We're having a rough winter, at least by southeastern standards - snow, ice, and road closings in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Yet when it seems that so many trails are inaccessible in the Southern Appalachians, you can still hike low-altitude trails such as the Smokemont Loop.
The Smokemont Loop Trail (6.2 miles, 1,400 feet ascent) takes you through magnificent creek-side cove hardwood forests as well as drier oak- and hickory-dominated ridge tops. The easy, level hike along the first portion is followed by a long and moderately steep climb up and then down Richland Mountain. The hike offers several streams, history, a cemetery, and a church.
The community, first known as Bradleytown for those who settled the area, became the headquarters for Champion Fibre Company’s massive logging and sawmill operation in the early 1900s. At the time, Champion ran the largest paper mill in the world in Canton, North Carolina; it's still running today as Evergreen Paper. Champion built a narrow gauge railroad through the Oconaluftee watershed and established a sawmill in what is now the Smokemont campground. The company town had a school, store, and boarding houses. Little evidence is left other than a few clearings that are filling in with vegetation.
Cleanup of the Champion Fibre Company’s Smokemont mill proved difficult. It involved removing a locomotive, railroad cars, large buildings and homes and several miles of railroad tracks, all paid by the National Park Service. But they saved the Smokemont Baptist Church.
The hike starts on Bradley Fork Trail, an old road that parallels the Bradley Fork of the Oconaluftee River. High banks of rosebay rhododendrons, mountain laurel, doghobble, nettles, and Christmas ferns line the trail. These plants are evergreens and can be enjoyed all year round. It's also a great trail for spring flowers. Several creeks ripple through from the right to join Bradley Fork. At 1.2 miles, Chasteen Creek Trail comes in from the right.
A side trip (0.7 mile, one way) to Chasteen Cascades is definitely worth your time. Turn on Chasteen Creek Trail and take a heavily used side trail on the left toward the creek with a horse tie up. Continue a little on the side trail to a small but lovely cascade. Come back to Bradley Creek Trail.
At this point, Bradley Fork has narrowed and so has the trail. As you climb above Bradley Fork, now wide again, there's a moss-covered bench at 1.4 miles. Pass a rhododendron grove on your left as the trail flattens. The creek is way below you.
At 1.8 miles you reach the intersection with Smokemont Loop Trail with a good wooden bench on the left. A sign says “3.9 miles to the campground.” Go down stone steps to cross Bradley Fork on a long, narrow split-log bridge with a steel wire hand rail. The bridge has been creosoted to prevent moss from growing and making the bridge slippery.
Immediately cross a smaller bridge and then the trail turns west away from Bradley Fork and starts climbing toward a ridge of Richland Mountain. It’s a long, steady uphill as the trail switchbacks through rhododendron bushes. Reach the top at 3.5 miles (3,550 feet) to a flat spot with several logs to sit and stop for a drink.
You’ve done all the climbing for the day. Pass a well-defined grassy saddle under a grove of trees to your left. You'll be able to see the first of the graves in the Bradley Cemetery on your right. Several eroded side trails have been created to reach the cemetery. Walk down few hundred yards where the trail reaches a T-junction. The loop continues to the left.
However, turn right here to visit Bradley Cemetery on a wide side trail. When the side trail splits, stay to the right and scramble up a couple of hundred (linear) feet. Most of the graves in the gently sloping cemetery are stone stumps with no identification, though the Bradley patriarch (Jasper) and matriarch (R. Palistine) have large, legible stones dating from the 1920s.
Once a year in the summer, descendants of those buried get together for Decoration Day. Graves are decorated with silk or plastic flowers. The attendees usually have a prayer service and a communal buffet lunch. All the cemeteries in the Smokies are maintained and mowed by the Park.
Retrace your steps to return to the Smokemont Loop Trail. You're now on a wide road, used to transport people to the cemetery on Decoration Day.
You'll cross the creek on a big stone bridge. Go through the gate and make a right on the paved road. Take a left where the wooden sign points to “campground.” You are at the beginning of the campground loop. Follow the road back to section D.
Smokemont Baptist Church
The earliest known congregation was formed around 1829, but the current building was erected in 1896. The church, sometimes referring to as Lufty Church (short for Oconaluftee), is not on the trail. In the summer, the small chapel is hidden by trees and foliage on a steep slope and difficult to see from the road unless you know where to look.
To find the church from Newfound Gap Road, turn at the Smokemont campground sign, cross the Oconaluftee River, and park in the clear area just past the bridge. (Don't turn left toward Smokemont Campground.) Look across the road and up the hill and there it is!
A gravel path takes you to the front of the church, passing a piped spring in front of the church. You can just imagine having a cool drink after a long morning of preaching and singing, next to the tumbling waters of the Oconaluftee. The church is plain with dark paneled walls, several rows of benches, and a pulpit in front - no decoration or cross. Regular services were held here until 1935.
Like all historic buildings in the Smokies, Smokemont Baptist Church is left open at all times for visitors.
Campground: Smokemont Campground holds 140 campsites, open year-round. There are restrooms with cold water but no showers. In the summer, advance reservations are highly recommended.
Direction to the trailhead: From the Oconaluftee Visitor Center, take U.S. 441 north for 3.3 miles to the entrance to the Smokemont Campground. Drive through the campground. The trailhead is at the far end of the D loop.
Bernstein, Danny. Hiking the Carolina Mountains. Milestone Press, 2007.
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
Pierce, Daniel, S. The Great Smokies: from Natural Habitat to National Park. University of Tennessee, 2000. This is the book to start with to learn the history and the politics of the Smokies.
Rash, Ron. Serena. Ecco; Reprint edition, 2009. A grand novel of passion, greed, and violence set around a timber empire in the Smokies. A best seller.