Friday, June 28, 2013

Great Smoky Mountains NP: Oconoluftee River Trail (Blog Hike #402)

Trail: Oconoluftee River Trail
Hike Location: Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Geographic Location: north of Cherokee, NC (35.51306, -83.30649)
Length: 2.7 miles
Difficulty: 1/10 (Easy)
Last Hiked: October 2012
Overview: A out-and-back along the scenic Oconoluftee River.
Hike Route Map:
Photo Highlight:

Directions to the trailhead: This hike starts at the national park’s Oconoluftee Visitor Center, which is located on US 441 3.5 miles north of Cherokee.

The hike: For my introduction to fall hiking in the Smokies, see the Flat Creek hike.  Because heavily traveled roads lie within earshot on either side, the Oconoluftee River Trail will not make anyone’s list of great national park hikes.  I only hiked this trail because I was trying to squeeze in one more Smoky Mountains hike before I had to head home, and this trail’s ease of hiking and location at the park’s eastern entrance made it the perfect choice for my situation.
            The Oconoluftee River Trail does not form a loop, so you will need to either arrange a car shuttle or hike this trail as an out-and-back.  In spite of this trail’s many shortcomings, it does provide a pleasant stroll on wide trail beside a scenic, large-volume, mountain river.  Thus, this trail merits spending an extra hour or so on your way out of the park.
            Start by walking the paved concrete trail around the back of the Oconoluftee Visitor Center.  When the trail forks, a brown park sign tells you to angle right to stay on the Oconoluftee River Trail.  The left fork leads to the Mountain Farm Museum, a recreated 1930’s-era mountain farm of the kind that populated this region when the park was formed.  The Mountain Farm Museum’s recreated history is worth a visit, so take a few minutes to explore it either now or on your trip back.
Mountain Farm Museum, viewed from the outside
            Continuing on the Oconoluftee River Trail, the pavement quickly runs out, and the trail surface turns to gravel.  The gravel path passes between the wooden fence of the museum on the left and a grassy field on the right.  When I hiked this trail in early evening, a herd of elk was grazing on the grass in the field.  A century ago elk were common in the Smokies, but they had been forced to relocate due to logging and other loss of habitat.  Park rangers re-introduced them to the area about 10 years ago.  Several herds now live in the park, and I saw two of these herds on my October 2012 visit: one here and another along Heintooga Ridge Road near the Flat Creek hike.
Herd of elk near Visitor Center
            Past the southern end of the Mountain Farm Museum, the trail turns to dirt as it curves left and enters the woods.  Soon you reach the west bank of the Oconoluftee River.  The pleasant cascading and flowing of the river will be your companion for most of the rest of this hike.
            At 0.75 miles, the trail passes under the Blue Ridge Parkway’s bridge over the Oconoluftee River.  Some steps here lead down to a sandy area on the bank of the river.  Benches here and elsewhere spaced about 0.2 miles apart provide opportunities to rest and watch the river’s water flow by.
Oconoluftee River
            The trail continues to parallel the river as US 441 gets closer on the right.  Interpretive signs relate some Cherokee legends about the Smoky Mountains and their origins.  At 1.2 miles, the trail curves away from the river to cross a small tributary before continuing its downstream course.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park entrance sign
            At 1.35 miles, the trail comes out at the roadside parallel parking area for the famous brown Great Smoky Mountains National Park entrance sign.  The boundary between the national park and the Cherokee reservation lies just beyond this sign, and therefore so does the end of the trail.  Walking the narrow shoulder along heavily-traveled US 441 is dangerous, so if you did not leave a second car here, you will need to retrace your steps 1.35 miles along the Oconoluftee River Trail to the Visitor Center to complete the hike.  Be sure to stop at the Mountain Farm Museum on your way back if you did not do so earlier.

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