Kephart Prong Trail, Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Kephart Prong is one of the many water drainages that give the Smokies its character and provide refreshing nourishment for all the flora and fauna. Named for Horace Kephart, an author who was very instrumental in helping the Great Smoky Mountains achieve national park status, this scenic mountain stream is especially inviting during the spring greening season. Particularly in May, the entire forest along the prong assumes a verdant glow that permeates the senses. The Civilian Conservation Corps was active along Kephart Prong and up Mount Kephart in the 1930s, building trails, bridges and roads that helped make the national park what we know and love today. My brother and I hiked this trail on Monday, May 12, 2014 beginning at 8:15AM and ending about 12:00PM. Our plan was to take the Kephart Prong Trail to its terminus at the backcountry shelter, perhaps explore a bit beyond, then return.

Hike Length: 4.2 miles Hike Duration: 3.5 hours

Blaze: None needed Hike Rating: Easy. Some climbing, but not strenuous.

Elevation Gain: 880 feet Hike Configuration: Up and back

Trail Condition: Excellent. Some roots and loose rocks on the upper trail.

Starting Point: Parking pullout along Hwy 441 seven miles north of Oconoluftee Visitor Center.

Trail Traffic: We encountered three other hikers, and one tour bus crowd.

How to Get There: From the Oconoluftee Visitor Center near the Cherokee, NC entrance to the national park, travel seven miles north on Newfound Gap Road (Hwy 441). The parking pullout and trailhead are on the right.


Horace Kephart (September 8, 1862 – April 2, 1931) was an American travel writer and librarian, best known as the author of Our Southern Highlanders, about his life in the Great Smoky Mountains of Western North Carolina. Born in Pennsylvania and raised in Iowa, Kephart found his way to WNC shortly after the turn of the century, where he lived in the Hazel Creek section of what would later become the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Later in life, worried that the Smokies were being ravaged by clear cutting, he took up the cause for saving the mountains as a national park, writing many influential articles. He campaigned hard for the establishment of the national park with photographer and friend George Masa, and lived long enough to know that the park would be created. He was later named one of the fathers of the national park. He also helped plot the route of the Appalachian Trail through the Smokies. Two months before his death in a car accident in 1931, 6,217-foot Mount Kephart was named in his honor. Kephart Prong flows down the southern flank of Mount Kephart.

The Mountain Heritage Center and Special Collections at Hunter Library, Western Carolina University have created a digitized online exhibit called “Revealing an Enigma” that focuses on Horace Kephart’s life and works. This exhibit contains documents and artifacts (photos and maps) that can be browsed or searched. Whenever you’re hiking in the Smokies, it’s quite likely you are treading on the same trails as Horace Kephart many decades ago.

The first thing the Kephart Prong Trail does at the trailhead is cross Oconoluftee River, the same river that flows by the park Visitor Center and on into the town of Cherokee. There’s never a bad time to view this picturesque river, but it is especially brilliant in May when the green plants and trees of the fresh season are so alive and radiant. That green is reflected in the crystal clear waters of the river, and of Kephart Prong.

The trail itself is a delightful track, wide and smooth, easy on the feet. At least two, and sometimes three, hikers can comfortably walk side-by-side while listening to the music of the songbirds and the russshhh of the flowing stream. About a quarter mile up the trail you will begin to notice old stone artifacts of a 1930s era Civilian Conservation Corp (CCC) camp, including a sign marker, water fountain, and stone chimney.

The CCC workers constructed much of the infrastructure in GSMNP while making their home at this camp from 1933-1942. On all of the stream crossings along Kephart Prong Trail you can choose to wade through the water, or you can cross on the original “foot logs,” built by the CCC nearly 80 years ago. The same stone foundations are still in use today, but the split logs used as a foot bridge have worn smooth and become covered with moss and algae. So watch your step they can be quite slippery when wet. There are a total of two bridges and four foot-logs along the length of the trail.

The forest story along Kephart Prong is so lush and vibrant that you essentially never see the sky the full length of the trail. At times, it is downright dark, even in broad daylight. When I was looking through the photos I took to use for this post, I noticed that some of them even seemed to look as if they were taken indoors. When you browse the gallery below, see if you think the same thing. Obviously this forest canopy helps to cool the vegetation (and hikers) even during hot summer months.

2nd Foot Log Bridge

For most of its length, the trail stays right alongside Kephart Prong, but occasionally it will divert 50 feet away. Be sure to watch for the access trails in these sections that take you to usually picturesque settings creekside with water cascading over mossy boulders. My brother and I spent probably half our time on this day scrambling around on the rocks, looking for that ideal place to locate a tripod for photos. There’s no reason to hurry on Kephart Prong.

The second mile is a little steeper than the first, but still a gentle grade. Most of the foot log crossings are in this 2nd mile. Also, in the last quarter mile are several relic railroad irons, remnants of the Champion Fibre Co. that was clear-cutting the forest in the 1920s. Thank goodness for those who founded the national park and saved the forest.

Finally you reach the old backcountry shelter on the site that was once the logging camp. There are two sleeping platforms and an indoor fireplace within the shelter. We encountered three other hikers who had stayed there overnight and were stirring to begin their new day, the first people we had seen during the entire climb.

Rather than disturbing the others, we continued a ways up Sweat Heifer Creek Trail just to check it out. It continues all the way to the Appalachian Trail near Newfound Gap, but that was not our intent. We returned to the shelter, did the same quarter mile foray up Grassy Branch Trail which also reaches all the way to the AT, then returned for our descent.

4th Foot Log Bridge

We stopped for lunch near foot log #4, and enjoyed the setting alongside the transparent water of Kephart Prong. There were hundreds of rounded pebbles on the bottom of the stream, casting various hues of brown and grey. It’s a very peaceful environment; surrounded by a green canopy of mostly beech and hemlock with the serene babbling sounds of the prong flowing slowly by to its meeting with the Oconoluftee.

Even more geraniums had popped out as the afternoon approached. I thoroughly enjoyed one particular spot along the trail with the purple geraniums on both sides. That’s the photo at the top of this post. You may click it for a larger image. Our peaceful reverie was briefly broken when a large contingent of two dozen tourists with name badges and blue hair passed by us on their ascent. It’s great that they actually got out of their bus and into the forest.

We got back to the car in a little more than three and a half hours, so it’s obvious we dawdled quite a bit enjoying the scenes and stopping for photos. With the extra length we explored up Sweat Heifer and Grassy Branch, we hiked a total of about five miles, never needing to take a deep breath. Kephart Prong is a totally easy and relaxing walk in the woods for the whole family.

Not far from the trailhead, on the way back to the park entrance, we stopped for a visit to Mingus Mill, a 19th century corn and wheat grist mill. The mill provided ground grain for local families and continued to operate until 1930 when the land, along with the mill, was purchased for inclusion in the new Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

In 1937, Mingus Mill was one of the first buildings restored as an historic structure within the new national park, one of more than 80 such restorations. The labor for the restoration work was provided by the CCC.



Update January 31, 2016: A winter-time visit to Kephart Prong is a whole different world from the greening and flowers of spring. There was snow, and ice, and views through the forest of the surrounding Great Smoky Mountains. Surprisingly the trail isn’t muddy, a testament to the firm construction by the Civilian Conservation Corps nearly a hundred years ago. Recent snow melt provided ample water to this already-picturesque branch of Oconaluftee River.



Update April 13, 2018: Kephart Prong Trail is always a good leg stretcher, and now I know, also a good early Spring wildflower destination. You have to be patient. There aren’t a lot of flowers for the first half mile or so, but beyond that you’ll find many of the same flowers that grow at most lower elevations in the national park. See for yourself in the new photo gallery below.



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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1 Comment

  1. Zachary Robbins

    This is the greenest hike I’ve ever seen

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