Stellar Overnight Hikes in the Smokies
The Spruce Mountain overnight loop is an outstanding two-night trip that covers a wide variety of terrain and trail conditions while offering a good opportunity for solitude. it must be noted, however, that a portion of the loop requires a short connection down a lightly used gravel road, which is closed to traffic in the winter. You'll leave the grassy Cataloochee Valley and ascend to the spruce-fir high country. Hikers with sharp eyes can spot the valley below to mark their progress.
The trip begins at the Big Fork Ridge trailhead with an immediate crossing over Rough Fork on a footbridge. Shortly, the trail passes an old pioneer farm site, as evidenced by the fields now being reclaimed by the forest.
Begin ascending the ridge, winding upwards to reach a gap in Big Fork Ridge at mile 1.7. Pass through the gap and enter the watershed of Caldwell Fork. Soon you'll hear its noisy waters. A footbridge makes for a dry crossing of Caldwell Fork. Climb briefly away from the creek to intersect the Caldwell Fork Trail at mile 3.1.
Turn right and follow the trail up along Caldwell Fork. Heavy horse traffic often renders this trail muddy. At mile 3.2, pass the McKee Branch Trail junction. A small side trail leads uphill to a gravesite at mile 3.4. Two Union soldiers lie buried there. Continuing on, intersect the Hemphill Bald Trail at mile 4.5. Cross Double Gap Branch and arrive at the Caldwell Fork backcountry campsite, #41, at mile 4.6. This is your first night's destination.
The site offers many camping areas, either under shady hemlocks or out in the open at the former homesite. Explore the area, looking for signs of the early pioneers. Leave all artifacts in their place, as they comprise a living archaeological exhibit.
Day Two: Tall Trees
After spending your first night out, proceed up the Caldwell Fork Trail as it begins to climb away from its namesake. At mile 5.2, come to a sign marking the side trail to the"Big Poplars." Nowadays, the prevailing term for these giants is "Tulip Tree," but no matter what you call them, these trees are huge.
Back on the Caldwell Fork Trail, climb away from the former farmland, passing through old growth forest to a prominent gap and beyond, to intersect the Rough Fork Trail at mile 6.3. Veer left and continue ascending, looking for views of the Cataloochee Valley below. At mile 7.8, come to an old railroad grade that makes for easy walking. Fragrant red spruces start to crop up, and Polls Gap and its parking area appear at mile 9.8.
Turn right and follow the rutted and rocky Polls Gap Trail up the ridge to top out on Cataloochee Balsam (elevation 5,970 feet) at mile 11.4. Leave the mountaintop, clambering over the many blown-down trees. After passing through Horse Creek Gap, the trail climbs again to Chiltoes Mountain at mile 13.0.
Turn right down the short side trail that is marked by a sign, at mile 14.2, to reach the Spruce Mountain backcountry campsite, #42. This is a small, lightly used camp, one of the higher backcountry sites in the park, lying over a mile high in elevation. A trail at the lower edge of the camp leads to a spring.
Day Three: Rhododendron Tunnel
After a night in the cool high country, return to the Polls Gap Trail, turn right and continue 1 mile to intersect the Spruce Mountain Trail. (To the right, 1 mile distant, lies the top of Spruce Mountain and the former site of a fire tower, which makes a nice day trip from campsite #42.) Follow the Spruce Mountain Trail down to the left 1 mile to Balsam Mountain Road at mile 15.3 of your loop.
Turn right on the gravel road and follow it 1.8 miles to the Palmer Creek Trail on the right. The trail quickly descends through a long rhododendron tunnel that emerges into a more open forest.
At mile 18.7, cross Beech Creek. Then, as the Palmer Creek valley narrows, cross Lost Bottom Creek on a log at mile 19.3. Continuing to descend, the Palmer Creek Trail intersects the Pretty Hollow Trail after crossing Pretty Hollow Creek on another log at mile 20.4.
Turn right, following Pretty Hollow Creek on a wide jeep trail through some clearings, passing the Little Cataloochee Trail junction at mile 20.9. A mere 0.8 mile farther is the loop's end at Cataloochee Road. Follow the road up the valley a short ways and return to your vehicle.
Leave 1-40 at exit 20 to NC 276. In a short distance reach Cove Creek Road, which you follow nearly 6 miles to enter the park. Travel 2 miles beyond the park boundary, then turn left onto Cataloochee Road. Follow it to the end. The Big Fork Ridge Trail is on the left just before you reach the parking area.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication