Monday, April 16, 2012

Big, Rough, and Caldwell Forks

We had another beautiful day Sunday, weather-wise, and wanted to take advantage of that by doing another hike before the rain moves in this week.  Again, we were hiking with our friend, Sharon.  She is trying to color in her Smokies trail map, as well, so we selected a hike along trails she hadn’t done.

We chose to create a loop hike by using Big Fork Ridge Trail and portions of Caldwell Fork and Rough Fork. Our hike started and ended at the end of the road in Cataloochee.  This was not new trail for Gene and I.  We had done a portion of this in 2001 and another section in 2010.

We got an early start since we had that crooked gravel road to drive which takes so long even though the distance is not all that far.  We parked at a small parking lot across the road from the Big Fork Ridge Trailhead.  Our hike began by immediately crossing a stream.  This sorta set the tone for the hike as we ended up crossing eight streams--some with footbridges, some without, and one with the bridge, but no handrail.  This first stream, fortunately, had a bridge with handrail.  However, the bridge was leaning sharply to the starboard side and was a little disconcerting to cross.  As we each stepped off the bridge we stopped to read the posted warning which cautioned of “several” bridges being out on these trails.  In our research, we had learned of these hazards and were prepared with water shoes and extra socks if we needed them.

Elk were reintroduced in the Smokies in 2001 with 25 elk.  In 2002, another 27 were added.  I couldn’t find anywhere on the GSMNP website what the current numbers are, but the herd appears to be doing well.  We passed eight as we drove to the trailhead.  They were moseying along up the valley close to the road.  By the time we parked the car and had our boots and packs on, they were very near, perhaps only 50 feet away.  They didn’t seem nervous at all by our presence.  I guess they’re used to people watching them.
The old elk pens
The first group of elk arrived in the Park in February and were held until spring green up before being released.  About a quarter mile into our hike we came across a very large enclosure.  We assumed that was the place where the elk were held when they first arrived in the Smokies.  It’s pretty dilapidated now and needs to be removed.

For the next mile and a half we climbed steadily to the top of Big Fork Ridge then we dropped down to Caldwell Fork and the junction with Caldwell Fork Trail.  It was on our descent from Big Fork Ridge that we saw our first live snake of the season.  Speaking of wildlife, we saw some bear scat but no bear, so other than the snake, the elk, and a few hikers, we saw no other wildlife.

With 3 miles behind us we were ready for a break.  The trail junction was as good a spot as any before we began the long 1000-foot ascent to the junction with Rough Fork Trail.  We were glad when we passed backcountry campsite 41 since we were dreading crossing the foot bridge there.  We had heard that the bridge was in place, but had lost its handrail.  That information turned out to be true, but the bridge was a sturdy, wide log that was not nearly as difficult to cross as our imaginations had led us to believe.

Shortly after campsite 41 is a side trail to the “big poplars”.  This huge tulip poplar has been here for decades.  The guidebook indicates there are 3 of these massive trees, but we only saw one.

We took another break at the junction with Rough Fork and were glad to be heading downhill.  After a mile and a half of steep descent we came to campsite 40 and another creek crossing, this one without benefit of a foot bridge.  It was an easy rock hop.

Another half mile brought us to the Woody place.  This is one of several structures preserved by the Park Service in the Cataloochee Valley.  The cabin was built in the mid-1800s and was added on to several times as the Woody family grew.  Needs a little work these days.
The Woody Place
The last mile of our hike for today was along an old gravel road, flat as a flitter.  We were very glad to see the car.
What's left of an old stone fence.
All of the trails that made up this 9-mile loop are open to horses as well as hikers like all the rest of the trails in the Cataloochee area.  In places they were churned up pretty badly and we walked in a lot of mud.  I really wouldn’t recommend hiking this loop unless it’s to color that pesky map.

Don’t avoid Cataloochee because of the horse trails, though.  The valley has several preserved structures including a school and a church.  The elk are definitely worth a visit.  Most of the trails are outstanding including Palmer Creek which we did last week as is Little Cataloochee and Cataloochee Divide is one of our favorites in the park.

That’s it for today.  Thanks for tagging along.


  1. Seeing that bridge without the hand rail reminded me of the movie "Dirty Dancing". Knowing me I would have fallen off trying to walk across.

  2. Beautiful! Love the hiking adventures and photos. Found you through Sharon's blog! Happy Hiking!