coverstory_3 (2007-44)

Lost Trails For Brave HikersThe IT'S FALL, GO OUTSIDE Issue (continued)

Feature Story

If you think you know every hike the Smokies have to offer, think again

by Ken Wise

The Great Smoky Mountains have more than 900 miles of official trails, providing hikers with reasonably easy access to most of the higher peaks and larger watersheds in the park. For the most part, these trails are well-graded, well-maintained, and clearly marked with signposts. However, for the hiker wishing to get far from the madding crowd and find a little extra excitement in their closeness with nature, let me suggest taking an off-trail excursion into the Smoky Mountain wilderness. Here are details of five of my favorites.

Bear Pen Hollow

Up until the time that the Alum Cave Trail was completed to the summit of Mount LeConte, a rudimentary path following Bear Pen Hollow Creek was the primary access to LeConte from the south side of the mountain. At its best, this trail was never more than a faint trace through the woods, so donâ’t expect to find a path to follow.

The â“trailâ” begins one-quarter mile above the loop-over on Newfound Gap Road at a point half-way between Cole Creek and Bear Pen Hollow Creek. The lower stretch of Bear Pen Hollow Creek is heavily infested with rhododendron. Do not get in it. The objective is to work around the rhododendron, then to follow the creek to its ultimate source at the top of a steep headwall.

Once above the upper end of the headwall, the trail mounts a knife-edge ridge and follows the crest of this ridge to the summit of West Point, the high peak just west of Cliff Top. Finding the correct ridge is not difficult, but hiking along it is another matter. Be prepared to squeeze through fir thickets and crawl through a couple of laurel tunnels.

The ridge extends straight to the summit of West Point, at which point the old Bear Pen Hollow Trail turned east to follow the rugged, fir-infested spine that extends between West Point and Cliff Top. The trail eventually emerges out onto the Alum Cave Trail just where it turns the corner around Cliff Top on its approach to LeConte Lodge.

Mill Creek Falls

Mill Creek Falls, the highest cascading waterfall in the Great Smoky Mountains, is situated remotely in a remarkable forest of magnificently large trees. The hike to Mill Creek Falls is not terribly difficult, but there remains a high probability of getting lost and not finding the falls.

The best place to begin hiking is a half-mile along Forge Creek Road (near the Cable Mill in Cades Cove) where an old wagon track can be found on the crest of a low ridge immediately to the left of the road. There are actually two old wagon tracks in the vicinity and both will lead eventually to Mill Creek. Upon reaching the creek, turn up stream and follow the wagon road where possible. The wagon road forded the stream several time on its journey to Sugar Cove, but the hiker may find it much easier to avoid the stream crossing by not following the road. In many places the road has been effaced by time and the elements of nature, so do not count on finding the road as a path of least resistance.

At Sugar Cove the road ends and the hiker must begin bushwhacking through the wilderness adjacent to Mill Creek. Eventually the steepness of the slopes adjacent to the stream will force the hiker to the right hand side of the stream and into one of the most splendid cove hardwood forests anywhere in the world. Great trees abound in a lush woodland environment. The grade gets continually steeper but the persistent hiker will be rewarded at Mill Creek Falls with one of the most spectacular displays of violently rushing water in all the Smokies.

John Barnes Cabin

This off-trail excursion actually has a trail that can be followed most of the way, but it still qualifies as a bushwhack. At the end of the trail are the remains of a primitive log cabin, a tiny cemetery, and a patch of lush grassland that appears to be out of place in this part of the Smokies.

Four-tenths of a mile along Ramsey Prong Road in Greenbrier, an old wagon track angles steeply up to the left. The track is bordered on one side by an impressive rock fence that follows the old road until it reaches Bird Creek. A path crosses the creek, proceeds through an old home site, then turns uphill and follows a wide flat ridge that extends eastward towards the foot of the Catstairs.

After proceeding for approximately a half mile the trail turns and crosses to the far side of the ridge and disappears as it approaches Little Bird Creek. At this point the absence of a trail is not important. Just turn upstream and follow the creek bed as Little Bird Creek will likely be dry. Eventually the trail can be found again on the far side of the stream bed as the grade becomes steeper.

The trail will eventually wind around until it comes upon a small cemetery consisting of four headstones enclosed with a sagging barbed-wire fence. A short distance away are the remains of the John Barnes family cabin, mostly a chimney surrounded by a few rotting logs. The cabin is situated along the upper lip of a two-acre bowl of marshy grassland.

Three Forks

The hike to Three Forks is a difficult excursion but it leads to one of the prettiest settings in the Smoky Mountains. Years ago there was a rudimentary trace called the Breakneck Ridge Trail that started out along the ridge just adjacent to the McGee Spring Backcountry Campsite. It descended to the head of Raven Fork at a place where three streams, emerging from a forest of fir and spruce, converged at right angles to one another to form a pool 30 feet wide and 12 feet deep. The pool was appropriately called Three Forks. At the edge of Three Forks is a wide open space once used for backcountry camping.

The hike from McGee Spring to Three Forks is no more than two miles, but the descent is very steep, the path indiscernible, and the rhododendron virtually impassable. But then, the hike to Three Forks is worth it. The best way to find Three Forks is to get a map, orient on the ridge above McGee Spring, and just begin descending in the approximately correct direction. At some point a stream leading to Three Forks will appear.

Lodge on Bear Branch

Across the highway from the Park Headquarters Building is the lower terminus of the Old Sugarlands Trail which follows the trace of unused highway Tenn. 31. A mile and a half up Old Sugarlands, the trail veers left and proceeds to Cherokee Orchard while the abandoned road trace for Tenn. 31 curls away to the right and continues until it stops immediately on the banks of the Little Pigeon River.

Now, back away from the river about 100 yards and begin bushwhacking through the woods on a course parallel to the river, going upstream, and maintaining the 100-yard margin. Within the next half mile, the hiker should cross two streams. The second, larger stream is Bear Branch. On a high level bench on the far side of the stream stands a stone building that resembles a lodge. The building is obscured by heavy vegetation and is not easily spotted from either across Bear Branch or below the bench.

The building is an abandoned one-room structure constructed mostly of stack river rocks with a low sloping kitchen unit affixed to the back. It sports a large fireplace at one end and what appears to be an outside porch or deck on the opposite. The building apparently had a wood floor and a loft, but these, along with the roof, are completely gone. Rock structures such as this one were rare in the upper reaches of the Smokies and it raises the question of who built it, why, and why here.

These five are only a few of the many possible off-trail excursions in the Smokies and all five possess an interesting landmark along the upper terminus. But the purpose of any off-trail excursion in the Great Smoky Mountains is not so much the pay-off at the end, but the satisfaction of knowing that one is alone and passing through an astonishing wilderness environment where few have gone before.

Ken Wise works at the University of Tennessee Library, and is author of four hiking books, including Hiking Trails of the Great Smoky Mountains.

PLEASE NOTE: As with any off-trail excursion, there are certain elements of risk that should be taken into consideration. The risks of getting disoriented or of incurring an injury are the most serious. Becoming hopelessly lost off-trail is highly unlikely, but can be quite unnerving to the inexperienced hiker. Similarly, the possibility of serious injury is not likely, but in the off-trail environment the situation understandably becomes more difficult. Hikers planning off-trail excursions should always let someone know the exact intended itinerary and adhere closely to the Boy Scout motto, â“Be Prepared.â”

⢠A Kayaking Quest: Kim Trevathan goes on a summer-long expedition to find the original rivers feeding our man-made lakes.


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