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Rip & Go: Citico Creek Loop, Cherokee & Nantahala National Forests, TN/NC

Plunge deep into quiet Appalachian hollows and traverse narrow ridgelines with views across row upon row of forested peaks.
BP0812TRIPE_Rives_445x260.jpgPhoto by Peter Rives

Wilderness solitude requires some sweat equity on this two-night loop that packs 13,223 feet of elevation change into 21.3 miles. But the effort is well-rewarded with sweeping vistas, narrow ridgelines, hidden forest valleys, refreshing waterfalls—and very little company.

1. Begin on an old Forest Service road (it becomes singletrack at mile 1.2) to climb 900 feet over the next 3.5 miles. The dense forest transitions from pines to oaks and poplars and finally to rhododendron and mountain laurel.

2. (2.7) Water up at a reliable, piped spring before your dry first night’s camp.

3. (3.5) Bed down on the open, grassy summit of Bob Stratton Bald.

4. (5.8) Detour .2 mile to The Hangover, a rock tongue covered with a thin blanket of rhododendron, for uninterrupted views of sparkling lakes and rolling ridges.

5. (8.5) Descend 2,100 feet to Big Fat Gap. Turn left to continue your descent for an additional 1,200 feet over the next 2.5 miles through alternating hemlock and hardwood forest.

6. (9.9) Ford 30-foot-wide, two-foot-deep Slickrock Creek with caution (the footing is treacherous; see page 48 for crossing tips). Watch for coyote, black bear, and whitetail deer that are drawn to the isolated forest basin.

7. Detour .6 mile (round-trip) to four-tiered Wildcat Falls, which ends in a deep pool perfect for a dip. Backtrack to rejoin the loop. Tip: For a one-night trip, camp above the falls.

8. (12.7) Camp at the flat, forested site of a former homestead and apple orchard. Fill water .2 mile before camp. Next day, head southwest on Trail 95.

9. (13.5) A brief section of cliffside trail allows views over stunted mountain laurel to yesterday’s ridge and the creek basins below before you descend to Big Stack Gap.

10. (17.5) Turn right onto the Benton MacKaye Trail.

11. (18.1) Hop the headwaters of Citico Creek’s North Fork before ascending through a shimmering stand of yellow birch.

12. (18.6) Turn left onto Trail 149.

13. (19.7) Right turn onto dirt Strawberry Knob Road to close the loop and return to the trailhead.

Trip Planner
Get there
From Knoxville, take I-40 W to I-75 S. In 24 miles, exit onto TN 68 S and turn left to follow it for 24.4 miles. Turn left onto TN 165 E/Cherohala Skyway and go 24 miles to the Beech Gap trailhead at the TN/NC state line.

Gear up
Little River Trading Company, 2408 E. Lamar Alexander Pkwy., Maryville, TN; (865) 681-4141;

(423) 253-8400;

Trip data


1 Comment

  1. harrisclayton19gmail-com

    Before you “rip & go”, read this first.

    This loop is very difficult. The changes in elevation are steep and the trail is extremely overgrown to the point of barely existing in some (many) places. If you are still interested in completing this loop then read the rest of this long comment below.

    I first read about this loop years ago and the description sounds fantastic, so in 2014 I decided to give it a try. It quickly became clear, whoever wrote this article about the trail has never hiked it before. I ended up not completing the loop the first time (details below), and retried the loop again over Labor Day weekend in 2016. This time I was successful in finishing the hike I started over 2 years ago. For a detailed experience from someone who just finished hiking this trail, please continue reading.

    Things to know before you get directions: Get a good stick you can knock briar patches out of the way with, much of this trail is completely overgrown by thorns. Be on the lookout for bears (the hike borders a Bear Reserve on the TN side). Wild pigs can also be an issue (I saw 4 this last time but no bears). Bring plenty of water, maps, some sort of GPS, and descriptions of the trail to help you find your way. The ups and downs on this hike are torturous and doing it while beating thorns away from your faces is exhausting.

    I’ll start at the beginning. The trailhead is basically a gate just off the Cherohala Skyway (Highway 165 in TN and 143 in NC). The highway has been recently paved which gives the trailhead slightly more prominence (the main thing to look for is a sign announcing the Nantahala National Forest). When I went in 2014 the grass around the gate and along the road was so overgrown the trail looked abandoned. There is also an overlook/parking lot on the NC side about a hundred yards from the trailhead (I parked here the first time I went) if you prefer parking on pavement (you’re not allowed to block the gate to the forest road).

    Following the forest road past the gate is simple enough; it winds through the woods and ends in a small meadow (perfect for camping if you arrived late). From what I can tell there are at least main trails leading off from the meadow. New signs (they weren’t there in 2014) have been installed for some trails but they don’t seem to help much.

    You would think you could look at the map above and determine which trail(s) to take to complete the loop, only the map doesn’t show all the other possible choices you are faced with along the way. The meadow has a trail going down and to the left and then two trails straight ahead. The trail in front on the left side is an equestrian trail. The trail you want is straight ahead to the right. (I believe it is trail #54, but I could be wrong.) The trail will have signs saying no horses beyond this point etc.

    The trail begins an upward slope almost immediately and doesn’t let off until you reach Bob Stratton Bald. A few things to note about this first stretch: There is piped spring along the way (look for a white PVC pipe sticking straight out of the hill about 10 fee below the trail), it usually has a trickle of water coming out. You will also pass an old sign post (really just a post) which is covered in scratches with the numbers “54” and “59A” barely visible. This post marks where you will connect the loop on your way back. On your way to complete the loop you will come up the hill to your left and you will take a right at that sign to head back down the hill to your car. (+035.37228/-084.00825).

    As you approach Bob Stratton Bald (aka Bob’s Bald) you’ll see an open grassy area to the right with some fire pits, if it seems small, don’t worry, you haven’t gotten to the real thing yet. Keep climbing the hill and the trail will open onto a huge grassy bald covered in a maze of trails. If the weather is good, expect excellent views to the east. I’m not sure who made all the trails on the bald or where they go but eventually you’ll want to link up with the trail you were originally hiking on. The best description I can give is the trail follows an arc (to follow the contour of the bald) from where you entered the bald to the far side. Someone (as of Labor Day weekend 2016) had graciously marked the exit point with pink flagging tape but there’s no way to know it will still be there.

    Once you find your way out of the bald you’ll continue onward following the ups and downs of the trail. You’ll soon come to an intersection with a trail leading ahead and slightly to the right and a trail to your left, which leads down. TAKE THE TRAIL TO THE LEFT! One of the things that makes this hike so challenging is the lack of quality signage. There is a sign pointing to the trail on the left (you’ll have to walk past the sign and turn around to see it, so then it will be pointing right), which indicates the “HAOE Lead Trail No.53” is in that direction. The best I can guess is the “HAOE” stands for “Hangover” which is the formation you are heading towards. The first I did this hike I stayed straight and spent the next day on the worst “trail” you can imagine, which ended up dead ending at some road. Don’t go straight!!

    Once you’ve gone down to the left, the trail continues to descend (don’t worry, you’re going in the right direction, the hangover isn’t the tallest mountain around). You will then come to yet another intersection. This intersection has signs and you would think you could follow them. DO NOT FOLLOW THE SIGNS!! The signs are mostly correct but will lead you astray as they are not positioned well. The signpost is at the entrance to a small clearing; to the right is another clearing with a campground, which has a nice view. In order to continue on the correct trail you need to go to the campground, and as you are looking out at the view, turn to your left and you will notice another trail leading up the hill. YOU WANT TO TAKE THAT TRAIL. (+035.38060/-083.98329)

    After you continue on for a ways you’ll arrive at the trail that branches off to the Hangover (the trail to the Hangover goes straight, but eventually you’ll want to take the trail to the left). The Hangover is essentially a rock ridgeline, which doesn’t have enough soil to support real trees so it’s covered in head high bushes. Rocks along the path give you the extra boost needed to see above the bushes and provide a 360-degree view of the mountains around. The trail dead ends at the end of the Hangover and you will backtrack to the junction before continuing onward (to the left as you arrived and to the right as you return from the Hangover). I recommend stashing your packs and just bringing a camera/phone for pictures as the trail is quite narrow between the bushes and you’ll be coming back the same way.
    The trail after the Hangover is a brutal downhill descent to the parking lot. Along the way you’ll encounter another similar formation to the Hangover (on a smaller scale). There is another trail that continues straight along this smaller ridgeline; however the trail you want turns sharply to the right and down to hug the main ridgeline.

    Upon reaching the parking lot you’ll see a welcome board with a map of the area (Taken from National Geographic’s “Trails Illustrated” maps, which according to users at Trimble Outdoors (the second site to show up in a Google search for the trail) isn’t very reliable, so use the map with caution). The trail continues to your left (there’s a sign for it this time, No. 41). There are other trails leading off from the parking lot but the one you want can be found by hugging the woods to your left and walking behind the sign.

    The trail continues downhill towards several creeks and the waterfall. This section of the trail seems much more popular and the campsites near the falls were almost completely full of people (not likely to see much wildlife). You will take a right onto Nicholas Cove Trail No. 44 (+035.41715/ -083.97368) which will take you across a creek (if the water is low you can hop across the rocks). Continue on this trail through the woods and then you will cross another creek (you will see the creeks come together on your right). I crossed this creek by hoping across rocks. You will come to a campsite area with a badly damaged sign pointing across the now combined creek to the trail to the waterfall. I would stash your pack here and take only things you might want at a waterfall (camera/phone, change of clothes, etc.) because you will be returning here. The trail from the other side of the creek is short and passes many large campsites. You cross over the creek once more just shy of the falls (the water wasn’t very high in early September so I was able to walk/hop on rocks to get across, but other times of the year it may be higher). The trail runs along the various stages of the falls and you can abandon the trail for a closer look or a swim in one of the swimming holes.

    Once you’re finished at the falls, backtrack to where you left your pack (two creek crossings away). Finding the trail from here is tricky, because it is seldom traveled. From the initial approach to the campsite the trail is to your left and as you come back from the water fall and cross the creek it would be directly in front of you. You will follow this trail uphill to the next campsite (and the only suitable one for quite some time). The campsite is a grassy clearing to the right of the trail. In the article it is described as a former home site and apple orchard. I don’t know how accurate that description is, but it would be a stretch to call it an orchard and there were no signs of a former home having been there. (Don’t expect some big clearing with rows of trees).

    As you’ve probably come to expect, this campsite is also a trail junction. There is a post with no writing or signs on it (+035.43079/ -084.01455). As you approach the campsite from the waterfall (with the campsite on your right), the trail you want will be to your left. There is a trail that continues straight but I have no idea where it goes.

    Once you leave the campsite you’ll continue uphill with a brief downhill portion along the way. You’ll now be hiking along a portion of the Benton MacKaye Trail (BMT), which means you can use Google Maps and the GPS in your phone to make sure you stay on the right trail. You’ll pass several other trail markers with trails branching off to the sides but you’ll want to continue straight (the signs just have arrows along the trail number so it might be useful to label the trails you want with their number) (BMT is No. 95).

    Another confusing trail marker appears by a large campsite (+035.38230/ -084.00941). The trail looks like it goes straight but that trail is trail No. 2. You want No. 59 which is up and to the left (the other trail has a slight downward slope). It may be hard to find b/c the BMT is not a well travelled and maintained trail.

    If you’ve made it this far, (reading or in real life) congratulations! The key to making it back and completing the loop is to just keep going. The trail often disappears under heavy underbrush and head-height thorns, tight bushes and fallen trees. There were many times where I just stopped and wondered if I was even on the right trail (thank goodness for GPS!!!!!). Eventually you will make it out and back to the first trail (+035.37228/-084.00825). As I mentioned earlier you will turn right and follow it back down to the meadow and then along the forest road to the gate and your car. If you are low on water, the spring will be up the trail to your left (an unknown distance).

    In conclusion, I would not recommend this trail. If you are looking for something really hard then go for it. If you want to see the waterfall and the hangover, just park at the parking lot and take the short trip to both. The whole Citico Creek Wilderness area needs a lot of work in regards to trail maintenance and signage (but maybe part of it being a wilderness is to keep it wild?). Good luck out there and happy hiking! -HC

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