This lovely wildflower trail is about half way up Newfound Gap Road from the Oconaluftee Visitor Center, but its shortish length and tranquil setting belie the grueling terrain. Climbing from the Oconaluftee River valley to Thomas Divide, 2,200 feet above, it is a true test of stamina for even the most seasoned hikers. Kanati Fork is one of those picturesque drainages seemingly found everywhere in the Smokies. The mountains and water give the land its character. The abundant wildflowers along this trail are simply an extra added bonus. I hiked Kanati Fork on Monday, April 4, 2016 from 9:30AM to 2:30PM. My plan was to take Kanati Fork Trail to its meeting high above with Thomas Divide Trail, then return the same way.
Hike Length: 6 miles Hike Duration: 5 hours
Hike Configuration: Up and back Blaze: None needed
Hike Rating: Difficult. Very strenuous, climbing more than 700 feet per mile.
Elevation Change: 2,170 feet Elevation Start: 2,850 feet
Trail Condition: Good. Some roots and rocks. At upper elevation the trail gets narrower and hangs on the ridge edge at times. Safe, but be careful of your footing.
Starting Point: Parking area along Newfound Gap Road. Trailhead across the road.
Trail Traffic: I encountered 2 trail maintenance volunteers and a hiking family of 5.
How to Get There: From the Oconoluftee Visitor Center near the Cherokee, NC entrance to the national park, travel eight miles north on Newfound Gap Road (Hwy 441). The parking pullout is on the right and the trailhead is on the left.
Kanati Fork is a little more than a quarter mile past Kephart Prong on Newfound Gap Road. There is a large parking pullout on the right with enough room for at least a dozen vehicles. At the south end of the parking is a nice bonus, a roaring cascade of Kanati Fork right beside the highway. On the river side of the road is one of those quiet walkways found all throughout the Smokies. I decided to check it out to warm up the legs and lungs before tackling Kanati Fork Trail. It is a little quarter mile path with a hideaway along Oconaluftee River.
I am not ashamed to tell you that for me Kanati Fork Trail is hard, very hard. I had considered for some time taking it as a combination with Thomas Divide and traversing it downhill. One problem… that would require either a two car shuttle or a hitch-hike back up the mountain. So I decided to buck up, steep myself in Meanderthals tradition, and tackle the 3-mile, 2,200 foot climb. I did give myself the chance to wuss out by saying I would turn around if I got too fatigued to continue.
So with that in mind, I set out on one of those all-uphill hikes in search of wildflowers. Kanati Fork Trail has a reputation in hiking circles for being one of the best wildflower treks in the Smokies. It didn’t take long for me to find out why. Within the first couple hundred yards I began noticing trout lilies and chickweed, and various shades of violets.
Getting up and down off the ground frequently for macro photo shots of the tiny floral bursts was certain to add exertion to my already formidable task, but the camera breaks were also a chance to pause and breathe. As I approach my mid-sixties, getting back up off the ground doesn’t come nearly as easy as just ten years ago. However, I tell myself that ten years ago I was stuck in an office, not out here in the fresh forest rolling in the dirt with aromatic wildflowers. Pretty good trade.
The name Kanati comes from Cherokee legend. Kanati, and his wife Selu, were believed to be the first people. The legend has it that they lived on Pilot Mountain in what is now Pisgah National Forest in Transylvania County, North Carolina. After Selu’s death, Kanati and his two sons moved westward to an area near what has become Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
The first mile of the trail follows nearby Kanati Fork creek, another of the life-giving Smokies waterways. It passes through a forest of yellow birch and Fraser magnolia, and the tall ever-present Smokies tulip poplars. The creek bank is lined with those gnarly rhododendron thickets found nearly everywhere there is water in the Southern Appalachians.
About a half mile up the trail I happened upon a clearing from the twisty rhodos where there was an acre of grassy field alongside the creek just a hundred feet off the trail. It was time for a break, so I dropped off the trail for some creek pictures. What I also found made the decision to investigate even better. The grassy field was teeming with full-bloom white trilliums standing on their tippy-toes, reaching for the bright sunlight that was bathing this watery mountain meadow. Yep! Kanati Fork Trail is a wildflower haven.
In the second mile, the trail passes a series of seeps sweeping down from the Divide hundreds of feet above. At this time of year, before the green season, it is easy to tell you’re approaching one of these drainages because suddenly the path is verdant, from moss and lichens, ground pine and fern. There are trillium gardens covering complete hillsides. It’s amazing what water will do.
Fortunately too, as the trail pulls away from Kanati Fork it climbs in a series of long switchbacks that aid the unending ascent. So far I was doing okay. I was stopping frequently enough for photos that my breathing had yet to become labored.
The forest changes the higher you go. The trees get bigger and taller. Above 3,500 feet there are eastern hemlocks and giant tulip trees. Hardwoods are more in abundance as well. I first noticed the acorns left on the ground from last year, then saw the mighty oaks. There are maple and basswood as well, a good sign that this forest is likely colorful in autumn. The flowers change too. There was meadow rue, a tall fringy plant I had never happened upon before. Near the feeder streams for Kanati Fork there were spring beauties and buttercups.
About two-thirds of the way up I began seeing the tell-tale signs of an old chestnut forest. Every hundred yards or so there would be another decades-old rotting stump at the trail’s edge. There is also mountain laurel, so much it forms a canopy over the trail for a few hundred yards. Look for this to be a pink and white blossomy delight in late spring. I met a nice couple who volunteer at the park by hiking trails and clearing the water bars with a hoe. Thank you, thank you!
You also begin to see the surrounding mountains and realize you are getting closer to the crest of Thomas Divide. But the trail continues to wind and switch back around hollow after hollow, all the while continuing a relentless uphill climb. At about the 2.5 mile mark I began to wear down. There weren’t anymore wildflowers to pique my interest. At this time, just a couple weeks after winter, the forest floor was still brown and unattractive. The distant mountains were visible, but not in the sense of a majestic vista.
I started to avail myself of every log and rock I happened upon to sit for a 30 second breather. It slowed my pace considerably. Sweat was dripping from my brow. I was down to short sleeves now. My calf muscles were screaming from the thousands of uphill steps. After going this far though, I was determined to make it all the way to the top.
And so I did. When you reach one final hard right-hand switchback turning to the north, you only have about 300 more yards to the crest of Thomas Divide. When I reached the flat there, I threw my pack to the ground and collapsed right there with it. Whew! I made it! Yay me!
I pulled out my sandwich and Clif bar and enjoyed lunch, hoping renourishment would refresh my energy for the descent. With a 20 minute break for food and rest it had taken me a total of three and a half hours to get to this point. Granted I stopped for lots of pictures along the way, and to make sure all the logs and boulders were comfortable for other hikers to sit on in the future.
When I finally felt like I had my wind back it was time to face the return trip. I do pretty well at downhill. Last Fall I had a minor knee sprain that has bothered me a little since, but for the most part my knees still hold up quite well on downhill hiking. I feel fortunate in that regard because so many fellow hikers I know really have a lot of knee pain. For me, it’s the uphill that causes the most distress.
The return was a piece of cake. In fact, I made it back down in just 90 minutes, a full two hours less than the ascent. Sure, I wasn’t stopping for pictures every five minutes, but it’s not like I was in a race either. I stopped and chatted for a few minutes with a young family who were out to show their children what Smokies woods and wildflowers are all about. It’s great to see whole families out experiencing the wilderness we are so fortunate to enjoy. A large grin comes to my face every time I pass young children on hiking trails. They are likely to be the stewards of our precious national parks and forests in the future.
Even more wildflowers had popped out by the time I returned to the waterside of Kanati Fork. Hours of sunshine and 60
° temps will do that. The wildflowers don’t stop in early April either. There are plenty more that arrive all through the green season including spiderwort, bergamot, turk’s cap lilies, and jack-in-the-pulpit. Just take your time and keep your eyes open.
To summarize Kanati Fork Trail, make sure you bring your best lungs with you when you try this hike. It is highly likely you will be huffing and puffing by the time you reach the top at Thomas Divide. Be sure also to take your time and enjoy what Nature offers along the way. This truly is one of the best wildflower trails in the park, and Kanati Fork is a lovely creek that provides refreshing nourishment to all of those ripe blossoms. If you’re a beginning hiker or have young children with you, don’t feel like you have to do it all. It is still an extremely pleasant walk if you only go a mile and turn around.