Old Sugarlands Trail, Great Smoky Mountains National Park

One of the more enjoyable trails I have hiked recently in the Smokies, Old Sugarlands follows West Prong of Little Pigeon River for a mile and a half, then turns to the east and ascends the western flank of the LeConte Ridge another 2.4 miles to a pastoral setting known as Cherokee Orchard. This trail receives surprisingly little use despite being surrounded by a hub of activity at Sugarlands Visitor Center and Park Headquarters. Once you reach the top, you can extend the hike 1.8 miles round trip with a visit to historic Bud Ogle Cabin, or connect to multiple options for climbing iconic Mt. LeConte. I hiked the Old Sugarlands Trail on Friday, November 17, 2017 beginning at 9:15AM and ending about 1:50PM. My plan was to take Old Sugarlands Trail to its terminus at Cherokee Orchard, visit Bud Ogle Cabin, then return the way I came.

Hike Length: 9.6 miles Hike Duration: 4.5 hours

Hike Rating: Moderate. The first mile and a half is very easy, with the remainder a moderate ascent.

Hike Configuration: Up and back Blaze: None needed

Elevation Change: 1,160 feet Gain: 1,470 feet Elevation Start: 1,417 feet

Trail Condition: Very good. First 1.5 miles is single track with limited tripping hazards. The ascent is a very smooth old roadbed. Branch crossings are easy rock hops.

Starting Point: Trailhead is on Hwy 441 across from Park Headquarters.

Trail Traffic: I encountered only two other hikers on this Friday in mid-November.

How to Get There: Enter the Tennessee side of Great Smoky Mountains National Park and drive to Sugarlands Visitor Center. Continue on Hwy 441 toward Gatlinburg another quarter mile. The trailhead is next to the road on the right, just past a bridge over the river and across the highway from Park Headquarters. There is parking for about five cars.




I haven’t spent any time hiking the Gatlinburg region of the Smokies park. Usually when I go to the Tennessee side, I blow right on by heading to Elkmont, or Tremont, or Cades Cove. Based on a wonderful experience hiking the Old Sugarlands Trail, I’m likely to spend more time exploring trails near Gatlinburg. It was one of my favorite hikes of 2017.

As usual, when I’m heading to the Tennessee side, I drove through the North Carolina region on Hwy 441 to Newfound Gap, and then beyond to the Sugarlands Visitor Center. There were elk in the fields at Oconaluftee, including a couple of bulls. A flock of turkeys were doing their gobbler thing beside the road at Tow String. This was just a hint of the wildlife experiences I would enjoy later in the day.

Once I crossed into Tennessee and started down from Newfound Gap I was treated to forest at the base of Mt. LeConte still dazzling with autumn’s finest coloring. Most of the tourists seeking a Smokies leaf peeping vacation were long gone, so the roadway was nearly deserted. I found the same to be true on Old Sugarlands Trail, encountering only two other hikers the whole day, a couple of long-timers who happened to help me at a somewhat confusing trail junction.

To find the trailhead for Old Sugarlands, pass by the turnoff for the Visitor Center and stay on 441 toward Gatlinburg. Go another quarter mile to Park Headquarters, cross the bridge over West Fork of the Little Pigeon River, then park on the right. You will see a trail sign.

As you begin hiking, almost immediately on your left you will pass a 70-foot cliff of grey sandstone that was a quarry used by the Tennessee transportation department when building the first paved roads over the mountains. The sound of rushing water will be on your right as you parallel West Fork for the next mile and a half. There are occasional opportunities to explore along the river bank, with various sizes and shapes of cobbles in abundance.

The trail makes a short climb above the river through a narrow rhodo and doghobble tunnel, then drops back down again. At 0.6 mile you will reach a junction. Follow Old Sugarlands down and to the right, then across a small branch. The trail going up and to the left is Twomile Lead, one you will see again later, and much higher.

The next mile of the hike is remarkably level and straight as it continues to follow West Fork. The forest is quite dense here, with many of the trees sugar maple saplings, the origin of the Sugarlands name. The trail travels in a southeasterly direction, which meant I was heading directly into the November morning sun. The warmth felt invigorating on an otherwise chilly morning. Because of the level floodplain in this area, as you can imagine, there used to be home sites here. Keep your eye out for signs of century-old civilization.


Looking upstream from the bank of West Prong of Little Pigeon River along Old Sugarlands Trail.


The farmers who lived here in the 19th century had orchards with nearly a dozen different varieties of apples. Because of the plentiful native sugar maples, they sold maple syrup as well. You will notice occasional rock walls that the farmers used to keep roaming wildlife like deer out of their vegetable gardens. As the century turned, the farmers gave way to a new burgeoning tourist industry. The first hotel, and the first gas station were built here. Even the Smokies experienced the Roaring 20’s.

At the 1-mile mark you will come to a small foot bridge over Bullhead Branch. If you look real close on the left side of the bridge, you’ll find a 1934 survey benchmark. The trail continues straight and level for another few hundred yards. In spring, this is a haven for wildflowers including trailing arbitus, spring beauties, bloodroot, and self heal. Look also for a grove of sweetgum trees.

The trail makes a left turn at another tributary of Bullhead Branch, then continues for a tenth mile before turning to the right. If you look in the woods here you’ll see the remains of a former Civilian Conservation Corps camp, including a stone clock tower. Just another tenth mile farther, and you make a left turn again. I found this area of the trail to be particularly wet, as it seems one of the myriad of branches in the area has decided to leave its normal stream and use the trail as it searches for the river.

The next landmark comes at the 1.5 mile mark. There is a junction here that was somewhat confusing to me. A trail sign seemed to imply that you wanted to turn right to stay on Old Sugarlands. Fortunately a pair of fit octogenarian hikers just happened upon the scene as I was pulling out my map. They were quite experienced in a number of ways, especially on what trail went where.

Actually, they said, Old Sugarlands stays straight ahead. If you take the trail on the right, it leads to an old cemetery about three-quarters of a mile away. There were also schools out that way at the turn of the 20th century, but I decided to save that for a future trip since it was so far off the plan I had.

From this point Old Sugarlands Trail begins its gradual ascent up to the LeConte Ridge. It never does get steep, but it never really levels out again either. Just a good, moderate climb that is great exercise. At the 1.7 mile mark look for more CCC ruins and relics from two camps that were here in the 1930’s and 40’s.

Something else you will notice is evidence of the devastating wildfire that ravaged this section of the Smokies in late November 2016. A small fire at Chimney Tops was spread by near hurricane force winds on that fateful night, leaving a path of destruction on its way to Gatlinburg. Combined with many downed power lines and transformers in the city sparking additional fires, before all was said and done, 14 people had perished.

Remarkably, the forest is recovering quite nicely in this area, just one year later. Unlike Chimney Tops and the Bull Head Trail on Mt. LeConte that may be scarred and inaccessible for decades, the forest is healing along Old Sugarlands. We can only hope that over time, so too will the people of Gatlinburg.


The extraordinarily beautiful Old Sugarlands Trail is recovering quite nicely from the 2016 wildfire.


As I rounded a small turn, standing proudly 50 feet ahead was a rather large buck. It wasn’t really close enough to count antler points, but he was a pretty big boy. Darn, I said to myself. I only brought my fixed focal length camera lens and it is quite short, only 17mm. I did the best I could, and then he moved on. Usually I carry a zoom lens, but didn’t this time.

The trail continues on an old roadbed as it ascends for another two miles. I found this stretch of trail to be not only easy to hike, but quite beautiful to look at. There was still just a hint of autumn color in the woods. Those colors must have been literally regal just a couple weeks before. Mental note to self. 😉

There are a couple of switchbacks as you climb the road. Otherwise, it’s just a gentle amble up the ridge through a stunning forest. As you pass through 2,400′ elevation the surrounding mountains become visible through the woods, particularly when the leaves are down. Sugarland Mountain is especially evident.

At the 3.2-mile mark you will come to a junction with the aforementioned Twomile Lead horse trail, and then just another tenth farther come to another horse trail known as Twomile Branch. I have added these to my plans for future hiking opportunities in this area. As you reach the high point of Old Sugarlands Trail, you come to another junction, this one with Bull Head Trail, one of five trails that will take you to the summit of immensely popular Mt. LeConte. Unfortunately, Bull Head is closed following the fire, and is likely to remain so for quite some time.

From here, the trail dips as it is another 0.4 mile to the end at Cherokee Orchard. Just before you get to the finish you will cross a footlog over LeConte Creek. As you reach the end you will notice trail signs for Trillium Gap and Rainbow Falls, other means of climbing to the summit of Mt. LeConte.

From this point on Cherokee Orchard Road you are a mere 0.9 mile from the Bud Ogle Cabin. I still had plenty of energy, and I knew the way back was downhill, so I thought I’d go check out the historic site. Just one thing to consider though. It is all downhill to the cabin, meaning you have to climb back up the road to return to Old Sugarlands Trail.


Pretty nice place to have a home, huh? I’m sure Bud Ogle thought so.


After exploring the cabin and barn for a bit, I pulled up a piece of Bud’s front yard under a poplar tree to enjoy lunch. The nourishment helped me climb back up to Old Sugarlands for the return trip. Then, who should I see at the junction but the two oldtimers from earlier enjoying their own lunch?

Just as the climb up the mountain was no sweat, the descent was a piece of cake. What was truly memorable however, were the wildlife encounters. I’ve had days in the wilderness out West when I’ve seen multiple critters on the same hike. That is more rare here in the East. This just must have been my day.

It started after I had gone back past the three trail junctions when I heard a ruckus in the woods just off the trail. Then, suddenly, here came a mama black bear and four cubs scurrying across the trail about 75 feet ahead. I think my appearance must have startled them, and being naturally shy, they high-tailed it out of there in a hurry. Again, darn it, sure wish I had my zoom lens, but I did my best.

No more than 10 minutes later, I rounded a bend and there was a doe grazing on the side of the trail. I approached very slowly ten feet at a time. She would occasionally raise her head to assure I didn’t make any sudden moves, but mostly she was more interested in the food than she was in me. Walk slowly ten feet… take another picture. Lather, rinse, repeat.

She allowed me to get to within about 20 feet when she finally decided to move into the woods. Still, she was in no rush. She simply walked away. No hurry. No worry. She felt completely safe, apparently. Wow, what a day for wildlife! And I haven’t even mentioned the dozens of squirrels that were constantly darting across the trail track, or the woodpeckers rat-a-tat-tatting.

No more wildlife encounters the remaining couple miles, but it was still a wonderful stroll through the forest. Just thinking about all the sights I had seen, the friends I had made (both human and otherwise), and the exceptional weather for November had made this one of the best hikes I’ve had in some time. In my view, Old Sugarlands Trail is extremely underrated. I had an absolutely delightful time. You should definitely check this one out.

I made one more stop on my way out, pulling into the Park Headquarters to take a look at Cataract Falls. It’s a tenth mile trail to this 30 foot waterfall, that unfortunately on this day was pretty dry. Probably best to visit this one in spring.



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. Tim Truemper

    A neighbor friend hiked in Smoky Mtn National Park just one week prior to your own jaunt. His photos showed just past peak color. I was astounded. Thanks for sharing this trail treat that is somewhat secret.

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