Despite having nearly 900 miles of maintained trails in the Smokies, sometimes the coolest hikes aren't on the official trails. Because the national park used to be many private properties, it's not uncommon to hear of old buildings or long forgotten waterfalls being off the beaten path. One of the more popular off-trail hikes in the park is only a few miles away from the Sugarlands Visitor Center - Courthouse Rock.
The trail to Courthouse Rock begins on a nondescript vehicle pull-off on the side of the road. Since this isn't an official maintained trail, it's not marked with any signs like most other trails in the park. We began by hiking up a faint path to an old road bed. We followed the old road bed for about a quarter of a mile, stepping over and around numerous downed trees, before coming to a stream crossing that despite the heavy rainfall a week ago was an easy rock hop. The trail began a steeper uphill now, going past an old homesite before heading into a rhododendron tunnel. Near the top of the tunnel, we stopped to take in a view of the Bullhead portion of Mt. LeConte.
After getting back on the main trail and walking a little further up a very well-defined trail we saw the trail ahead of us marked with a large "X" made from sticks. We turned to our right to see a more narrow and less-defined path leading uphill into the woods. A short time later we came out right at Courthouse Rock. While the Smokies is home to many great large boulders, this one is definitely impressive! The rock was too large to get a decent photograph, but we walked around to the back of the rock to see some ancient graffiti dated 1827. There was also an old penny stuck in between layers of the rock.
We headed back down the trail to the old homesite and observed some Eastern Hemlock trees actively being attacked by the wooly adelgid before heading down to the waterfall on a side trail. We stopped at this waterfall to sit in the sun and have a snack before heading back down to the parking area. On the way back down we found a large patch of toothwort growing and got to taste a few small samples. We also found a crawdad claw in a tree, which was really interesting. Our theory is a bird snatched it up and was having a snack, dropping it into the crack of the tree.
While we were out on trail this time we didn't make it up to the Quilliams Cave, which I've been told is only about a mile up from the rock. Have any of you been up to the cave? I'd love to know which way to head from Courthouse Rock to find it. Leave me a comment here or catch me over on Facebook or Twitter and let me know!