Winter has arrived here in the Tennessee Valley with an icy vengeance. Over the last couple of weeks, we’ve endured frigid temperatures, snow, and treacherous driving conditions.
Thankfully, it appears that we’ll have at least a few days where the high is actually above freezing. While most of us would much rather curl up with a good book (or Netflix) by the fireplace, winter is actually a great time to explore the mountains. All it takes is a little preparation and planning.
Last week we decided to take a winter hike at Great Smoky Mountains National Park so we could enjoy the newly-fallen snow. While our original trail wasn’t accessible due to the park roads being closed, we had several backups already planned since we knew this might be an issue. The park roads close quite frequently during the winter and early spring months, as the park service does not use salt or brine as it damages the fragile ecosystems. Instead, snowplows remove the majority of accumulated snow before a gritty sand is spread on the roads. Although it may seem inconvenient for us humans, the park’s wellbeing should be our number one concern.
As said before, there are several trails that are easily accessible from the park border. Gatlinburg Trail begins at traffic light #10 in downtown Gatlinburg and follows the West Prong Little Pigeon River to its terminus at the visitor center. Nearby Twin Creeks Trail starts at the end of Historic Nature Trail and leads to the Noah Bud cabin. Across the mountain in Cherokee, the Oconaluftee River Trail parallels its namesake starting at the park border. Finally, the Maddron Bald Trail begins just off U.S. 321 in Cosby and provides access to the magical forest of Albright Grove and the Appalachian Trail beyond.
Another easily-reached area is Big Creek, located just off I-40 at the Tennessee and North Carolina state line. Although it’s located just off the interstate, you’d be surprised at how secluded the area is, even in summer. A ranger station, picnic area, and small campground make up the facilities offered here. Big Creek Trail is the star attraction, as it passes numerous waterfalls such as Midnight Hole and Mouse Creek Falls. Baxter Creek Trail offers an arduous climb to Mt. Sterling, one of the highest peaks in the park’s Great Balsam Mountain range and home to a fire tower which offers incredible views of the Pigeon River Gorge.
Big Creek’s main facilities are shut down during the winter season, but the gravel road is open up to the ranger station. Parking is available just past it in a large parking lot. Visitors who wish to hike the aforementioned trails will need to walk the half mile of road to the campground area. Our hike begins just a hundred yards past the parking lot. Chestnut Branch Trail is a short hike-only two miles-but don’t let its length fool you. It can be a taxing climb in any season, as it ascends over a thousand feet to meet the Appalachian Trail under the shadow Mt. Cammerer’s imposing peak. Several small streams and soggy areas lie along its path, so winter brings with it the threat of ice. Trekking poles or a walking stick are a must. Be sure to pack an extra pair or two of socks as well in case those rivulets aren’t frozen over.
While it may seem this trail is somewhat dangerous during winter, don’t let that deter you. As stated before, all it takes is preparation, wearing the correct clothes and footwear, and using common sense to enjoy winter in the Appalachians. Always bring more clothes than what you think you’ll need; you can always take them off later. Although the temperature read seventeen degrees Fahrenheit when we left the car, it wasn’t twenty minutes later we removed our outer layers because the climb was getting uncomfortably warm.
Chestnut Branch Trail begins by climbing sharply alongside the stream of the same name for several hundred feet or so. Soon the ascent mellows out somewhat, although it never really stops climbing. The stream is beautiful, featuring several large cascades as it tumbles down the steep stream valley. Not another soul was around, and our boots crunched the newly-fallen snow. Besides those footprints we made, the only ones which marred the perfect sheet were those of the wild animals which call the Smokies home. Turkey prints showed that a large flock had passed by not too many minutes before we arrived. Further along, the unmistakable paw prints of a bobcat followed the trail for quite some distance before disappearing into the forest.
Keep your eyes open for old home sites along the trail, usually marked by tidy piles of stones or rusty washbasins. About halfway through the hike, the pathway veers sharply right and steeply scales the ridge. A series of switchbacks pass through a dark rhododendron tunnel before reaching another open stream valley. This creek is much smaller and soon disappeared under the snow. It was here that the snowy forest reminded us of Narnia. Swirling winds from below whisked through the trees, scattering the powdery snow which had piled on their branches. The bright sunshine made it appear as if diamonds filled the air. Scenes like this are that make winter in the Smokies such a magical time.
As we approached the ridge crest, the wind increased in potency, and the sun suddenly shifted behind the clouds. A final steep climb of a thousand feet or so heralded the trail’s terminus at the state line. Here lies the Appalachian Trail. To the left, it continues the climb all the way to Mt. Cammerer and its historic stone fire tower. To the right, a steep descent approaches Davenport Gap and Mt. Sterling Road. If you would like to make a loop hike, you can take this route and then road walk the last 1.5 miles back to the Big Creek Ranger Station.