Staff Recommended Hikes
Little Brier Gap Trail to
Walker Sisters’ Homestead
By Marti Smith
Each step along Little Brier Gap Trail provides hikers a wealth of history accompanied by a pleasant walk in the woods.
Start by parking your vehicle in the Metcalf Bottoms Picnic Area on Little River Road and walking over the one-way auto bridge. Then, just a short distance to the right after the metal gate, be prepared in a half mile to take a step back in time. After walking a half-mile as you come upon the Little Greenbrier Schoolhouse. This historic structure also doubled as a Primitive Baptist Church until 1925. It was built in 1882 by John Walker and his son James Thomas. When you enter the building and retire to bench seating, imagine what it must have been like to attend school here. If the image of children walking uphill both ways, sometimes in bare feet comes to mind, you won’t be too far off. The curriculum included old-fashioned spelling bees, reading, writing, and arithmetic. Just outside the building facing west is a cemetery. Take a minute to explore this area and get a real sense --due to many premature deaths -- of just how hard life was back then.
After enjoying the peace and solitude of this area, continue up a short grade and turn right on an old roadbed. This path follows a small stream known as Little Brier Branch. In another mile you’ll see a side trail that looks like a driveway due to two tire-rutted paths. This leads to the Walker Sisters’ home site, which is just 2/10 of a mile up that road when you reach the springhouse. The original buildings included a barn, apple house, smokehouse, blacksmith shop, corncrib, pigpen, and a tub mill; the cabin, corncrib and springhouse are all that remain.
The cabin was constructed from poplar logs insulated with rocks and mud. Living here for 40 years, the Walker Sisters’ story of living off the land is indicative of hard work, strength, and their love of the Smokies. Their father planted more than 20 types of apple trees, as well as cherry, peach, and plum varieties. For their dairy and meat supply they raised sheep, goats, chickens, and hogs.
The remaining six sisters were given $4,750 from the government and granted a lifetime lease in 1940 at the direction of U.S. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. When Carolyn later married, Margaret, Louisa, Hettie, Polly, and Martha were left to run the farm.
You may want to sit on the porch, enjoy your lunch and the quiet and solitude of this now sylvan area. Take a minute and imagine what the holidays would have been like at this homestead… Around November 1st the sisters made three apple stack cakes for the upcoming holidays. They wrapped them in muslin and sprinkled them with a little moonshine for preservation purposes. Their brothers made the moonshine and the sisters only used it for medicinal purposes. Sometimes they would use muscadine wine made from the fruit of the vines on the land. Because it was not a celebration in the Bible, Thanksgiving was not as celebrated with the sisters as it is today.
Christmas, on the other hand, was a different story. Hettie knitted stockings to hang on the fireplace mantle to fill with homemade gifts, fruit, and candy. When taken down the stockings were used as stockings were intended for in the day -- to wear. They also decorated their mantle with white pine swags. Family and friends in the area gathered on Christmas Day for a big feast. The menu included ham, turkey, mutton, and vegetables, and of course the apple stack cakes mentioned earlier. There were also blackberry dumplings cooked in the fireplace. It makes my mouth water just thinking about the glorious food they prepared for the celebration of the birth of Christ.
Now that you’ve had the opportunity to take a trip back in time, I hope you are refreshed mentally and physically for your walk back to your car.
~ A very special thanks goes to Robin Goddard, V.I.P. in the Smokies, for sharing with me her memories of growing up and visiting the Walker Sisters.
By Craig Johnston
Seiver Team Member
Having found the thrill-seeker mentality later in life, I figured why not tackle the trail with the highest difficulty rating in the park. Bullhead is one of five routes to Le Conte and is most often hiked down the mountain. Not for me; I hit this head on from the bottom.
We start by parking in the Rainbow Falls lot and walking to Old Sugarlands Trail. It’s just a 4/10-mile stroll on an old roadbed to reach the trailhead, including a nice wash bridge or log bridge option crossing of Le Conte Creek. The trail starts on the left and is well signed. Almost immediately it begins a constant climb up the ridge via several meandering switchbacks with impressive Thunderhead Sandstone cliffs and boulders. We even saw a couple of tiny caves that could house a bear for winter. Just short of three miles up, the trail levels off for a short while.
At this point we passed Bullhead Peak at near 4,300 feet in elevation. The name "Bullhead" comes from the mountain’s resemblance to a buffalo head when viewed from the far north. As we crossed the ridge we come across a Civilian Conservation Corps rock stack called The Pulpit, which is a nice place to take a break and admire the view. To the southeast we got a good view of Balsam Point, the next peak to conquer on the way up. The trail becomes noticeably steeper and rocky as we'd pressed on through a nice Rhododendron tunnel. The higher elevation affords nice views of Sugarland Mountain and Rocky Spur, which were both bursting with fall color.
Near the five-mile mark, we rounded Balsam Point and the trail leveled off considerably. Beautiful southern views of the park interior greeted us first, then as the trail continues we got incredible views to the northwest of Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge some 4,500 feet below. At roughly 6.3 miles we came to the Rainbow Falls junction and continued to climb the final mile to reach High Top, or the actual summit of Mount LeConte. We chose to stop and refuel at the lodge just before the final .3-mile push to the summit. The lodge offers coffee, lemonade and box lunches to day hikers for a fee. Potable water is available at a pump for free. The 6,593-foot summit of LeConte offers no views, unfortunately, but we found a big pile of rocks for a photo opp. Of note is a short .2-mile spur trail near the lodge that goes up to Cliff Tops, one of the most impressive views in the park.
Round trip Bullhead took us 15.4 miles and 3,993 feet of elevation gain when combined with both High Top and Cliff Tops. There are no significant water sources along the trail. We were prepared for dramatic weather changes and kept in mind that the lodge closes in mid-November. This hike is rated strenuous, but it is well worth the effort.
Mt. Sterling Trail
By Marti Smith
Marketing and Membership Associate
GSMNP 900 Mile Club Member
Mt. Sterling, a short, high-elevation hike on the park’s far eastern reaches, mistakenly earned its named after a two-foot wide streak of silver was discovered in the Pigeon River at the base of the mountain. The streak turned out to be lead.
This trail is accessed from N.C. Highway 284 that runs for 16 miles between Big Creek and Cataloochee. Round-trip mileage for this hike is 5.4; it is considered strenuous due to a 2,000-foot elevation gain contained within the 2.7-mile ascent. The summit reaches an elevation of 5,824 feet. Switchbacks make it a little more enjoyable...
At 2.3 miles the trail joins Mt. Sterling Ridge Trail, at which point the tower is just a half-mile away. Despite trying to catch a glimpse on the way up, the tower sneaks up on you, appearing from behind the trees as you climb. As you reach the top you enter a spruce-fir forest, which consists of Red Spruce and Frazer Fir trees. This is where the Park Service first documented the arrival of the Balsam Wooly Adelgid in 1963. This non-native insect attacks Fraser Fir tree and has done a lot of damage since its introduction to Easter forests, including the Smokies. As a result of this infestation, you can still see some of the dead trees.
The Civilian Conservation Corps built the 60-foot-tall fire tower in 1933. It is believed to be the highest remaining fire tower in the eastern United States. It was in use until the 1960s when aerial surveillance made fire towers obsolete. It is one of four remaining fire towers within the park boundary. Backcountry campsite 38 makes for a nice overnight should you be motivated to enjoy the higher elevations a little longer.
Historically speaking, this area is significant in that bison once used the gap to access the valley below. Native Americans used it as well, which has been confirmed by the evidence of Indian campsites and fireplaces.
Mt. Sterling Trail is one of my favorite hikes, and I recommend tackling it in the winter. You will be rewarded by ridge after ridge of blue mountain views of the Southern Appalachians.
Mingus Creeks trail and cemeteries
By Amanda Gomez, North Carolina Manager
Mingus Creek Trail begins at the end of the parking lot for the Mingus Mill. Just before the trail begins though, off to the right, is a path that leads up the hill. At the top of the path is a slave cemetery. If you've never been, you should go. This cemetery is maintained by the park and revered by all of us who work on the NC side. There are no signs indicating that slaves are buried here; this information has been passed down to us from people like former ranger Kent Cave on training hikes. There are no headstones honoring the dead, but their lives and sacrifices have not gone unnoticed.
As you continue to the trailhead for Mingus Creek Trail, you'll be able to enjoy so many different types of ferns, flowers, mushrooms and trees. I've also seen deer and bears on this trail. I've also seen some salamanders near here.
This was once a thriving community. It's neat to follow the trail, which is an old roadbed mostly, as it passes old driveways, schools, and the like. Mingus Cemetery is further up the trail, past the shooting range for the rangers. This cemetery has headstones and is fascinating to walk around in. I hope you guys get a chance to check it out.
October - Meigs Creek Trail
By Marti Smith, Marketing and Membership Associate
If you like mountain streams, waterfalls, and creek crossings, then this is your hike! Meigs Creek Trail is off Little River Road near “The Sinks.” It’s a 6.8-mile, round-trip, out-and-back hike, during which you’ll cross water 18 times. So go ahead and double that to 36 total creek crossings.
This time of year the water is typically low, making rock hopping fairly easy, but consider bringing water shoes just in case. Trekking poles are also recommended for those not too sure of their rock-hopping abilities. I wore my water shoes for most of this hike in order to avoid the continual removing of my boots or getting them wet.
In 2010 the national park gave the trailhead’s parking area at “The Sinks” a facelift so that there are better viewing areas and more parking spaces. I advise getting there early, as this is a very popular spot. The trailhead is just beyond the viewing area.
The climb is steep at first and takes you over the western ridge of Curry-He mountain. The trail levels out some after about a mile. You’ll find outstanding views of the surrounding mountains in late fall and early winter. Continuing on the trail descends to Meigs Creek. At 1.5 miles you’ll encounter your first creek crossing. It’s at this point that you might want to think about changing into your water shoes. From here the trail follows Meigs Creek all the way to its headwaters along the northern slope of Meigs Mountain.
The trail and the creek are named for “Return” Jonathan Meigs, a Revolutionary War veteran, surveyor, and agent to the Cherokee. Meigs was the man responsible for hanging a bright colored blanket on top of a nearby mountain to signal the Cherokee. That act gave Blanket Mountain its name, so labeled by the Native Americans. At one time Blanket Mountain was home to one of the park’s fire towers.
Before you reach mile 2 and after five creek crossings, look for a spur trail to the right where you’ll find Meigs Cascades, a beautiful, tranquil spot. When you reach the 15th creek crossing, Meigs Creek becomes very small and the trail moves higher for about half a mile, when it finally reaches Buckhorn Gap at the intersection with Lumber Ridge and Meigs Mountain trails.
From here you have the option of descending via another route if you’ve used two cars. Take the Lumber Ridge Trail to come out at Tremont, or Meigs Mountain Trail to come out in Elkmont. Otherwise, it’s probably time to turn around and head back the way you came. In either case, you’ll be traveling through beautiful, second-growth forest.
This is a hike of choices; pick the one that best suits your interests in nature.
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