As with so many of the footpaths in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the Anthony Creek Trail doesn’t hesitate much before pulling you up into that landscape.
From the trailhead at the eastern end of the Cades Cove Campground, the path follows a scraggly, dirt-and-gravel single track, one that quickly loses its gravel for dirt and forest duff and its bottomlands flatness for an uphill gradient that seems to grow steeper with nearly every step. Crossing a footbridge spanning Anthony Creek, a thin stream studded with boulders and pools likely to harbor brook trout in late summer but a raging torrent during spring runoff, the trail starts modestly with gentle rises and falls as it follows the bounding stream into one of the oldest mountain ranges in North America.
In mid-summer when the temperatures can quickly rise into 90s, the moisture translates into humidity; thick, enveloping, suffocating humidity that can be an ever-present nuisance. With each upward step the sogginess under your armpits, across your back, and along your brow grows. It can be cooling, even soothing, during those too few times when a breeze stirs deep within the forest on a hot summer day. But more often than not the sweat only soaks you and serves as a dinner bell for deer flies, horse flies, mosquitoes, gnats, black flies, and other biting bugs that swarm relentlessly.
Were it not for trails, you likely wouldn’t move through this landscape at all. Two types of rhododendron (Catawba and rosebay), magnolia, three types of ferns, nine of trillium, holly, and mountain laurel and thousands of other plant and wildflower species conspire against you by forming a thick, leafy tangle of undergrowth. So thick and impenetrable can these thickets be that the Smokies' white settlers early on referred to them as “laurel slicks” and “hells,” and even questioned whether a dog could bore through the vegetation after a rabbit. The vegetative snarls can be claustrophobic, confining, and confusing.
Though sticking to a trail is definitely a much easier strategy for negotiating the Smokies, even that can be taxing. Those following the Anthony Creek Trail learn that just beyond the junction with the Russell Field Trail, as the path gets more serious, more vigorous, in its bid to climb to the park's rumpled roof. Turning left and right, and then left and right again and again, the trail slowly courses up the mountains’ flanks, conquering them in a lazy series of switchbacks that crisscross the drainage while whittling away at the elevation.
On your way up, if your lungs, heart, and legs are not demanding too much of your attention, you’ll notice the Smokies’ changing forests. From the pine-and-oak stands in the lowest elevations of the park you head up through the hemlock forests, into the Cove hardwood, and then on through the Northern hardwood forest before breaking into the spruce-fir ecosystem, a misplaced ecosystem that wound up here at the roof of the Smokies about 10,000 years ago when the Wisconsin Ice Age surrendered to climate change and retreated, leaving in the highest, and coolest, of the Smokies’ elevations many plant and tree species that today are more commonly found hundreds of miles to the north.
The Anthony Creek Trail, which joins the Bote Mountain Trail 1.7 miles below the ridgetop, terminates in a grassy bald that long ago lost its trees to a farmer who punched a hole in the forest to create pastures for his sheep and cattle. Popping out of the forest and onto Spence Field, as this bald is called, is akin to stepping out of an elevator onto the rooftop of a building. Gone is the claustrophobic enclosure of the forest. In its place the openness is capped only by the sky and any clouds overhead and the trees on the fringe.
Known early on as Spence Cabin, for a tiny, rough-hewn log cabin used by the sheep and cattle herders as well as hunters, the bald was cleared in the 1830s by James Robert Spence for his cattle. Initially the bald sprawled over 100 rumpled acres. Today, covering perhaps a third of its original open space, Spence Field is surrounded by tight knots of undergrowth and gradually is being overcome by groves of trees. From this clearing in all directions are mountains – rounded humps with heavily treed slopes and saddles, some poked with more grassy balds, others defined by heath balds knit together by blueberry and huckleberry bushes, the ever-present rhododendron and mountain laurel, by flame azaleas that in summer turn showy with their clusters of red, orange and yellow flower bursts.
Thunderhead Mountain, rising 6,527 feet above the Atlantic Ocean to stand as one of the park’s sky scrapers, looms maybe 2 miles off to the northeast, while Mount Squires, a slightly more modest 5,070 feet, can be spotted off to the southwest. Tying them together is the Appalachian Trail, a path that meanders from northern Maine to Georgia and which takes its travelers in search of both nature and themselves.
On its way north and south the Appalachian Trail splits Spence Field, its presence noted by a deep, obviously well-traveled path running northeast and southwest as well as by a small, three-sided shelter found a short jog down a spur trail that darts to the east of the A.T.
On either side of these mountains, which here are neatly split in half by the Tennessee-North Carolina border, the trees shelter gardens. Not humanly cultivated, these gardens in spring and summer are awash in a rainbow of wildflowers. Pink geraniums, purple crested iris, yellow lady slippers, pink-flowering rhododendrons and sprays of yellow coreopsis and red bee balm erupt from the rich, moist soils. Christmas and Wood ferns, holly, Fraser Magnolia, Fringed Phacelia, basswood, both White and Painted trillium, Dutchman’s breeches, a strange lily called Turk’s Cap, and Flame azalea all grow here in a wondrous array that would make a master gardener glow.
Trail: Anthony Creek Trail
Trailhead: Cades Cove
Length: 1.6 miles to spur with Russell Field Trail; 3.5 miles to junction with Bote Mountain Trail; 1.7 miles to Spence Field. 5.2 miles one-way; 10.4 miles roundtrip.
Difficulty: Moderate due to gain of roughly 3,115 feet.
Payoff: In early summer, nice floral displays, leaping brooks. Great views from the backbone of Great Smoky Mountains any time.
Resources: National Geographic Trails Illustrated map 229, Great Smoky Mountains National Park.