Walking amidst the 6,000 footers
This past weekend, I spent my Saturday hiking in Cataloochee Valley — and I have to admit, I had never been to the trails in that area. My hiking expeditions usually take me to the Appalachian Trail or the Mountains-to-Sea Trail, so when I heard a group of 12 of my mom's coworkers were going on a day hike and wanted me to join, I immediately took them up on the offer.
I hike frequently because I enjoy the aesthetic, but, more recently, because I appreciate the historic. Perhaps that's why our chosen route — the Rough Fork Trail to the Caldwell Fork Trail — was so appealing to me. It made for a beautiful hike, but it also was full of history; I couldn't help but wonder what life was like for those who lived in Cataloochee Valley in the early 20th century.
The trailhead to Rough Fork lies at the end of Cataloochee Valley Road, accessed via Route 276 and Cove Creek Road. As we drove through the valley in the morning hours, we saw a large elk herd grazing, and even when we parked our cars in a small lot near where several of the huge animals were standing, they kept on picking at the grass, unfazed. After adjusting our backpacks and checking our maps, we left the elk behind and headed into the woods.
The first mile of the Rough Fork Trail is level, making it an excellent walk for those who wish to experience the woods without any elevation gain. The trail does cross Rough Fork Creek several times, but the footbridges provide a stable (and narrow) way to cross.
The highlight of this first mile, in my opinion, is the Woody House, a still-beautiful home that had its beginnings as a log cabin. I've read that the Woody family members were the original entrepreneurs of Cataloochee Valley because, as tourism to the area increased, the family stocked the stream on their property with trout and then charged fisherman a price when they wanted to fish.
The house is open to visitors, and those interested in wandering the property can even go upstairs. It's fascinating to spend a few minutes looking out the windows onto the grounds below from the various rooms in this large house. I was happy to see that people have been kind to the house — graffiti is minimal, minus the occasional grouping of initials surrounded by a heart.
After the Woody House, the idyllic path begins its ascent and climbs more than 1,000 feet to where the Rough Fork Trail intersects with the Caldwell Fork Trail at the third mile. We stayed left to take the Caldwell Fork — and the downhill was a welcome change for everyone.
At this point in the hike, I began to appreciate the differences in seasons. I noticed plenty of mountain laurel and ferns, but many of the beech and oak trees were bare, their leaves having been blown off in the wind. Although at first I was a bit disappointed when I realized the fall color had mostly given way to the bleakness of winter, as I peered through the tree trunks to the mountains in the distance, I realized how beautiful it was to see the Great Smokies' 6,000 footers around me.
Less than a mile and a half into the Caldwell Fork Trail, we reached the Big Poplar, which certainly lived up to its name. It's an amazing tree that really deserves to be experienced in person — two of us hugging the tree didn't even come close to measuring the circumference.
After leaving the Big Poplar, we backtracked to the trailhead to finish our hike, making for a roundtrip hike of approximately 8.5 miles. However, hikers can also continue on the Caldwell Fork Trail, past Campsite 41, to the Big Fork Ridge Trail for a loop hike of approximately 9.2 miles.
These trails are well-marked at intersections, but there are no blazes, so it's best to bring a map in case you have any difficulties. I prefer National Geographic's illustrated trail maps (the Great Smoky Mountains and the Clingmans Dome/Cataloochee editions contain information about the trails I've mentioned).
Normally, I like bagging peaks; yet this weekend, being surrounded by such raw beauty and history was perfect. Even if you've experienced Cataloochee Valley many times, I encourage you to head back that way and enjoy the fresh perspective that this time of the year allows.
If you're hiking in the late fall and winter, remember that it gets dark very early in the woods. Always bring a flashlight or headlamp and extra layers. Be prepared — even if you're just going on a short day hike.