Little Cataloochee developed as an expansion to Cataloochee Valley with many of the sons and daughters of the original founders spreading their wings, albeit just a few miles away. Travel these days is limited to hiking boots and horseback, but a sense of time and place is still available through the historic restorations made by the National Park Service. Little Cataloochee Trail takes you out of the big valley, up and over Noland Mountain, and back down into the smaller neighbor to the north. In spring, this is a beautiful forested hike, with creek crossings, wildflowers, and perhaps if you’re lucky, an elusive bull elk. We hiked this trail on Thursday, May 22, 2014 beginning at 8:15AM and ending about 1:30PM. Our plan was to take the Little Cataloochee Trail until we had enough, then turn around and return.
Hike Length: 11 miles Hike Duration: 5.25 hours
Blaze: None needed Hike Rating: Difficult. Strenuous climbing & somewhat long.
Elevation Gain: 2,100 feet Elevation Change: 1,020 feet
Hike Configuration: Up and down, then back up and down.
Trail Condition: Fair. Lots of loose rock and exposed roots. Creek crossings.
Starting Point: Parking pullout along Pretty Hollow Gap Trail at Group Camp.
Trail Traffic: We encountered two other hikers, and a foursome on horseback.
How to Get There: From Asheville, NC take I-40 west to Exit 20, Hwy 276. Turn toward Maggie Valley, then take the first right onto Cove Creek Road. Stay on Cove Creek Rd. to the entrance to Great Smoky Mountains National Park at the Cataloochee Divide. The last mile up on Cove Creek Rd. is gravel. From the Divide it is three more miles of very curvy, downhill gravel road to the junction with Mt. Sterling Rd. and Cataloochee Rd. Turn left to Cataloochee Valley. Go to Pretty Hollow Gap Trail just past Palmer Chapel and turn right. Parking is 0.2 mile at the Group Camp.
I was so impressed on my scouting mission to Cataloochee Valley a couple days prior, that I decided not to waste any time and get back there soon to hit one of the trails. The one I chose was Little Cataloochee Trail. It takes you from the big valley, across Noland Mountain, and into a smaller valley north of the other.
Little Cataloochee developed as an offshoot of Big Cataloochee. The two communities were intertwined by blood and marriage. Young adults moved from the big valley beginning in the 1850s to establish their own homes in Little Cataloochee. By 1910 there were nearly 1,300 people in both Cataloochees, with a fair share of them in the smaller settlement.
Up until 1910 farming formed the economic base, but large-scale apple growing brought Little Cataloochee into 20th century commerce. If you look closely at some of the restored homesteads along the trail you will notice a few apple trees still remain.
Access to Little Cataloochee Trail is via a gravel road from the big valley called Pretty Hollow Gap Trail. It turns to the right off the main Cataloochee Road just past Palmer Chapel. It is 0.8 mile to the Little Cataloochee trailhead, but you can’t drive all the way. You must park at the Group Camp and then walk the remaining half mile to the trailhead. Along the way you can enjoy Palmer Creek as it tumbles through the green forest to meet Cataloochee Creek downstream.
The next 1.8 miles is uphill. Not particularly steep, it is nevertheless continuous. Keep that in mind for later and conserve your energy because there is still a lot more climbing ahead. After a half mile you’ll reach the first of a series of creek crossings over Little Davidson Branch. None were particularly difficult when we were there, but on a day after a good rain they could be a touch dicey. I would call the stepping stones more awkward than difficult.
As you continue up Noland Mountain, at the 1.5-mile mark, you will begin to notice moss-covered stone walls that are remnants of the old Messer farmstead. Continuing over both sides of Davidson Gap, this was quite the hub of industry at the turn of the century as young Will Messer was running a sawmill, gristmill, store, blacksmith shop, woodworking shop and several farms on 340 acres. Quite the busy man. Ultimately however, it was apples that brought wealth to Messer and others in Little Cataloochee.
Davidson Gap is a nice place for a little rest after the long climb from Palmer Creek. There are a couple horse tie-outs and a well-placed log that is perfect to rest your bones and grab a snack.
As you begin dropping down the other side of Davidson Gap you will continue to notice more of the stone walls remaining from the Messer estate… and, that the down side is steeper than the up side was. Remember I mentioned to conserve your energy? This is why. When you have to climb back up this north side of Noland Mountain later, it is tough. At least they had the decency to build the trail with a few switchbacks.
Interestingly, there are two structures that were originally part of the Messer estate that were relocated when they were restored. One was taken to the Oconoluftee Visitor Center near the Cherokee entrance to Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and the other sits beside the ranger station at the entrance to Big Cataloochee. There is another structural artifact that you will encounter that was restored in place.
Cook Cabin, a half mile below Davidson Gap, was the homesite of Daniel and Harriett Cook. It sits alongside Coggins Branch, offering a fresh water supply, and is nestled in a cove that receives sunlight through the dense forest. The photo at the top of this post is Cook Cabin. You may click it for a larger image. The aforementioned Will Messer married one of the Cooks’s daughters, Rachel. 100 feet up the hill from the cabin are the stone ruins of the Cook’s old apple house.
Beyond Cook Cabin, Little Cataloochee Trail turns into more of a road. It is double track, smoother, and less rocky. 0.7 mile past the cabin, it climbs a little ridge to the next historic structure: a quaint country church.
Constructed in 1889 by the local families, Little Cataloochee Baptist Church sits on the ridge top, painted white with a modest gingerbread trim. The tall belfry was added 25 years later, and Will Messer designed the steeple. William Hannah (we’ll meet his family soon) donated the 400 pound bell that fills the belfry.
Below the church, on the side opposite the road, is the congregation’s cemetery. Headstones go as far back as the 1830s and include at least one soldier from the 62nd NC Corps of the Confederate Army. It is sad the number of babies buried there, and young women who probably lost their lives during childbirth. Reunions of the Little Cataloochee families are still held today
— after cleaning the cemetery and decorating the graves
— on homemade picnic tables located behind the church.
The road continues to wind downward beyond the church and crosses Little Cataloochee Creek after another half mile. If you look closely, you will see other artifacts strewn about the forest floor along the way. The scene is quite picturesque, as bright green ferns line the pathway that everyone took to church a century ago.
Approximately four miles from the original Little Cataloochee trailhead is a spur trail that climbs uphill on the left to the restored Hannah Cabin. Evan Hannah arrived in Big Cataloochee in the 1830s and may have been the first settler in the valley.
Looking for land of his own, Evan’s son John Jackson Hannah moved to this spot with his bride in 1857. First living in a smaller board cabin, John Jackson built the log house in 1864. The handmade brick chimney was a rare and fancy touch. The property passed on to Jim Hannah who remained there until the national park days.
On this day, 150 years later, the front porch of the Hannah Cabin made a great spot for lunch and reflection. We read all the history I just mentioned from a park brochure, and imagined the yard, the garden, the apple orchard, and the love that was spread out around the house and barn.
The road continues beyond the Hannah Cabin for another 1.2 miles to a meeting with Mt. Sterling Rd. From there, you can go north past Mt. Sterling and on to the Big Creek Area of the national park, or go south for a return to Cataloochee Valley. We, however, decided to turn around at Hannah Cabin. There was still a lot of climbing to do, just as much as we’d already done.
And that climbing is tough. First there’s the return up the ridge to the church. Then there’s the haul back up Noland Mountain to Davidson Gap. It’s a lot steeper than the south side, so pauses were more frequent. As the sun had warmed the day considerably by now, I was looking forward to that log for a sit-down at the gap. Not to be Meanderthal boy! As we huffed and puffed our way back to the gap, we were greeted by four horses and riders availing themselves of the relief.
At least it was all downhill from there. We encountered a couple other solo hikers along the way, and were even more mindful of the creek crossings in our fatigued condition. We finally reached the car about 5
½ hours and 11 miles after we started.
To summarize, this is typical Smoky Mountains hiking. Lots of forest, lots of water, and lots of mountain. Our spring-time visit was especially green. The only thing missing was an elk. Two days earlier, in the big valley, I had seen more than a dozen. No such luck today though. A guest of this site told me the bulls tend to hang out in Little Cataloochee, while the cows and yearlings are all in the fields of the big valley. It was a good hike, with lots of 19th century history and charm.