The Cataloochee Divide Trail follows the eastern national park boundary for 6.4 miles from Cove Creek Gap to a junction with Hemphill Bald Trail. It is then another half-mile climb to the 5,520′ summit of Hemphill Bald. We shaved 4+ miles off the round trip by starting at Purchase Knob rather than Cove Creek Gap. You will pass fabulous views to the east and south of the Black and Great Craggy Mountains nearly 50 miles distant, as well as Mt. Pisgah and Cold Mountain near the Blue Ridge Parkway roughly 20 miles away. Hemphill Bald stands above the Cataloochee Ski Area and Maggie Valley and offers some of the best vistas into North Carolina from Great Smoky Mountains National Park. This hike occurred on Tuesday, December 17, 2013 from 9:30am to 2:45pm. Our plan was to take the Purchase Knob loop past Ferguson Cabin to the Divide Trail, follow it to Hemphill Bald, then return along the divide to the Appalachian Highlands Science Learning Center.
Hike Length: 10 miles Hike Duration: 5.25 hours Blaze: None
Hike Rating: Difficult, strenuous climbing. Hike Configuration: Up and back.
Elevation Change: 1,440 feet Elevation Gain: 2,150 feet
Trail Condition: Excellent, very few roots and rocks. Watch for ice in winter months.
Starting Point: National Park entrance gate to Purchase Knob.
Trail Traffic: We were the only hikers on this weekday in mid-December.
How to Get There: Take Hwy 276 north from Soco Rd. in Maggie Valley 2 miles, and turn left on Hemphill Rd. Stay on Hemphill Rd. for nearly 5 miles where it becomes Purchase Rd. and changes to dirt and gravel. It is about a quarter mile to the national park gate. Parking is limited. Hike through the gate and up Purchase Rd.
This hike starts the same place as the one we did just a couple weeks ago at Purchase Knob. This time, instead of hiking to the Science Center at the top of the hill, we took the Ferguson Cabin Trail past the cabin, across the creek, and up to the junction with the Cataloochee Divide Trail. It’s a total of about a mile from the trailhead on Purchase Road. I won’t repeat all the details, but go check out the other hike first if you have any confusion about how to get to the Divide Trail.
We had our travelling third member back for this hike, so we were a full complement of Meanderthals. When we reached the junction, we turned left (southwesterly), toward The Swag and Hemphill Bald. The Cataloochee Divide Trail follows an old locust fence line on your left that denotes the national park boundary. Private property on the left of the fence, national park on the right. Apparently this area on top of the ridge gets a lot of rain because there is quite a bit of boardwalk for the first half mile or so. Otherwise, the trail tread is in excellent condition
— leaf covered on this blustery December day.
The forest is mostly hardwoods, with an occasional small fir thrown in for good measure. Recent rain had dampened the leaves on the trail so we didn’t have to listen to the constant “swish, swish, swish” like last week when our boots moved through dry leaves. In fact, except for the wind and morning chill, it was downright delightful.
After about 20 minutes on the Divide Trail we came to an old grassy roadbed on the other side of the fence. As the trail began a steady climb, the road changed to gravel and we could make out the structures atop the hill that indicated we were approaching The Swag resort on Gooseberry Knob.
The kind folks that operate The Swag have allowed a gate in the fence so that intrepid national park hikers like us can go out on the grassy bald knob and enjoy the fabulous views to the east, north and south. This area on Gooseberry Knob is called, appropriately, Rogers Hideaway. It would be a marvelous place to simply hideaway from all the hustle and bustle of everyday life. There is a small cabin, a gazebo, a few picnic tables and love seats, and an overlook platform with a metal relief map of the surrounding scenery.
From the platform you can see the Black Mountains and the Great Craggy Mountains to the northeast, nearly 50 miles distant. Purchase Knob is quite evident, as are the Newfound Mountains and the Rough Creek area above Canton. More to the east are Mt. Pisgah and the always imposing shoulders of Cold Mountain about 20 miles away. The Jonathan Creek community is in the valley directly below.
Turning to the southwest, we had our first glimpse of today’s destination, Hemphill Bald. From Gooseberry Knob it looks a lot farther than a mile and a half, and quite the imposing climb. As I took it all in, I steeled myself for the arduous burning of legs and lungs that lay ahead. Just to the left of the bald, and below, is the Cataloochee Ski Area. The artificial snow guns had been busy, and there were several dozen skiers availing themselves of the pleasure.
Another few hundred yards up the trail is the Swag House itself, a romantic country inn with incomparable Smoky Mountain views, an award-winning restaurant and pampering accommodations. Construction of the inn began when historic log buildings were reassembled in 1971 on high meadowland cleared for farming at the turn of the 20th century. Most of the logs were hand hewn from huge tulip poplar trees, which are rare today, but can be found in Smokies National Park. The two and one-half mile private drive leading to the inn climbs more than 1,000 feet.
From Swag House it is 1/2 mile to Double Gap, and then another 1/2 mile to the summit of Hemphill Bald. The Divide Trail goes gradually down from Swag House to the gap (that’s just so you can climb even farther up to the bald). Double Gap is at the base of Hemphill Bald, and the terrain switches from forest to wide open cattle grazing land. You can see where you have to go. It made me groan. The Hemphill Bald Trail comes in from the right here at Double Gap, to join the Cataloochee Divide Trail, and the two combine for a 640 foot dash to the top over the next half mile.
You can tell this section of trail gets a lot of use because there is a narrow trench along the boundary fence line from all the hiking boot traffic. This half mile stretch to the summit is also the only portion of this hike where the trail conditions aren’t near perfect. The terrain is more rugged here. There are exposed roots and rocks, and being on the north side of the mountain out of the sun, there was ice as well.
There’s no doubt it’s a hard hill to climb. If you’ve been reading Meanderthals for awhile now, you know that unlike my hiking buddies, I’m no fan of up. I much prefer to go down. So I take my time and stop for 30 second breathers. My friends say it’s when I put it in compound low. They usually rush on up ahead of me, but I make up for it on the downhill side when their aching knees make it difficult to keep up with me. The wind was really fierce now, and it was downright frigid at 5,500 feet. When I popped out on the summit, though, it was totally worth the exertion and cold.
We dropped down the east side of the hill about 30 feet from the summit and found a delightful wind break. The sun was beaming and there were nice rocks to sit on for lunch. It only took about five minutes for the chill to leave and we started shedding layers.
Directly in front of us, and below, was the Cataloochee Ski hill. It was fun to watch the skiers as we dined on soup and sandwiches and surveyed the majestic mountains that surrounded us. As fabulous as the views back at Gooseberry Knob were, this was even more fantastic. We were about 800 feet higher now. Because of the wind and the high pressure, it was a remarkably clear day. The long distance views were astounding. The mountain ranges 50 miles away were clearly visible. We could trace the path of our journey on the Cataloochee Divide Trail as it traversed the ridge from Purchase Knob.
One of the other guys, who has skied Cataloochee many times, commented that he had noticed this bald mountain before, but never imagined he would be sitting there some day looking down on the ski hill. It is kind of ironic that this mountaintop where cattle graze in the summer is higher than the ski runs. We had it all to ourselves.
After renourishing and a much needed respite, we continued onward another few hundred yards to the true summit of Hemphill Bald. The land here is a conservation easement that is shared between the national park and Cataloochee Ranch. One translation of the Cherokee word “Cataloochee” is “wave upon wave,” an apt description of the endless rolling blue ridges that are visible from Hemphill Bald.
Cataloochee Ranch was founded by “Mr. Tom” and “Miss Judy” Alexander in 1933 and was originally located in the serene and beautiful Cataloochee Valley. In 1938 Mr. Tom purchased a large part of the present Ranch property including the ranch house and cabins. Its 5,000-foot elevation bordering Great Smoky Mountains National Park created the ideal combination of extraordinary mountain views and wonderfully cool summer temperatures for guests who have made the Ranch a family vacation tradition.
At the very top of Hemphill Bald is a “people corral.” There is a pastoral split rail fence surrounding an area probably 10,000 square feet where hikers can go to be protected from the cattle who graze here during the green months. Inside the enclosure is a really cool stone picnic table underneath a large oak that is definitely on my list for a spring or summer visit. The table is a memorial to Mr. Tom and Miss Judy for placing 220 acres surrounding the summit under conservation easement so that the land will always belong to “we the people” and never be developed.
From the west side of the summit you can also see “Ghost Town in the Sky” standing on a precipice above Maggie Valley. Ghost Town In The Sky was conceived by the late R. B. Coburn, who was inspired to build a park with a western theme after visiting several ghost towns in the American West. In 1960, Coburn purchased Buck Mountain near Maggie Valley as the site of his town, and built a double incline railway to bring visitors to the entrance of Ghost Town located more than 3300 feet up the mountainside. The park opened in May of 1961, and since then new rides and attractions have been added throughout the years.
The Hemphill Bald Trail continues along the Cataloochee Divide westward for another several miles to Polls Gap on Heintooga Road in the national park, but this was our turn-around-point on this day. There is so much hiking to do in and around Cataloochee Valley, that I can see myself enjoying this picturesque countryside for decades to come.
As we began retracing our footsteps, we passed back over the summit to the north side of the divide and back into the wind and cold. Quickly digging out our gloves and knit hats, we began the descent of Hemphill Bald back to Double Gap. Now it was my turn to lead the pack. I’m sure some day the knee-thing will catch up with me, but for now I do so much better on the downward side of hiking trails.
There is still a modicum of climbing on the return, like back up to the Swag House, but it is so much easier, and so much quicker. We finally got out of the wind and warmed up again about the time we got to Gooseberry Knob. It was interesting to look behind us at Hemphill Bald and feel a sense of accomplishment at having made the climb.
When we got back to the junction with the Ferguson Cabin Trail, we continued straight ahead on the Divide Trail so we would come out of the forest behind the Appalachian Highland Science Learning Center. Much as we had done two weeks prior, we enjoyed several minutes on the front deck surveying the Blue Ridge and Smoky Mountains.
This time though, the sky was clear and the vistas grandiose. It is so easy to see why Kathryn McNeil fell in love with this property and built her summer home here. She is another we owe a great deal of gratitude to for making this land available to all of us as part of Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
We took the trail down the hillside through the big meadow and the thick grasses were like spongy cushions beneath our feet. I have a picture in my head of thousands of wildflowers and butterflies filling this meadow in the spring. I will definitely be back, time and time again.
I hadn’t noticed it before, but when we were descending Purchase Road to the car, there is a glimpse through the woods at Hemphill Bald. From here it seems miles away (and it is), but it seemed so much further than our hike. Were I to have looked at it before tackling the hike, I certainly would have had doubts about my ability to make it all that way. Probably better that I didn’t know. No doubts.
Other reports I have read have this round trip hike as 7.5 miles. My GPS tracker recorded it as more than 10. We did do quite a bit of wandering on top the bald, but not 2.5 miles worth. So keep in mind the two distances when you endeavor to hike from Purchase Knob to Hemphill Bald yourself.
By the way, I didn’t mention it in the previous trail report, but when you’re coming up Hemphill Road to Purchase Knob, you pass right by the old homestead of Marvin “Popcorn” Sutton. The roads here have names like Wit’s End and Hell for Certain Way. I have to admit to never hearing of the man, but my compatriots, who are more into local North Carolina history than I, explained that he is quite the legendary moonshiner. Apparently he was the subject of a documentary, Hillbilly: The Real Story, if you’re into that kind of thing.
Best HikeTo summarize, don’t miss this hike. It has everything. History, a national park, exercise, amazing scenic vistas, mountain resorts, ski slopes, science and research, and great fun. This is a four season hike that is quite different with each recurrent change. You probably want to leave the young kids at home for this one as it is pretty long and difficult, but all the exertion is absolutely worth it. For us, it was a great day, and I would label this one a best hike.
Update May 8, 2014: My brother came to visit from Colorado and we took a spring-time hike from Purchase Knob to Hemphill Bald. We even had an unexpected guest join us. A goofball black labrador named Oscar decided to tag along and followed us all the way from our car to Hemphill Bald and back, a round-trip of 10 miles. We later spoke with a park ranger at the Science and Learning Center who told us it was not at all uncommon for Oscar to invite himself to hiking parties.
It was gorgeous weather on this early May day and we were treated to an exceptional wildflower show including four different colors of trillium. It was the first time we had seen the Learning Center staffed as our previous visits had all been in December during off-season. Enjoy the new photos. Perhaps they will entice you to get out to this splendid section of the Smokies.
Update May 10, 2014: If you’re looking for one of the Smokies stunning wildflower hikes that doesn’t attract major crowds, then the Cataloochee Divide is the place for you. Throughout the month of May expect spectacular displays of everything from betony to phacelia, buttercups to trillium, anenome to violets, and ragwort to toothwort. Stop in at the Appalachian Highlands Science Learning Center and tell the rangers how much you appreciate everything they do.