, and eastern Ohio and were classified as the Mixed Mesophytic Forest Region characterized by a high diversity of tree species on rich, moist, well-drained soil. This forest type occurs in other regions too when physical conditions are supportive.


Even though she placed the Southern Appalachians in the Oak-Chestnut Forest Region, she noted, “Cove forests of the Southern Appalachians are typical mixed mesophytic communities… [limited to] …coves and lower north slopes.” She perfectly describes Cove Hardwood Trail’s physical setting. Indeed, the diversity of tree species in general and the occurrence of certain ones, such as Carolina Silverbell (Halesia carolina), Basswood (Tilia americana var. heterophylla), Eastern Hemlock (Tsuga canadensis), and Yellow Buckeye (Aesculus flava) are classic traits of mixed mesophytic forests. Braun also notes that in the Southern Appalachians these forest areas are variously referred to as mixed forests, cove forests, and cove hardwood forests.

Brook Lettuce

In 1956, Robert Whittaker published his study, “Vegetation of the Great Smoky Mountains” in the journal Ecological Monographs. From his field work, he developed oft-cited graphic illustrations showing distribution of plant communities based on soil moisture and elevation gradients. The moisture gradient corresponds to topographical variations from coves and flats to slopes and ridges. Cove hardwoods occupy moist, sheltered locations up to 4,500 feet.

The self-guiding brochure for Cove Hardwood Nature Trail discusses all these aspects and more.

Spruce-Fir Nature Trail

Spruce-Fir Nature Trail

The Spruce-Fir Nature Trail is located on the left side of Clingmans Dome Road, well past Road Prong trailhead and before Fork Ridge Trail. A large sign and long parallel pullout mark the spot.

At one time, this trail must have been longer with a different route. The sign indicates a 0.4 mile loop trail with steep sections exceeding a 12% grade. The National Geographic Map says 0.3 mile. Not much difference, but if I had to choose, I’d side with NatGeo. As for the grade warning, it’s patently false, and it’s a shame. It might dissuade people from walking this trail. I didn’t even notice a grade change, much less 12%.

Carbon Antlers fungus on Spruce-Fir Nature Trail

The path often follows walking planks to spare hikers’ shoes from wet and muck accompanying copious precipitation at high elevation and discourage stepping off trail. Ultimately, the nature trail’s goal is to educate people about the Spruce-Fir ecosystem while protecting this sensitive biological community, a goal it achieves.

An accompanying brochure does an excellent good job explaining the natural history of this forest type and discussing impacts from fir mortality due to the introduced Balsam Woolly Adelgid. It was written in 1996, and I wonder if it might benefit from an update regarding this and other threats.

Corner Bench on Spruce-Fir Nature Trail

Despite its short length, the trail is very evocative of this forest type, featuring many of the standard associated species — Yellow Birch, Rugel’s Ragwort, Bluebead Lily, Witch Hobble, Mountain Ash, Mountain Wood Fern, Mountain Wood Sorrel, and Whorled Aster.

Not too far past the halfway point, a sturdy corner bench creates a lovely spot to listen to the characteristic hush of this environment, broken only by occasional bird song and, unfortunately, the swish of cars traveling up and down Clingmans Dome Road. The bench’s location amid dense shade is brightened with large chunks of white quartz.

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Sugarlands Valley Nature Trail

Sunday after the Pilgrimage, I complete two more nature trails plus the 2.0 miles of trail sections looping Cosby Campground that the Smoky Mountain Hiking Club claims are needed for the 900 Mile Club.

Sugarlands Valley Nature Trail

Located on Highway 441 a short distance from Sugarlands Visitor Center, Sugarlands Valley Nature Trail is a half-mile, ADA-accessible paved (concrete) trail taking visitors through the cultural and natural history of the Smokies in general and this valley in particular. The loop trail begins to the left.

As with other low elevation, level areas in the park such as Greenbrier, Proctor, Cataloochee, and Cades Cove, Sugarlands Valley was a small but thriving mountain community with churches, schools, hotels, tub mills, a sawmill, and a post office prior to the park’s establishment. The first interpretive sign presents an aerial view of the sprawling valley showing pockets of that community up each feeder stream draining Mt. LeConte and Sugarland Mountain into West Prong Little Pigeon River — Ash Hopper Branch, Fighting Creek, Sugarlands Branch, Twomile Branch, Bullhead Branch, and Big Branch. This perspective visually emphasizes the scale of these early communities, a reality often lost on the ground.

Two stone chimneys near the trail’s start tell the tale of another aspect of Smokies life — vacation cottages. The use of cement rather than mud and stacked rock evidences the growing interest in summer homes during the early twentieth century. With the park’s designation, both cultural experiences disappeared and nature began its recovery.

Hwy 441 bridge

The trail makes a linear loop, first following West Prong Little Pigeon River then doubling back to the start. Between the trail and the river is the old Indian Gap Road that once connected Tennessee communities north of the mountains with North Carolina communities to the south. A small feeder stream from Sugarland Mountain runs past the tip of the loop. Glance upstream to see the stone bridge conveying Highway 441 traffic between the two states.

Interpretive signs and benches dot the trail. Concrete extensions of the smooth, wide path form a pad at one end of each bench allowing wheelchairs and strollers a place to sit off trail. Signs share the human history before and after the park and explain how nature is reclaiming the land.


One sign paints three images of this location in 1930, today, and 2200. Cleared land with a cottage and vegetable garden characterizes 1930 and an old growth forest foretells the future. The image for today is reasonably accurate, showing younger trees, scrubby downed wood, some wildflowers, and poison ivy, but it misses the mark in the percentage of these represented items. For whatever reason, wildflowers in late April are few and far between, poison ivy is rampant, and there’s an over abundance of coarse woody debris on the ground. Three deer pick their way through the woods this sunny morning.

While not the best trail for plants, Sugarlands Valley Nature Trail still offers a shady pleasant stroll next to one of the park’s major rivers.


Nature Trail

Cosby Nature Trail

The Cosby Nature Trail access is across from the campground’s amphitheater. Step onto a trail that connects hiker parking to Low Gap and Lower Mt. Cammerer trails and turn right. In a short distance, the LGT/LMCT trail continues straight and the nature trail turns left.

Cosby Nature Trail is a lovely little 0.6 mile trail squeezed between the main campground road and a one-mile horse trail, yet it feels hidden and remote. It crosses Cosby Creek and wends a narrow loop through dense forest vegetation. Everything feels immediate and intimate. Be prepared for a few rock-hop crossings of smaller rills, though larger crossings are bridged. Like most of the other nature trails, it is self-guiding with a folded brochure illuminating 11 stops along the way, all but one focused on nature.

Yellowwood’s compound leaves have alternate leaflets, an unusual trait

The trail mostly traverses rich moist forest with many of the typical spring wildflowers in residence — Foamflower, Creeping Phlox, Bishop’s Cap, Smooth Yellow Violet, Hepatica, Wild Ginger, and Showy Orchis. A brief stretch through a more acidic area adds a bit of diversity in plant species. Several tall, beautiful hemlocks are a delight to see, and a young Yellowwood (Cladrastis kentukea) sapling makes it easy to check the unique alternate leaflets on its compound leaves. Highlighted in dappled sun against a shaded backdrop, hundreds of upright spore capsules fringe a mossy log.

At the end, the nature trail connects to Lower Mt. Cammerer Trail. Turn right 0.1 mile to the campground road, where a packed gravel path on the right leads back to the original access trail, amphitheater, and hiker parking.


Gabes Mountain Trail access from the campground crosses a small creek

Cosby Campground Connecting Trails

The trail sections looping Cosby Campground are something of a mystery. Are they merely access points to established trails for campers? Are they official parts of one or more trails? Are they considered part of a horse trail? The answer may vary depending on the source — National Geographic Trails Illustrated map, Hiking Trails of the Smokies book, or on-site park signage. Adding to the confusion, some of them appear to have more than one trailhead. This much I know, the Smoky Mountain Hiking Club says they count toward the 900 Mile Club, and I am walking each one today.

Woodland Stonecrop

Cosby Campground sits at the end of a long access road off state highway 32. Gabes Mountain trailhead is on the right immediately before the picnic/parking area. I start here. Gabes Mountain Trail climbs 0.3 mile to a short spur, also 0.3 mile, leading down to the campground. It crosses a small creek and taps into the back of section A near sites #21 and #22. I walk campground roads to the back of section B near site #51 to reach Snake Den Ridge trailhead.

Tennessee Star Chickweed’s green sepals are longer than the white petals

Two-tenths mile up Snake Den Ridge is a section noted as a part of the Cosby Horse Trail. It’s likely been a long time since horses passed this way. The narrow path shows no signs of such use. It is, however, a wonderful wildflower trail. This 0.4 mile section runs across the slope behind the campground connecting Snake Den Ridge to Low Gap Trail. Loads of Woodland Stonecrop (Sedum ternatum), Roundleaf Ragwort, Nodding Mandarin, Solomon’s Plume, Vasey’s Trillium, Tennessee Star Chickweed (Stellaria corei), and many other species are present. Birds are singing; the sun is shining; life doesn’t get much better.

Slender Toothwort

At the end of this section, I hike up Low Gap 0.2 mile, cross over Cosby Creek bridge, and turn left at the signed split to take another 0.4 mile stretch down to Lower Mt. Cammerer Trail. When I hiked Low Gap to the Mt. Cammerer fire tower in October 2011, I began at the trailhead next to site #92. This access includes the horse trail junction and bridge. I returned via this 0.4 mile to LMCT, but I’m quite happy to revisit as it is spectacular in spring. Towering healthy Eastern Hemlocks shade the path lined with spring flora — two species of Meadow Parsnip (Thaspium spp.), Early Meadow Rue, Bishops Cap, Seersucker Sedge, and dozens more. Great Merrybells flowers sport a rich yellow rarely seen. How marvelous to walk beneath the dense cool shade of massive hemlocks!

Log over Cosby Creek

The final section is a level, 1.0 mile trek also marked as part of the Cosby Horse Trail. It begins on Lower Mt. Cammerer Trail next to the Nature Trail exit and runs parallel to the campground on the opposite side of Cosby Creek then cozies up to the campground road leading to TN 32, eventually terminating there approximately 0.4 mile north of the picnic/parking area. About halfway, the trail crosses Cosby Creek at an unbridged ford. A skinny log spanning the creek downstream presents an opportunity to scoot across with dry feet.

Horse Trail opening

More Yellowwood and healthy hemlocks, Slender Toothwort (Dentaria heterophylla), Creeping Phlox, and Yellow Trillium add to Cosby’s lengthy species list. The forest canopy opens near the trail’s end. At the road, it’s a quick trek back to the parking lot for a long drive home.


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I’m checking off a punch list of little trails, some ‘official,’ some not, in preparation for my 900 Mile Club finale Sept. 6. While in the Smokies for the Pilgrimage last April, I crossed off Elkmont, Sugarlands Valley, and Cosby nature trails, the network of connecting trails surrounding Cosby Campground, and Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail. Of these, only the disjointed string of Cosby connectors is considered part of the 900 Miler tally by the Smoky Mountain Hiking Club, but I want to do these others as well. First up, Roaring Fork.

Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail

Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail is a one-way, 6-mile, paved road arching through a northeastern section of the park above Gatlinburg. The entrance is located along the loop of Cherokee Orchard Road past Rainbow Falls Trail’s parking lots. Turning right, RFMNT winds past natural features and cultural landmarks denoted in 16 numbered stops which are interpreted in a $1.00 auto tour booklet available at park visitor centers. The booklet paints a lovely verbal portrait of the mountains and mountain life, complementing the visual elements of each stop along the way.

Top-killed Mountain Laurel sprouting at the base

From the entrance gate through the first stop, RFMNT passes through an area hit hard by the Chimney Tops 2 fire in late 2016. Charred tree trunks and lifeless shrubs rising from a sparse understory over blackened ground still provide sobering testimony to the fire’s intensity 17 months later. Not all is bleak, however. Some Rosebay Rhododendron and Mountain Laurel are sprouting vigorously from the base. Mountain Bellwort, Wood Betony, and Early Wood Violet are in flower.

The evidence of fire quickly disappears with the next few stops focused on cove hardwoods and attendant wildlife. Lush mosses, Wood Anemone, Large White Trillium, Speckled Wood Lily, Star Chickweed, Creeping Phlox, Bishops Cap, and other spring wildflowers are serenaded by Hooded Warblers and Wood Thrushes as they soak up water from overnight showers.

Stop #5 is the Grotto Falls parking area. The llama trailer is here, and they must be making a delivery to LeConte Lodge on Trillium Gap Trail. A trailhead sign marks the 0.2-mile path connecting to TGT and Grotto Falls. Since I did not hike this spur when I did TGT, I decide to walk it quickly, covering all potential 900 Mile bases.

Roaring Fork

Further stops point out dense stands of Tulip Poplar, a sure sign of former cleared fields, with young Eastern Hemlock growing in their shade. RFMNT merges with the route of the old road settlers used to access their homesites in the Roaring Fork community. The road out of Gatlinburg ended here as terrain further up was not suited to sustainable human habitation. At this point, the eponymous stream descending from the flanks of Mt. LeConte becomes a constant companion. Flowering Dogwood and clusters of Yellow Trillium, Foamflower, and Showy Orchis brighten the roadsides.

dirty diaper dumped at a parking pull out

At Stop #9, a narrow trail retreats into relatively level woods which I explore. A short stone wall set into the slope above a tiny stream is the only sign of settlement, its original purpose a mystery. The trail continues for a bit but peters out as it starts to climb. Returning to my car, I spot a small white bundle tucked at the base of tree within view of the parking area. It’s a child’s soiled disposable diaper. The sheer laziness and rude selfishness of this act stun me. I put it in a plastic bag in my trunk.

Three homesteads have been preserved along the route. The first belonged to Jim Bales. While the house is not original to the site, the corn crib and barn are. Preservation efforts are on display with NPS staff working from scaffolds along the back side of the house. Baskins Creek Trail, which began 0.2 mile from the start of RFMNT, ends at Jim Bales Place, and Grapeyard Ridge Trail begins its route to Greenbrier from here as well.

Hog pen at Ephraim Bales Place

Next is the Ephraim and Minerva Bales property. The small dog-trot cabin and tiny corn crib to the left are near the current road, which looks at the backside of the cabin. The cabin faces a leaning picket fence bordering the original road, now a mere dirt path. Between the road and Roaring Fork are a modest barn and roofed hog pen that looks more like a fairy house, its opening just over 12 inches high.

For some reason, Eph and Nervie’s place moves me. This couple raised 9 children here. The sizes of these structures speak volumes on the difficult farming conditions they and so many other early settlers faced in the Smokies. One kitchen doorway stands just 5 feet high. I feel real amazement for these people, an “I’m-not-worthy” sense of respect. When my eyes land on the ever-present, knife-carved initials and Sharpie ‘tags’ of past park visitors scarring this modest home, I’m enraged. There isn’t a structure in the park that has escaped this type of desecration. To my continual disgust, I’ve encountered it everywhere, but in this particular home it riles as a true criminal affront to the memory of these honest people.


The last home belonged to Alfred Reagan, a talented craftsman with an entrepreneurial spirit. The success of his many endeavors is evident in his wood-clad, painted cabin. The tub mill next to the creek was just one way he served the community and supported his family. Several photographers vie for the perfect angle capturing stream, mill and flume.

Place of a Thousand Drips

Near the end, two splintered waterfalls splash down jumbled sandstone boulders in dozens of small rills — the famous “Place of a Thousand Drips.” The variety of wildflowers, ferns, mosses and liverworts is a botanist’s dream, the showiest plants conveniently grouped near eye-level on an embankment. White blossoms of Mountain Silverbell dot the road as I slip past the park boundary and reenter the real world.

Elkmont Nature Trail

Wetland, Elkmont Nature Trail

Located halfway on the road above Elkmont Campground is a short, self-guided nature trail. The 0.8 mile loop begins in the little parking lot’s right-hand corner and centers around a lower stretch of Mids Branch. The trail brochure highlights 13 locations that tell the land’s natural and cultural history. Each stop points to subtle clues helping visitors “read the landscape” and interpret that history.

Dropping steeply to cross the little creek, the trail follows an old railroad spur paralleling the stream. American Hornbeams are everywhere. One young tree is split down the middle nearly to the base, and both halves produce foliage. One element mentioned on the trailhead kiosk but not in the brochure is a wetland community. Classified as a montane alluvial forest, it is considered a globally significant and endangered forest type. This small wetland spreads out from the banks of Mids Branch as the trail enters the stream valley. Patches of bright green sedges sprout in the still, shallow water.

Elkmont Nature Trail

The trail climbs gently through a cove forest still developing from its farmed and logged past, crosses Mids Branch, and skirts a drier hillside of oak and pine trees. In this drier, more open section, multiple stems of Carolina Lily (Lilium michauxii) are sporting whorls of 4 and 5 leaves.

During its descent, Elkmont Nature Trail levels briefly where a mosaic of flat rocks create the feel of a flagstone patio, complete with a log bench to give visitors a chance to sit quietly hidden in the trees above the road and campground below. The final yards of the trail drop quickly to the parking lot.

Wonderland Requiem

Annex site

Before leaving Elkmont, I visit the site of the old Wonderland Hotel to see if the remaining buildings have been removed. A large rectangle of scraped earth spreads before the massive stone chimney that marked one end of the annex building. I am shocked to see dead trees on the perimeter, scorched black with their bark popping loose, incontrovertible evidence of a big fire. It occurred April 19, 2016, just as that year’s Spring Wildflower Pilgrimage was getting underway, yet somehow I remained in the dark for two years. Bits of white porcelain from tubs and toilets gleam in the mud.

Demolished cabin site

The other cabins behind the hotel site have been demolished, leaving raw gashes where structures had nestled into the hillside. Once nature heals these wounds, the weathered stones in retaining walls, chimneys, and rubble piles will be the primary evidence of an early 20th century residential resort.

During my last visit in 2011, the hotel’s lobby fireplace was still somewhat intact though the chimney was missing. Now it is a shapeless pile of red bricks overgrown with weeds. A narrow set of four concrete steps leading from the hotel to the annex is all that remains of the original building today.

Wonderland fountain

One hundred years ago, wide stone steps beckoned hotel guests from the rail line up to the hotel’s shady porches where they could enjoy a great view of Blanket Mountain. Centered in front of the long porch was a round stone fountain that propelled a jet of water 10 feet in the air. The top edge of the stone pool was decorated with chunks of white quartz. Now, vegetation effectively cloaks the stone steps from view, and all that’s left to signify this fashionable mountain retreat is the quartz-studded pool, filled with dirt and spouting a young hemlock as the forest closes in to reclaim its own.

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Rabbit Creek trailhead near Abrams Creek Ranger Station

[This is very late…sorry.] For my final trail this year, I’m day-hiking Rabbit Creek’s 7.8 miles from Abrams Creek Ranger Station to Abrams Falls’ parking lot in Cades Cove. I’m not excited about this trail and don’t expect much from it. The mindset is simple: get from one end to the other, check it off and go home, hopefully before the first remnants of hurricane Harvey hit the Smokies.

Abrams Creek ford

It takes the better part of an hour to get from the Sweetser’s cabin to the trailhead, and I begin at 8:45 a.m. Allen walks me to the Abrams Creek crossing less than a tenth mile from the start. As the trail reaches the creek, a few steps lead down the bank to a big boulder that likely supported the footbridge now gone without a trace. A wet ford is required, but this is not a convenient place to do so. We backtrack several yards to an easier shallow, level location. On the opposite side, I wave goodbye to Allen, slip through vegetation to the trail, and pause to don boots.

Purple-flowering Raspberry fruit

Rabbit Creek Trail begins just inside the park’s far western boundary across the road from the ranger station and runs a contorted route east to the western end of Cades Cove. It climbs nearly 1,000 feet on Pine Mountain, descends 600 feet to cross its eponymous creek, ascends 800 feet to cruise Andy McCully Ridge, and finally drops another 600 feet before crossing Mill Creek at the Abrams Falls trailhead. Both climbs stretch over two miles each.


Pitch Pine (left) has large bark plates. Virginia Pine bark is small, scaly and sloughs off higher up.

The first few tenths of a mile cut through Abrams Creek’s flat valley carpeted with invasive Japanese Stiltgrass and Lady’s Thumb. A length of thick steel cable snaking through the underbrush evidences the logging past. Soon the trail begins to climb Pine Mountain, doing so in stages along a ridge line with a few short steep climbs, mostly moderate grades, and some pleasant level stretches. Despite these steep grades, poor routing up the ridge line’s nose, heavy use, and horse traffic, erosion is minimal. The trail follows an old road and is fairly smooth.

I hiked the initial 2.5 miles of Rabbit Creek a decade ago on my first Fern Foray, part of a survey for Discover Life in America, and there is a feeling of déjà vu. Not much has changed with the trail, though the same cannot be said for me. Despite 10 additional years, I’m a better, stronger hiker now than then and much more knowledgeable about the park, particularly its natural history. This time around, I can fully appreciate what Pine Mountain has to offer.

Big-leaf Aster

The lower slopes feature Devils Walking-stick, Wild Hydrangea, Alternate-leaf Dogwood, and Purple-flowering Raspberry (Rubus odorata). A beautiful old spreading Chestnut Oak graces the ridge, joined by other dry upland species like Red Maple and Sassafras. A Black Gum (Nyssa sylvatica) is decked in colorful fall finery. There are even a few young, healthy Eastern Hemlocks at least 10 feet tall and lush with dense foliage. White and Virginia pines are plentiful. One of the latter growing beside a Pitch Pine (Pinus rigida) allows a single photo to capture the perfect bark comparison.

Big-leaf Aster (Eurybia macrophylla) and Rabbit Tobacco occupy open, dry exposures. Here, the normally dainty Southern Harebell grows into bushy branched clumps that warrant a double-take. There are two plants I cannot identify. Thick-textured, lanceolate leaves form small but dense swathes across the ground. A stem with narrow, whorled leaves holds a panicle of yellow buds. Without flowers, unknown herbaceous plants are impossible to key.

Glade Fern

These open areas also feature vistas overlooking the valley of Abrams Creek toward Happy Valley and Chilhowee Mountain. The trail becomes rougher and more gravelly descending the back side of Pine Mountain. Past the Hannah Mountain junction, Rabbit Creek becomes overgrown for a brief stretch but soon clears along a narrow path. Not far from the junction is a dry draw literally filled with Glade Fern (Diplazium pycnocarpum). This fern is most often associated with basic soils, a condition indicative of limestone not commonly found in the Smokies. Such an extensive stand is truly an anomaly here.

A small dry draw is full of Glade Fern

As the trail continues a gradual descent toward Rabbit Creek, it passes through a very narrow valley. Descriptions in the Smokies hiking guide (the little brown book) don’t often wax poetic, but Rabbit Creek Trail’s author Woody Brinegar comes close, calling this section “one of the most delightful trail features in all of the Smokies…dark, sheltered…the sun slips in at noon only, and then is excluded by the thick forest canopy…absolutely unchanged since the first human passed through…time stands frozen.” It doesn’t seem quite that captivating at face value, but those words running through my mind as I ‘pass through’ serve to enhance its charm and create a special experience. In this stretch, the trail and a tiny rocky creek become one, providing an easy challenge that breaks things up a bit and keeps it interesting.

The narrow valley where “time stands frozen.”

The trail bottoms out at Rabbit Creek near the halfway mark. It’s a shallow, lovely creek maybe 20 feet across. Two lines of small stones laid in an ‘X’ pattern provide options for dry crossing. On the other side is Campsite #15. I stop here to eat lunch.

Close enough to the creek for ease of access but distant enough for the water to be a low soothing burble, Campsite #15 is a spacious and beautiful location. A grove of tall treated hemlocks shade the back site, encompassed by a ring of Partridgeberry carpeting the sloping edges. I’d love to stay here sometime. I must confess Rabbit Creek Trail is defying my negative expectations at every step.

Campsite 15

The second climb, a little on the rocky side, takes me to Andy McCully Ridge. Here the trail joins a wide old road cruising about one mile nearly level with slight undulations. Circumventing blowdowns is the only impediment. I find a log studded with the interlocking blocks of Ceramic Tile fungus (Xylobolus frustulatus).

Three-quarters of the way along the ridge, the trail dips slightly, levels a bit, then rises again. This is Coon Butt. Mr. McCully farmed on the ridge, and Coon Butt was part of his land. There has to a compelling story behind this place name, and I am sorely disappointed to discover Coon Butt isn’t even listed in Place Names of the Smokies! Other than the official definition of a “butt” (the end of a ridge), one can only assume that a family of raccoons shared this ridge end with Mr. McCully. Wikipedia claims Coon Butt is the 422nd highest peak in Tennessee at 2,326 feet.

Ceramic Tile fungus

Past Coon Butt, the trail descends gently for a half mile through pines and hardwoods, levels for a half mile, and descends again more steeply. Walking is easy until the final descent. There are more wet areas and another long stretch walking down a rocky stream bed. This one is neither as charming nor interesting as the narrow valley earlier. And thanks to choking stands of Japanese Stiltgrass, there is no flora here worth spit.

Mill Creek

Quite suddenly, the trail bottoms out and the gurgle of Mill Creek greets my ears. I round a corner and find this shallow stream lying like a glistening sheet of paper before me. At or slightly above ankle depth, it is a fitting bookend to Rabbit Creek’s first ford. The trailhead proper is about 30 yards past the far shore. My car is visible in the parking lot as I cross. I’ve been on trail 5 hours.

Dark clouds carrying what’s left of Harvey must have frightened away visitors. There are few cars in the lot, few on the cove’s road, and few at the visitor center as I pass. Driving home, I can’t pinpoint the source of my initial low expectations for Rabbit Creek, but I really enjoyed it and would welcome another hike there some day.

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Beard Cane Trail Sign, August 28, 2017It’s mid afternoon. My ankle is sore, I’m way behind schedule, and I’m standing at the Beard Cane trailhead. Pink flagging tape hangs from the sign post. It’s a message from Allen Sweetser. He hiked up here the day before so he could spend all day today exploring an old logging community known as El Dorado near Campsite #3. I’m joining him at camp tonight.

First Section, Beard Cane Trail, August 28, 2017

First section of the trail off Cooper Road Trail

I take a photo of the trail sign and notice someone has scratched letters below the Beard Cane name: “Don’t Go!” Beard Cane has had its trials. In April 2011, an EF4 tornado left an impenetrable swathe of downed trees. Work crews from several parks around the country joined GSMNP crews to clear and repair this and all other trails on the Abrams Creek end of the park. Beard Cane and Hatcher Mountain received extensive damage and were closed for two years, reopening in April 2013. A second campsite on Beard Cane, #11, was obliterated beyond repair and closed permanently.

Second Section 01, Beard Cane Trail, August 28, 2017

A tornado tore through the forest resulting in a very rough trail

There is no way to know when the ominous warning was etched on the sign. I proceed with piqued interest and hope for the best. The 4.2-mile, low elevation trail begins at 1,900 feet dropping into the arrow-straight valley between Beard Cane Mountain and the continuation of Hatcher Mountain, running northeast/southwest. It climbs out of this valley at the far end to join Ace Gap Trail on the park’s boundary in its northwest corner. For much of the way, the trail follows Beard Cane Creek, and the two crisscross regularly. Campsite #3 is located at the valley’s far end beside Hesse Creek, into which Beard Cane’s little stream flows. Hesse Creek exits the park and winds through Miller Cove, eventually feeding into Little River near Walland, TN.

Beard Cane Trail begins as an easy descent through a lovely deciduous forest on a smooth wide path for 3/4 mile. I can maintain a pace to make up some lost time under these accommodating conditions. I should know by now this is too good to last. As the trail reaches the valley, gaps in the canopy indicate the start of the worst storm damage. In short order the canopy disappears altogether. In its place is a solid block of vegetation: young trees and saplings, wild vines, brambles, rank herbaceous growth. Carved through the center of the block is a narrow hallway snaking between dense walls of foliage.

Now that wouldn’t be so bad if this is the extent of it. It’s not. The “trail” is barely Second Section 02, Beard Cane Trail, August 28, 2017detectable as a crease through thick clumps of grasses and junk plants, much of it non-native and invasive. The ground beneath is as rough as any I’ve encountered in the Smokies. It’s a minefield of bumps, humps, gouges, pits, rocks, and muck all camouflaged beneath low but dense hummocks of vegetation. I have no idea if my next step will land on solid ground or plunge ankle deep in mud, if I’ll step up a few inches, drop down several inches, or topple sideways into that wall of plants. Fortunately, maintenance had come through not long before and trimmed long grabbing canes of brambles. Unfortunately, these thorny canes now litter the “trail” as one more tripping hazard to avoid. Picking my way barefoot through a half mile of broken glass would be easier and faster. So much for making good time. At this rate, it will be dark before I reach camp.

Third Section, Beard Cane Trail, August 28, 2017

Thankfully, a normal trail resumes

It does come to an end; mercifully, the whole trail is not like this. How long is this section? I can’t say with any accuracy, other than it seems interminable. It’s less than a mile, perhaps no more than a half mile. Abruptly, like a mirage, a dry dirt path through the forest appears ahead, and upon arrival, I’m tempted to fall to my knees and kiss the ground. It reminds me of that bizarre point on Hwy. 441 when you exit the commercial clutter of Pigeon Forge and cross into the serene sanctuary of the park, as if dropping into the Land of Oz, “Toto…we’re not in Kansas anymore.”

Beard Cane Creek 01, Beard Cane Trail, August 28, 2017

The trail and creek weave through the valley.

From here on, the trail loses its ‘Mr. Hyde’ personality, and any challenges further along reflect more standard fare: some overgrowth or short wet, mucky passages. As I mentioned, the trail and the creek cross paths quite often. While late summer hikes are often fraught with out-of-control plant growth, they are usually blessed with low, easy stream crossings. It’s hard to imagine Beard Cane Creek posing much of a problem except during periods of extended rainfall. At its widest, it’s maybe 5 or 6 feet across and the water level rarely tops my boot soles. Rock hops are simple.

Liverwort, Dumortiera hirsuta, Beard Cane Trail, August 28, 2017

Liverwort Dumortiera

The neatest plants I find are three liverworts growing on wet rocks in the creek. Dumortiera hirsuta and Conocephalum salebrosum form large mats. These liverworts don’t have ‘leaves’ per se; instead they produce flat green tissue called a thallus and resemble lichens. The first is dark green, smooth and shiny. The latter has the texture and pattern of snakeskin. A third liverwort is the ‘leafy’ type, producing tiny leaves that give it a moss-like appearance. I’m unable to ID this one.

Liverwort, Conocephalum salebrosum, Beard Cane Trail, August 28, 2017

Liverwort Conocephalum

As Beard Cane Creek gets wider, I know I’m getting close to the campsite. At the final crossing I see Allen up ahead and yell at him. He greets me with a hug. He had been worried about me. It’s nearly 5:00. I explain my day — the fall, hurt ankle, trail confusion, dropped gear. He had a better day following old rail grades and finding other signs of the lumbering operation around El Dorado.

Campsite #3 is tucked in a curve of Hesse Creek as it slips through a deep gap in Beard Cane Mountain upstream from the confluence with Beard Cane Creek. It represents the lowest point on trail at 1,300 feet and is a fine little site. Allen and I fix our dehydrated suppers, enjoy pleasant conversation, and retire to our tents at 8:30.

Arundinaria, Beard Cane Trail, August 28, 2017

River Cane, a grass, accounts for the trail name

Next morning we are in no particular hurry. We’ve got 6.2 miles to cover, meeting Susan around 1:00 at the Rich Mountain Road trailhead for Ace Gap. The last part of Beard Cane requires a rock hop over Hesse Creek and 0.6-mile, 500-foot climb out of the valley to the Ace Gap Trail junction on the park’s northern boundary. Hesse Creek is maybe 10 feet wide but very shallow and easy to cross.

Angelica venenosa fruit, Beard Cane Trail, August 29, 2017

Hairy Angelica fruit

The final climb is smooth and steady likely following an old road. Remnants of another old road are visible to the right, and it soon ties in to the trail. We kick up a large rusty bolt in the path. Clusters of Hairy Angelica (Angelica venenosa) fruit allows Allen and me an opportunity to discuss the differences between it and Canada Wild Lovage (Ligusticum canadense), two plants I often confuse. These fruits are finely hairy and have winged tissue to either side with low ribs in between.

Fungi Omphalotus illudens, Beard Cane Trail, August 29, 2017

Jack-o-lantern fungi

We reach Beard Cane’s northern terminus at 10:00 and begin the up-and-down see-saw of Ace Gap Trail. A bright grouping of the fungi Jack-o-lantern (Omphalotus illudens) grows at the base of an oak. During a snack break at the former location of now-closed Campsite #14, Allen finds a large population of a vine that appears to be Wisteria. Unsure if it is the native or non-native species, I make note to inform park officials so they can check it out.

Susan and their dog Lacie are waiting for us when we arrive at Rich Mountain Road. Later that afternoon, we drive my car to the Abrams Falls Trail parking area in preparation for my day hike of Rabbit Creek tomorrow. Tonight we stay at the cabin they share with friends in Dry Valley not far from the park boundary.

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