Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Great Smoky Mountains NP: Fighting Creek Nature Trail and Cataract Falls (Blog Hike #572)

Trails: Fighting Creek Nature and Cove Mountain Trails
Hike Location: Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Geographic Location: southwest of Gatlinburg, TN
Length: 1.9 miles
Difficulty: 3/10 (Easy/Moderate)
Last Hiked: May 2016
Overview: A short but interesting semi-loop featuring a small waterfall and an abandoned log cabin.

Directions to the trailhead: This hike starts at Great Smoky Mountains National Park’s Sugarlands Visitor Center, which is located on the west side of US 441 2.7 miles south of Gatlinburg.

The hike: For an introduction to my history of hiking in the Smokies, see my hike to Albright Grove, the first hike on this (my third) visit to Great Smoky Mountains National Park.  The hike described here is my favorite short hike near Gatlinburg.  This route features natural scenery in Cataract Falls, human history in John Ownby’s cabin, and scenic low-elevation forest all packed in 1.9 fairly easy miles.  What more could you ask for in a short front-country hike?
            Do not be dismayed by the huge parking lot and potentially large crowd of people in front of the Sugarlands Visitor Center.  Most of these people simply stop in the Visitor Center to watch the park’s introductory film (a worthy 20 minute add-on after you finish this hike) or get some park information.  I passed a few people on this hike, but I found traffic on this trail surprisingly low given the hike’s location and ease.
Start of Fighting Creek Nature Trail
            Start on the paved asphalt path that begins at the rear of the Sugarlands Visitor Center.  This asphalt trail is called the Gatlinburg Trail, and as its name suggests it leads 1.9 miles to the City of Gatlinburg.  The Gatlinburg Trail is popular with bikers and joggers, but it is too crowded and developed to make for good hiking.
            In 300 feet, you reach the start of the dirt Fighting Creek Nature Trail, which exits the pavement to the left.  A wooden park sign marks this junction.  Turn left to pass a trail guide dispenser as you start the nature trail.  The $0.50 required to purchase a trail guide is a small price to pay for the wealth of information contained in the pamphlet.
            The wide dirt trail heads west to cross tiny Ash Hopper Branch on a small wooden bridge.  Interpretive signs help you identify common trees in the forest, which include sweet gum and tulip poplars.  After crossing Fighting Creek on a larger wooden bridge, you reach a major trail intersection at 0.2 miles.  The trails going straight and left form the loop portion of the Fighting Creek Nature Trail, and we will use them later.  For now, turn right to begin the signed spur trail to Cataract Falls.
Hiking along Fighting Creek
            The fine gravel trail heads downstream with rushing Fighting Creek immediately to your right.  The pine woods along this portion of the creek form a very peaceful setting.  Some poison ivy also lives down here, but the trail is wide enough to make this irritating shrub easily avoided if you are looking for it.  At 0.3 miles, the trail passes under a stone vehicle bridge that carries a park maintenance road across Fighting Creek.  Some short wooden boardwalks get you over some wet areas.
            After passing under the bridge, the trail curves left and climbs a few steps to intersect the Cove Mountain Trail.  Turn right here to continue heading for Cataract Falls.  The wide trail continues its downstream course and, just shy of 0.5 miles, reaches the base of Cataract Falls.  Formed by a small tributary of Fighting Creek, Cataract Falls is a cascade-type waterfall that drops about 20 feet.  Though certainly not the most scenic waterfall in the park, Cataract Falls makes a nice easy add-on to this nature trail hike.
Cataract Falls
            The Cove Mountain Trail continues for many miles past Cataract Falls, but there are no other nearby points of interest in that direction.  Thus, this hike turns around and retraces its route back to the major trail intersection.  Continue straight to begin hiking the loop portion of the Fighting Creek Nature Trail clockwise.
            The trail passes under a power line as it angles right away from the creek.  Next you pass what remains of Noah McCarter’s homestead: some stone walls and part of a chimney.  The interpretive guide does a good job of describing Noah and his way of life.
Hiking through an old corn field
            The trail climbs slightly as it passes through some old farm fields.  After crossing a short footlog (a bridge constructed by splitting a large log in half lengthwise and laying it cut-side-up across a creek), I had to pause while a large black snake crossed the trail in front of me.  I know it is bad luck to have a black cat cross your path, but I am unsure about a black snake.
Black snake crossing my path
            At 1.1 miles, you descend slightly to reach John Ownby’s cabin.  Built in 1860, the small one-story cabin with sawn-wood floors is the last surviving structure from the Forks-of-the-River community, a settlement that existed in this area before the park was formed.  Take some time to admire the cabin’s rustic beauty and imagine life here 150 years ago.
John Ownby's cabin
The trail curves sharply right to leave the cabin clearing on the same side from which it entered.  More gradual climbing on nice sidehill trail brings you to the highest elevation of this hike, about 110 feet above Fighting Creek.  The descent that follows is quite sharp relative to the rest of this trail.  At 1.7 miles, you close the nature trail loop at the west bank of Fighting Creek.  Continue straight across the bridge over Fighting Creek to return to the Sugarlands Visitor Center in 0.2 miles and complete the hike.


  1. We went to Sugarlands to get a souvenir for a customer of mine, and we had no clue as to this trail. We'll definitely check it out next year! Great info!

    1. Thanks for all of the kind comments (this one and the others you recently posted). The longer trails tend to get a lot of the publicity, especially in a major park like this one. Thus, I try to feature some of the shorter trails too. The experiences they offer are very different from the longer trails but in many ways just as good. I especially like this hike, so much so that I almost Golden Staffed it (but not quite).

      Thanks again and see you on the trail,

      David, aka The Mathprofhiker