Posts Tagged ‘Elkmont Nature Trail’

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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