The Little River headwaters region of the Smokies was heavily logged in the early 20th century. As a result, a community called Elkmont sprung up in the valley below to support the lumberjacks and their families. Elkmont eventually became a mountain resort for the well-to-do of eastern Tennessee with its rustic cabins along the river. These days those quaint cottages have become derelict as the national park simply doesn’t have the funds to maintain them. So now Elkmont is a favorite campground among the regulars, and a hub for a handful of great hiking trails that ascend the surrounding terrain. Ken and I explored the Little River Trail on Thursday, June 23, 2016 beginning at 8:45AM and ending about 2:00PM. Our plan was to take the Little River Trail to the Goshen Prong Trail, explore the cascades along Fish Camp Prong, then return.
Hike Length: 11.7 miles Hike Duration: 5 hours Blaze: None needed
Hike Rating: Moderate, for length. Not strenuous. Hike Configuration: Out and back.
Elevation Change: 980 feet Elevation Start: 2,084 feet
Trail Condition: Mostly good. Little River Trail is a gravel former logging roadbed. Goshen Prong Trail is single track that becomes more overgrown the farther you go.
Starting Point: Little River trailhead at the end of Little River Road in Elkmont.
Trail Traffic: We saw about a dozen other hikers, all but two on Little River Trail.
How to Get There: Turn into Elkmont five miles west of Sugarlands Visitor Center. Go 1.5 miles to the Elkmont Campground. Just before entering the campground turn left on Little River Road and go 0.6 mile to the trailhead. There is enough parking for two dozen cars.
“Like many towns which sprang up during the early part of the 20th century and centered around the utilization of natural resources, Elkmont, Tennessee was quick to expand and just as quick to fade back into small town obscurity. Near Townsend, Tennessee along the banks of the Little River, Elkmont saw its booms and busts.
Elkmont itself served as a junction between the conventional locomotives connecting to Knoxville, the rod engine, and the “Shays” or geared locomotives which were used to haul logs from the steeper grades of the higher mountains. The Knoxvillians traveled on the weekends to the area to engage in some of the best hunting and fishing around. Trout, bear, deer, and smaller game animals were abundant.
Beginning as a rough and tumble logging town, Elkmont gradually evolved into a haven for the socially prominent and wealthy members of Knoxville, Maryville, and Chattanooga. Many cottages were built and used for the summer. Until recently, 50 or more were inhabited by third or fourth generations of the original owners.
Everything changed when talk about a national park began to circulate. There were two sides on the issue-one wished for a national park and one wanted the area to be preserved as a national forest. In the end, obviously, the national park idea won out.” [More information] Now, in the 21st century, you and I get to enjoy the mountain and river ambiance of the Elkmont area for its wonderful recreation opportunities.
The forest that surrounds Elkmont is what is known as alluvial, a rare montane type woodland that is prone to flooding because of the extremely steep mountain drainages that plunge into the valley. Because alluvial forests, including the Little River valley, occur at the bottom of these precipitous slopes, their floodplains are collection points for soil very rich in nutrients and organic matter.
You will notice immediately during the spring and summer months that the forest is green, green, green. Before the land in the valley was developed for logging and agriculture, the forest was teeming with massive sycamores and tulip trees that would leave one in awe of their majesty.
As you hike the drainages that envelop the valley, you will come upon groves of the second growth of these courtly trees. Perhaps those 22nd century adventurers who come to visit Elkmont will be able to enjoy the complete extent of the once-again fully grown forest. It’s simply one of the many reasons that conservation of our public lands is paramount. Let’s preserve the best of what we are allowed to enjoy for future generations.
Over the course of the nearly six miles that Ken and I walked on Little River Trail and Goshen Prong Trail, the elevation increased almost a thousand feet. The incline is so gradual though that you don’t even notice it. The trails seem to be level as you’re walking them. So while I’ve rated this hike as one of moderate difficulty, it is only because of it’s almost 12-mile round trip length. If you turn around before we did, and only do 5 or 6 miles total, then you could consider this area to be easy hiking.
Over the first few hundred yards of Little River Trail, you will observe the derelict cabins off in the trees that were once filled with laughing children and aromas of fresh baking. In a different section of Elkmont, the National Park Service has received enough funding through donations and other allocations to preserve and restore 18 of the early 20th century cottages. But these along Little River Trail are destined to crumble and deteriorate. As a result, you are not allowed in them as it would be quite dangerous.
The entire length of the Little River Trail remains from the logging days. Covered in annoying gravel for a couple of the miles, it is nevertheless a nice wide pathway that is relaxing and gentle, offering occasional log benches for a respite, or opportunities to lounge along the riverbank and cast a line or dip your toes. In early June this area is also famous for its synchronous firefly show.
In the third mile you will begin to see other trails taking off along the feeder streams of Little River. But first, at roughly 2.2 miles you will reach Huskey Branch Falls, a small 20-foot cascade that races into Little River. The branch flows down a steep slope next to the trail before running underneath a small footbridge. At 2.4 miles is the junction with Cucumber Gap Trail, a means of making a loop back to the Little River trailhead. Then,
you will cross the river on a wide wooden footbridge.
Now, with the river on your right, the roadway begins to look more like a trail. It narrows somewhat and there is no more gravel. Look for sycamore trees in this area. At 2.7 miles is another junction, this one with Husky Gap Trail and its eventual meeting high above with Newfound Gap Road.
The next mile was perhaps my favorite part of this hike. It just seemed like everything was manicured. The trail is a straight line with distinct edges with the ground cover on each side. It’s like a volunteer comes out here with scissors and trims a perfect fringe. White monarda was already in bloom. The sycamores are fascinating, with their shedding bark that looks like camouflage on the ground, and the tall branchless trunks that don’t produce leaves until they are way, way up in the sky.
At 3.7 miles you once again come to a junction, this one with Goshen Prong Trail (our choice for this day). Little River Trail goes on to Rough Creek and beyond. Goshen Prong Trail eventually meets the Appalachian Trail after 7.7 miles and thousands of feet of arduous, very steep climbing. That isn’t what we had in mind. Our plan was to simply wander through the forest and along the prong for a couple miles, enjoying everything we encountered along the way. When it was time to turn around, we would know it.
For the first few miles, Goshen Prong Trail follows Fish Camp Prong and remains relatively flat. I know that sounds confusing. Why isn’t it named Fish Camp Prong Trail? Well, 3.2 miles farther on and a thousand feet higher, the trail comes to backcountry campsite #23 and a confluence of several creeks, including Goshen Prong. So if you want to call it Fish Camp Prong Trail for that 3.2 miles, I won’t mind.
Goshen Prong Trail is definitely more narrow than was Little River Trail. It’s just a single track, and as we discovered, the farther you go, the more dense the understory gets, eventually encroaching over the trail. Soon after you begin, you cross a fancy iron bridge over Little River that has been nicknamed the “Goshen Gate Bridge” by those who are good at choosing such monikers. The riverbank was a bouquet of bouncing bets, a pale blue wildflower that was new to me. It is also known as soapwort. Check out the picture at the top of this post to see the spot.
Downstream from the bridge is the mouth of Fish Camp Prong, your constant companion until you reach campsite #23. I don’t usually like to bring up sad stories or terrifying accounts, but it was near this spot where the first and only fatality from a bear mauling in the national park occurred in 2000. Unfortunately a black bear sow protecting her yearling cub killed a 50-year-old woman. Don’t let that deter you though. Bear attacks are extremely rare. But it’s just a reminder that we are visiting their home and should treat them with respect.
The rosebay rhododendron along the prong were beginning to bloom, some still in bud stage, others fully open to the glorious sunshine. We also happened upon crimson monarda, standing taller than the white ones we had passed before. The growth along the trail is a mixture of ferns and moss. I counted at least six different varieties of fern in just one quarter mile stretch. We were too late, but in early spring this trail is a mother lode of wildflowers. You are likely to find may apple, violets, fringed phacelia, iris, toothwort and trillium. We did see quite a bit of blooming indian cucumber.
At times we passed beneath steep shale walls encroaching on the edges of Fish Camp Prong, narrowing it to be more canyon-like. The prong passes over cascades and through chutes after about a mile, in an areas known as The Cascades. Look particularly for two impressive ledge waterfalls that almost have the appearance of dams.
At about 1.5 miles the trail begins to ascend more and becomes rockier and wetter. Some of the shale fins are moss covered in the creek, and one of them would eventually become our spot for lunch. We kind of picked it out as we walked past, but we wanted to explore just a little bit farther. We ended up going 2.1 miles total up Goshen Prong Trail, about a mile short of campsite #23. The overgrowth on the trail was becoming somewhat unwieldy, so that seemed like a good enough reason to call it a day and turn around.
As we sat on the soft verdant moss near the center of the prong, enjoying the scrumptious burritos that Ken’s wife made for us, we began to notice them… first a few, then more and more. Spring azure butterflies. They were landing on our hats, and on our packs. They were fluttering in front of our faces and alighting on our shoulders. Within minutes there had to be more than a hundred. We were in the midst of a full-fledged swarm. The spring azure is a really pretty butterfly, but this was getting kind of creepy… especially when you consider we had seen several puddling on a pile of coyote scat just down the trail. You simply never know where those tiny butterfly feet have been. 🙂
Soon enough we were done with our break and put all our gear back on. We wondered if the spring azures would stay, or follow us. It ended up being the former as we never saw them again. Now, just before noon, the air was really beginning to warm and get heavy with moisture. The forecast for this day called for a temperature above 90, and it was doing a pretty darn good imitation. We longed for the nice cool air enjoyed on the creek bank as we now trudged our way back toward Little River.
As mentioned before, it’s 3.7 miles from the Goshen Prong junction back to the Little River trailhead. Knowing it was flat, with few impediments, we kinda put it in cruise control and made really good time on the way back. I did get to see a first for me… a timber rattlesnake. In all the years I’ve been hiking in the Smokies and Blue Ridge, as well as the rocks and pinnacles of South and North Carolina, I had yet to encounter a rattlesnake. Ken almost stepped on this one.
I didn’t see the snake at first, but I did see Ken get startled. Then he was peering off the edge of the trail. He called me over and pointed. There it was, lying in the ferns and grass just off the trail. The colors were magnificent. Partly covered by fern fronds, I couldn’t really tell how long it was, but Ken counted four rattles on its tail. It was exciting, but I could also feel a few of those spring azure butterflies flittering about in my stomach. Just as with bears, the keyword is respect. You don’t bother them and they won’t bother you.
The last mile… mile and a half my feet and hips began to get a bit weary. The midday heat was taking a toll. I was drinking water like crazy. But we kept up about a 3 mph pace, a pretty good clip when hiking. When we got back to the very hot car, I was delighted to change into a dry shirt and stick my face in the cooler for a moment. We gave each other a fist bump for a job well done. It was another great day in the Smokies.
Summarizing, Elkmont is a truly family friendly destination. There is so much to do including camping and fishing, hiking and swimming. There is a wealth of history, and a plethora of natural beauty. The alluvial forest is delightfully green. You might even need your sunglasses. Little River and all its estuaries are cool and refreshing like so many other areas of the Smokies. Make this hike through the Elkmont area as short or as long as you wish. For the novice hikers: just go a few miles on the Little River Trail and back. For those of you with monster lungs and legs, there are plenty of long distance options, including making it all the way up to the Appalachian Trail and Clingmans Dome.
My apologies for the quality of the photos below. I used a filter on the camera lens because of very bright sun and glare on the river, but forgot to correspondingly adjust the ISO level. Therefore the photos aren’t particularly sharp and crisp.