Stellar Overnight Hikes in the Smokies
This two-night trip is arguably the best backpacking loop in the entire park. You first hike along the lower reaches of Gabes Mountain, passing Henwallow Falls, and enter virgin woodland to camp at Sugar Cove. Then you head up the Maddron Bald Trail to Albright Grove, which contains some of the park's largest trees.
Camp along a gurgling high-country creek near Maddron Bald, which sports awe-inspiring views both above and below. On the return trip down the rugged Snake Den Trail, more vistas open up on some smaller heath balds. This excursion exemplifies the Smoky Mountains at their finest.
Your trip starts on the Gabes Mountain Trail. You'll cross several branches of Crying Creek on footlogs before arriving at an old road turnaround at mile 1.1. While climbing the side of Gabes Mountain, pass amid crumbling homesteads scattered in the second-growth woods along the old road. A newly graded side trail leads to the foot of Henwallow Falls at mile 2.1.
After the falls, continue right on the Gabes Mountain Trail and enter an old-growth forest. Large, slick-surfaced beech trees and huge hemlocks stand out among the giants. The trail crosses small brooks that carve through the mountainside and feed the fern and rhododendron understory.
Ford Greenbrier Creek at mile 4.8 and reach the Sugar Cove backcountry campsite, #34 (elevation 3,240 feet). This is your first night's destination. The campsite gets a fair amount of use but is in good shape, with camping areas lining the creek.
Day Two: Creekside Ramble
The next day, continue westward on the Gabes Mountain Trail. Slowly snake your way along Cole Creek; the trail crosses Cole Creek and its tributaries so many times that you'll think Cole Creek is the trail. At mile 6.6, the trail arrives at the Maddron Bald Trail junction.
Turn left up the Maddron Bald Trail past the boulder in the middle of the road. Come to an old road turnaround at mile 7.7 of your loop hike. The trail becomes a rocky footpath, crossing Indian Camp Creek on a footlog at mile 8.2. Rounding the point of a small ridge, you'll come to the Albright Grove Nature Trail at mile 8.3.
Turn right on the nature trail and admire the old-growth Carolina silverbells, hemlocks, beech and tulip trees that were spared the logger's axe and now enjoy national park protection. Return to the Maddron Bald Trail at mile 9.0.
The Maddron Bald Trail ascends along and over Indian Camp and Copperhead creeks, rounding the point of a ridge at mile 10.5. A small trail to your left emerges at a rocky overlook among crowded brush. From the overlook you can see the town of Cosby below. To your left is Snag Mountain. Up and to your right is Maddron Bald.
Keep ascending on the Maddron Bald Trail to reach the Otter Creek backcountry campsite, #29 (elevation 4,560 feet), at mile 11.0. This is your second night's destination. In this series of small level areas stood a small Civilian Conservation Corps camp. A pulley-operated food-hanging device complete with directions was left behind. Maddron Bald, a mere half-mile away, makes a good day hike from the camp.
Day Three: Summiting Maddron
Day three starts with the climb away from Otter Creek and up to Maddron Bald at mile 11.5. This heath bald has low, dense bush cover rather than grass cover, with the occasional rock outcrop to take in the outstanding views.
Beyond the bald, reenter the forest and intersect the Snake Den Ridge Trail at mile 12.5. This is literally the high-point of the trip (elevation 5,800 feet), with telltale high-country spruce and fir trees in abundance. Turn left on the Snake Den Ridge Trail and start working your way down on a set of switchbacks. Occasionally, on the dry ridge tops, you'll be able to view the crest of the Smokies to your right.
At mile 15.2, the trail crosses Inadu Creek and works its way northeast down a cove to cross Rock Creek via a log at mile 16.2. The trail soon spills into an old road and enters a previously settled area. A trail linking Snake Den Ridge Trail to the Low Gap Trail enters from the right at mile 16.8. Turn right and follow the connector trail 0.6 mile to the Low Gap Trail junction. Turn left and follow the Low Gap Trail 0.4 mile down to the hiker parking area at mile 17.8, completing the loop.
From Gatlinburg, take US 321 east until it comes to a"T" intersection with TN 32. Turn right on TN 32 and follow it a little over 1 mile, turning right into the signed Cosby section of the park. At 2.1 miles on Cosby Road, arrive at the hiker parking area on the left, near the campground registration hut. Backtrack down Cosby Road 0.1 mile to the picnic area. The Gabes Mountain Trail starts across the road from the picnic area.
View: Trail Map
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication