Hikes Abound in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Both Short and Long

This five-six day hike overs Smoky Mountains views from Mount Sterling and takes you past the Little Cataloochee Church. Photos by Danny Bernstein.

If national parks have their specialties, Great Smoky Mountains National Park is a hiker’s park.

The scenery is diverse: mountain views, old-growth trees, waterfalls, streams, and more shades of green than a paint chart. Trails are well-marked, wide, and easy to follow. Comfortable backcountry campsites and spacious front-country campgrounds make the park an excellent first-time, family camping destination.

Yet with all these amenities, wilderness hangs on in the rhododendrons and mountain laurels, the signature flowers of the area, which can be found in bloom from late March until August, depending on the altitude. Wildflowers, from the first bloodroot in early spring to the last asters and goldenrods in the fall, line many trails. Even the most industrious hiker, focused on covering miles, should slow down to smell the flowers.

Although the Smokies might be the most-visited national park in the country, only the roads and parking lots are congested. With more than 800 miles of trails, even popular trails are not very busy. If you get one mile off the road, you'll see almost no one. But where to start? This backpack loop in the Big Creek and Cataloochee area -- detailed below -- shows off the best of the eastern portion of the Smokies.

Cataloochee, on the North Carolina side of the Smokies, was the largest settlement in what became the park, supporting about 1,200 people at its peak. The first families came in 1836, attracted by good farmland and abundant forests. Twenty years later, with the next generation of settlers looking for land, the valley became overcrowded. Newcomers migrated over Noland Gap to the next valley, which they named Little Cataloochee.

As with other communities throughout the area, the people of Cataloochee were forced to sell their land to the government and move out when the park was formed in 1934. The National Park Service burned many buildings, concerned that the residents would sneak back to their homes. The Cataloochee valley went from wilderness to community back to (a modified) wilderness in less than a hundred years.

A few artifacts were save: churches, houses, barns and a school. The buildings are not laid out neatly in a circle but have been left in their original place. With that perspective in place, here's one of many backpack routes to consider:

Day 1

Starting at Big Creek Campground, you'll climb to the top of Mt. Sterling at 5,800 ft. Then you can climb the tower for outstanding 360-degree views.

Baxter Creek Trail...............6.1 miles....4,100 ft. ascent

Total for the day.................6.1 miles 4,100 ft. ascent

Stay at campsite #38 (advanced reservations required)

Day 2

Today you'll enjoy downhill walking into Little Cataloochee. In springtime, Long Bunk Trail is full of flowers. In Little Cataloochee, you'll pass two log cabins, two cemeteries, and Little Cataloochee Baptist Church. Then you'll climb up to Noland Gap the way settlers did in the 19th Century.

Mt. Sterling Trail........................2.0 miles.....downhill
Long Bunk Trai..........................3.6 miles.....downhill
Little Cataloochee Trail............... 4.0 miles.....900 ft. ascent
Pretty Hollow Gap Trail...............1.0 mile......400 ft. ascent

Total for the day........................10.6 miles...1,300 ft. ascent

Stay at Campsite #39 (no reservations required)

Day 3

Going away from Cataloochee brings you to a more remote area. Palmer Creek Trail offers great views of the stream and interesting rock formations. In late spring and early summer, rhododendrons and flame azaleas line the trail. On Balsam Mountain Trail, you'll follow a railroad grade, reminding hikers that most of the Smokies was logged before the area became a park.

Pretty Hollow Gap Trail..............0.2 miles....downhill
Palmer Creek Trail....................3.3 miles.... 1,500 ft. ascent
Balsam Mountain Road..............1.0 mile..... almost flat
Balsam Mountain Trail...............4.0 miles....1,200 ft. ascent

Total for the day.......................8.5 miles.....2,700 ft. ascent

Day 4

Mount Sterling Ridge Trail offers comfortable ridge walking in a spruce forest. When you go down Swallow Fork Trail, the vistas continue. At the intersection with Big Creek Trail is all about the wide creek. The campsite is large and right on the creek.

Balsam Mountain Trail......................0.2 miles.... almost flat
Mount Sterling Ridge Trail.................4.0 miles.... flat and downhill
Swallow Fork Trail............................4.0 miles.... downhill
Big Creek Trail.................................0.8 mile..... downhill

Total for the day...............................9.0 miles....downhill

Stay at campsite #37 (advance reservation needed)

Day 5

It will only take you a couple of hours to walk down Big Creek Trail back to your car. However, if you have the time, spend an extra day here to do a day hike that will take you on the Appalachian Trail.

Big Creek Trail................................1.3 miles.........200 ft. ascent
Camel Gap Trail...............................4.7 miles........1,500 ft. ascent
A.T................................................2.4 miles........400 ft. ascent
Low Gap........................................2.5 miles........200 ft. ascent
Big Creek Trail................................0.7 mile..........downhill

Stay at campsite #37 again (advance reservation required)

Total for the day 11.6 miles 2,300 ft. ascent

Day 6

Walk down 4.5 miles on Big Creek Trail, enjoying cascades and a wide trail back to your car.

Rules and Resources

Great Smoky Mountains National Park: www.nps.gov/grsm

Entry into the park is free and so are the backcountry campsites. You need to stay in either a designated shelter or backcountry campsites. All shelters and some campsites require reservations. Both are equipped with fire rings and the all-important pack suspension devices, meant to keep your food away from bears. Group size is limited to eight people.

Call 865-436-1231 up to a month before your trip to reserve a backcountry campsite. For backcountry campsites not requiring reservation, self-register for a permit available at major trailheads or at a ranger station. Right now, there's lots of water in the streams but all water has to be treated. Pets are not allowed on the backcountry trails.

Hiking Trails of the Smokies, a guide which describes every trail in the park, published by the Great Smoky Mountains Association

Great Smoky Mountains Trail Map, published by the Great Smoky Mountains Association

Great Smoky Mountains, Trails Illustrated Map # 229

3000 Miles in the Great Smokies by William A. Hart, Jr. published by the History Press. Mr. Hart has hiked in the Smokies for more than 40 years and recorded his impressions.

Cataloochee by Wayne Caldwell, published by Random House. The novel offers a good look at what life was like before the park came in - and it's a great read.

Getting There

Take exit 451 (Waterville Rd.) of I-40 on the Tennessee-North Carolina border. Turn left after crossing the Pigeon River. At the four-way intersection, continue straight ahead, passing Big Creek Ranger Station to Big Creek Picnic Area and hiker parking.

Oh, and by the way. Since the southern Appalachians are considered to contain stretches of temperate rain forest, it's likely that you'll encounter some rain on any extended backcountry trip. Hikers should always have raingear, no matter what the forecast.

Comments

Nice trip info. This is my wife and myself's favorite place in all the world.

Oh, thanks for this. Love the Smokies, we visit the Gatlinburg area every year with short trips through or in the park, but I've been wanting to do a trip with a little more attention to some nature hikes. This will be extremely useful, thanks again.

Thank you for highlighting our beautiful area! We live in Waynesville, NC just 20 minutes away from Cataloochee Valley and it is a beautiful and peaceful place to hike. Elk have been reintroduced to the area, so in September and October the valley's roads are packed with folks viewing rutting season, but you're right, those same people are not using the hiking trails, so they don't seem to get crowded. Waynesville is a quaint, historic town with wonderful restaurants, shops and art galleries, and surrounded by mountains - a great place to stop off while in the area http://www.downtownwaynesville.com.