This 46 mile loop has a bit of everything that makes wilderness travel great, some good route finding, open views of the mountains, deep forests and even some old human structures thrown in for good measure. Start out by crossing the bridge that leads to the Ramsey’s Cascades TH and park your rig at the Old Settlers Trail on the left. Grab your pack and cross back over the bridge and make that left on the main road towards Porters Creek, about a mile from this point. Jump on the trail and hike on into the wilderness on this classic trail. Soon, cross over the creek on a bridge and climb a bit into the charming Porters flat area where in the spring is filled with flowers, is now hushed in winter’s soft touch. Soon after comes Fern Creek Falls, roaring from recent snow melt reflects the lushness that the Smokies are known far and wide for. Continue on up to the camp spot where the trail “ends” and take the split that goes to the left away from the camp. Follow the now obvious trail into the thicket as it follows the creek up higher. Keep in mind for the duration of the next 3 miles or so you will be following the Creek and/or crossing it, or in it, on your way up to the A.T. In the first couple of miles the tread is patchy and erratic before becoming more of a bleak game trail-esk situation with the occasional carin. So consequently, make sure you hike this section in the winter or early spring when the leaves are off the trees and it easier to see your way ahead. The last bit is quite steep as you pop out near Charlie’s Bunion, make that left and take the A.T. north to Pecks’s Corner Shelter, your destination for the first night. Pass by some great spots along the way like the ragged Sawteeth and False Gap with it’s splendid view into N. Carolina and beyond. Drop down Hughes Ridge to Pecks and settle in with some dinner and chocolate as twilight settles in.
In the morning after some tea and crumpets, climb back up to the A.T. and make a right. A slight climb delivers you to the fabled Eagle Rocks with a great view into Gatlinburg and the Tennessee side of the Park. Cruise along this legendary trail as it traverses the slopes of Mtns. Sequoyah and Chapman before it reaches a intersection with the Tricorner Shelter, stay to the left. The trail now passes above the valley where the epic Little Pigeon River begins, with a good moisture level in the Mountains, you can hear Ramsey Cascades far below. With my guiding job, I have hiked pretty much the whole Smokies section of the Appalachian Trail, but his next stretch is my favorite. Crossing under the summits of Geyot and Old Black is one of the most remote areas along this section of the A.T. The northeast slopes of Old Black are particularly lush, even by Smokies standards and everything is covered with a thick coat of Carpet Moss. I have sunk my arm into this green abyss almost up to my elbow before to demonstrate it’s lushness on REI Trips before, always a crowd pleaser. Next up, drop down to Yellow Creek Gap where you can find an old heli pad and the wreckage of a plane that crashed into the side of the mountain during a storm. Now is the time when you jump off the A.T. and make that left on the Maddron Bald TR. and drop down to Otter Creek, your camp for the night. But before you do, take a short side trail on the right to a great viewpoint on a ridge’s end. Imagine this heath bald in June when they are flowing and these slopes erupt in riotous display of color, a must see endeavor. Continue on down the Maddron TR. to spot #29, one of my favorites in the Park, enjoy a sip of whisky and repeat.
Now this next section is where you need to make a decision beforehand, please take a minute or two to think about the two options. Either take the easier route and stay down at Settlers Camp for the night at 13 miles or finish this sucker off at 21 miles if you dare, I did and it was a long day. Anyway, continue down to the Albright Grove TR. and take this short side loop into this old growth stand, a must see. After you get your fill of these massive Poplars and others, continue down to Old Settlers TR. and make that left. This interesting trail passes by a the old Tyson McCarter Barn and other small old house sites scattered along the way. Whole chimneys and rock walls sine your way as you cross what seems like a billion side streams, most just a step across in girth. If you are taking the shorter day, it is almost 10 miles in from the start of the trail, with a few light climbs thrown in for laughs. If not, continue on past spot #33 and up to the Copeland Divide where the incredible Greenbriar Valley unfolds in front of you. Take a second to soak in this scene before dropping back down to your rig and go to Three Jimmy’s for a beer and a burger to relish in this winter adventure.