On 9-10-11 I did my first hike in the Cataloochee area of the Smokies. The weather was perfect with a hint of fall in the air and the trails were in amazing shape. This blog post will be a bit long, as we covered more than 17 miles on Caldwell Fork, Rough Fork, Big Fork Ridge, and Boogerman Trails. I will break it up best I can. TL;DR - this area is amazing and the trails didn’t disappoint!
We started off our walk across a foot bridge, reportedly the longest in the park at 25’, across Cataloochee Creek. This foot bridge had a date carved in it from September 1964, as well as a footprint in the concrete of the top step on the side closest to the road. We crossed the bridge and started on a nice wide, fairly flat trail and were on our way. At the 0.8 mile mark, we passed over a second foot log and found ourselves at the first of two trailheads for the Boogerman Trail, which we would be coming down later in the day. The trail had many, many creek crossings, all but one had very sturdy foot logs. Around 2 miles in, one of the foot bridges was out, due to breaking in half right in the middle, but we were able to take off our shoes and cross safely. We passed the second Boogerman trailhead and then came to many trail junctions quickly. Just 0.4 miles further was the Big Fork Ridge Trail, where there was a schoolhouse many years ago. Only 0.1 miles further was the McKee Branch trailhead, where a spur to a small cemetery where union soliders were buried after a battle. One of the graves even contains two bodies. About 1.5 miles further we reached the Hemphill Bald trailhead and the site of the former Sutton homestead, where campsite #41 now resides. There was a wide, shallow stream (Caldwell Fork again) here with plenty of room at the campsite. Close to 1.2 miles from the end of this trail was a spur trail with a sign reading “Big Poplars” where there was a stand of very large tulip poplars. Little did we know this was just a sign of what was yet to come on our journey, as we saw TONS of very large trees the entire day. We reached the Caldwell Fork/Rough Fork trailhead around 12 p.m. and stopped for lunch.
After lunching and starting the downhill portion of Rough Fork, we finally started seeing other hikers, which was nice. The trail was nice and gentle downhill and the creek below made for peaceful background noise. There weren’t any signs of flowers, but the rhododendron was nice and green and made for cool tunnels to give us a break from the constant sunshine we’d had all morning. We reached the bottom of the gentle hill at another crossing with a good foot bridge at the site of campsite #40, which is tucked up behind a laurel slick. From here, the trail became very wide and road-like with gravel grading. The fields here are maintained and mowed by the park service and it very much retains the look of the farmstead that was here in the early 1900s. About 1 mile from the trailhead is a gorgeous white house on the registry of National Historic Places called the Woody House, as well as a springhouse. They’re both beautifully preserved and painted with a sign telling vistors that vandalism is permanent. I wish those signs were everywhere in the park. This house had no carvings all over it like the others in the park. After passing the house and going over two more foot logs of Rough Creek, we reached the road and a parking lot at close to 1 p.m. and took a break in the meadow.
Big Fork Ridge Trail was next on our list and we knew we’d have another uphill portion ahead of us. Imagine our surprise when only 0.25 miles up the trail we came on a large fenced in area that hadn’t been mentioned in our brown book. It definitely made you feel like you had stumbled upon some sort of government secret site! My hunch that this place was an elk holding pen was correct. When the park service reintroduced elk into the area in 2001, this pen was used to help them thrive before turning them out into the wild. Before the pen was built, this whole place was 155-acre farm with a huge farmhouse belonging to Jim Caldwell. The trail began to climb, steeply at times, to the top of the ridge and was rocky and rooty due to horse traffic. It was, however, never difficult climbing. We stopped for a short snack break at the top of the ridge (and Advil too!) and continued onward for a gentle downhill. There weren’t many things to see on this trail - no views of the valley below, no flowers, not much greenery, but the sky was blue and the trail was clear and it made for a pleasant walk. Close to 0.75 miles from the trailhead we ran in to a couple we’d seen earlier on Rough Fork Trail and said hello once again. Close to 500 yards from the terminus of Big Fork Ridge Trail, we crossed Caldwell Fork for the close to 100th time (maybe not 100, but close!) on a foot bridge and were back into the lush green, fern-covered forest once again and back to the Caldwell Fork Trail.
We traveled the 0.4 miles to the Boogerman trailhead and we were on our final trail of the day (if you don’t count the 0.8 on Caldwell Fork back to the road). Boogerman, for those who don’t know, was another name for a ghost in the Appalachians in the 1800s. There’s actually a Boogertown near Gatlinburg, which was named so due to the fact that soldiers during the Civil War were convinced the area was haunted. It was called Boogertown as a joke, but the name sort of stuck and is known as Boogertown to this day. We began this trail with a gentle climb through a farmstead with large stone walls and crossed a few small feeder streams that were easily rock-hopped. The stone walls here were very impressive, some of the better I’ve seen in the park, close to waist-high and higher, very straight, and very well preserved. After climbing up a short hill we came to a large tulip poplar with a split in the trunk so large you could walk into it without ducking. The tree was also still alive, which I thought was very cool. Past the tulip tree was an even more impressive 100-yard-long, two-feet-wide stone wall. Now there was a more strenuous climb up the hill passing even larger tulip poplars. The steep climb ended suddenly with an even steeper downhill waiting for us. The trail, from this point on, would be downhill the rest of our trip. There were two very long rhododendron tunnels and yet another good foot log, followed by a long, gentle downhill hike. We could hear, but never see, Caldwell Fork roaring below. At 4 p.m., we came to the end of Boogerman Trail and made a beeline back down Caldwell Fork Trail to the car for Coca-Colas and our sandals so we could wade in the creek before heading home.
I really enjoyed my first visit to this area of the park. We were able to see some elk after our hike, as we had seen evidence of them from their droppings all day. While there wasn’t much to see in the way of wildlife other than a few red chipmunks and small toads, the trails were also surprisingly dry and not at all as muddy as we were expecting due to recent heavy rains and the fact that they were all (except Boogerman) horse trails. The large trees that were consistent in this area were very impressive and just amazing. The Smokies were heavily logged in the first part of the 20th century, so old growth forest isn’t seen much. I’m looking forward to being back here in the fall to see not only the leaves changing, but to see more elk.