The temperature has reached a high of 70 degrees this January in the southern Appalachians so it might be puzzling to write about a winter hike. Nevertheless, the Old Settlers Trail on the Tennessee side of Great Smoky Mountains National Park offers a quiet, easy, solitary ramble along a historic section of the park, a ramble perfect no matter what the weather.
The trail meanders along an elevation between 1,500-2,300 feet, which makes it one of the lowest long-distance trails in the park. Stonewalls, homesites, chimney, and a cemetery dot the trail along what was one of the most heavily populated sections of the Smokies. Several hundred families lived here in the Greenbrier area before the state of Tennessee started buying up land for the national park.
From the park's Greenbrier entrance east of Gatlinburg, the trailhead to the Old Settlers Trail is located off the Greenbriar Road on the way to the more popular Ramsey Cascade Trail. The 15.8-mile trail connects Greenbriar Cove to Maddron Bald Trail, but hiking only a few miles will show you traces and artifacts of 19th- and 20th-century mountain life. The hike as described is a 10.5-mile roundtrip with an 1,800-foot gain in elevation.
The trail starts out level and open and soon crosses Bird Branch before heading up an unnamed ridge and then follows Little Bird Branch for a short way. Stone pilings are all that remain of home sites. About half-a-mile from the trailhead, you reach the Parton home place--yes, the ancestors of the country singer, Dolly Parton. Lona Mae Parton, one of the matriarchs of Partontown, is Dolly's great aunt. Dolly was born in Sevierville, a few miles north of the park.
Climb up onto Copeland Divide and you'll find a good winter view of Greenbrier Pinnacle off to the east. So far on this hike the land has been open and sparsely populated by hemlocks and holly. But once you head over the top of the divide, mountain laurel and rhododendrons enclose the trail. More than a dozen families lived along Copeland Creek; settlers always needed a water source. A long, moss-covered wall lines the trail. Once over the top, the trail snakes down gently. You'll pass two chimneys, the second across the creek from the trail.
Communities lived on bottomland where settlers cleared around the creek and the lower slopes. A road connected every house in each community. In the 1970s, then-Smokies Superintendent Boyd Evison decided to build trail sections linking the old communities. This was in response to requests for more long-distance trails in the Smokies for when the Appalachian Trail was not accessible in the winter (presumably when we still had icy and snowy winters).
At about 4.5 miles, a wooden "Old Settlers Trail" sign points directly to the trail. But if you look across Snakefeeder Branch, you'll see an old unmaintained trail, which leads to the Lindsey Cemetery. The trail goes up for about 0.2 miles to reach a clearing to the right. Cross the clearing to the cemetery. The cemetery is named after Jesse Lindsey who received a land grant in 1841, though most of the names on gravestones belong to the Huskey family.
When I visit a Smokies cemetery, I always try to figure out how descendants get here to visit the graves because most are not equipped to hike. Lindsey Cemetery, which holds about 60 graves, is well-maintained. An old road takes off to the right and leads to the community of Pittman Center on US 321. Relatives park in the clearing when they come on Decoration Day to tend the graves and lay down new flowers.
Return to the Old Settlers Trail where the trail splits in another half-mile. Take the right fork to continue on the trail. On my most recent visit, I turned around here. But the rest of the trail offers more creeks and evidence of homesites. If you have access to two cars, the Old Settlers Trail makes a great fast-paced dayhike or an overnight backpack. You can stay at campsite #33 about 6.5 miles from the trailhead. Once you get to Maddron Bald, it's another 1.2 miles to the second car.
Hiking Trails of the Smokies (5th edition), published by the Great Smoky Mountains Association, 2012.
History Hikes of the Smokies, published by the Great Smoky Mountains Association. 2012.
National Geographic Trails Illustrated map 229, Great Smoky Mountains National Park.