Do it For totally off-the-beaten-path trekking, head to the Cosby section in the park’s northeast quadrant for this three-day, 17.3-mile loop. This region, once known as the “Moonshine Capital of the World,” features steep, dark redoubts laced with boulders and virgin forest—terrain deemed unfit for logging but ideal for bootleggers to set up their illicit stills. Walk in their footsteps as you leave Cosby Campground (1), pushing west on the Gabes Mountain Trail through fern- and stream-laced Bearneck Gap. At mile 2.1, watch Hen Wallow Falls (2) pour through a crack in a 60-foot face to form a shining cascade. At mile 4.7, drop packs and relax at any of the 10 first-come, first-serve sites at Sugar Grove (#34) (3).
The next morning, continue on the Gabes Mountain Trail for 1.8 miles until you hit the Maddron Bald Trail (4). Turn left to begin a gentle ascent above Indian Camp Creek. After 1.7 miles, turn right onto the Albright Grove Loop Trail (5) for a .6-mile meander through a rare stand of virgin forest, dominated by hemlock and poplar, and peppered with basswood, fraser magnolia, and beech. Nearly halfway into the loop, a tulip poplar a few yards off the trail measures more than 135 feet tall and 25 feet around. Rejoin the Maddron Bald Trail (by turning right) to continue on your steepening ascent past the ever-present murmur of Camp Creek, Copperhead Branch, and Otter Creek. At mile 11.3, reach the Otter Creek campsite (#29; reservation required) (6) and pitch your tent on a gravelly terrace carved from the steep confines of the drainage.
The next morning, ascend 700 feet in a mile through hardwoods that give way to waist-high laurel and blueberry atop 5,212-foot Maddron Bald (7). Scan the sea of receding, mist-topped ridges; Greenbrier Pinnacle is the cone to the west. Continue over the heath-draped summit to meet the Snake Den Ridge Trail (8). Descend northeast back to the flats, dropping 2,800 feet in 4.2 miles on rocky, narrow switchbacks that wind through a mix of pine and balsam. Pause at a heath-covered bald 2.3 miles along the ridge and look south (along the AT) from Inadu Knob to Mt. Cammerer. At mile 17 (9), turn left back toward Cosby Campground. Trip ID 1822208
Permit Backcountry permit required (currently free; $4/person/night starting in 2013); available at Sugarlands Visitors Center
Reservations Required for most campsites and all shelters. Call 30 days in advance.
Gear up Nantahala Outdoor Center, 1138 Parkway, Gatlinburg, TN; (865) 277-8209; noc.com
Local flavor Après hike, stop just outside the park at Smokey’s Sports Pub & Grub for the plate-size Mountain Burger. (865) 436-4220; smokyspubandgrub.com
Season May-June to avoid thru-hikers; September to miss high season on Clingmans Dome Contact (865) 436-1297; nps.gov/grsm
BUY THE PRO MAP