Bradley Fork and Cabin Flats Trails, Great Smoky Mountains National Park

This is one of my new favorite Spring wildflower hikes in the Smokies. The flowers are brilliant along both the Bradley Fork and Cabin Flats Trails. The Smokemont region of the Smokies is one of the most convenient, located just a short few miles northwest of the Oconaluftee Visitor Center off Hwy 441. It is four miles up Bradley Fork to Cabin Flats Trail, then another 1.1 miles to campground 49 at Cabin Flats. All the while the sounds of the stream will be your constant companion. I hiked this section of the national park on Friday, April 6, 2018 beginning at 10:30AM and ending about 4:00PM. My plan was to hike Bradley Fork Trail to Cabin Flats Trail and on to Cabin Flats, then turn around and return.

Hike Length: 10.4 miles Hike Duration: 5.5 hours

Hike Rating: Moderate. Easy for terrain. Moderate for length.

Hike Configuration: Out and back Blaze: None needed

Elevation Change: 875 feet Elevation Start: 2,215 feet

Trail Condition: Mostly excellent. Bradley Fork Trail is an old road bed with occasional mud. Cabin Flats Trail is a single track that is well maintained.

Starting Point: D loop parking at far end of Smokemont Campground.

Trail Traffic: I encountered a dozen other hikers, and four fishermen.

How to Get There: From the Oconoluftee Visitor Center near Cherokee, NC travel 3.5 miles north on Newfound Gap Road (Hwy 441). Turn right at Smokemont Campground and cross Oconoluftee River. Turn left and proceed through the campground, all the way to the back of the D-loop where there are 10 parking spaces for hikers.

 

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This hike begins on Bradley Fork Trail at Smokemont Campground. It is an old roadbed that follows alongside the Bradley Fork of Oconoluftee River. You’ll be on this delightful trail for the next four miles. It is shared by horses, but I found it to be in mostly good shape… just occasional mud. As you reach the top of the first rise, you’ll notice the trail from the stables coming in from the right.

In April, be sure to keep your eye on the bank on the right side of the trail for wildflowers. Expect to find a wide assortment including rue anemone, trillium and violets.

As you follow this picturesque creek you’ll notice the occasional bench placed by the Park Service so you can sit and contemplate the natural beauty. Particularly in spring when the wildflowers are in bloom, this is a very enjoyable stroll through the forest. Just past a mile, you’ll cross over a foot bridge, then reach a junction with the Chasteen Creek Trail. There are plenty of other sights to see up there, but to stay on target for the Cabin Flats hike, you want to take the left trail to remain on Bradley Fork.

The road winds through a low area in the forest where you can tell the creek occasionally overflows its banks. The Smokies are known for the wealth of water, and like most trails here, it is apparent there is no shortage in the Smokemont region. There is also no shortage of advantageous viewpoints for creek photography. I found myself stopping frequently trying to capture the look of what I was hearing.

At the 1.7 mile mark you will reach the junction with Smokemont Loop. For this hike though, continue on Bradley Fork.

Not far past this junction, the woods really dominate the trail, in a stately manner. Tulip poplar, sycamore and yellow birch are most common, and rise more than a hundred feet to swallow the pathway. This area is also a wildflower bonanza, featuring wood anemone, may apple, thousands of trillium grandiflorum, violets,phlox, and even some fringed phacelia. Also look for geraniums, hepatica, buttercups, and solomon seal later in April.

 

Both Bradley Fork and Cabin Flats Trails are lined with thousands of these woodland phlox in a variety of shades.

 

You will come to a pair of footbridges where Bradley Fork splits to form an island. There was a hen turkey crossing the second bridge when I got within a hundred feet. Upon noticing me, she scurried off into the woods. The stream is now on your right, while the bank on the left is full of the unusual Fraser’s sedge. It looks more like a landscaping plant for your home than a mountain wildflower.

After another stretch of majestic forest, you will once again cross Bradley Fork where Taywa Creek spills into it from the right, creating a nice cascade. Look for a patch of trout lilies along the bank here.

At mile 4 you come to a major hiker traffic loop, with trails in nearly every direction. There is a nicely strategic bench here so you can pull out your trail map and survey the situation. I also used the opportunity to enjoy a snack. Cabin Flats Trail begins here straight ahead, while Bradley Fork makes a sharp right turn and heads uphill to eventually meet Hughes Ridge.

For perhaps two tenths mile Cabin Flats Trail is a continuation of the roadbed alongside Bradley Fork, but then it crosses the waterway on an old-timey trestle bridge that even has a graveled surface. Once on the other side, Cabin Flats Trail changes to a single track hiker’s path, and makes a hairpin turn uphill.

The next half mile is the steepest portion of this hike, but is still not particularly strenuous. What is fascinating about this stretch is the incredible variety of wildflowers to be found beside the trail. I counted four different kinds of violets, phacelia, hepatica, rue, phlox, trillium, trout lilies, spring beauties and bluets. In fact, this stretch of Cabin Flats Trail rivals the hill climb on Chestnut Tops Trail for the garden-like assemblage of flowers. A must see. So if you’re thinking of turning around back at the traffic loop, come ahead at least this far.

This area also escaped lumber company clear cutting, so look for old growth tulip poplar, basswood, buckeye and hemlock. Unfortunately the hemlock have succumbed to the woolly adelgid blight, but the grey ghosts still stand. At the half mile mark you reach the junction with Dry Sluice Gap Trail heading uphill to the left. Continue straight here, another 0.6 mile to Cabin Flats.

 

The uphill climb on Cabin Flats Trail offers of wealth of wildflowers and old growth forest.

 

The trail flattens out for a quarter mile before beginning a gradual descent back down to creek level at Cabin Flats. You’re hanging on an edge here above the flats. To your right notice a floodplain caused by a massive logjam on Bradley Fork. The trailside is covered with multi-colored phlox, violets, hepatica, and if you’re lucky, some blooming jack-in-the-pulpits.

At the bottom of the descent, the trail makes a hard right turn and enters Cabin Flats and the area designated as backcountry campsite #49. There are several distinct campsites within the Flats area, so if you’re looking for somewhere to bring the in-laws too, 49 is one to consider. There are a total of five tent sites.

The woodland floor was a forest of may apples when I was there, and beginning to green nicely. I pulled up a log to sit a spell and enjoy lunch. Other than the sound of Bradley Fork and a few songbirds, it was quiet and serene. I had it all to myself. This would be a nice place to camp overnight, or even for a few days.

I stayed for about 20 minutes, taking a few pictures, and just relaxing. Once I felt appropriately rested, I began the reverse trek, returning the same way I came. Nothing really of note to report about the return, other than even more wildflowers were out as the afternoon progressed. I felt so fortunate to have the opportunity to enjoy them.

In summary, this hike is relatively easy, climbing only 875 feet over five miles. Really, from a fitness perspective, the only thing to worry about is its length. If you’ve done 10 miles before, then you’ve got this one. I would put this hike right up there with some of the best in the Smokies for early Spring wildflowers. So with the creek, the forest, and the flowers, what’s not to like. Go do this.

 

 

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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