Two of my favorite places on the North Carolina side of the Smokies are the Cataloochee Divide, high on the crest, and Cataloochee Valley far below. This four-trail loop enables you to explore the beautiful forest that lies between the two. Start at Purchase Knob, then take McKee Branch Trail down, and more down, to Caldwell Fork Trail which parallels the Divide and the Valley. Next turn is on Hemphill Bald Trail where you go back up the drainage for a return to the Divide at Double Gap. From there it’s an easy stroll past The Swag back to Purchase Knob. Ken and I tackled this rectangular shaped loop on Thursday, September 24, 2015 from 8:00AM to about 1:30PM. Our plan was to make a counter-clockwise loop on McKee Branch Trail, Caldwell Fork Trail, Hemphill Bald Trail, and the Cataloochee Divide.
Hike Length: 9.5 miles from Purchase Knob Hike Duration: 5.5 hours
Hike Configuration: Rectangular shaped loop Blaze: None, not needed
Hike Rating: Difficult. Somewhat long with some strenuous downhill and uphill.
Elevation Change: 1,900 feet, 3,450 feet gain Elevation Start: 4,950 feet
Trail Condition: Very good. Most of this hike is on well maintained trails that include a handful of creek crossings and occasional rocks and roots exposed by erosion.
Starting Point: Appalachian Highlands Science Learning Center at Purchase Knob.
Trail Traffic: We never saw another human. Wildlife was another story.
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. two miles to the Science Center at the top of the hill.
On the ride to Purchase Knob for the hike deep into the forest above Cataloochee Valley, I had a certain amount of jittery trepidation. I expected this hike to be hard. After all, there is significant descent down the mountain, then the complimentary ascent back to the Cataloochee Divide. I haven’t been hiking as strongly for the past year, and I worried that the length and elevation gain of this loop might get the best of me. When all was said and done at the end of the day, I was pleasantly surprised. Worried for nothing.
The sunrise viewed from the deck of the Science Center at Purchase Knob was a magnificent start to our adventure. To begin this hike take any one of three different trails from the Center to the Cataloochee Divide Trail. Head south until you come to the junction with McKee Branch Trail and begin the descent on McKee. For the next 2.3 miles you will plunge deep into the forest on a sometimes steep, sometimes rocky pathway. About half way down you will cross the trail’s namesake
— McKee Branch
— slowed to no more than a babbling brook on this day because of the recent dry conditions in the Smokies.
The trail begins to level out after the crossing, and now follows McKee Branch, becoming a nice gentle stroll through the woodsy surroundings. There was a touch of Autumn in the cool, crisp air and on the yellowy green leaves of the oak, black walnut, and buckeye. The ground was strewn with the nuts from each, likely to be a good mast year for the forest critters to enjoy. At times we had to be careful with our steps, mindful not to go skating on the marble-like covering of fallen nuts.
An hour after starting we reached the junction with Caldwell Fork Trail. This was a place we had been before, when we did the Big Fork Loop last Fall. We paused a bit to enjoy a snack and the bright yellow leaves of the birch trees that surrounded us. There were blue asters here, springing up at the foot of the equestrian hitching posts. After our short break, it was a left turn (southwest) on trail #2 of this loop; Caldwell Fork.
It is 1.4 miles from McKee Branch to the Hemphill Bald junction along picturesque Caldwell Fork Trail. The path is relatively level with the occasional brief climb as you pass alongside the namesake creek. Whenever we have been here I always comment to Ken how magnificent the surrounding forest is, usually again and again around every turn. It widens my eyes and deepens my breathing.
We passed giant lobelias and striped gentian. We reached the next junction at the top of a little rise, beneath a colorful maple displaying autumn hues, and paused once more. This time we were preparing our minds and bodies for the 3-mile, 1,900-foot gain of the third trail in the loop; Hemphill Bald.
This is what I had worried about earlier in the morning. We had not been on this trail before, so we didn’t quite know what to expect. On the topographic map there are lots of very tight lines, but, it takes three full miles to ascend the same elevation that McKee Branch came down in three-quarters mile less. Perhaps it wouldn’t be quite as steep. We were about to find out.
Like McKee Branch ended, Hemphill Bald Trail started out rather benign. One thing we noticed within the first half hour was… old growth forest. Yay! We were surrounded by giants of the woods including tulip poplar, hemlock, and some of the largest oak trees I’ve ever seen. We each posed beside the largest of the lot and marveled at the sheer mass. I am always left with a sense of admiration whenever I walk among these gentle titans, but also a feeling of melancholy. I am so sorry I missed the mighty chestnuts and elms in my lifetime, and that the hemlocks are also dying. The ash, too, are under attack in the Smokies. The forests are changing, unfortunately forever.
Beyond the old growth, Hemphill Bald Trail does indeed begin to climb more steeply, but never uncomfortably so. We kept a calm, steady pace and never really became fatigued. So far, so good. We happened upon one of the most remarkable mushrooms I have ever seen. With a pewter colored top, it almost glistened. When you look at the picture in the gallery below, perhaps you can help me identify this unusual species. We also saw a patch of the unusual dolls eyes berries.
The climb up to Double Gap on the Hemphill Bald Trail takes three major switchbacks, first to the north for a quarter mile, then back to the south for a full mile, then finally a hard turn to the east that marks the final ascent to Cataloochee Divide. I felt like a machine as I kept putting one foot in front of the other. I had worried for nothing. I definitely recommend taking this loop counter-clockwise as we did, simply because this climb would appear to be much easier than climbing McKee Branch.
When we reached the Cataloochee Divide Trail at Double Gap below the summit of Hemphill Bald, we considered just for a brief moment going up top. Better not push our good fortune. We have been there before, and will surely go again some day. We took one final relaxing break as we prepared from trail #4 to complete the loop; Cataloochee Divide.
We turned left (north) on Cataloochee Divide for the easiest stretch of the four sides of the loop. About a half mile from Double Gap we had the most exciting moment of the day. As we rounded a bend in the trail, so too did a black bear about a hundred feet ahead. We caught each other’s eye just long enough to gasp, and feel the rush of wonderment permeate the senses. I have a cautious respect for bears, but I also cherish each and every experience I have had with them in the wild.
Perhaps with the exception of the wolf, there may be no more misunderstood creature than bears. They really aren’t out to get us. In fact, they would prefer not to even encounter us as we traipse about their home. This one certainly didn’t, as he bounded away into the dark of the woods just seconds after spotting us. The key word is respect. Respect the bear’s sanctuary. Respect that they live here and we are just visiting. Respect too, that they are mightier than us when provoked, so carry a healthy level of caution with you.
About half way back to Purchase Knob we reached The Swag resort and the always lovely Gooseberry Knob. We stopped for the compulsory photo of the Blue Ridge Mountains from there, then continued along our merry way. Once we returned to our starting point about five and a half hours after beginning, I was relieved… and pleased. Both for the same reason
— that I hadn’t collapsed from exhaustion. Sometimes we have good hiking days, and sometimes our bodies and minds just don’t cooperate. This was one of those very good days.
So let’s summarize. I don’t want to minimize the difficulty here. This is a pretty long hike at 9.5 miles. If you come up to Purchase Knob off-season or when the rangers aren’t there, then you will have to add four more miles to your total distance for the climb up the dirt road, and the return to your car at the end of the loop. The Science Center is staffed April-November, but you may want to check with the National Park Service just to see if the gate will be open when you go. If you don’t mind the extra 4 miles, then no worries.
You will be hiking in deep forest nearly the entire length of this loop. Particularly on the Caldwell Fork and Hemphill Bald trails, that forest is some of the prettiest you will see anywhere in the Smokies. There are a handful of creek crossings to negotiate that may require water shoes during the Spring runoff, but are otherwise manageable rock hops. Take your time. Perhaps pause at each junction for a ten minute rest, and you will likely enjoy these woods above Cataloochee as much as we did.