Asbury Trail at Cataloochee, Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Historic Asbury Trail straddles the boundary between the Smokies national park and the Appalachian Ranger District of Pisgah National Forest. It is named for Methodist Bishop Francis Asbury who, in the early 19th century, brought his traveling ministry to this area that would eventually become a national park more than a hundred years later. It was also formerly known as the old Cattalucha Indian track. You can follow Asbury Trail past the gauging station on Cataloochee Creek and all the way to Scottish Mountain, 12 miles from the Cove Creek Gap trailhead. But Ken and I were only interested in an explorative day hike, so we were operating on time rather than distance. We enjoyed this trail on Wednesday, November 11, 2015 from 9:30AM to 1:30PM. Our plan was to take the Asbury Trail northward from Cove Creek Gap for two hours, then return.

Hike Length: 6.8 miles round trip Hike Duration: 4 hours

Hike Configuration: Out and back Blaze: Yellow

Hike Rating: Moderate. Some strenuous climbing, but not in long stretches.

Elevation Change: 1,000 feet, 1,220 feet gain Elevation Start: 4,080 feet

Trail Condition: Good. This trail is not maintained by the Park Service, but volunteers have done a nice job to keep it serviceable. Watch for occasional roots and rocks as stumbling hazards.

Starting Point: Cove Creek Gap on Cove Creek Road.

Trail Traffic: We had the trail all to ourselves. Everyone else was on the other side of the gap on the Cataloochee Divide Trail.

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 Cove Creek Gap. The last mile up on Cove Creek Rd. is gravel. There is parking for 4-5 cars. Trailhead is on the right.

 

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So there is no confusion, the trailhead for Asbury Trail is on the right at Cove Creek Gap, above the Cataloochee park entrance sign. The trailhead for Cataloochee Divide, a hike we had done a month previous, is on the left.

After walking amidst the stunning colors of Autumn the last several weeks, it became immediately obvious upon arrival at Cove Creek Gap that the bare trees hiking season had begun. All the leaves were on the ground, and brown. The forest was drab, with only a hint of green from the sparse mountain laurel and rhododendron scattered about on the hillside of Bent Knee Knob.

After climbing up and out of the gap, the leaf-covered trail was a bit difficult to discern. Fortunately the blaze marker with his can of yellow paint was perhaps, at times, a bit overzealous with his desire to highlight the proper pathway. On occasion, nearly every tree along the trail had dabs of yellow. On this mid-November day it was helpful.

The trail heads north along the western shoulder of the knob, then after about 20 minutes meets the original locust boundary fence that separates Great Smoky Mountains National Park from Pisgah National Forest. We followed this fence for much of the rest of our journey. We didn’t have a destination on this day. We were merely out to explore new (to us) territory and enjoy the now barren forest.

After the initial climb up Bent Knee Knob, the trail now made a steady, but gradual decline of a thousand feet to Hoglen Gap, following not only the park boundary, but also forest road 284 as it descended into Cataloochee Valley. The path is wider and easier to follow on this descent. The general quiet of the woods was interrupted by the constant swishing of fallen leaves from our footsteps on the trail, and the occasional car slowly winding around hairpin curves on the forest road.

At Hoglen Gap, about 1.5 miles into our hike, there were three landmarks of note to pique our curiosity. First was an old logging road with a cul-de-sac at the gap, and a gate cut out of the boundary fence that enabled passage into the national forest on the east side. Lastly was a pile of stone, that may have at one time been part of a wall or structure. Now it was simply artifacts of rock in the woods.

 

Boundary gate at Hoglen Gap. This old park boundary fence was put up by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s. This gate denotes a connector to a no-longer-used logging road.

Boundary gate at Hoglen Gap. This old park boundary fence was put up by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s. This gate denotes a connector to a no-longer-used logging road.

 

On the north side of the gap is the steepest climb of this hike, not long, but straight up the fall line as you begin the ascent of White Oak Mountain. Off to the east we began to see the mountains of the Fines Creek area in the distance, and hear the sounds of Interstate-40 nearly 10 miles away. Reaching the crest of White Oak, we could also see to the north, and the Waterville area that leads to the Big Creek section of the national park.

There aren’t many macro photo opportunities in the dead season… no wildflowers, no bright colored moss, no golden maple leaves. So I had to make do with the occasional mushroom, or lonely fern, and the big surprise: a well-camouflaged gulf fritillary butterfly still flittering amidst the brown oak leaves. He is in the photo at the top of this post. Click it for a larger image.

Along the crest of White Oak Mountain we reached a sign on the pathway that pointed downward and left for the Asbury Trail. There is another unmarked trail straight ahead that follows the ridge. According to the map we had, Asbury Trail descends here to meet the road for a mile or so. We weren’t interested in that, so we decided to proceed on the ridge and look for a lunch spot, then consider turning around.

We went about a quarter mile along the ridge, looking perhaps for an outcrop or convenient log to sit for a spell. No rocks in this area, but we did find that log, with a nice view off to the east through the bare trees. We had traveled about 3.4 miles to this point, plenty enough for a good, recreational day hike. While eating our sandwiches and snacks, we studied the map, envisioning a longer hike perhaps in springtime.

If you continue along the ridge trail, you will pass another three miles on the crest of White Oak Mountain before turning to the west for a five mile jaunt to Scottish Mountain and beyond to Mt. Sterling Gap. If you go back to that sign and follow the Asbury Trail, it passes by the gauging station along Cataloochee Creek, and eventually meets up with other trails in the area like Long Bunk and Little Cataloochee.

We took our time on the way back, studying the woods for signs of 19th century life. At one point we heard a large animal crashing through the brush, one that we had obviously spooked. We never saw it, just heard it. Probably a deer, or maybe a Cataloochee elk, perhaps even a Smokies black bear. It was a beautiful fall day, sunny and 60° by now. That thousand foot climb back up Bent Knee Knob was over before we knew it and we were back to the car four hours after we started.

Summarizing, for the portion of the Asbury Trail that Ken and I hiked, there really is no destination. If you’re expecting magnificent vistas or majestic waterfalls, or tumbling mountain streams you won’t find them. This is a woodsy trail that meanders between Cataloochee Valley and the forests of the Appalachian Ranger District. There are probably wildflowers in spring, but the forest canopy would be back, so even what limited views of the surrounding mountains there are would by then be diminished. The Asbury Trail is one probably better done as a longer backpack, or simply as an exercise hike through Smoky Mountains forest.

 

 

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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