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The trout in the stream next to my campsite were elusive, but not the elk. Six of them strolled past me at the trailhead as I geared up for a 14.2-mile overnight loop on the Cataloochee Divide in the eastern corner of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. I took it as a good omen and began the ridgewalk, which undulates across grassy balds and passes some of the biggest, oldest poplars in the park. While Great Smoky Mountains might be the most visited park in the system, Cataloochee is far from the crowds that flock to the Appalachian Trail and gateway towns at the western entrance. With a bit of luck, you can see as many elk as people. It’s enough to make me forget those wily trout.
Distance: 14.2 mile (loop)
Time: 2 days
From the Polls Gap trailhead
(1) Head south on the Hemphill Bald Trail to a junction at mile 5.7.
(2) Take a sharp left and head west, staying on the Hemphill Bald Trail 3.1 miles to a fork.
(3) Continue 1.8 miles west on the Caldwell Fork Trail to another junction.
(4) Veer south onto the Rough Fork Trail and take it 3.6 miles back to the trailhead.
Backcountry Campsite 41 (mile 9)
Bring your fly rod (and patience); this site is steps from Caldwell Fork, a stream with knee-deep pools full of brook trout. It’s one of a few sites (permit info below) by the creek, and you’ll be just .3 mile east of some of the biggest poplars in the park (some have trunks 10 feet in diameter).
Reintroduced to the park in 2001, Manitoban elk are thriving: The population stands at an estimated 200 animals. Scan for the 700-pound ungulates in pastures and clearings near forested areas and streams at dawn and dusk.
From Gooseberry Knob, a grassy bald equipped with Adirondack chairs, you can see 50 miles into the Black Mountain Range. It’s worth the .7-mile spur from the Hemphill Bald junction at mile 5.7 on this route. June bonus: The hardwood canopy is at its most lush, and the high elevation means you’ll escape the Smokies’ notorious heat.
DO IT Trailhead 35.563287, -83.161635; 18 miles northwest of Dellwood on Heintooga Ridge Rd. Season April to November Permits Required for camping ($4 per person; smokiespermits.nps.gov) Custom mapbit.do/BPmapCataloocheeDivide ($15) Contactnps.gov/grsmTrip databackpacker.com/cataloocheedivide
Elk in Cataloochee Valley
- State: NC
- City: Asheville, NC
- Distance: 14.2
- Contact: nps.gov/grsm
- Land Type: National Park