Snake Den Ridge Trail and Appalachian Trail to Inadu Knob, Great Smoky Mountains National Park

The Cosby area in the Smokies offers quite a few long and rugged hikes from valley floor to mountain tops, including this leg-wrecker from the Cosby Campground to the Appalachian Trail on the Snake Den Ridge Trail. Even up top there are multiple potential destinations. We chose Inadu Knob and the old search & rescue helicopter pad at Deep Creek Gap for the views from Tennessee into North Carolina. Included on the nearly 4,000 foot climb are a 19th century cemetery, two creek crossings, magnificent old growth forest, wreckage from a 1984 military jet crash, and spectacular views of the surrounding Great Smoky Mountains. We tackled this adventure on Thursday, June 26, 2014 beginning at 8:30AM and ending about 5:00PM. Our plan was to take the Snake Den Ridge Trail from Cosby Campground to the Appalachian Trail, then take the AT to Inadu Knob in search of long distance vistas.

Hike Length: 13.1 miles Hike Duration: 8.5 hours

Blaze: White on AT Hike Rating: Most difficult. Extreme elevation change.

Elevation Gain: 4,700 feet Elevation Change: 3,790 feet

Hike Configuration: Up, up, up and back.

Trail Condition: Fair. Rocky and rooty in places. Somewhat overgrown in summer.

Starting Point: Hiker parking lot at Cosby Campground in GSMNP.

Trail Traffic: We saw three groups of three hikers, and a cadre of trail maintainers.

How to Get There: From the small town of Cosby, TN take Hwy 32 south 1.2 miles to Cosby Park Road and turn right. The national park entry sign is 100 feet up the road and the Cosby Campground is three miles. You will want to drive through the campground to see where the Snake Den Ridge Trailhead is, but you cannot park there. All parking is reserved for campers. The trailhead is in the southwest corner of section “B” of the campground near site B51, but you must then go back to the campground entrance for the “hiker’s parking.”

This was one of the hardest hikes, physically, that I have ever done. In fact, as I’m sitting here two days later typing this, my hips, calves and thighs are still sore. I’m not usually affected by hiking that way. I do enough of it that I’m in pretty good condition, and my legs are used to it. Not this time though.

If you studied the hike statistics above, you will see there is nearly 3,800 feet of elevation change, and more than 4,700 feet of total elevation gained. This is only the 2nd time I have done more than 3,000 feet of change in one day hike, and the first just barely topped that mark. So, while it was good to test my limits, and it’s the Meanderthals way, this one may have been a bit more than my legs were prepared for. Fair warning before I proceed to tell you about it.

This was the 2nd time I have been to the Cosby Campground in the northern part of Great Smoky Mountains National Park to begin a hike. The first was nearly three years ago when the Meanderthals ventured to Mt. Cammerer. One of the joys of traveling from Western North Carolina to here is the short stretch of the Foothills Parkway that connects I-40 with Cosby, TN. I always enjoy its beauty.

Once arriving at the Cosby Campground, the Snake Den Ridge trailhead is in the southwest corner near campsite B51. As you walk from the “hiker’s parking” through the campground, just keep bearing right. The trail begins on an old gravel road and climbs gradually through mature hardwood forest. A little more than a quarter mile up you will meet the Cosby horse trail coming in from your left. If you have a sudden change of heart, you can take this trail over to its meeting with Low Gap Trail.

Another quarter mile further you will come to Williamson Cemetery on your right, a small patch of tombstones mostly from the 19th century. The prominent names are Williamson and Campbell, but Ella Costner is also buried here, a former poet laureate of the Smokies. A third quarter mile will take you to the end of the gravel road at a cul-de-sac and the beginning of the trail tread up Snake Den Ridge. There is a spur trail on the right to Rock Creek, but the main trail is at the end of the cul-de-sac.

As you hear the sounds of Rock Creek along your way, you will soon reach and cross it on one of the old-time foot logs the Smokies park is noted for. Watch your step when its wet as the moss and lichens can be quite slippery. There is also a place here for your equine pals to ford the stream.

Continuing upward over the next mile, you are surrounded by a very heavy understory and begin to pass through old growth tulip poplar, hemlock, and pine. Some of the tree trunks have reached 4-5 feet in diameter. I was especially delighted to see the healthy hemlock, as most of the park has been ravaged by the woolly adelgid blight. Maybe there is hope.

It’s hard to see in summer, but occasionally you will get a glimpse through the trees of the Snake Den Ridge crest far above. Beginning at a mile and a half there are a couple switchbacks as you hear the sounds of Inadu Creek plunging down nearby. At the two mile mark you will reach the Inadu Creek rock hop crossing, and the small waterfalls that are both above and below the crossing. If you need to refill your water, this is the last good chance. Be sure to filter.

Now begins a steep northerly incline out of the Inadu Creek drainage and up to the ridge crest. Fortunately, when you reach the crest there is a great place to take a break, and to get a marvelous view of the Cosby Valley below. That’s the pic at the top of this post (click it for a larger image). We could also make out the octagonal fire lookout on the summit of Mt. Cammerer many miles to the east. We took about 10 minutes to marvel at the scenery, enjoy a snack, and catch our breath.

Here at the crest, the trail takes a decided turn west and begins a relentless ascent of Snake Den Ridge. For the next mile and a half you will encounter numerous switchbacks on the trail, as well as switches in the forest botany. It will change from hardwood to heath and finally to mostly coniferous woods that will fill your nostrils with an aromatic delight. There were blooming rosebay rhododendron, and lots and lots of galax and ferns. The beauty almost makes you forget how much your lungs and legs hurt. Almost.

Foothills Parkway Overlook

There are sections along the ridge where you can see down on both sides, and there are granite fins protruding from the earth… a reminder of the long ago upheaval that created these ancient mountains. To the north are occasional views of Camel Hump Ridge, and to the south the endless ridges of the central region of the Smokies. While difficult hiking, this would be a particularly scenic section of trail in winter when the leaves are down.

When you enter the coniferous forest at the 4-mile mark it gets quite dark. Not much sunlight passes through the tall timber. For me, it was a small relief. The air temperature dropped a half dozen degrees helping to cool my sweat-drenched body. By now, though, I was beginning to feel pretty whupped. Even the straps on my pack were saturated. The final half mile to the Maddron Bald Trail junction was quite difficult for me. I stopped about every 200 yards for a 30-second breather, then forced myself to plod onward. My companion went on ahead, just to see how far we were from the junction.

The trail itself through this area is difficult as well. It is made up of broken shale and lots of exposed roots. The margin for error is thin, so be aware of your fatigue and watch your step. It would be easy to turn an ankle, or worse, through here. When I saw my friend at the junction, I could only muster a mental “Whoopee!”

Much like the overlook before, the Snake Den/Maddron Bald trail junction is a nice place to take a break. There really isn’t anything to look at, other than the dense krummholz forest, but there are plenty of nice places to sit and take a load off. We took another 10 minutes here. I ate half a sandwich to renourish, and we talked about whether to go to Maddron Bald or to Inadu Knob. In the end, we decided on Inadu, and talked about maybe trying the bald on the way back down if we had any energy left. Hah!

The climbing isn’t done yet. It is three-quarters of a mile to the junction with the Appalachian Trail… all uphill. It continues on that treacherous broken shale that is very hard on the soles of your feet. Not far beyond the Maddron junction the summits of Inadu Knob and Old Black are visible through a break in the trees. Finally, a look at the destination. Maybe, just maybe.

When you reach the AT, you still aren’t quite at the top of Inadu Knob yet. We took another 10 minute break at the junction, and I somehow willed myself on for the final mile to what we hoped would be spectacular views at Deer Creek Gap. Heading west on the AT now, we still had to go up another 200 feet to cross Inadu Knob. Along this stretch an F-4 Phantom military jet crashed in 1984. There is still quite a bit of wreckage debris strewn about the hillside. It is unfortunate that both the pilot and navigator lost their lives.

Once we topped out, the ridge was level. The Appalachian trail runs right along the state line between TN and NC in the national park. On our left, to the east, we could begin to see the North Carolina Smokies. Well, now things were looking up. Ahead of us was 6,335′ Old Black with Mt. Guyot (the 2nd tallest mountain in Tennessee) peaking out from behind.

We reached a half-acre clearing on the ridge that meant we had reached Deep Creek Gap. There is a concrete helicopter pad here that used to support search-and-rescue operations in the Smokies. I say used to because this clearing in now pretty overgrown, and you have to look closely to see the concrete slabs. That’s where we sat to have lunch, let out a “whew” or two, or nine, and reveled in the magnificence surrounding us.

Luftee Knob is to the south, and Big Cataloochee Mountain and Mount Sterling to the southeast. Old Black and Mt. Guyot are southwest. Even with the haze that is common in the summer Smokies, we could still see probably 20 miles or more. Despite being out in the sun in this clearing, it was still nice and cool at 5,900 feet. We stayed for a half hour, took lots of pictures, ate lots of food, and rested. We rested hard.

If you continue westward along the AT just beyond the landing area, on the slopes of Old Black, there are several breaks in the treeline opening up views of the Tennessee Valley to the northwest and Clingmans Dome and Mount LeConte to the west. By this time we had had enough. It had taken us five hours to get to the top, so we figured at least four to get down. And we still had a two hour drive back ahead of us as well.

Mt. Sterling from Inadu Knob

On the way back across Inadu Knob we noticed quite a bit more of the airplane wreckage. In a way, it was a little surprising there is still so much debris left 30 years later, but the more we though about it, who wants to add that weight to their downhill burden anyway? Besides, it’s kinda like sacred ground because of the airmen who perished.

There isn’t too much to say about the return trip, other than that it’s long, and will pound your legs. When we reached the Maddron Bald Trail junction we pondered going the mile and a half out there… for about a microsecond. That is another hike for another day (if I can convince my brain to brutalize my body again). We passed a few groups of other hikers making their way up to the AT, including a collection of trail maintainers with the Appalachian Trail Conservancy.

There were more wildflowers that had popped out since morning. When we reached Rock Creek, I posed in the nice shirt the friendly folks at Flow397 had sent me to enjoy on my excursion in the Smokies. If you get a chance to purchase something from them, $3.97 out of every item sold goes to the National Park Foundation to support their efforts at maintaining our national parks. As Park Service budgets continue to be cut in Washington, it becomes ever more important to help the Foundation however possible. Surely we want our grandchildren to be able to enjoy these wild places as much as we do now.

It’s hard to describe the relief I felt when we reached the car. We made pretty darn good time, taking right around three hours to make the descent. Didn’t need to stop as often to do a lung check. Still, I was exhausted. But it was that good kind of exhaustion, y’know, like when you finish a hard job and tell yourself, “well done.”

So, I know you’re going to ask, “Well, was it worth it? Seems like all you did was whine.”

As I sit here writing this, even with the soreness still in my legs, hips and back, I will say absolutely, without a doubt. Now, there is no question you must know your capabilities before tackling this hike. It turned out to be right near the limit of mine. But let’s face it, doing anything out in the woods is better than sitting in an office, or pouring asphalt on a highway, or just about any job out there. And it beats just sitting at home wondering what to do with yourself.

There were any number of benefits to me from climbing to Inadu Knob. I learned what I am capable of physically at age 61. I saw old growth forest, creeks and streams, many varieties of summer wildflowers, and some of the best mountain views anywhere in the United States. For more than eight hours, I thoroughly enjoyed the companionship of my hiking friend. Was it worth it? You bet!

As you become more and more familiar with this Meanderthals Hiking website, you will find that I break down the trail descriptions by easy, moderate, and difficult, and by forest, water or vista. You need to hike your own hike. If you’re a beginner, try some of the easy hikes. As you build your stamina and endurance, go for some of the moderate trails. If you keep at it, within half a year you will be undertaking some of the more difficult climbs, perhaps including this one.

Enjoy the photos!

 

 

This post was created by Jeff Clark. Please feel free to use the sharing icons below, or add your thoughts to the comments. Pack it in, pack it out. Preserve the past. Respect other hikers. Let nature prevail. Leave no trace.

 

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