The Smokemont region of the Smokies is one of the most convenient, located just a short few miles northwest of the Oconaluftee Visitor Center off Hwy 441. The trailhead for Bradley Fork starts in the back of the Smokemont Campground, surrounded by the Smokies ubiquitous waterways. It’s only a mile and change up Bradley Fork Trail to its meeting with Chasteen Creek Trail, and then just another three-quarters mile to an exciting cascade on Chasteen Creek. The path along the way is easy to navigate and offers many picturesque vantage points for enjoying stream-side relaxation and photo opportunities. I strolled the trails to Chasteen Creek Cascade on Saturday, December 26, 2015 from 8:30AM to 12:00PM. My plan was to take Bradley Fork Trail to Chasteen Creek Trail then on to the cascade. The return is via the same route.
Hike Length: 5 miles Hike Duration: 3.5 hours
Hike Configuration: Out and back Blaze: None needed
Hike Rating: Easy. Nothing strenuous required, and well-maintained trail.
Elevation Change: 400 feet, 805 feet gain Elevation Start: 2,220 feet
Trail Condition: Bradley Fork Trail is an old logging road in very good condition. Chasteen Creek Trail has a reputation for being muddy, but I didn’t experience that even following heavy rain.
Starting Point: Section D of Smokemont Campground.
Trail Traffic: I had the entire hike all to myself, quite a surprise actually.
How to Get There: From the Oconoluftee Visitor Center near Cherokee, NC travel 3.5 miles northwest on Newfound Gap Road (Hwy 441). Turn right at Smokemont Campground and cross Oconoluftee River. Turn left and proceed through the campground, all the way to the back of the D-loop where there are 10 parking spaces for hikers.
I started the day at the Oconaluftee Visitor Center like I usually do when I come into the national park from Cherokee, NC. The large meadows surrounding the Mountain Farm Museum were teeming with wildlife and the Oconaluftee River was full to the brim from recent rain. Next, it was on to Smokemont, just a few short miles up Hwy 441.
I turned right and crossed Oconaluftee River at Smokemont. Despite 60+
° air temperature, this was winter after all, and the leafless trees revealed the whitewashed church on top of the hill, something I hadn’t noticed during a previous trip here during the green season. I thought, well, I’ll just have to go check this out.
Lufty Baptist Church was founded in 1836 in Smokemont near the Ocanaluftee River from which it takes its name. Although the church is still standing, the logging town of Smokemont no longer exists. In its place is Smokemont Campground. From 1836 to 1882 the church met in the home of Dr. John Mingus. In 1882 the first building was constructed, then in 1907, this building was torn down in order to make room for a new one, which still remains. The interior is maintained well enough that it could hold services today.
When I reached the campground, the Park Service had closed all of the back loops, meaning I would be walking an extra quarter mile through the campground to the Bradley Fork trailhead. Not a problem as I got to see some of the appropriately named turkey tail fungus that was growing on a nearby rotting log, a first for me.
Bradley Fork Trail is an old logging roadbed that follows alongside the Bradley Fork of Oconoluftee River. You’ll be on this trail for the first 1.2 miles as you head toward Chasteen Creek. The trail is shared by horses, but I found it to be in good shape even with all the recent rain. There were a few places where culverts under the road were overflowing, creating unintended streams to splash through.
As you reach the top of the first rise, you’ll notice the trail from Tow String stables coming in from the right. I was in absolutely no hurry on this day, taking my time to enjoy views through the forest, and the raging river beside me. As you follow this picturesque waterway you’ll notice the occasional bench placed by the Park Service so you can sit and contemplate the natural beauty.
Particularly in Spring when the flowering trees are in bloom, this is a very pleasant stroll through the forest, easy and comfortable. You can enjoy dogwood, yellow birch, sycamore and tulip poplar. In late June, the rosebay rhododendron put on their pinkish-white finest. No flowers in December though, but what I did notice was the water lapping against the bank of the river, even spilling into pools outside the turbulent torrent.
Just past a mile, you’ll cross over a foot bridge, then reach the junction with the Chasteen Creek Trail. Turn right here to continue to Chasteen Creek Cascade. When I was here before, I continued on Bradley Fork Trail another half mile for its meeting with Smokemont Loop. There are a number of options that take you into the backcountry, including this Chasteen Creek Trail.
Just one tenth of a mile up Chasteen Creek Trail is backcountry campsite #50, the easiest one to reach in the national park. It’s a nice site, hidden from the main trail, with two tent sites, next to the creek for water access, and it even has a pre-installed cable for hanging your bear bag.
Chasteen Creek Trail has a reputation for being quite muddy, in large part due to the equestrian traffic it gets. I found that not to be the case. Sure there was standing water from more than four inches of rain the previous week, but it was definitely not the quagmire that I was led to believe. Perhaps there aren’t that many horses that use this trail in winter.
Not quite as wide as Bradley Fork Trail, this one was also used for logging back in the day, so it’s quite easy to navigate and maintain. There is quite a bit of beech in the forest, casting an orange tint to the woods that will last until Spring when the trees finally drop their leaves.
There is one foot bridge across Chasteen Creek about a half mile up the trail. At the three-quarter mile mark you will reach a split in the trail, with the horse hitch on the left, and the continuation of the trail heading steeply uphill on the right. If your destination is Chasteen Creek Cascade, don’t make the same mistake I did.
I didn’t realize a spur trail went through the horse tie-off, directly to the cascade. I went up the main trail, expecting to find the spur trail up there. While I did get a nice view of the cascade from above, I quickly realized my mistake and began a downhill foray toward the creek. When I started this morning I was expecting to get my hiking boots very muddy. What I didn’t expect happened next. Wet leaves. Slip and slide. You get the picture.
Turns out my boots were about the only thing that didn’t get muddy. Landing on my backside, I slid 8-10 feet in that good, rich Smokies mud turning my formerly seagrass green shirt a nice shade of earth. Darn. Oh well, I had a change in my now dirt brown pack. But hey, Chasteen Creek Cascade is quite exciting.
I stayed for nearly a half hour, listening to the rush of the cascade. I couldn’t hear anything else. I washed my hands in the whitewater. There are a couple of logs nearby that make great seats enabling me to grab a bite to eat while I experienced the eye and ear treat. I also kinda took inventory of just how dirty I really was and changed clothes accordingly.
Now that I was feeling somewhat comfortable again, the day got even better as the sun came out bringing with it the first blue skies I’d seen for seemingly a week. The sunlight changed the color of the forest. I began to notice just how green it is even in December, even without any leaves. There is the mint color of the spanish moss, the multi-hue lichens, and the evergreen plants like dog hobble and rhodo.
The fresh light made the walk back seem like a whole new trail. I was seeing the sunlight glint and glisten off water droplets clinging to the tips of tiny branches. The previously orangish beech trees now looked a yellow-tan as their leaves fluttered in the breeze. It was almost as if I could see all the plants turn their faces to the sky, in slow motion. The air temperature rose even more, now above 70. Since I passed earlier, a branch had fallen from a tree. Glad it missed me.
And the sun changed Bradley Fork on the way back too. The river water now reflected the light, sparkling as the spray of the whitecaps leapt higher and higher. I couldn’t get over how amazingly green everything looked. It was as if Spring had arrived in the Smokies four months early. While I didn’t see any, I know that some people have actually been finding blooming wildflowers like hepatica during this oddly mild December.
Another thing that was odd to me was that I never saw another person until I got back to Smokemont Campground… especially with the unusually warm weather. I had the entire trail to myself. As it turns out, apparently that’s because everyone was back at Oconaluftee Visitor Center. When I went by there on the way out of the park, the place was absolutely mobbed. Late arrivers. Like they say, the early bird catches the worm, and by arriving early myself, on this day I got to enjoy the splendor of Bradley Fork and Chasteen Creek Cascade without interruption.
In summary, to experience the best show on Chasteen Creek Cascade try to go after recent heavy rain. The cascade will display its full glory of both sight and sound. This hike is friendly for the entire family as it isn’t at all strenuous, and not particularly long. You might want to keep a close eye on toddlers as you wouldn’t want to go fishing them out of Bradley Fork, otherwise it’s a delightful excursion for all ages.
Spring means wildflowers like foamflower, violets, trillium, phacelia, even daffodils, but Summer means sweaty humidity. So I recommend trying these trails during cooler weather. Both the Bradley Fork Trail and the Chasteen Creek Trail go a lot further into the backcountry if you choose to make a longer day of your visit. You can gain access to the Hughes Ridge Trail from either, and even reach the Appalachian Trail at Dry Sluice Gap.
Update November 14, 2016: It was my first time out in the woods since the 2016 presidential election, so it was great to be in my happy place once again. Also, it was an escape from the smoke of the wildfires that have plagued Western North Carolina throughout the month of November. While there was still smoke present, it was not nearly as bad as the national forests of WNC. One more thing… with this short hike to Chasteen Creek Cascade I would surpass 500 miles of hiking in the Smokies.
As you scan the new photos below compare the shots of Bradley Fork with those above. It’s the difference between near flood conditions and extreme drought. The contrast is startling. We need rain!