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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.

Bench

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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