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Longstreet Highroad Guide to the North Carolina Mountains

By Lynda McDaniel

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Sherpa Guides > North Carolina Mountains > The Great Smoky Mountains > The Oconaluftee Visitor Center

Click here for a new window with a large version of this map.The Oconaluftee Visitor Center

[Fig. 43(15), Fig. 44(3), Fig. 45(1)] The Oconaluftee Visitor Center sits on a fertile tract of land whose flatness is accentuated by the mountains that rise on all sides, its pastoral greens a bright contrast to the darker hues of the forests beyond. When compared to some of the Great Smokies' more craggy locales—their unsuitability to farming vividly captured in such names as Rocky Spur, Stony Gap, and Long Hungry Ridge—it seems even more of an arable oasis. Land that any pioneer would have been pleased to stumble upon, it is the fitting home to a living mountain farm museum that pays tribute to the self-sufficient ways of the settlers who once scrabbled out a life here by growing corn and raising cattle.

Changing exhibits inside the visitor center depict wildlife in the park as well as chronicle the area's pioneers and loggers, who were often just as colorful, not to mention as ornery, as any black bear. A short way from the center lies the museum and a collection of turn-of-the-century buildings assembled by the National Park Service from former Great Smokies settlements and arranged for historical accuracy. The farmstead includes a cabin dwelling, a barn, corncribs, a spring house, and a meat house. A plotted garden grows a short way from a crop of corn and sorghum cane, used to make molasses. A strutting rooster or two, chickens, a pig, and a plodding team of horses populate the barnyard. During the summer and fall, old-time methods of farming and housekeeping are demonstrated regularly. At other times, visitors can stroll the grounds to peer inside the buildings and wonder at how life used to be.

Weary hikers might find in the flatness of the land a reprieve of another kind. The Oconaluftee River Trail, which begins just behind the farmstead, is only 1.5 miles long and is level enough to be handicapped accessible. While easy, the hike is also rewarding. Following close by the river, the trail travels among Eastern hemlock, yellow buckeye, Eastern sycamore (Platanus occidentalis), white basswood (Tilia americana var. heterophylla), flowering dogwood (Cornus florida), and tuliptree or yellow-poplar (Liriodendron tulipifera).

More than 40 species of wildflowers have been identified along the trail, making it an especially worthwhile walk in spring and fall. Blossoming in spring are varieties of trillium, jack-in-the-pulpit, squirrel corn (Dicentra canadensis), stonecrop or sedum (Sedum ternatum), mayapple (Podophyllum peltatum), as well as several species of other sedum and violets; in fall, asters are the main attraction. Spring also brings a variety of recently migrated warblers to the trail, whose songs, when joined by the odd "cock-a-doodle-doo" wafting down from the farm, create an odd aural juncture of nature and history.

The Oconaluftee River flows southeast and drains the valley between Thomas Divide and Hughes Ridge. Its name represents a juncture, too, this one between past and present. It evolved from the Cherokee word Egwanulti, which means "by the river" and was once used to refer collectively to the various Cherokee communities that thrived on the banks of the river in the years before the American Revolution. Corrupted by the pronunciation and spelling of the European settlers who arrived in the early 1800s, the word became Oconaluftee and soon, by association, grew to mean the river itself.

Approximately .5 mile up the road from the center is another testament to days gone by: the Mingus Mill. Built in 1886, the gristmill was used by the nearby mountain community for more than 50 years to grind corn and wheat into meal and flour, its turbine powered by the flow of Mingus Creek through its redwood millrace. Demonstrations are still held from late spring to fall at the mill, which was rehabilitated by the National Park Service in 1968. Hikers are discouraged from using the nearby Mingus Creek Trail. No longer included on park maps, the trail passes a law- enforcement target range as well as the water-supply treatment area for the town of Cherokee, making it neither safe nor pleasant to walk on.

Highbush blackberry (Rubus allegheniensis) This bramble produces a delectable fruit that is popular food for wildlife.Smokemont Nature Trail

[Fig. 43(16)] The Smokemont Self-guiding Nature Trail is short, interesting, and convenient for overnight campers and day visitors to the Smokemont Campground. This loop trail is only about 1 mile in length and involves little climbing, making it easy for young children and adults alike.

The trailhead is located halfway into the campground on the left side. The trailhead is marked by a kiosk where a box contains interpretive brochures with 12 numbered descriptions that correspond to numbered posts along the trail.

The brochure explains how the combination of moisture, sunlight, and soil at Smokemont have determined which plant species dominate. It also highlights the changes that have occurred in the area. Smokemont was the name of a logging community carved out of the forest by the Champion Fibre Company in the early 1900s. The Nature Trail and brochure interpret the devastating changes logging brought to this ecosystem, and the forest's subsequent response to these changes. Unique trees and shrubs are also noted along the trail.

Smokemont Loop Trail

[Fig. 43(17)] The Smokemont Loop Trail takes hikers through magnificent creekside cove hardwood forests as well as drier oak- and hickory-dominated ridgetops. The easy, level hike along the first portion is followed by a long and moderately steep climb up and down Richland Mountain.

The trail begins at a gated gravel road at the rear of Smokemont Campground on Newfound Gap Road. The first 1.7 miles is actually the Bradley Fork Trail and follows along the east bank of a wide creek bearing that name. A sign at the gate indicates the mileage to the junction with Smokemont Loop proper, as well as other trails in the area.

The dominant trees along Bradley Fork are northern red oak (Quercus rubra), scarlet oak (Q. coccinea), and tulip poplar. Several floodplain species are common here as well, including sycamore (Platanus occidentalis), river birch (Betula nigra), and American hornbeam (Carpinus caroliniana).

Where ample sunlight penetrates, the trail edges are lush with herbaceous growth. Wildflowers such as foamflower, wild geranium, buttercup (Ranunculus hispidus), and lyre-leaved sage (Salvia lyrata) are common here. The ever-present mountain laurel and rhododendron are joined by other shrubs such as witch-hazel (Hamamelis virginiana) and buffalo nut (Pyrularia pubera). Understory trees and saplings include flowering dogwood, basswood (Tilia heterophylla), sugar maple (Acer saccharum), and striped maple (A. pensylvanicum).

After 1 mile, a large, mossy rock can be seen a short distance to the right of the trail. The rock is shaped like a bench and may have been placed there for that reason in the days when Smokemont was home to Champion Fibre's huge timbering operation. This area once held a hotel, boarding house, company store, and other structures related to the industry. All that remains are a few small clearings, which are being reclaimed through natural plant succession.

At 1.2 miles another sign indicates mileages to trails, including the Smokemont Loop, which joins at .5 mile farther. At that point, the loop begins by heading downhill and across a bridge over Bradley Fork. New York ferns (Thelypteris noveboracensis) grow in huge colonies along the creek here, and occasional clumps of squawroot (Conopholis americana) can be seen as well.

The trail then climbs steadily away from the creek until it reaches an extension of the ridge that forms Richland Mountain. Along the way hikers pass through thick stands of black cherry (Prunus serotina), yellow birch (Betula alleghaniensis), and Eastern hemlock. Higher up, the dominant species are pignut hickory (Carya glabra), white oak (Quercus alba), scarlet oak, and tulip poplar. At the ridge itself, chestnut oak (Quercus montana) becomes codominant.

The trail makes a long descent down the southwest side of the ridge, eventually joining a gravel service road that leads across Bradley Fork Creek and into the Smokemont Campground. En route, hikers pass through an area with many fallen American chestnuts (Castanea dentata), remnants of old-growth giants that succumbed to blight earlier in the century. Also occurring on this stretch are the oldest tulip poplar trees on the trail and a spur trail leading to an old cemetery that dates back to the 1800s.

The Smokemont Loop hike is completed by turning left at the campground and walking .6 mile to the rear parking area where the Bradley Fork Trail began.

Chasteen Creek Trail

[Fig. 43(18)] The Chasteen Creek Trail can be accessed approximately 1.2 miles into the Smokemont Loop Trail/Bradley Fork Trail, which originates from the Smokemont Campground. After another 1.2 miles on the Chasteen Creek Trail, at a place with hitching posts for horses, a well-used side trail leads to an impressive view of the Chasteen Creek cascade. From here, the trail continues its steady rise toward Hughes Ridge, traveling along the creek's channel through rhododendron and mountain laurel and a second-growth hardwood forest of Eastern hemlock, tuliptrees, oak, mountain-ash (Sorbus americana), and, in the wetter areas, sycamore. The trail can get narrow, rocky, and sometimes strenuous as it travels upstream, but it is worth it. This appealing trail harbors hundreds of species of birds and wildflowers, as well as white-tailed deer, black bear, and other mammals of the park. Once atop the crest of Hughes Ridge, the creek narrows considerably from its earlier 10-foot width, and ferns, mosses, lichens, and fungi are abundant. Backtrack to the campground or make a longer, 14.8-mile loop by turning right onto the Hughes Ridge Trail. This trail intersects Chasteen Creek Trail on the ridge, and hikers can follow it back to the campground. A left turn at the intersection will continue 4.7 miles on Hughes Ridge Trail to Peck's Corner on the Appalachian Trail.

Turkey vulture (Cathartes aura) The vulture’s wings form a “V” when gliding.Charlies Bunion Via Kephart Prong Trail

[Fig. 43(13)] Running along a branch of the Oconaluftee River, the Kephart Prong Trail is a short trail that gains an elevation of only 830 feet. Yet, in its 2 miles, it manages to introduce much of the recent history of the Great Smokies.

In the Depression era, a barracks-style camp of the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) was located in the woods just .2 mile past the trailhead. In a stand of Eastern hemlock, traces of the camp remain: a small stone entrance sign, a few low walls, a water fountain, and a chimney and hearth. The work performed by this organization has proved more durable than the camp—many of the footbridges crossed by the trail are buttressed by CCC stonework. Another goodworks project along Kephart Prong, a fish hatchery run by the Works Project Administration, was also active in the 1930s, hatching trout and bass to replenish mountain streams.

The trees in the forest are small and old railroad irons are strewn near the end of the trail, evidence of the extensive logging that occurred here before the advent of the CCC and the creation of the park. To remove cut timber to the sawmills, Champion Fibre Company built hundreds of miles of railroad track to crisscross the mountains. Near the trail's end grows another reminder of logging: a stand of Norway spruce. Planted by Champion to replace depleted acreage of red spruce, these Norway spruce are nonnative to the Smokies and are being removed by the National Park Service.

A mixed forest of oak and hemlock, with an understory including heaths of rhododendron, laurel, and dog-hobble, is now coming to maturity. While the trees are not yet prepossessing, the wildflowers that line this trail are. Spring sightings include foamflower, wild geranium, Rue anemone and wood anemone (Anemonella thalictroides and Anemone quinquefolia), large-flowered bellwort (Uvularia grandiflora), and three species of trillium. Flame azalea, Turk's cap lily (Lilium superbum), and speckled wood lily (Clintonia umbellulata) come into bloom with the rhododendron in June.

The creek and rich thickets of heath along the Kephart Prong Trail are attractive to wildlife. A number of warblers frequent the area, including the chestnut-sided warbler (Dendroica pensylvanica), the hooded warbler (Wilsonia citrina), and the black-throated green warbler (Dendroica virens). Louisiana waterthrush (Seiurus motacilla) can be spotted along Kephart Prong. Salamanders dwell here, too, one of them Jordan's salamander (Plethodon jordani), a red-cheeked variety found exclusively in the Smokies.

Kephart Prong flows down the side of Kephart Mountain. Both the mountain and the waterway are named for Horace Kephart, an early park enthusiast whose book Our Southern Highlanders is a classic study of mountain culture. By following Kephart Prong Trail to Grassy Branch and Dry Sluice Gap trails, hikers can reach Charlies Bunion, a famous rock outcropping on the Appalachian Trail that is most commonly accessed from Newfound Gap. Coincidentally, Kephart was present in the party of hikers who, when struck by the sight of this bare rocky spire, christened it for a long-suffering companion's protruding bunion.

The view from Charlies Bunion, sitting at an elevation of 5,400 feet, sweeps across state lines to both the North Carolina and Tennessee sides of the park. A spruce-fir forest grows here, including other species such as yellow birch. Raven (Corvus corax), turkey vultures (Cathartes aura), and hawks all favor this higher elevation.

This jagged and rakish outcrop is part of the Anakeesta Formation (see Chimney Tops). Unlike Thunderhead Sandstone, which is metamorphosed from sand deposits and is extremely durable, Anakeesta was formed from oceanic mud and its slate layers are easily cloven.

A lumber company fire that swept up here from Kephart Prong heightened the starkness of Charlies Bunion. The hold of the trees in this rocky soil was already precarious when the fire ravaged the hillside. Stripped of vegetation, the soil washed away, and it is estimated that it may take centuries for equally deep soil pockets to develop. For now, pin cherries (Prunus pensylvanica) and mountain-ash have gained a foothold.

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