Bradley Fork Trail
After lunch our first day in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, we hiked the Bradley Fork Trail, which led upstream from the Smokemont Campground that we were calling home for a few days. The trail followed the creek through rhododendron and hemlock forest, and we enjoyed the spirit-renewing sound of birdsong and rushing water and the sights of wildflowers and butterflies.
We had intended to connect to the Smokemont Loop Trail for the return trip but missed the connection and ended up walked several miles out of our way. Just as I was beginning to question where we were, we encountered a family walking towards us who asked if we knew which trail we were on. They seemed to think that they, too, had missed the Smokemont Loop.
We all retraced our steps and eventually discovered how we had missed the junction. Earlier both they and we had come across a fisherman sitting on a bench and stopped to talk to him. Distracted by conversing with him, we all missed the sign for the trail turnoff and the spot behind the fisherman where the trail led sharply down to cross the creek via a small footbridge. How easy it is to miss important details when your eyes and mind are diverted!
With the day growing shorter, we all opted to go back the way we came instead of doing the longer loop trail. Happily, the return offered a completely different view of the trail and we noticed more things we had missed on our outbound journey. How wonderful it is to get a change of perspective!
Newton Bald Trail
The next day dawned cloudy and cold. Rain arrived after breakfast but then cleared a bit, so we set off on the Newton Bald Trail leading from the campground steeply uphill to a little “bald” (a clearing in the forest usually on a hilltop) at around 5,000 feet in elevation. The trail narrowed considerably as we climbed through the rhododendron forest, hugging a hillside that easily exceeded a 60-degree incline.
The mist rolled in, followed by drizzle and then full-on rain by the time the trail leveled out at what felt like a summit. Getting colder and wetter despite our rain gear, we decided to turn around before reaching the bald, as the clouds and fog would leave little for us to see, anyway.
It was a good decision because the weather improved as we dropped in elevation. We eventually descended below the rain clouds but still had to watch our footing on the trail’s slippery tree roots, wet leaves and mud. One false step and we would go careening down the mountainside!
Little River and Cucumber Gap
We awoke the next morning to sunshine and blue sky and opted for a drive to the other side of the park while the weather was good. We went up and over Newfound Gap, passing the Tennessee-North Carolina state line and dropping down to the Sugarlands Visitor Center. Here the park film emphasized the trees and the creation of the park in an effort to save the forest from being completely logged.
To avoid the crowds, we headed to the Elkmont area for a creekside picnic followed by a hike along the Little River Trail. The trail began on an old road dotted with abandoned cabins, the relics of summer retreats for Knoxville’s elite in the early 1900s (see our previous post, Life is Great in the Smokies). We followed a delightfully gurgling and cascading creek and looked for but failed to see any of the park’s famous salamanders along the way.
This time we were able to find the junction to loop back to the car via the Cucumber Gap Trail. Cucumber Gap was a more interesting, narrow and tree-root-lined affair that followed Jake’s Creek and undulated through the forest, crossing numerous smaller creeks and rivulets. Here, too, we poked around in suitable salamander habitat — stream sides and under rocks, logs, and leaf litter — but came up empty. Surprisingly, we passed no one on this stretch of our hike.
We connected back to the parking area via the Elkmont Campground and saw even more abandoned homes and cottages whose former owners belonged to the Appalachian Club. Late in the day with the sun having moved behind the surrounding mountains, the place had a dusky, lonely atmosphere.
On day four, to take advantage of exceptionally clear skies, we drove up first thing in the morning to Clingman’s Dome, the highest point in the park at an elevation of 6,683 feet. We got there before the throngs arrived for the day and walked the half-mile paved trail from the parking lot to the observation tower. The 360-degree views and the forest here were magnificent, and we would have lingered longer if it weren’t so cold and windy.
Returning to the parking lot, we set off downhill along the rocky Forney Ridge Trail through shady spruce-fir forest out to Andrew’s Bald. This time we made it all the way to the bald, which afforded views almost as impressive as those at Clingman’s Dome. In ridge after ridge of varying shades of blue, the Smoky Mountains filled the horizon. We found a spot in the soft, dry grass to have a snack and enjoy the sunshine-warmed air. As much as we enjoyed it, we had to tear ourselves away from this idyllic place to get one more hike in for the day.
On the Tennessee side of the park, the Chimney Tops Trail is a moderately difficult yet popular trail that climbs two miles and affords more dramatic views of the park. The trail crosses several bridges spanning Road Prong Creek before heading steeply uphill, eventually coming to wooden steps that twist their way alongside a moss-covered, rocky series of cascades and trickling springs.
We finally emerged to the “chimney tops,” a narrow ridge of slick yet jagged rock pinnacles that required a scramble on all fours. It was easier than it looked, although anyone with a fear of heights would have to turn around before reaching the absolute summit. We felt a great sense of accomplishment at the top, even though we saw little kids making it all the way up. It was spring break for many schools during our stay, so families made up a large percentage of the visitors on the trails and in the campground. Going down was easier than it looked, too, because from above we could spot adequate footholds and handholds. This thoroughly enjoyable hike was one of my favorites.
During our brief stay at Great Smoky Mountains National Park, we covered only a tiny fraction of the 800+ miles of trails here. Streams, waterfalls, wildlife and wildflowers fill the park, and remnants of the area’s history transported us back in time. We can’t wait for a return visit to the Smokies.