Great Smoky Mountains National Park is a hiker’s paradise. Along with Kings Canyon/Sequoia, Yellowstone, and Yosemite, it has one of the most extensive trail systems in the national park system, totaling upwards of eight hundred miles. They traverse roadsides, venture into the deepest wilderness, climb fir clad peaks, and meander through flat coves. Some lead to waterfalls and outstanding natural features, while others offer a glimpse into the park’s past, back to a time when many people called these mountains home. Grapeyard Ridge Trail is one of the latter, passing through the former community of Greenbrier Cove and passing a spectacular piece of Smokies history on its way to Roaring Fork.
Unlike the nearby hiking destinations of Ramsey Cascades or Grotto Falls, visitors who choose this path are treated to solitude, even on the busiest of summer days. Grapeyard Ridge Trail connects Greenbrier Cove to Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail, so there are two different starting points hikers may choose. We recommend starting from Greenbrier Cove, as the road will be much quieter and the hike shorter.
Our main destination is the wrecked steam engine at Injun Creek, a moderate 5.4 mile roundtrip hike from Greenbrier Road. Hikers who are up for a greater challenge can expect a roundtrip distance of 9.6 miles if they park at Roaring Fork. Some folks may even want to hike this trail using two cars to avoid back-tracking. If that is the case, they can expect a total trail length of 7.6 miles. We will be covering the shorter route, as that is the way we hiked it a couple of weeks ago.
The trailhead is easy to miss, as it doesn’t have a large parking area. It lies along Greenbrier Road at the junction with Ramsey Prong Road. There’s plenty of parking along the left side of the road here, just make sure any vehicles are far enough over so they don’t block any oncoming traffic.
Immediately starting up a steep grade, hikers might notice a small trail venturing to the right only a few hundred feet up the path. A short detour leads to the Friendship Baptist Church Cemetary, one of many such graveyards scattered across the cove. Evidence of the former community is obvious throughout this first portion of the hike, from rock walls to several old roadbeds intersecting with the trail.
After 0.5 miles, hikers will reach the top of the ridge and pass through a small gap. Here Grapeyard Ridge Trail widens into what looks like an old road and descends towards Rhododendron Creek. Here one must cross a small side stream, the first of ten water crossings in under two miles of trails. These can make the trail challenging at times, especially after periods of heavy rain. All of these crossings must be traversed without the aid of waterlogs or footbridges. A pair of trekking poles and waterproof hiking boots are highly recommended. In addition, there are several rough patches along the trail, mostly due to mud and the lack erosion control such as water bars and drainage ditches.
As hikers start following Rhododendron Creek, they will enter a flat valley that is just bursting with greenery during the summer months. Ferns, poison ivy, and wildflowers cover everything in sight. Sometimes the trail shrunk to only a few inches wide as it passes through the masses of growth. Be sure to stop occasionally and inspect for ticks, as this has been an especially bad season for them so far.
For the next mile the trail holds an interesting pattern as it passes back and forth through the infested valley floor and then enters dark rhododendron tunnels on the right hillside. The stream crossings come every few hundred feet, with the largest requiring either a scramble through the woods or a wet walk through almost one hundred feet of the creekbed. There is a really bad section of trail soon after this crossing where it turns into deep muck due to a seepage. This is the last difficult section of trail, so don’t give up just yet!
Leaving the creek behind, the path enters one last rhododendron tunnel and steadily climbs the dryer hillside 0.75 mile before reaching James Gap. Here it plunges rather steeply as it enters the Injun Creek valley. This steep incline is what caused the steam engine to crash back in the 1920’s, which one should be able to spot over the embankment to the right. Just after the trail crosses Injun Creek, the wrecked steam engine comes into full view just a few feet to the right, lying in the middle of the stream. It’s easy to see the path it took as it tumbled down from the trail we had just passed. Although it’s been lying in this creek for nearly one hundred years, it is still in excellent shape. Look closely, and one can even see the engine number, No. 4246.
Here is where we turned around, but a half mile beyond lies an official campsite that makes another great stopping point. As mentioned before, Grapeyard Ridge Trail doesn’t get many visitors, so this makes a great hike for those looking to avoid crowds. In addition, springtime offers many wildflowers, and summer sees many different ferns and even flame azaleas. A word of warning: bring along bug spray to ward off the clouds of gnats that like to gather on humid summer days. This trail is probably best hiked in the fall, that way the bugs won’t be as prevalent and the creek crossing should be manageable.