Backpacking Mountains around Cades Cove - Uphillhike
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Backpacking Mountains around Cades Cove

This 3 day solo backpacking trip covered trails on the north and west ends of Cades Cove including Rich Mountain Loop, Ace Gap Trail, Hannah Mountain Trail and Rabbit Creek Trail and comprised 38.9 trail miles. My van and bicycle was used to position among trailheads on Cades Cove Loop road and Parson’s Branch road.

Getting There:

Nearing midnight on Thursday, I drove past Tremont and on to the end of Middle Prong Rd where I slept in the rear of my Sienna mini-van. It was a dark starry night with only a sliver of moon for the first couple of hours. Early Friday morning I drove on to Cades Cove. Rich Mountain Loop trail head can be found to the right just a few yards past where the road becomes the 1-way Cades Cove loop. Park in the parking lot to the left if you don’t want to be stuck on the 11 mile 1-way traffic jam.

Day 1, November 8, 2013 – “Hot Apple Cider on Cerulean Knob”

Day 1 Route & Mileage – 15.2 miles

West side of Rich Mountain Loop – 2.9 miles, Indian Grave Gap Trail to Rich Mtn Road and return to Cerulean Knob – 3.0 miles, Rich Mountain Trail – 2.3 miles, Ace Gap Trail to Campsite 3 – 6.4 miles

It was a 30 degree morning with clear skies. I cooked oatmeal and coffee in the parking lot to the left of the start of the 1-way loop drive. After breakfast, I dropped my pack behind a nearby fallen tree just a feet down Rich Mountain Loop trail then drove down the Cades Cove loop to the Cooper Road trail. There I found a small pull off on the opposite side road from this trail head. Wrapped up in gloves, fleece hat, and rain suit, I pulled my mountain bike out of the back and began pedaling on around the loop to my eventual return to my stashed away backpack.

On this trip I was tried out alternating between running shoes and hiking boots. Today, I carried my boots strapped to the back of the back while I glided along the kindly surface of Rich Mountain Loop trail. Trail conditions were good all day long so I remained shod in running shoes.

At the top of Cerulean Knob I reached the first and only people of the day. (Besides the numerous tourists where the trail approached the Oliver cabin.) Richard and Jason were enjoying hot drinks and were gracious enough to share. I ordered hot apple cider and they filled me in on

Cades Cove view of Gregory Bald

Cades Cove view of Gregory Bald

Cades Cove view of Gregory Bald

Cades Cove view of Gregory Bald

Lumber Operations was displayed at Oliver Cabin.

Lumber Operations was displayed at Oliver Cabin.

I am always reading in the brown book about various lumber companies that conducted operations in various areas of the Smokies that I have hiked. I came across this map on a display at the Oliver cabin (A stop along Rich Mtn Loop Trail). This puts some order into the lumber company stories.

Yes, I need to include trail signs.

Leaf Color on Indian Grave Gap Trail

Pig trap on Rich Mountain Trail

House viewed from Ace Gap Trail

Lumber Operations Prior to the Smokies National Park

House viewed from Ace Gap TrailDay 2 – Up Parson’s Branch without a paddle, “uh, I mean without a mountain bike”

Day 2 Route & Mileage – 14.2 miles

From CS 3 on Beard Cane Trail – 4.2 miles, Cooper Rd Trail – 5.5 miles, Bicycle to Hannah Mtn Trailhead on Parson’s Branch Road, Hannah Mountain Trail to Flint Gap Campsite (CS-14) – 4.5 miles

Saturday seemed like 2 days of hiking. The first hike was with early morning frost and blown out trees along Beard Cane trail and Cooper Road trail. A tornado had ripped apart trees and left wide open marshy areas along Beard Cane trail. The new landscape was crowded with large blackberry canes and filled with the chorus of bird song. It reminded me of the variety of landscapes and experiences in the Smokies was much greater than many would suppose.

The second hike of the day followed another Cades Cove Loop drive, peanut butter sandwiches at the visitor center (why did backpack that peanut butter and next 2 days of meals when I was returning to my car the next morning?), and an ice cream cone from the snack bar.

I retrieved my bike from its hidden place in the woods and drove back to the pull off at Cooper Road trail head. Since Parson’s Branch Road is one-way and I had no desire to drive it’s length (and more) to pre-position my backpack at the Hannah Moutain trail head, I rode my mountain bike with 20 plus pounds of backpack; hiking poles threaded through sleeping pad. It must have been a silly sight for the line of touring cars that I joined.

The road turned to gravel at the Parson’s Branch turnoff. I soon found the road steeper and in worse condition than I recalled from the time I had hiked this section of the road several years ago. I consider myself a strong enough bicycle rider, but the steep sections soon out lasted my legs. I was already pushing the bike up the steeper sections when my bicycle seat seemed to tilt further back. Thinking of a seat adjustment, I came off the seat just as the metal bicycle frame came apart at the bicycle seat post. Now the seat moved to the lowest possible position. I sat on the mountain bicycle with a large pack on my back and my knees to my chest. With shortened winter days and a 4.5 mile hike ahead of me, I needed to move faster than a walk. My solution was to ride standing up when ascending or push my bike when really ascending. I sat and coasted on the few downhills. Fortunately, I arrived at Hannah Mountain Trail in good shape, but a little worn out. Even more fortunately, Hannah Mountain Trail was the easiest most pleasant walk in the entire Smokies. The trail bed was in good shape without rock or root and the trail itself was as near to level as I had ever seen on a mountain. Hannah Mountain trail should not be missed in the late autumn with a mix of tree color and bare tree views. To the southwest I had views of Joyce Kimler / Slickrock Creek Wilderness’ Fodderstack Mountain and Hahoe Bald. When the trail switched to the northeast side of the ridge I could see Cades Cove and LeConte in the further distance.

9 miles and a dozen plus water crossings of one-way fun on Parson's Branch Road

9 miles and a dozen plus water crossings of one-way fun on Parson’s Branch Road

That dark night I sat by a lonely campfire; having seen only one other person on Hannah Mountain Trail. Though listening to Walden through my headphones I could hear a commotion of snapping limbs and rustling only a little way up the trail. There was no wind, not even a breeze that could make those funny sounds that trees make when they rub together. I replaced the headphones with headlamp and looked toward the noise and wondered what kind of creature could be making that racket. A bear? I didn’t investigate.

Massive oak on Hannah Mountain Trail


Hiker Alert: Water source for Flint Gap Campsite 14 is about 0.2 miles up the hill (Parson’s Branch Road direction) from the campsite. Small trickle crossing trail.

Day 3 – “Hiking to Coon’s Butt and Beyond”

Day 3 Route & Mileage – 10.1 miles

From Flint Gap Campsite (CS-14) on Hannah Mountain Trail – 4.5 miles, Rabbit Creek Trail – 5.1 miles

The skies were somewhat clouded overnight, but even with warmer temps the morning sky was clear blue. I was soon in shorts and shirtsleeves; however, after turning from Hannah Mountain Trail and dropping to Rabbit Creek I was reminded how the climes in the mountains could change in a few short steps. It felt like the temperature had dropped 20 degrees as I descended down a rocky stream bed path toward Rabbit Creek. My hands were cold so I kept up my speed and waited for a warming ascent. At Rabbit Creek campsite I spotted a seated woman huddled and wrapped up in parka and full compliment of winter clothes. Bent on preserving her warmth she didn’t notice me striding by in shorts and short-sleeves. I yelled out a cheery “Good Morning” as I passed by. She looked over and replied and probably wondered how the devil I could be walking around in shorts. She wouldn’t have known just how warm it had been a few minutes earlier on the sunny higher slopes of Hannah Mountain trail.

I wisely chose my hiking boots over running shoes this day. The trail was rocky enough having those nasty king size Idaho potato rocks that hide among the thick leaves in wait for some unfortunate to attempt a place kick field goal. It seemed I made wise choices on the footwear. I chose my running shoes the afternoon before on the easy tread of Hannah Mountain trail and my boots that same morning as I sloshed through the marshy parts of Beard Cane trail.

Finally I finished out my hike by reviewing the map and seeing that my last point prior to descending into the cover had been named Coon’s Butt. What I nice goal to reach for! It motivated me on the the last ascents along Rabbit Creek Trail.

This hike came with an epilogue. I had a final mile in Cades Cove along Wet Bottom Trail. Funny how this trail just feet from the road was the most difficult to navigate and how it had the most difficult stream crossing. I rock hopped my way across Abram’s creek, then ran 3 more plunging steps so quickly that though the water came over my boots, only the tops of my wools socks became wet. Thank you GoreTex and quick feet.

This creek has no bridge on both Rabbit Creek and Wet Bottom trails.

Wildlife: Heard something in the dark woods. In the cove, saw too many deer to count, including a friendly buck sitting 2 feet off the road and posing for each car. This caused a 20 minute traffic back up. Saw over a dozen turkeys on Wet Bottom trail. Saw 4 or 5 additional turkeys on the long long drive down Parson’s Branch Road. Saw a very large Owl near the intersection of Rich Mountain Loop trail and Indian Grave Gap trail. The owl with wide head kept moving from tree to tree down the trail. Entertainment was to relocate the bird after each short flight. Those mottled feathers look exactly like the bark of a tree.