Elkmont is a nice area of the Smokies to visit in winter. It’s quiet, historic, alive with waterways, and offers views of the surrounding mountains through the leafless trees. Little River is beautiful as always, the climb up and over Cucumber Gap is invigorating, and the timeless cottages of Daisy Town along Jakes Creek harken back to a simpler time in the mountains. Combine them all on this delightful loop hike. I visited Elkmont on Wednesday, January 25, 2017 beginning at 9:30AM and ending about 12:45PM. My plan was to take Little River Trail to its meeting with Cucumber Gap Trail, continue to Jakes Creek Trail, then return to the beginning with stops at the “troll bridge” and Daisy Town along the way.
Hike Length: 6.5 miles Hike Duration: 3.25 hours
Hike Rating: Little River and Jakes Creek are easy. Cucumber Gap involves a bit of moderate climbing.
Hike Configuration: Loop Blaze: None needed
Elevation Change: 770 feet Elevation Start: 2,084 feet
Trail Condition: Little River and Jakes Creek are very good old logging roads. Cucumber Gap is in fair condition with lots of roots and rocks and a tenuous creek crossing.
Starting Point: Little River trailhead at the end of Little River Road in Elkmont.
Trail Traffic: There were four other hikers on Little River Trail and two on Jakes Creek Trail, but I didn’t encounter anyone on Cucumber Gap 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.
This was my first visit to the Tennessee side of the Smokies since the tragic fire of late November 2016 that took 14 lives in and around Gatlinburg and destroyed so many homes and memories. When I passed by Chimney Tops, the fire’s genesis was very evident. Descending Hwy 441 to the Chimneys picnic ground you can see where the fire crossed the road. There are burn scars for several miles in this vicinity. Once I reached Sugarlands and turned left on Little River Road, I had cleared the fire area.
“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.
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.
During the spring and summer months here 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. In winter, though, the trees are leafless but still beautiful.
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 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 the Jakes Creek section of Elkmont [more later], 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, and when the funds are available, be demolished. As a result, you are not allowed in them as it would be quite dangerous.
Approximately 400 feet from the trailhead look for a gravel walkway to the right that leads toward a creek between some of the cottages. Another hundred feet down this walkway on the left is a quaint stone bridge over the creek that has come to be known as the Elkmont “troll bridge.” The troll must have been out mining on this day because I looked over, under and all around, but did not see any evidence that he was home. I did take pictures though.
The entire length of the Little River Trail remains from the logging days. Covered in annoying gravel for a couple of 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 2.3 miles is the junction with Cucumber Gap Trail, a means of making a loop back to the Little River trailhead, and my next trail for this hike. Make a hard right turn.
Cucumber Gap Trail starts with a gentle ascent through 2nd growth forest. As evidenced by the large berms along each side of the trail, this was also at one time in the early 20th century a logging railroad bed. When the Civilian Conservation Corps was sprucing up the soon-to-be national park in the 1930s, they rebuilt and rerouted this trail to the Jakes Creek watershed.
A little more than a quarter mile up you will reach of ford of Huskey Branch. Under usual circumstances this is a relatively easy 10-foot-wide rock hop to the other side. However, I happened to be there about two days after a massive rain dump and Huskey Branch was roaring. I didn’t have my trekking poles, nor appropriate footwear for a wade across, so I headed upstream searching for an easier crossing.
About 50 feet upstream I found the place. It was only about 6 feet wide, and had some well placed boulders that looked to be doable. I searched for a couple sticks to use as makeshift poles and gave it a try. If you’ve been reading my reports from the beginning, you know that I have a not so favorable relationship with creek crossings. Let’s just say there have been multiple times where the creek won and I was left in the drink. Not this time though!
Once safely on the other side I returned to Cucumber Gap Trail and resumed my trek. This stretch of trail above Huskey Branch is filled with eastern hemlock and rhododendron. It is also a haven for spring ephemeral wildflowers including trout lily, spring beauties, bloodroot and trillium. In summer, the trail side is alive with various ferns and doghobble. There are a couple of unnamed seeps where bee balm congregates in late summer.
Near the top of the gap are Fraser magnolia, also known as cucumber trees, and another grove of 2nd growth tulip poplar. The trail passes right through the heart of these majestic trees.
Cucumber Gap itself is at the 1.4 mile mark. In winter, with the leaves down, there is a pretty good view off into the distance of the surrounding Tennessee Smokies. Closer by, you also get a partial view of Burnt Mountain, one that sits between Cucumber Gap Trail and Little River Trail.
From the gap you begin a gradual descent and enter grapevine country. There are hundreds of them hanging from the tall hemlock, maple and basswoods that blanket the hillsides. There is also a different crop of spring ephemerals on this northern side of the gap that includes hepatica, toothwort, and violets.
After 2.4 miles Cucumber Gap Trail ends at the junction with Jakes Creek Trail. Hang a right here and head down the hill. Once again the pathway is covered with gravel. After a quarter mile take another right where Jakes Creek comes up alongside the trail. Shortly you enter another grouping of early summer cottages.
Once you reach pavement, if you take the right fork you will go back to the original trailhead where you parked. However, don’t cheat yourself out of Daisy Town. Take the left fork and stroll through one of the historic districts that gave Elkmont its charm back in the day. As you look down this road lined with cottages, close your eyes for a moment, and imagine yourself back 100 years ago when people came to the mountains to escape the hot summer in the cities.
The buildings along this shaded street are a hodgepodge of architectural styles inspired by the “back-to-nature-movement” of the early 20th century. They mostly used natural materials that included stone and logs. Each featured a very large porch where the residents could revel in the fresh mountain air and greet their neighbors. You better catch Daisy Town soon though, because most of these old cottages are scheduled to be demolished for safety reasons. A few will be restored in other locations.
At the end of Jakes Creek Trail (road) you will return to the parking area where you started.
In summary, this is a hike of moderate difficulty that offers water, forest, and history. The first couple miles follow Little River with its many spots to relax on the bank as the water cascades by. Cucumber Gap Trail is a climb through 2nd growth forest that includes many of the variety of trees found throughout the Smokies. The last half mile presents a chance to imagine yourself a century ago enjoying the cool air of the Smokies with like-minded neighbors. This is a pleasant experience no matter the season. Bring the whole family.