2015-16 Recommended Hikes
by Marti Smith, Smoky Mountain 900 Miler
& GSMA's Membership Associate
March - Abrams Falls
5 miles round trip, rated moderate
The hike to Abrams Falls is one of the most popular in the Smokies. The trailhead - located about half way around the Cades Cove Loop Road down a gravel road - is bordered by Abrams Creek until it rises and passes over a low pine ridge. I have seen Great Blue Herons fishing in this creek in the past. You may also spot an otter as they were reintroduced in this area.
The sights and sounds of the creek enhance the soothing qualities of nature in all seasons. This wide, relatively level path passes through rhododendron growing not far from the stream and includes four elevation changes along the way. The second rise is located at Arbutus Ridge, which is named for the Trailing Arbutus, an early spring bloomer.
As you descend from Arbutus Ridge, look for a display of unusual wildflowers. A high cluster of Bleeding Hearts grows up the rocky cliffs. This is one of the only places I’ve seen this flower in the park. Another rare flower found here is Gay-wing; its tiny vivid pink blossoms appear in May. Mountain laurel also grows in the upper dry slopes along pines and oaks.
The trail eventually runs above the falls, drops to Wilson Branch, and crosses a foot log at 2.5 miles. Abrams Falls is 25 feet tall and plunges into a large pool of water 100 feet long and almost 100 feet wide. In winter months early morning sunrises over the ridge can yield rainbows near the falls. The best vantage point for this phenomenon is to stand on the rocks near the falls.
Be sure to bring a snack and a drink, or even better, a picnic lunch, as this is a great place to enjoy the beauty and roaring water flow of this water feature in the Smokies. This hike also pairs well with a day trip to the most visited area of the park… Cades Cove!
February - Kephart Prong
4 miles round trip, rated moderate
This hike is a gradual 830-foot ascent along a branch of the Oconlauftee River, strewn with history stemming from a Civilian Conservation Corps camp in the area.
The trail starts out on an old road bed. You’ll start to see evidence of the camp very soon after starting. Look for large boxwood shrubs that indicate a front yard. You’ll also find a well preserved, non-working stone water fountain and a large hearth chimney nearby in the middle a stand of hemlocks.
The trail narrows after this with a foot log or creek crossing option. Around the 0.7 mile, look for two cement platforms, which are probably the remains of a fish hatchery for trout and bass.
At 1.0 mile the trail becomes a corridor of tall American beech trees and ferns along the stream. Be prepared for four more stream crossings along the route.
Toward the end of the trail if you look closely to your left, you can see lichen-covered railroad irons from a narrow gauge railroad belonging to the Champion Fiber Company.
The trail ends at the intersection of Sweat Heifer and Grassy Branch Trails, where you’ll find a backcountry shelter. This shelter is one of the few in the park not located along the A.T. It is located on the former site of the camp and is a nice place to have lunch before returning back to Newfound Gap Road.
December - Finley Cane
5.6 miles round trip, rated moderate
This is one of my favorite and most memorable hikes. I like to do this one in the autumn, after most of the leaves have fallen, so that I can ramble through the woods and enjoy the topography of the land in the mountains.
The Finley Cane Trail starts out on the left of Laurel Creek Road, 5.5 miles from the Townsend “Y” at the Finley Cane/Lead Cove trailheads. It parallels the road for a short distance, then you will start to notice rosebay rhododendrons and Fraser magnolias. The trail veers away from the road and you cross Sugar Cove Creek, which is an easy rock hop and a good place to look for salamanders. After crossing a small spring branch you will begin to climb the north flank of Bote Mountain. At this point you will enter a rhododendron tunnel, one of my all-time favorite features of Smoky Mountain hiking.
Continuing on you will rock hop Laurel Cove Creek and Hickory Tree Branch within 200 feet of one another. This forest is made up of many young and small trees. This allows for great views of the forest with grapevines hanging down in abundance. Depending on the time of year you might see birds in pursuit of the fruit of these vines.
Throughout this hike you will have been following a gentle rise and fall of the trail. Mushrooms are also plentiful due to the mixture of wet and dry areas. During the last mile, after a dry crossing of Finley Cove Creek, you will encounter a “cane patch.” Cane is the only native relative of bamboo in the park. It is the plant that the Cherokee use to make their sturdy river cane baskets. It prefers wet areas, but in this case it is in a dry area. In all of my hiking experiences here, it is the only place where I have seen a good patch in a dry area.
This combination of flora and fauna experiences on this trail makes it one a memorable hike.
GSMA hiking resources - All purchases support this national park!