Without a doubt one of the most popular wildflower hikes on the Tennessee side of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Whiteoak Sink is a basin surrounded by steep hills. In April each year this natural botanical garden comes alive with more than 30 varieties of native wildflowers right alongside the trail for all to enjoy. The name “Sink” comes from the caves that are found in the area, really more like rocky sinkholes. Much like Cades Cove just a few miles to the west, Whiteoak Sink was settled in the 19th century long before the national park. You can still find structural remains like rock walls and chimneys in the area. So there is plenty to see even if it isn’t wildflower season. I hiked to Whiteoak Sink on Sunday, April 17, 2016 from 9:30AM to 1:00PM. My plan was to take Schoolhouse Gap Trail to the Whiteoak Sink manway, explore the basin, then return via the same route.
Hike Length: 6 miles Hike Duration: 3.5 hours
Hike Configuration: Out and back Blaze: None needed
Hike Rating: Moderate. Climbing back up out of the basin is fairly steep.
Elevation Change: 325 feet Elevation Start: 1,580 feet
Trail Condition: Very good. Schoolhouse Gap Trail is an old road bed. The Whiteoak Sink manway has some exposed roots but is mostly easily navigable.
Starting Point: Parking area along Laurel Creek Rd. Get there early to insure a place.
Trail Traffic: Literally hundreds of hikers. This is an extremely popular trail in April.
How to Get There: From the Townsend Wye drive west on Laurel Creek Road 3.7 miles towards Cades Cove. The parking area for the Schoolhouse Gap Trail will be located on your right.
It’s a good idea to arrive at the parking area for Schoolhouse Gap Trail early, especially if your visit is on a weekend in April. I arrived just before 9:30 on a Sunday and the 15 car lot was full. Others were already beginning to line up along the side of the road, so I joined them. When I later passed by here on Monday afternoon it was also full. There is more overflow parking a few hundred yards down the road at the Bote Mountain trailhead.
Once I set foot on the Schoolhouse Gap Trail there was no wasted time introducing me to the wildflower display. Right near the trailhead were trillium luteum (the yellow variety) and purple phacelia. In fact, the phacelia was going crazy all along Little River Road as well as Laurel Creek Road on my drive into the park. April is a great time to visit the Smokies. Well… when isn’t a great time?
It is 1.1 miles on Schoolhouse Gap trail to the junction with Turkeypen Ridge Trail. The first half mile is relatively level on an old gravel road bed. It follows Spence Branch in a northwesterly direction. At the half way point, the road makes a climb to the north to Dosey Gap, then turns west to the junction with Turkeypen Ridge. Stay on Schoolhouse Gap and go about another hundred feet past the junction. On the left is one of those split rail gates designed to keep horses off a trail. Take the left turn onto the manway through the gate.
The manway to Whiteoak Sink is not found on any official trail maps for the national park and is non-supported by the Park Service. It is, however, so well used that it is more well known than many of the official trails throughout the park. This manway receives as much foot traffic as any because of the famous annual emergence of wildflowers.
Whiteoak Sink is located in a basin between two ridges. At the quarter mile mark on the manway, you will reach a short climb up and over the eastern ridge. At half a mile, you begin a steep descent of another quarter mile into the basin. As soon as I topped the rise… it hit me. The aroma. My nostrils were filled with perfume. Without even seeing it yet, I knew that something memorable was ahead. The fragrance of millions of spring blossoms filled my senses. I don’t know that I’ve ever experienced anything quite like it. The bouquet was heavenly.
When you reach the valley floor you enter fairyland. This is the home of wood sprites, nymphs and pixies. I wouldn’t be surprised if Tinkerbell has a spring cabin here. The forest seems a land of enchantment with a carpet of stunning blue phlox and umbrella-like may apple.
There are many choices of paths to take, each with their own appeal. To the right (north) is the trail to Waterfall Cave. To the south is a path to an old homesite and still-standing rock wall. Straight ahead takes you up a dry creek bed, through the valley of phlox, to another homesite. Due west goes to the sinks, the blowholes deep in the ground that are bat caves.
Unfortunately, nearly all of these features are closed… restricted. The reason is white nose syndrome. The caves in Whiteoak Sink are home to thousands of bats who have recently been affected by this pernicious plague that has swept through the Appalachians. The disease is estimated to have killed over six million bats in eastern North America since 2006, and can kill up to 100% of bats in a colony during hibernation. Human interaction can exacerbate the problem. Therefore, the closures… to keep us away from them so they have a chance at survival.
So for the last couple years some of the favorite spots within Whiteoak Sink, like Waterfall Cave, have been closed… but for good reason. Hopefully at some future time, the bats of Whiteoak Sink can make a successful recovery and human visitation can return to normal.
Now, having said all that, the basin remains a very remarkable place. You can still visit the homesites to the south. The basin is still a luxuriance of floral ecstasy. I spent probably an hour and a half wandering the narrow paths in, around, and through the basin. I found many exciting flowers that were new to me, like the whimsical shooting stars and the deep, rich purple of the larkspur. There are more than 30 varieties of wildflowers that are known to bloom in Whiteoak Sink.
There were several dozen other folks milling about, taking pictures, and engaging each other sharing the awe inspiring environment. I chatted with a few, getting a sense for whether most were local or travelers. There seemed to be a pretty even mix. One thing we all shared was overflowing senses. The floral color in our vision and the perfume in our nose was invigorating. It felt like a gift, a privilege to be there. I had the sense that we all shared that sentiment.
I found a place to enjoy a quiet lunch and breathe in the magnificence. It was a warm day, but a cool breeze wafted through the valley between the ridges. Songbirds filled the tops of the trees. I heard giggles of joy, and whoops of excitement from toddlers. I closed my eyes and tried to place myself in the 19th century. After suffering through the staggering Smokies winter, the settlers who lived in this basin were rewarded for their heartiness with this pristine natural garden. What’s not to love?
When I finally felt like I had had enough, it was time to head back. The climb back up out of the basin is a little stressful so take your time. If you don’t hike much, you may want to pause for a breather every hundred feet or so. But this quarter mile stretch is the only difficult one. Remember, it’s a total of about three-quarters mile back to the junction. Once you reach Schoolhouse Gap Trail, as they say, it’s all downhill from here.
When I got back to my car it was barely past 1:00. Since I was staying overnight at the Cades Cove Campground, with plans of walking the Cades Cove Loop Road the next day, I still had the whole afternoon ahead of me. I had heard that the Chestnut Top Trail at the Townsend Wye just up the road is another wildflower haven.
First I went to the campground to make sure I could reserve a spot for the night, then off to the Wye I went. Chestnut Top was as advertised. I only went up a half mile or so, but in that short time I managed to see purple phacelia, stonecrop, fire pinks and dwarf iris. This trail will definitely be on my list for a future visit to this western part of the national park.
Then I went back to Cades Cove and took the stroll on Rich Mountain Trail to John Oliver cabin. The dogwood surrounding the cabin was in full bloom, a nice portent of good things to come for my walk around the loop. All in all, a marvelous day.
OK, let’s summarize my visit to Whiteoak Sink. Wow! It is everything I have heard about. The reputation of being one of the best wildflower hikes in the Smokies is well-earned. It is right up there with Porters Creek. The trail is of just moderate difficulty and length, so bring the whole family. The youngsters will love it, perhaps even your too hip to care teens. After all, who can resist faerie dust?