Schoolhouse Gap and Chestnut Top Trails, Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Sure, there are lots and lots of wildflowers in April at Whiteoak Sink and on the hillside at the Townsend Y to make this hike seriously entertaining. But there is a lot more to the Schoolhouse Gap/Chestnut Top combination hike than abundant spring flowers. The views into Townsend from the Chestnut Top ridge are notable, and the forest that surrounds you throughout is enchanting. Since this would be a very lengthy hike as an out and back, my brother and I did it as a shuttle hike, parking a car at each end. We hiked the Schoolhouse Gap and Chestnut Top trails on Wednesday, April 18, 2019 beginning at 8:00AM and finishing about 2:15PM. Our plan was to park a car at the Townsend Y, take the other car to the Schoolhouse Gap trailhead, then hike the two trails back to the Y.

Total Length: 8.8 miles Hike Duration: 6.25 hours

Hike Rating: Moderate. Nothing particularly steep. No creek crossings. The hardest part is probably the climb back up out of Whiteoak Sink basin.

Hike Configuration: Semi-circle shuttle Blaze: None needed

Elevation Start: 1,625 feet Elevation Gain: 700 feet

Trail Condition: Quite good. Schoolhouse Gap is a double track former road. Chestnut Top is single track in very good condition.

Starting Point: Schoolhouse Gap Trail parking lot on Laurel Creek Road 3.9 miles west of the Townsend Y. Finish is at the Chestnut Top Trail parking lot at the Townsend Y. Shuttle hike.

Trail Traffic: There were lots of folks visiting Whiteoak Sink and the wildflower hillside on Chestnut Top Trail. Otherwise, we only saw about a dozen other hikers during a busy spring break week.

How to Get There: From Townsend, TN head to the Townsend Y in the national park and turn right toward Cades Cove. The Schoolhouse Gap Trail parking area is 3.9 miles on the right. Be aware there is limited parking that fills up fast during the month of April when wildflowers are blooming. Get there early.

 

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You better be an early bird to catch the parking space at Schoolhouse Gap trailhead throughout the month of April, otherwise you’ll be hoofing it an additional half mile just to start your hike. The parking at this very popular spot fills quickly. We started out leaving one car at the Chestnut Top trailhead at about 7:45, then 15 minutes later, when we arrived at Schoolhouse Gap there were already a half dozen cars ahead of us. The early start makes for dark pictures first thing, as it takes quite awhile for the sun to rise above the ridges that surround this trail.

You notice immediately that Schoolhouse Gap Trail is a former road. Built by Dr. Isaac Anderson in the mid-19th century, the goal was to combine a trail from Tennessee to Bote Mountain with one from North Carolina to Spence Field. Dr. Anderson did his part. Unfortunately, those confounded Carolinians dropped the ball, and Dr. Anderson’s goal of creating a means of commerce and missionary work was never realized. Now, however, more than 150 years later hikers reap the benefit of the work.

The trail begins a gradual climb alongside Spence Branch. Look on the hillside opposite the creek for a variety of spring ephemeral wildflowers. Even in late summer, early fall, expect to see lobelias and cardinal flowers. Just past a mile you reach Dorsey Gap and the junction with Turkeypen Ridge Trail, a means of reaching Cades Cove on foot.

Another 100 feet beyond that is the Whiteoak Sink manway. There is no signage here, as it is not an official trail. You will recognize it by the wooden barrier to keep horses from entering the basin. I’ve previously written about Whiteoak Sink, so I won’t repeat, but you can see my report and photo galleries here. As long as you are on Schoolhouse Gap Trail, Whiteoak Sink is a must see during the month of April.

Once you’ve returned from the marvelous trip to Whiteoak Sink, rejoin Schoolhouse Gap trail to resume the journey deep into the woods south of Townsend. You’ll pass through stands of pine and oak with their enticing scents in the greening season. It’s another 1.2 miles gently uphill to Schoolhouse Gap overlooking Townsend, but this hike doesn’t quite go all the way to the gap. 0.2 before is the junction with Chestnut Top Trail. Take a right here.

Maples and hickories can also be found in this forest. Combined with sourwood trees, they create the brilliant crimson hues that blanket this ridge in the fall. Chestnut Top Trail continues climbing for a little less than another mile until reaching the crest of the Chestnut Top ridge.

 

From the Chestnut Top ridge the mountains are greening nicely

 

The trail makes a dip here, to Bryant Gap, then resumes a gradual climb until reaching the highest point 1.5 miles from the Schoolhouse Gap junction. The northern park boundary is on your left through this area. Once you reach this summit it is, as they say, all downhill from here. Some of it is actually quite steep, reaching a 5% grade, a reason we chose to make this hike from west to east.

The forest really is nice along this stretch. It switches from stands of pine, to hardwoods. While I haven’t been here in fall, there is bound to be an abundance of nuts on the trail bed. Nuts usually means bears too, so keep an eye out for signs of their presence. Look too for old chestnut stumps, the namesake of this trail. I always imagine what the forests of the Smokies must have been like 200 years ago when the mighty chestnuts ruled. Inspiring.

Long switchbacks ease the descent. All the while we were glad we didn’t come up this way. With about a mile to go you begin to hear the road sounds of the Townsend Y. A word of caution: in summer the beautiful wildflowers that are pronounced for this last mile are replaced by everyone’s favorite… poison ivy. Just be aware.

The final half mile descent parallels the Townsend road, and the floral bouquet is omnipresent. Look for fire pinks and trillium, stonecrop and violets, lots and lots of purple phacelia, and toothwort, bloodroot, and hepatica. Tons and tons of them. In fact, it’s one of the prized displays in the park.

Finally, when you reach the bottom, cross Townsend road to the parking area to retrieve your vehicle. We then drove back to the beginning to get the other car as well.

Summarizing this hike, if Smokies spring wildflower gazing is a wish, then these trails are definitely for you. Both Whiteoak Sink and the Chestnut Top Trail’s hillside near the Y are some of the best in the park. But don’t discount the beauty of the forest along Chestnut Top ridge, and the views of Townsend from high above. This one is definitely recommended. If you’re a really strong hiker, then consider taking this hike from east to west, but for oldsters like me, the west to east direction is the ticket.

 

 

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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