Cades Cove

Rich Mountain Loop - A Classic Smokies Hike

The Rich Mountain Loop hike is a classic day hike in the Smokies.  Starting in the breathtaking Cades Cove, this hike is on the list of newbies and experienced hikers alike.  You don't have to drive the one-way Cades Cove loop and endure the traffic, you get amazing views down into the Cove, and you hardly see many people while taking the 8.5ish mile hike.  While you have a fair amount of uphill hiking to get to Cerulean Knob, the high point, this trail makes it all worth while.  I recently took this hike with NoKey and my friend Shannon and we were treated to the solitude of hiking on a busy Easter weekend.  Here's a recap of how our adventure went. 

We met up at 9 a.m. in the parking area.  We usually start later in the day, but since it was Easter Sunday we were nervous the lot would be packed with families looking to spend their holiday together in Cades Cove.  Imagine our surprise when we were some of the very few people there this morning!  There was a chance of thunderstorms all day and rain was forecasted at 70% chances, but we only heard one rumble of thunder in the parking area and no rain ever really materialized.  We started our hike by following a muddy and eroded horse path out to the John Oliver Cabin.  While headed to the cabin, we crossed a stream and found some teaberry to sample before heading over to the old homesite.  The cabin had quite a few people visiting and running around, so we decided it was time to start our strenuous section and head up the mountain. 

The John Oliver Cabin just before heading up hill. 

The John Oliver Cabin just before heading up hill. 

From the Oliver Cabin you now begin the uphill portion of the hike.  This old roadbed is rocky due to horse travel, but maintains a steady grade all the way up.  We followed several streams and even saw a doe on the mountainside as we climbed.  NoKey pulled ahead and Shannon and I took our time hiking uphill.  We stopped halfway up at a black birch tree, where I found a stick that was fresh enough to still have some wintergreen scented oil inside.  We talked about how the settlers would look for black birch (also called sweet birch) and used the branches as a natural toothbrush.  The oils inside have a naturally antiseptic quality for keeping breath (and teeth!) clean.  We continued upward and the trail leveled a bit as we reached the trailhead.  

Hiking uphill - a woodpecker has been busy here! 

Hiking uphill - a woodpecker has been busy here! 

We had lunch with NoKey there, sharing some of my famous hiker crack cookies, and sent him down to do the 2.2 round-trip bonus miles on the side of Indian Grave Gap.  He needed to mark it off his map and Shannon and I took an extended lunch break and took a slower pace up over to the next trailhead.  While we were still headed uphill, it was much more gentle than the first part of our hike had been.  I stopped to tape blisters (really! I somehow managed to get some by wearing the wrong socks!) and we headed up to Cerulean Knob.  After reaching this high point of our trail, at 3685 feet, we started our descent of Scott Mountain.  We took in beautiful views of the Cove through the still bare trees and started seeing more flowers - spring beauties, bloodroot, cut-leaved toothwort, pussytoes, star chickweed, and rue anemone.  We were just about to reach our next trailhead and sit down to take a break and wait for NoKey when he came charging down the mountain to meet us!

Rue Anemone

Rue Anemone

We took a stretch break and an electrolytes break before we headed downhill on the steepest part of the hike.  Thankfully Crooked Arm Ridge Trail has a lot of switchbacks!  We carefully worked our way downhill crossing over a stream and seeing the long, beautiful Crooked Arm Cascades before meeting back up with the Rich Mountain Loop Trail and heading back to the car.  Shannon thanked us for hiking with her by giving us a CASE of Thin Mint cookies.  To this day, it might be the best thank you gift I've ever received! Usually I hike this trail in the winter and I'm used to being out there without there being many people.  I expected today to be packed on trail, but we only saw five other hikers on the entire loop.  It was a great way to escape the crowds and noise of the Cades Cove area. 

Crooked Arm Cascades

Crooked Arm Cascades

The Trail loop and elevation profile for Rich Mountain Loop. 

The Trail loop and elevation profile for Rich Mountain Loop. 

If you want to attempt this hike on your own follow the signs into Cades Cove.  Follow the road like you're going to drive the loop, however, make sure you stop at the large parking lot at the entrance for parking!  The trailhead is on the right side of the road just as the road narrows to a one-way drive.  You can head up either Crooked Arm Ridge Trail half a mile in or you can continue on Rich Mountain Trail.  I would say most hikers go up Rich Mountain and come down Crooked Arm Ridge.  Crooked Arm Ridge Trail is a little bit more eroded and strenuous on the way up.  

Have you ever done this classic Smokies hike?  I'd love to hear about your experience or your favorite trail in the park!  Leave me a comment below or find me over on Facebook or Twitter to get the conversation started!

Rich Mountain with Bonus Miles - 12-18-11

Despite having hiked 20.6 miles the day before, I woke up Sunday morning dying to go hiking again, especially since the weather was going to be about as perfect as you can get for winter in the Smokies.  We decided to hike Rich Mountain Loop, hit all of Indian Grave Gap Trail, and also did some bonus miles in Tremont, the off-map Spruce Flats Falls.  We ended up hiking a total of 33.5 miles this weekend and the clear skies and sunshine were more than worth it. 

We began our hike on a much colder morning that Saturday, about 28 degrees, in Cades Cove.  It was nearly 8:45 and there were already plenty of people to talk to and meet out on the trails.  The first part of our hike would take us up Rich Mountain Loop Trail, which passes by the old Oliver Cabin before turning and going steeply uphill.  We met several hikers here, including an older gentleman from Boston, and we would see them all later in the day as well.  We began our climb up Rich Mountain, following the creek bed at times, and the climb not relenting.  It was always steady, but never hard.  We reached Indian Grave Gap quickly and immediately began our descent down the well-graded old road bed to Rich Mountain Road.  

Indian Grave Gap is only 1.1 miles, but it seemed like a long 1.1.  We took several photos on the way down, as the views in to the Cove were phenomenal.  We remarked at all the cars driving around the loop and knew that must be where the real action was, what a shame to be up here all alone looking down to it (sarcasm).  We reached Rich Mountain Road in less than half an hour and then turned around to make the climb back up to the trailhead.  The 1.1 miles seemed just as long on the way up.  From the trailhead, it was a short 0.9 to campsite 5 and our lunch break. 

After our lunch break, it’s still a little further uphill to Cerulean Knob at the site of the old Rich Mountain fire tower.  It is here that two young deer nearly make me jump out of my skin on the side of the trail.  It was a great wildlife sighting to be sure.  From here, the trail is all downhill.  We passed a great view into Tuckaleechee Cove and a benchmark at the park boundary marker.  When we reached the Scott Mountain/Crooked Arm Ridge junction, we decided to take a side trip down to campsite 6 for a short break and to check out the water situation as the recent rains have made levels rise.  

After the break, it was a quick and muddy downhill jaunt to the car via Crooked Arm Ridge.  We make it back to our car at 1:15.  When we reach the car, Boston hiker and a man in a very strange hat we’d met this morning are both just getting back as well.  At this point, we decided to leave the trail shoes on and do some more hiking.  We decided to go to Tremont and hike Spruce Flat Falls, as DD had never seen it before.  We make the short and steep ascent to a ridge with spectacular views of Rocky Top and Thunderhead before descending nearly as steeply down to the falls, which were raging due to the heavy recent rains.  

All day the skies were blue and cloudless and the views in every direction were spectacular.  At points on Crooked Arm Ridge, we could see all the way to the back of Cades Cove.  Earlier in the day, we could see all the individual ridges of the mountains and follow the AT in our sightline.  It was an amazing day to be in the Smokies. 

20.6 Miles in Happy Valley - 12-17-11

Three of us got up early on Saturday morning for a 20.6-mile out-and-back of Rabbit Creek and Hannah Mountain Trails.  The views and company were spectacular and the return of an old friend, Buddy, made this hike memorable for sure. 

When Dapper Dan and I arrived at the trailhead and waited for Mary, our companion for the day, I quickly saw a familiar face.  Buddy, the dog I’d met on my first solo hike back in September, was nosing around in the fields at the ranger station.  I was so excited to 1) See him and hike with him again and 2) That he had a new tag on and his name was actually Buddy!  This fact made my whole day, but let’s talk about the hike now!

Mary, DD, and I set out from the Rabbit Creek Trailhead and immediately crossed Abrams Creek.  The water is the highest and swiftest I’ve ever seen.  We quickly pass the old Boring Farm and head uphill to tornado-damaged summit of our trail.  The climb goes quickly and we arrive at Scott Gap in less than an hour, 2.7 miles in to our trek. From here, we get on Hannah Mountain Trail and we’ll follow it for about 7.5 miles to Parsons Branch Road.  

The sky is still cloudy and there is a heavy layer of fog still in the air when we reach campsite 14 at Flint Gap.  We have a 1000-foot climb ahead, but we’re hoping to catch a glimpse of Cades Cove in the distance to our west.  We’d have no such luck this morning.  After making the climb, however, we do see freezing rain clinging to the trees in a delicate layer of ice on top of Hannah Mountain.  The site was absolutely stunning. After a few miles of level ridgeline walking, we descend down to Parsons Branch Road and stop for lunch.  We’re halfway finished with our day and it’s only 11:15 a.m.

After stopping for half an hour, the sky begins to turn blue and the fog is lifting.  On our way back over Hannah Mountain the frozen trees have begun to thaw and are now dripping on our heads, every once in a while dropping little ice pellets down the back of our necks.  We finally start to have some beautiful views and get a glimpse of Cades Cove far off to our west.  The hike goes fast and we end our hike at 3:30 in the afternoon, celebrating with Cokes and a tube of Pringles I forgot I had packed.  We hiked with Buddy the entire time and he headed home for a well-deserved rest when we left.  

Proposal for back country fees at GSMNP - my take

For those of you who don’t know, there’s a proposal for some new back country fees in our free national park.  Below is the release from the park service.  My opinion will be after that.  

Great Smoky Mountains National Park
News Release

Immediate Release                                    Contact:  Bob Miller
Date: July 29, 2011                                        865/436-1207

        National Park Managers Consider Backcountry Camping Changes

      Managers at Great Smoky Mountains National Park are considering some
changes in the process by which backpackers make reservations for overnight
camping at the Park’s nearly 100 backcountry sites and shelters.  The
proposed changes, which would update the reservation procedure as well as
increasing Ranger presence on the Park’s 800 miles of trails, would be
covered by a minimal user fee.  No fees are being contemplated for day

      The Park currently requires that all those planning to stay overnight
in the backcountry obtain a permit and those wishing to stay in the Park’s
15 shelters and most popular campsites make a reservation either by phone
or in person at the Park’s Backcountry Information Center located in the
Sugarlands Visitor Center near Gatlinburg. The reservations ensure that the
number of campers on a given night do not exceed the carrying capacity of
the site.  Many other less sought-after sites do not require that a
reservation be filed, but users are still required to self-register at one
of 15 permit stations when they arrive in the Park.

      Due to limited staffing, the Backcountry Information Center is open
only three hours a day and the phone line is often busy or is unstaffed,
which makes the process excessively time-consuming and often frustrating.
Once backpackers do obtain their reservations and arrive at their
campsites, they often find the area filled by individuals without permits.
In addition site capacities are frequently exceeded, which results in food
storage violations, increased wildlife encounters and the need to close
campsites to protect visitors and wildlife. Lack of staff in the
backcountry severely limits the Park’s ability to resolve these issues.


Smokies backcountry Camping Proposal – Page 2

      In response to these concerns, managers are evaluating the
implementation of a
computerized reservation system which would take reservations both online
and via a call center for all its backcountry sites 24 hours a day 7 days a
week.  The reservations would be made by a contractor at: which is the site currently used to book frontcountry
campsites.  The Park would also expand the operations of the Backcountry
Information Center to provide quality trip planning advice to help users
develop a customized itinerary that best fits their available time and

      In addition, the Park would hire additional Rangers who would
exclusively patrol the backcountry to improve compliance with Park
regulations as well as helping to curb plant and wildlife poaching and
respond more quickly to visitor emergencies.

      Park Superintendent Dale Ditmanson said, “We feel that the proposed
changes offer better customer service to backpackers, as well as reducing
impacts to Park resources  In order to implement these changes we are
considering several fee structures that would cover both the reservation
contractor’s fee and the cost of field Rangers and staff at the Backcountry
Information Center.”

      The Park plans to solicit public input on the new plan both on-line
and through two public meetings.  Details of the proposal may be found at
the Park’s website:  Comments
may be sent electronically at: or by mail to:
Superintendent, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, 107 Park Headquarters
Road, Gatlinburg, TN 37738. Informational open houses are scheduled for
Tuesday, August 16 from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. at the Old Oconaluftee Visitor
Center at 1194 Newfound Gap Road in Cherokee, and Thursday, August 18 from
5:30 to 7:30 p.m. at Park Headquarters Lobby at 107 Headquarters Road in
Gatlinburg.  Comments should be submitted by August 26.  

So, what are you thinking about the proposed changes?  I’ve already written my email to the address provided in the release.  It remains to be be seen if I’ll be able to make the townhall meeting due to the fact that I’ve got unpredictable work hours, but here’s my take: 

I’m not 100% opposed to a fee for back country camping.  In fact, every other place I’ve back country camped I’ve had to pay a fee.  What makes this hard for me is the fact that they don’t know how expensive the fee is yet.  A flat four-dollar fee is reasonable in my opinion.  There are other price options, however, including a 10-dollar permit fee plus 5 bucks for each person in your party.  This, in my opinion, is grossly expensive for a backpacker.  Let’s say David and I wanted to go for a 2-night backpack.  That would be 20 bucks for the permits (each day, different place) plus 10 bucks for him to be on my permit.  Add that to a 35-dollar per night stay at the kennel for our dog (no dogs in the Smokies!) and you’ve got a 100-dollar weekend!  Am I going to backpack in the Smokies? Hell no I won’t.  I’ll go to Frozen Head or Big South Fork where a weekend would cost me 10 and I could take my dog.  I won’t spend 100 in gas to get there and back, so it’d be cheaper for me to go somewhere else.  

The Smokies was established on the fact that US 441 - a major highway at the time - ran through it.  Therefore, the park service promised there’d never be an entrance fee due to the fact that this road was running through.  An entrance fee to the park couldn’t be implemented.  However, in my opinion, if you’re driving to Cades Cove, you’re going to Cades Cove.  Chances are you aren’t going to drive there to use Parson’s Branch Road to get yourself to 129.  This road isn’t major, is a 1-way dirt road that takes at least an hour to travel.  Same with Rich Mtn. Road.  You just aren’t going to Cades Cove to get somewhere else.  Why not have an entrance fee to the loop road there?  They’d make tons of money with very little damage (well, the damage has been done) as hardly anyone gets out of their cars.  

The entrance fee also applies to the firefly event at Elkmont every year.  Why not start charging people to come in to view the fireflies?  As this is a special event and the road to Elkmont is closed at night, anyone riding the trolley in is going for one thing and one thing only - fireflies.  People still want to go, and they’ll pay I’m pretty sure. 

Lastly, returning to my stance on the back country fee - If you’ve ever taken a horse and hiking trail in the Smokies, what do you remember about it?  Maybe the mud, deep ruts and mud pits, and trash?  If you’ve ever stayed at a horse camp, like on Deep Creek or Noland Creek/Divide, what do you remember about the camp?  Maybe that it was crowded and full of trash and you probably packed out more trash than you packed in?  This last idea I have is simple.  If you’re going to charge a backpacker, how much are you going to charge the horses?  A horse weighs a hell of a lot more than I do and do a WHOLE lot more damage to the trail than I do.  So would it be safe to assume a horse should be charged double?  If there’s a per person fee, I think the horse fee should be double, if not triple just due to the fact that erosion and damage is that much worse.  

The park service claims the fees would go towards rangers on the trail and more implementation of checking permits and kicking out illegal campers.  If you’ve ever run into a ranger in the Smokies, you know they do this anyway.  They also say that more rangers will make people follow the rules better.  I’m just not seeing the logic being drawn here.  I’ve seen people with dogs miles into the park without rangers in site.  It will still happen.  I’ve seen people stealth camping (aka - illegally, not on a maintained and designated campsite) and it will still happen.  I don’t think upping the park “police” presence is going to solve the problems like the park service thinks it is.  Granted, it’s hard to get ahold of the people at the permit office for reservation-only sites, but I don’t think charging people to use a website for permits is going to make anyone happy.  In fact, I think they’ll lose some backpackers, especially local folks. 

If you’re from out of town and you’re coming here to backpack, you’ll pay the fee.  If you live here and you’re in the park more than once a week, this fee is a punishment for all the tourons getting it wrong.  

My last question is about thru-hikers.  Are they going to be charged and forced to get permits like everyone else?  This new rule will certainly affect me next year for my AT thru hike.  How are they going to enforce that?  Thru hiking is defined by the park service as starting a hike 50 miles outside all park boundary lines and ending your hike more than 50 miles outside the boundary lines.  How is this going to be enforced?  

Honestly, they’ve got a lot of work ahead of them.  I urge any of you, whether or not you live here in the Smokies or you’re just getting to my blog and live far away, to email the park service at the email provided in the press release: and let them know your thoughts.  You don’t have to agree or disagree with me.  The more people we have making their opinions known, the more we’ll help the park!