What is the first thing that comes to your mind when you think of the Smokies? Is it 6,000 foot mountaintop vistas that expand the imagination? Perhaps you think of the half-million acres of forest or the hundreds of varieties of wildflowers. There is one other constant in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and that is water. Cataloochee Valley is surrounded on all sides by myriad creeks and streams that tumble down from those tall mountaintops. Among them is Palmer Creek, named for a 19th century settler. Pretty Hollow Gap Trail and Palmer Creek Trail follow this waterway for several miles offering cold, crisp refreshment. Ken and I hiked these trails on Tuesday, March 8, 2016 from 9:45AM to 1:50PM. The plan was to take Pretty Hollow Gap Trail to Palmer Creek Trail, climb to Beech Creek, then return.
Hike Length: 6.4 miles Hike Duration: 4 hours
Hike Configuration: Out and back Blaze: None needed
Hike Rating: Moderate. Some elevation gain but nothing strenuous.
Elevation Change: 730 feet, gain 1,660 feet Elevation Start: 2,740 feet
Trail Condition: Fair. Pretty Hollow Trail is an old road bed but is quite rocky. Palmer Creek Trail is single track with lots of winter debris and significant blow down obstacles. It is probably better once the trail crews get to work.
Starting Point: Parking area next to latrine at trailhead for Pretty Hollow Gap.
Trail Traffic: We did not encounter anyone else along these trails.
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.
There are three trails that explore the mountains and streams north of Cataloochee Valley. Each of them start at the Pretty Hollow Gap trailhead that is between Palmer Chapel and Beech Grove Schoolhouse. Pretty Hollow Gap Trail itself takes you to the junction with the others, and it eventually climbs the west shoulder of Mt. Sterling to the ridge high, high above. Little Cataloochee Trail climbs up and over Noland Mountain and into the village where many of the 2nd generation Cataloochee families settled. The third option is the trail I’m talking about today: Palmer Creek.
With a promise of the first 70
° day of the approaching Spring, Ken and I arrived at Cataloochee Valley at about 9:30 ready and rarin’ to go. The horse camp gate was closed at the trailhead, so we walked the road alongside Palmer Creek, past the schoolhouse, and on to the camp that is usually hopping with equestrian lovers during the green season. At the end of a cul-de-sac, the pathway changes from road to double track trail.
The rushing water of Palmer Creek is your constant companion as you stroll through robust rosebay rhododendron thickets, beech groves and stunning sycamores. At half a mile there is quite an oddity on your right. Yucca plants. Yes, yucca plants in the Carolina mountains. Obviously the remains of an old homestead, Ken and I went to explore a little more thoroughly. We found at least two dozen of the desert succulents that were thriving just fine in this snowy environment. We also found artifacts like old bottles and wash pans, rusted barrels and rotting lumber. There was a strategic pit in the ground that may have been a 19th century outhouse.
Another sign of an old settlement is apple trees, and the cleared land that surrounds this area for several acres. Park records indicate there was once a dwelling, spring house, smokehouse, barn and sheep shed all on this parcel of land. There is also evidence of a rudimentary earthen dam that captured water from the gentle streams flowing into Palmer Creek.
At the eight-tenths mile mark is the junction with Little Cataloochee Trail. Be sure to do that hike some day too. It is a wonderful walk back in history. Pretty Hollow Gap Trail continues straight ahead for another three-quarters mile to where it meets the Palmer Creek Trail at the confluence of Pretty Hollow and Palmer creeks. Before the national park, this area was known as Indian Flats. The photo at the top of this post of the beautiful sky was taken here. Turn left onto Palmer Creek Trail and cross the footlog.
What has been up to this point a nearly level trail now changes. After crossing the footlog you are now on single track trail that begins a steady westward climb. It never does get particularly strenuous, but it will get your attention. Also for the first time, you climb away from Palmer Creek. For most of the next 1.6 miles you will be 50-100 feet above creek level, but the roar of the cascading waterway is your constant companion.
The forest at this elevation is cove hardwood, consisting primarily of buckeyes and tulip poplars, basswood and silverbells. What there is plenty of also is dead hemlock. These unfortunate gentle giants have succumbed to the woolly adelgid blight that has destroyed so much of the Smokies’ fir and hemlock population. Many of these lifeless hulks pierce the sky a good 50 feet taller than the other hardwoods that salute their passing. I’m told that 50 years ago the hemlock canopies made the forests of the Smokies so dark you needed a flashlight to read a trail map.
Wildflowers are abundant here as well. The best time to see flame azalea, Soloman’s seal, doll eyes, bergamot, partridge berry and trillium is the April to June time frame. Don’t forget the ground cover too. There is plenty of fern, moss and galax. In fact, on this bright sunny day in early March the galax was already greening up very nicely.
1.1 miles up Palmer Creek Trail you will reach Lost Bottom Creek. There is a footlog here for the crossing. What I found particularly interesting at this confluence with Palmer Creek was the exposed strata in the streams. The hardened sandstone crosses the creeks in straight lines and angles rather than boulders and stones. The geology in this area was obviously created by the massive uplift of the earth that conceived the Great Smoky Mountains eons ago.
Once across Lost Bottom Creek it is another half mile to the next crossing at Beech Creek. Between the two, the National Park Service trail maintenance crews and volunteers will really have their work cut out for them this spring. Apparently the winter wind really whips through Palmer Creek Hollow and wreaks havoc with the dead and dying hemlocks. There are at least a half dozen major widow-maker blow downs across the trail over this half mile stretch. Because of the sideways pitch of the hillside, a few of them required significant strategic planning to get across without either breaking a leg between logs, or tumbling and rolling a hundred feet straight down the embankment.
Beech Creek was our planned turnaround point for this trek. You can continue another 1.7 miles farther on Palmer Creek Trail to its eventual meeting with Balsam Mountain Road. It gets considerably steeper as it climbs Trail Ridge. Perhaps we will do that some day, but on this day we pulled up some nice rocks and sat a spell for lunch. The warming sun was luxurious. What could be better? The humidity was low
— the breeze felt warm for the first time in months
— the water of Beech Creek filled my nostrils and my ears.
I stripped down to a t-shirt and zipped the lower legs from my pants. Ken put on his water sandals and went for a refreshing wade in Beech Creek. Did I say refreshing? He let out a yelp or two from the biting cold of the mountain stream. It was still March after all. I had water shoes too, but thought better of it. Perhaps next month.
We stayed for nearly a half hour, thoroughly soaking in the ambiance of the glorious day. There used to be a footlog crossing Beech Creek, but it was washed away in one of the many torrents rushing off the mountains. The crossing is only about 12 feet wide, so it is certainly doable by wading, but be very careful following a heavy rain. This crossing can become raging danger.
We managed to make it back over all the blow down without incident, back across Lost Bottom Creek and Pretty Hollow Creek, then through Indian Flats to where we parked at the confluence of Palmer Creek with Cataloochee Creek. We never saw another soul the entire day. But what we did see was history, a dazzling sky above remarkable forest, and the life blood of the Smokies… its water.
To summarize, this Indian Flats area of Cataloochee Valley offers a trio of trails that head into the mountains above the valley west, north, and east. Palmer Creek is the west option, offering a four season hike for most of your family. This is by no means a hard hike, especially the first 1.6 miles to the junction of Pretty Hollow and Palmer Creek Trails. Keep your eyes wide open on that first stretch for signs of century-old settlements. The 2nd half of the hike after crossing the creek is one filled with the plants and streams of the area, so open your other senses too and breathe.