Rich Mountain Loop at Cades Cove, Great Smoky Mountains National Park

This was the first trail I hiked in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. It was back in 2008 or so, well before I started this website. So I thought it must be time, nearly 10 years later, to do it again and tell you about it. Rich Mountain Loop is a combination of three trails: Rich Mountain Loop Trail, Indian Grave Gap Trail, and Crooked Arm Ridge Trail. Most people hike the loop clockwise, but the direction really doesn’t matter. It is no more difficult, or easy, whichever you choose. After circling the northeastern edge of Cades Cove for more than a mile, the trail takes a decidedly ascending path through heavy hardwood forest up and over Rich Mountain, finishing 8.5 miles later. I hiked the Rich Mountain Loop on Thursday, October 19, 2017 beginning at 11:00AM and ending about 4:15PM. My plan was to take Rich Mountain Loop Trail to Indian Grave Gap Trail, then on to Crooked Arm Ridge Trail for the descent back to Cades Cove.

Hike Length: 8.5 miles Hike Duration: 5.25 hours

Hike Rating: Moderate to difficult. The bottom part and the top part are moderate. Getting between the two is the difficult part.

Hike Configuration: Loop Blaze: None needed

Elevation Change: 1,560 feet Gain: 1,860 feet Elevation Start: 1,935 feet

Trail Condition: Mostly good. Some sections have loose rock, while the Crooked Arm Ridge Trail is rutted from horse traffic. Switchbacks aid the ascent and descent.

Starting Point: Trailhead is at the beginning of Cades Cove Loop Road, on the right.

Trail Traffic: I encountered 9 other hikers this busy day during fall foliage season.

How to Get There: Enter the Tennessee side of Great Smoky Mountains National Park and drive all the way to the western end of Little River Road to the entrance of Cades Cove Loop Road. Just past the campground turn, park on the left at the Loop Road entrance. Rich Mountain Loop Trail trailhead is across the road, on the right.

 

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On my way from North Carolina to Tennessee and on to Cades Cove, I made the traditional stops for a few morning pictures, Newfound Gap prime among them. The drive on Hwy 441 and then Little River Road rivals any other scenic byway throughout the country for sheer awesome beauty and charm. Mountain overlooks, rich forest, and seemingly never ending water sources are the heart of the Smokies, and the appeal that will always bring me back.

The first time I did this loop was really before I started hiking on a regular basis. I was still working at the time, didn’t get out much, and wasn’t in the best of condition. At that time, this hike was very hard. I may have set the world record for huffing and puffing. Thank goodness I did better this time. It’s still no piece of cake though.

Once I arrived at Cades Cove, it seemed half the state of Florida was there as well. I’m glad my plan wasn’t to hike one of the trails somewhere out along the loop road, like Abrams Falls, because the traffic was so thick that the park estimated three hours to complete the 11-mile loop. As I crossed through the traffic and started the Rich Mountain Loop I said to myself, “better thee than me.”

The first mile to mile-and-a-half of this hike winds around the fields of Cades Cove while paralleling the loop road. At times you can pop into one of the fields to check on how the road traffic is moving. It was a bottleneck on this day.

At the half mile mark you meet the junction with Crooked Arm Ridge Trail. Since I was going clockwise, I stayed on the Loop Trail, but this is where I would come out some five hours later.

The earliest settlers of Cades Cove lived along this edge of the forest, including John Oliver and his wife Luraney. They were the first, settling in 1818. At the 1.4 mile mark you reach their cabin, one that is quite well preserved by the park historical society. The Oliver’s survived in large part with gracious help from the Cherokee who lived nearby. The next 30 years saw the white population of Cades Cove explode to nearly 700 as the Cherokee were pushed from their ancestral homes.

Past the Oliver cabin the Loop Trail slowly begins its ascent of Rich Mountain as it follows Marthas Branch, named for the Oliver’s second daughter. When you cross the branch for the first time, the trail really begins to climb in earnest. You better take a deep breath, because for the next two miles you will be climbing.

The tread beneath you is broken rock, not the easiest of surfaces, remnants of a time eons ago when the African and North American tectonic plates collided forming the Great Smoky Fault. This is how the Great Smoky Mountains were thrust upward oh so long ago.

Wildflowers line the trail in spring, but I didn’t have that luxurious distraction. Nor were there any mushrooms or other fungus to capture my attention… not even any gold or crimson maples to encourage my progression. It was trudgery, putting one foot after the other, up… up… and up. I’m a downhill kinda guy, y’know? At least in winter you can get an occasional glimpse of Cades Cove through the forest.

There are six branch crossings in all, each of them nearly dry while I was there. There hasn’t been much rain in the Fall of 2017. It shows. These crossings may be of a bit more interest during the spring runoff.

At the 3.4 mile mark you [finally] reach the junction with Indian Grave Gap Trail. Oddly, there is pretty darn good cell phone reception at this meeting of trails, one of the very few points within all of the national park where that is so.

 

Better thee than me

 

The trail junction was a busy place too. There were a couple of other hikers there taking a break when I arrived. I stopped for lunch as they moved on, then another trio arrived about 10 minutes behind me. From that point I would only see four more hikers the rest of the day… oddly enough at another trail junction.

Indian Grave Gap Trail comes up from Rich Mountain Road, roughly a mile to the west. It is the next trail to continue the Rich Mountain Loop. You want to turn right at this junction. In fact, the best way to remember directions for this hike is to make the right turn at every junction until you get to the end.

You aren’t quite done with the climbing yet unfortunately, but the good news is the grade is more gradual from here. Indian Grave Gap Trail climbs about another 300 feet to the summit of Cerulean Knob.

Historians have been unable to determine the reason for the name of this trail, as there have been no Indian graves found. The Cherokee certainly were around here though. To the Cherokee the Smokies were, and still are, a sacred place.

As you climb through an enchanting forest of oak, maple, hickory and sourwood, look too for the brilliant orange of the flame azaleas in June. Indian Gave Gap Trail is a great place to enjoy these late spring/early summer beauties.

Eight tenths of a mile beyond the previous junction you will reach Rich Mountain Trail. I know this can be confusing. There is Rich Mountain Loop Trail, Rich Mountain Road, and Rich Mountain Trail. Just keep in mind what I said above, go right at each trail junction. In this case, stay on Indian Grave Gap Trail.

A quarter mile further is a spur trail on the left that goes to the summit of Cerulean Knob. There isn’t much to see, other than the foundation of a former fire tower. In winter, you can perhaps make out some of the valley below through the bare trees.

The final mile and a half of Indian Grave Gap Trail is the most interesting. As the trail roller coasters up and down, keep your eyes peeled on the left for occasional openings through the trees of Dry Valley and the community of Townsend, TN to the north. The rolling valley with vibrant, verdant farmland is quite vivid. How’s that? Four “v” words in the same sentence! It’s pretty too.

You are following the far northern boundary of the Smokies park along Indian Grave Gap Trail. Everything to your left is outside the park. As you near a small clearing, you are approaching the next major trail junction. Here, Indian Grave Gap Trail comes together with Scott Mountain Trail on the left, and Crooked Arm Ridge Trail on the right.

Interestingly, if you were to take Scott Mountain Trail you would end up at Schoolhouse Gap and a long-about means of accessing Whiteoak Sink. Also, backcountry campsite #6 is just 500 feet down the trail. However, for this hike remember the instructions, right at all trail junctions.

 

Dry Valley and Townsend from Indian Grave Gap Trail

 

Crooked Arm Ridge Trail begins an almost immediate descent, and remains that way throughout. Just a tenth of a mile down, look to your right for a nice view of Sparks Lane in Cades Cove. As you proceed, there are other views of Cades Cove as well. With its southern exposure, the afternoon was warming nicely. I even shed a layer as I descended Crooked Arm.

The forest is still quite alive with hickory, oak and maple, and in early spring look for flowering dogwood along this trail. Toward the bottom there is even quite a bit of hemlock. The woolly adelgid blight hasn’t found these yet. Let’s hope it remains that way.

Crooked Arm Ridge Trail is a popular equestrian path so much of the trail sits in a narrow trench. Still, it isn’t difficult to navigate. But you should watch your step so your boots don’t stink later.

As I neared the bottom and rounded a bend, standing right in the middle of the trail about 75 feet ahead was a young buck deer. I counted eight points on his developing rack, but he wasn’t very big at all. Perhaps I’ve been seeing too many elk lately. There is obviously no comparison in size. As he moved on into the forest, so too did I.

As the trail levels, it approaches Crooked Arm Branch. A 25 foot waterfall is just 0.2 mile from the end of this trail, but there was nothing happening there on the mostly dry creek. Look for this falls to be of interest during spring runoff, or following a heavy rain.

At the end, Crooked Arm runs back into Rich Mountain Loop Trail, and for the only time on this hike you now make a left turn to return to the beginning at the entrance to Cades Cove. On the half mile walk back to my car, I checked out the traffic situation on the Loop Road. Thankfully, now there was only the occasional vehicle passing by. Good! I would be able to go on an evening adventure.

I was staying at Cades Cove Campground for the night, so I checked in there, grabbed a snack, and headed for Sparks Lane to catch the late afternoon/early evening ambience of the Cove. There really isn’t much more beautiful than the golden glow across the cove as the evening light bathes the open meadows. I have a favorite spot at the LeQuire tree where I like to wait for the sunset. It’s a wonderful way to finish a day at Cades Cove.

Enjoy the photos!

 

 

This post was created by Jeff Clark. Please feel free to use the sharing icons below, or add your thoughts to the comments. Pack it in, pack it out. Preserve the past. Respect other hikers. Let nature prevail. Leave no trace.

 

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