This year, I've been leading monthly hikes for Friends of the Smokies on the North Carolina side. Working with Holly DeMuth, North Carolina director of the organization, we've come up with a list of iconic, moderate hikes for Friends members that show off the best of the North Carolina Smokies. Little Cataloochee is certainly in that category.
Early this month, we walked Little Cataloochee Trail, a simple in and out hike; round trip, it's 6.1 miles with 1,100 feet of ascent. I would recommend this historic hike anytime to get the feel for the community that lived here before the area became a park. But it really shines in the fall and winter. The leaf color was magnificent and is projected to last for a while.
This in-and-out hike, with a couple of turn-offs on side trails, takes you to two cabins, two cemeteries, and a chapel; the diversions are well signposted. But these are only the main attractions. If you look carefully, you’ll find many other signs of the past, such as springs, buckets, and stone walls. The drive on NC 284 is also part of the adventure, a well-maintained dirt road, typical of roads in the area about 80 years ago.
Little Cataloochee Trail, a wide Jeep road, starts downhill at the gate. You might see deer here, generally an unusual sight at higher elevations. At 1.1 miles, turn on Long Bunk Trail and walk 0.2 mile to Hannah Cemetery. Hannah was a very common last name in Cataloochee and many female descendants are given Hannah as a first name. Yucca plants fill the side hill in front of the cemetery.
Though the cemetery is surrounded by a tall chain-link fence, you can go in and study the headstones. Graves run the gamut from elaborately engraved stones to rock stumps. There are plenty of children’s graves also, some with the same birth and death date. A few are very recent, including one who died in the year 2000. If a cemetery still has room, a person whose ancestors lived in the park can be buried here.
Return to Little Cataloochee Trail and soon turn right to Hannah Cabin. This cabin is typical of many that stood in the Cataloochee community. Built in 1864, two generations of Hannahs lived here. Walk in the cabin and go up the stairs to the sleeping area. All park structures are left open because it's felt that locking cabins and chapels would encourage vandalism.
Back on Little Cataloochee Trail, you'll pass a spring on the right, enclosed by rocks. That was the Messer property, home of one of the richest men in Little Cataloochee (I'll explain his wealth a bit later). A half-mile later, you’ll reach Little Cataloochee Baptist Church, built in 1889. The bell tower, which you can still ring, was added 25 years later. The small, plain white chapel sits up on a little hill, with scalloped boards on the roof providing just a little bit of decoration. The inside is plain, painted white, just like the outside, without a cross or picture on the wall. Benches fill the room inside along with a pot-belly stove in front. It’s a picture-perfect chapel.
Walk outside to the back of the chapel where you'll find many tables. That's where the descendants get together for Decoration Day. They have a church service, clean up the cemetery, and have a pot luck lunch. On the day, the park opens the gates so that people can drive in.
The well-maintained cemetery rolls downhill in front of the chapel. Look for J.V. Woody’s grave. J.V., a community leader, was born on Feb. 14 and the V stands for Valentine.
The trail parallels the creek on the way to the Cook Cabin, enclosed by split rail fencing. The Cook Cabin was restored in 1999 thanks to a grant from Log Cabin Syrup and rededicated at the Little Cataloochee Decoration Day. Steve Woody, a founding board member of Friends and a Cataloochee descendant, remembers that day.
"The cabin had been dismantled and stored in the barn of Palmer house for 20 years. The park reconstructed the cabin with some new material. To celebrate this, Aurora foods, which makes Log Cabin syrup, wanted a big celebration and they got one. We made a cover out of parachute fabric to cover the cabin and at the right time, it was unveiled. The company catered a lunch and had a huge cake with the cabin on it. People drove in and there was quite a traffic jam."
Across the trail, the stone enclosure is all that remains of a storage area for apples. Apples were an important crop in Cataloochee that provided residents with cash to purchase store-bought goods. For the Messer family, it also brought wealth. The site of the Messer holdings are further up on Little Cataloochee Trail, but their apple house was relocated to the Mountain Farm Museum at Oconaluftee Visitor Center and their barn moved to Big Cataloochee. The hike ends here.
If you continue uphill for maybe five minutes, you'll come to a short stretch of trail covered by a solid wooden boardwalk. This was built a few years ago to deal with a muddy, messy piece of trail, made worse by horses. The work was paid for by the precursor of Trails Forever, a Friends of the Smokies program that will fund an additional permanent maintenance crew. The trail continues up Davidson Gap and eventually down into Big Cataloochee via Pretty Hollow Trail by Beech Grove School.
Getting to the trailhead
Some might say that getting to the trailhead is the most challenging part of hiking this trail. Take I-40 to exit 20/US 276. Make the first right on Cove Creek Rd. and drive 6 miles to Cove Creek Gap to the park entrance. Continue down into the Cataloochee Valley. At the four-way intersection, continue straight on NC 284, following the sign for Big Creek and Cosby. Drive the dirt road for 6 miles, passing a gauging site to a gate on the left and signs to Little Cataloochee Trail. Park at a wide spot on the road just before the gate.
Bernstein, Danny. Hiking North Carolina's Blue Ridge Heritage. Milestone Press, 2009. Hiking Trails of the Smokies (4th edition), published by the Great Smoky Mountains Association, 2010.
National Geographic Trails Illustrated Map 229, Great Smoky Mountains National Park