Staff Recommended Hikes
September - Midnight Hole and Mouse Creek Falls
By Craig Johnston
For most of us, the Big Creek entrance to the park is a bit of a drive. But trust me when I say it’s worth the extra effort. The trailhead is easily accessed from the parking area, and there is a water fountain and permanent bathrooms close by. Big Creek is a mixed-use trail so you may find horses sharing the walk. The area has a rich history -- it was one of the first and most heavily logged, sections of the park. The
Crestmont Lumber Co. ran a mill nearby and sold the land to the park in the early 1930s. Portions of the mill’s brick foundation can still be seen near the trailhead. A CCC base camp was located near the trailhead, where 100 young men lived and worked as they constructed 40 miles of trails, three bridges and two fire towers from 1933-39.
Early in your hike you’ll notice that the trail is wide and quite good as it follows an old roadbed. The trail follows Big Creek upstream and offers numerous opportunities to overlook the water. We saw numerous butterflies along the first section. At roughly the 1-mile mark a short path on the right leads to a rock house used by early loggers as a temporary shelter. Continuing on, second-growth tuliptree, maples and hemlocks become abundant. Most of these trees took root about 1920-1935 after clear cutting. The trail narrows in spots and has a few rocky sections but remains a gentle uphill grade.
At 1.4 miles you’ll come to Midnight Hole, a six-foot waterfall that flows between several large boulders into a large pool that’s serves as a popular swimming hole. The water is 15-feet deep and black as night during summer and bluish-green in winter. It’s a great place to catch trout when there are no swimmers! Just beyond Midnight Hole you’ll find a ledge that offers an amazing, postcard view of the creek. You reach your destination at 2.0 miles when you see a clearing on the left and a hitching post. Continue to the creek and Mouse Creek Falls will greet you as it tumbles 50 feet, crosses an old railroad bed, and lands directly in the creek. Huge boulders and water chutes make this place a true gem. On a recent Sunday afternoon there wasn’t a sole there for the 45 minutes we enjoyed lunch. With only a 500-foot elevation gain over the two miles, it’s an easy hike that most should be able to handle. Give it a try!
September - Possum Holler
By Marti Smith
This adventure starts out on water! That’s right -- Contact GSMA Business Member Fontana Marina to make reservations for the six-mile/20-minute boat ride to the Proctor area of the Lakeshore Trail. Your ride will take you across Fontana Lake, which is surrounded by the Smokies to the north and Nantahala National Forest to the south. And don’t forget to make arrangements for a pick up at Eagle Creek at the terminus of the hike.
Once you disembark from the boat, walk about half a mile to the once-bustling town of Proctor near backcountry campsite #86. Cross the Proctor Bridge and hang a left. Almost immediately to your right you will see the Calhoun House, a white frame house with a porch and a rock foundation. The house, with its calming view of Hazel Creek from the porch, was built in 1928 and purchased by Granville Calhoun, a railroad builder for Ritter Lumber Company. The Ritter Lumber Company was the first and largest company to set up in the Hazel Creek area. They owned logging land in five different states, with properties consisting of 11 band mills, 11 planing mills, 11 flooring units, 8 dimension mills, 6 drying kilns, and 187 miles of railroad.
Lakeshore Trail is actually on roadbed that was once part of old N.C. Highway 288. About a half of mile past the Calhoun House, you’ll find a side trail on the right. Take this short uphill walk -- which has wooden steps at the beginning -- to the Proctor Cemetery, one of the larger cemeteries in the park. Moses and Patience Proctor are buried there. The Proctors migrated from Cades Cove in 1830 because the Cove was becoming too crowded for them and property was less expensive on the North Carolina side of the mountain. The first white settlers in that area, the Proctors now rest in the cemetery on the former site of their cabin.
As you continue back on down the trail to your right, you’ll notice several old home sites along the way. In about a mile a newer section of Lakeshore completed in 2001 comes into view. This is the “Possum Hollow” section of the trail. It was constructed to replace the “Pinnacle Creek” section, which was becoming too eroded and had too many creek crossings to maintain. The name “Possum Hollow” could be a carryover from Grace Lumpkin’s fictional novel “To Make My Bread,” in which she used the name to describe this area in her book.
From here in another mile, you’ll find a newer backcountry campsite at #88. Look for a well-preserved chimney on the south side of the trail shortly after the backcountry site. The abundance of three backcountry sites -- 86, 88 and 90 -- allows for overnight hiking if you desire to explore in the area more. Reservations are required for backcountry camping and can be made by calling 865-436-1297.
After hiking about 3.6 miles, the trail rounds a ridge and starts to descend. At this point you’ll find views of Fontana Lake and Nantahala National Forest.
At 4.4 miles you’ve reached Eagle Creek and backcountry campsite #90. I recommend spending the night here so you can do a little more exploring. If this is your choice, arrangements can be made for an early morning or afternoon return shuttle from the Fontana Marina.
This area is one of my favorite places in the Smokies, and I hope you enjoy it as much as I have. Have fun exploring, hiking, and enjoying nature and history.
August - Cucumber Gap
By Marti Smith
A variety of hiking experiences in one hike!
The Cucumber Gap Loop Trail, an approximately 5-mile, round-trip hike, provides hikers an outstanding combination of mountain environments, essentially making it a 5-for-1 experience. This hike includes a quiet walk in the woods, a waterfall destination, a riverside walk, an opportunity for wildlife watching, and a sampling of Great Smoky Mountains National Park history.
It’s best to start your adventure at the Little River Trailhead in Elkmont. Plenty of parking is available since the park upgraded the parking area a few years ago. The trail begins on an old logging roadbed and immediately travels past some of the vacant houses from the Elkmont summer home community. The park service asks that you enjoy these pieces of history from a distance, as many are not safe.
In no time at all you’re walking alongside Little River, where the sounds of rushing water are much louder due to the fact that this body of water is far from little. As you walk side by side with the river, be sure to look for otters. Some 14 otters were reintroduced to the park in the late 1980s. You never know when one may appear. Bears have been known to frequent this area, as well.
After hiking for about 2 miles, you’ll find yourself on a wide wooden bridge high above the river. Look to the right and you’ll see the beautiful Huskey Branch Cascades tumbling down out of the woods through a rhododendron thicket, and underneath your feet, down into the river below. I’ve stopped during most of my hikes this way to pose for photos with friends and help others take unforgettable group shots in front of this calming cascade.
In just under another half mile, you arrive at Cucumber Gap intersection, where the “quiet walk in the woods” section of this loop begins. This section of trail is 2.4 miles long; it rambles and undulates as a true hiking footpath should. The climb (if you can call it that) is no more than 500 feet to Cucumber Gap and an equal 500-foot descent to the intersection with Jakes Creek. I guarantee you’ll enjoy this peaceful walk among second-growth forest in the Smokies.
When you arrive at Jakes Creek, hike another half mile down the gravel road toward your second opportunity to see more of Elkmont’s history in its remaining buildings. After this it is just a short walk back to your car on a paved road to your right. I recommend this hike during all four seasons.
Congratulations! You just completed one of the national park’s most interesting and diverse loop trails.
July - Cataloochee Divide
By Marti Smith
Cataloochee Divide Trail is a beautiful, undulating crest trail that borders the National Park Boundary on the Eastern end of the park in North Carolina. It begins at the Cataloochee entrance to the park at Cove Creek Gap and ends six miles later at Double Gap near The Swag, a private resort near Maggie Valley.
This trail offers something to see year round, including spring wildflowers, a high elevation cooler walk during the summer months, outstanding fall foliage, and snowy winter views.
At the 1.5-mile point, be sure to look to the right for views of Cataloochee Valley. Cataloochee is a Cherokee word meaning “fringe standing erect.” When you look in this direction, you'll see this description come to life in the tall trees on the ridge.
In many places wooden fencing separates the park from privately held land. At times you can see folks on the other side of the fence walking their dogs or taking a stroll. It is the only trail in the park I'm aware that this situation occurs, except for possibly Cove Mountain. At one point along the fence you'll come to a bench in a small shelter. Take a minute here to enjoy the views of the North Carolina mountains, Jonathan Valley and Cove Creek Valley, maybe even have a little snack. This is called “Taylor’s Turn-Around," but I'm not sure why.
At 4.6 miles you'll reach the McKee Branch intersection at Purchase Gap. Just after this you'll enter a forest of yellow birch, yellow buckeye, red maple, and Eastern hemlock. The fence in this area was erected by the Civilian Conservation Corps. The trail continues to give you a variety of ups and downs to give you a total hiking experience and some good exercise with views of the Hemphill Creek Valley. Your turn-around point is where Double Gap and Hemphill Bald trails intersect.
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