When a landslide took out a significant chunk of the Newfound Gap Road through Great Smoky Mountains National Park earlier this month, it seemed as if the park was cut off from humanity. Between seasonal closings, temporary closures because of snow and ice, and the slide on U.S. 441 (Newfound Gap Road), where could hikers go?
As of today, the Newfound Gap Road has been reopened on the Tennessee side from Gatlinburg to Newfound Gap on the Tennessee-North Carolina border. You can go to Cades Cove, Greenbrier and up Chimney Tops Trail. On the North Carolina side of the park where the landslide occurred near milepost 22, we need to take the opportunity to discover new places to hike. This is the time to make lemonade out of lemons. Here are some suggestions for the winter.
The Cataloochee area is open and full of hiking possibilities. Most are low-altitude hikes, which would be suitable even without the road closure. In addition, on cold, cloudy days, you may just see some of the elk that live in this part of the park.
The classic Boogerman Trail (7.5 miles, 1,150 feet ascent) offers stone walls and other historical artifacts. The trailhead is in the Cataloochee Valley, just past the campground on the right. You start the hike on Caldwell Fork Trail and take the Boogerman Trail in 0.8 mile. Caldwell Fork Trail crisscrosses the fork ten times on various bridges.
Little Cataloochee Trail is an out and back hike that shows off historic cabins and the Little Cataloochee Baptist Church. As described in the linked article, it's a 6.1-mile hike that entails 1,100 feet of ascent, but you can go as far as you want and return.
The Smokemont Loop starts at the far end of Smokemont Campground. Along this 6.2-mile hike, with 1,400 feet of rise, you'll cross Bradley Creek, climb Richland Mountain, and find the Bradley Cemetery.
Starting from the same trailhead, you can walk 1.2 miles and turn right on Chasteen Creek Trail. After 0.7 mile, take a muddy trail, which leads to a hitching post. Go another couple of hundred feet and you'll enjoy a great view of the creek with its cascade.
Deep Creek area
From Bryson City North Carolina, hikers can explore two areas.
The Lake Shore Loop starts at the famous (or infamous) tunnel from the Road to Nowhere (Lakeview Drive). The complete hike (10 miles, 1,400 feet of ascent) takes in White Oak Branch and Forney Creek. Because you'll stay low in altitude, it makes a perfect winter hike.
The Deep Creek Loop follows Deep Creek to Horace Kephart millstone and climbs up Martins Gap, the only steady climb for the day. You'll come back down on Indian Creek Trail to close the circle. The hike (13.4 miles and 1,900 feet ascent) includes two waterfalls, several campsites, and the millstone. Even a short walk along Deep Creek to Tom Branch Falls and back (0.6 mile round-trip) will give you a chance to enjoy winter in the Smokies.
Big Creek Campground is closed for the winter, but this shouldn't stop you from walking Big Creek Trail as far, or as little, as you want before returning to your rig. Big Creek Trail follows an old railroad grade for more than five miles to Walnut Bottom Campsite #37.
Not quite 1.5 miles from the trailhead, you'll reach Midnight Hole where the water flows between two huge boulders and into a large pool. It's too cold to swim now, but the scenery is beautiful. Another 0.6 mile brings you to Mouse Creek Falls, a 25-foot cascade located on the left as you go up.
What About A Winter Backpack?
Itching for a Smokies winter backpack with ice and snow? Try camping at the top of Mount Sterling at campsite #38. The backpack trek as described spans six days. You can shorten it to an overnight trip by going up Baxter Creek Trail and coming down Big Creek Trail with a couple of intermediate trails before reaching Big Creek Trail. Please study a paper map for the complete route. You really need to be prepared, especially in the winter. Maybe you can get this backpack in before the backcountry fees are implemented on Feb. 13.
You can reach the A.T. in two places on the North Carolina side of the park.
Going trail north, the A.T. enters the Smokies at Fontana Dam. After 3.4 miles of steep climbing, you'll reach a short side trail to Shuckstack Tower. For an easier alternative, you can take a boat from the Fontana Marina to Hazel Creek and explore the remains of the town of Proctor.
The A.T. leaves the Smokies at Davenport Gap. You can climb up to Mt. Cammerer going trail south (11.4 miles, 3,000 feet ascent). The lookout tower is at 5,000 feet, so you'll experience ice and snow, no matter how balmy it feels at the trailhead.
All these hiking suggestions on the North Carolina side of the Smokies are available right now. The first set of road openings occurs on March 8, bringing more opportunities. Even if Newfound Gap Road stays closed through the spring, there will be plenty of places to hike and enjoy flowers.
For road conditions, go to http://twitter.com/smokiesroadsnps. This Twitter site is updated much more frequently than the website.
For all trail and road closures, use http://www.nps.gov/grsm/planyourvisit/temproadclose.htm
Hiking Trails of the Smokies (5th edition), published by the Great Smoky Mountains Association, 2012.
National Geographic Trails Illustrated map 229, Great Smoky Mountains National Park.