Appalachian Highlands Science Learning Center at Purchase Knob, Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Purchase Knob is found on the far eastern flank of Great Smoky Mountains National Park on the Cataloochee Divide, north of Maggie Valley, NC. Near the summit and located at 4,850 feet, the Appalachian Highlands Science Learning Center is part of a network of what will be 32 centers supporting research and education about science in our national parks. The Purchase Knob Center is studying air quality and the effects on the rich diversity of plant species in the Smokies. From the center there are remarkable long-distance views of the Southern Appalachians that surround the area. Also found on the property is Ferguson Cabin, home to John Love Ferguson and his family from 1874 to 1902 and restored from the original timbers in 2000. This hike occurred on Tuesday, December 3, 2013 from 9:10am to about 12:15pm. Our plan was to hike Purchase Road to the Appalachian Highlands Science Learning Center near the summit of Purchase Knob, then follow the wooded trails to Ferguson Cabin.

Hike Length: ~ 3 miles Hike Duration: 3 hours

Hike Configuration: Lasso Blaze: None

Start Elevation: 4,185 feet Elevation Gain: 760 feet

Hike Rating: Easy, some climbing to the Center, but not steep.

Trail Condition: First half is forest road, then very good trails.

Starting Point: National Park Service gate on Purchase Road.

Trail Traffic: We did not see another soul while there.

How to Get There: Take Hwy 276 north from Soco Rd. in Maggie Valley 2 miles, and turn left on Hemphill Rd. Stay on Hemphill Rd. for nearly 5 miles where it becomes Purchase Rd. and changes to dirt and gravel. It is about a quarter mile to the national park gate. Parking is limited. Hike through the gate and up Purchase Rd.

Purchase Knob Hiking Guide

Purchase Knob is not only a perfect year-round hike, but a winter hiking highlight of Haywood County. This is no ordinary hiking guide. It is truly a work of art as it was personally mapped, cataloged, and illustrated by Ken, which resulted in both a colorful and unique guide of Purchase Knob. Print your own copy to take with you to Purchase Knob.

Even the drive to the Purchase Knob area is very pleasant. Hemphill Road follows a babbling mountain stream through horse and cattle country and past many old barns and homesteads. This is the definition of “country road” as it climbs into the Smokies from Maggie Valley.

When you reach the dirt and gravel Purchase Road you are almost there. It is perhaps another quarter mile uphill to the gate that marks the entrance to Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and the trailhead for the hiking portion of this adventure. There isn’t much parking here, so keep that in mind on a busy weekend in October. On this weekday in December, we were the only ones there.

We paused at the trailhead for a few pictures off toward the east of the sun trying to peak through the overcast sky. The first mile and a half to the Science Center hikes along Purchase Road. This time of year it had a colorful covering of fallen leaves from the hickory, oak and maples that are common to the region. As we climbed Purchase Road, there was a valley fog wafting through the forest, following us up the mountain.

The only semi-strenuous portion of this hike is the initial half mile on Purchase Road. If you’re in good hiking shape it will be a piece of cake. If you haven’t been on the trail for awhile, just take your time, enjoy the scenery, and know that it won’t get any more challenging. You will pass several rock outcroppings on the left as you wind up the hill.

The road does flatten out for the 2nd half mile, and enters evergreen country. There are a number of varieties of spruce and fir, both native and planted. At one time, the previous owners of the property had a Fraser Fir Christmas tree farm that is still evident today. You will reach a small meadow surrounded by nearly every shade of evergreen imaginable from mint to hunter.

Continuing past the small meadow through more overhanging forest, you will reach another opening with a much more vast expanse of bald mountain meadow. Perched high above, on the very top of the hill, is the Appalachian Highlands Science Learning Center. You have the option here of continuing to follow the road, or taking the trail through the tall amber grasses of the meadow to the top. Because of rain the previous night, we opted to stay on the road and keep our boots and pant legs dry.

The road winds around the bald meadow and begins a final ascent in a northwesterly direction. As you get higher and higher the surrounding mountains begin to come into view until, reaching the top, there is an entrancing 180° panorama of the majestic Southern Appalachians. Purchase Road ends at the back of the Science Center, a surprisingly large building for such a remote location.

Big Meadow at Purchase Knob

The Appalachian Highlands Science Learning Center is based on 535 acres contiguous with the rest of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The parcel includes the adjacent 5,086 foot elevation Purchase Knob, and two buildings which contain offices, laboratory space, a 50-person classroom, and housing for up to eight visiting scientists.

The buildings and land were donated in 2000 by Kathryn McNeil and Voit Gilmore, who had owned the property since 1964, and had built a summer home upon it. This represents the largest donation of land since GSMNP came into existence. Since then, the park has averaged about 5,000 visiting scientists, students and teachers each year. In 2001, Purchase Knob became the home of one of five initial Learning Centers created by Congress to support research in the National Parks and to transmit the information generated to the public. Eventually, 32 learning centers are expected nationwide.

The Science Center building is surrounded on two sides by a deck that is marvelous for viewing the surrounding mountains. Looking due east you’ll see the Newfound Mountains that surround the Canton, NC area. Just a little to the right of that is Purchase Knob. There are unmaintained old trails there if you feel in the mood for a little bushwhacking to the top.

Southeasterly looks to the high country of Pisgah National Forest and the Blue Ridge Parkway. They say you can see Mt. Pisgah and Cold Mountain from here on a clear day. We happened to catch it with heavy overcast.

Looking more to the north, left of the Newfound Mountains, you follow the Smoky Mountains up the Cataloochee Divide and on to Mt. Sterling. Again, on a clear day, you can even see well beyond Mt. Sterling to the Cumberland Plateau of Eastern Tennessee and Kentucky. Quite a magnificent view that I will definitely be back to enjoy.

We stayed on the deck for about 15 minutes, taking lots of pictures, refreshing with a snack, and wishing one of the employees at the Science Center would just happen outside to say hello and answer a few of the million and one questions we had about this truly remarkable place.

Behind the Science Center is the trailhead for the Cataloochee Divide Trail, the starting point for the downhill portion of our hike. You will pass a small outbuilding that houses a tower and many of the air quality experiments being conducted by the research scientists. There is even a webcam, so you can see what the weather is like before you leave home to explore Purchase Knob.

The next section of the hike is on actual trail, footpaths through the forest. You will reach a junction with the Cataloochee Divide Trail, one we definitely intend to explore some day. Stay to the left here and begin the descent through a thick laurel canopy. There are catawba and rosebay rhododendron here, and mountain laurel. This area of the forest must be a flowering delight in spring and early summer. You can expect the laurel to be blooming in late May, the hot pink catawba blossoms in mid-June and the snowy white rosebays in late June-early July.

The trail reaches a narrow path off to the left that goes up the west side back to the Science Center, and past several camping platforms. We went up just to see what was there, then backtracked to the main trail. Next you will pass another trail junction on the right that goes to the McKee Branch Trail or The Swag Resort in Cataloochee Valley.

But don’t take any of those trails, stay the course until you get to another junction that separates the horse traffic from the hikers. Hikers go right, horses left. After a quarter mile you will reach the creek, and evidence of some of the experiments being done by the scientists at the Center. There are lots of little flags around, and dog tag emblazened tree stump disc slices. Rock hop across the creek, then continue to Ferguson cabin.

Newfound Mountains from Purchase Knob

In 1874 John Love Ferguson built a log cabin along the creek west of Purchase Knob. He married in 1880 and lived there with his family, including three children, until 1902 when they moved to Jackson County, NC. The Ferguson cabin, at roughly 4,700′, is the highest in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. It was unusual for farmers to live at this lofty elevation, but the Fergusons were an exception.

The cabin itself was originally a double pin construction. Salvaged timbers from the two halves were restored into a single room structure in 2000 by the Friends of the Smokies. A nearby spring and the creek provided water, apple trees surrounding the property nourished them with fruit, corn was grown as the staple crop, and cattle grazed on the nearby grassy areas. The spring and apple trees are still there today.

We had our lunch on the front porch and ruminated about what in must have been like here in post-Civil War Western North Carolina. It was certainly a beautiful place to live, but quite remote and no doubt harsh in the winter. Still, a great glimpse at Americana.

The cabin sits in a small bowl in the terrain, so when you exit in an easterly direction, you will pass by the spring house and begin a modest climb back up to the large meadow, passing several of the apple trees along the way. There is a nice view back at the cabin from the top of the hill. That is the photo at the top of this post. This path also takes you by the Fraser fir farm and back to Purchase Road.

When we reached the small meadow, there is a brief, unmaintained trail on Czarnomski’s map that shortcuts a big curve in the road. Why not we thought. As we got further along this trail, unmaintained became the operative word as it has really overgrown with rhododendron. More of a bushwhack than a stroll, we did manage to come out the other side in one piece. You probably want to skip this, especially in summer.

On the way back down Purchase Road there is a nice view of the snow covered Cataloochee Ski Area and the Hemphill Creek watershed. This is not a long hike by any means, but it took us a little over three hours because there was so much to see along the way.

This is a hike I highly recommend. I know we will be back, many times. The short 3-mile loop that we did is a nice hike in and of itself, but Purchase Knob is also a great jumping off point for other longer hikes into the national park. The Cataloochee Divide Trail and the McKee Branch Trail are definitely on Meanderthals’ agenda for future exploration.

Additionally, Purchase Knob is bound to be a seasonal delight. The laurel forest will literally pop with heath flowers. The large bald meadow is purported to be covered with wildflowers and butterflies. Wild turkeys and bears migrate through the area in spring and fall. And speaking of fall, with the long distance views of the Smokies and the Blue Ridge, the fall foliage leaf peeping is no doubt extraordinary. Yep, we will be back.



Update August 13, 2014: We made another visit to Purchase Knob. I thought you might like to see more photos to contrast the seasons. It was a remarkably cool mid-summer day and we were even treated to a visit from a couple of cow elks. The bee balm was in full bloom and we saw five different colors, including an unusual fuschia one that appeared to have been cross-pollinated. Now I want to return during leaf-peeping season.



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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