Halloween is my favorite holiday. The decorations, the kid costumes, the fall colors, and of course, the late night raiding of the kids’ loot from trick or treating! The fact that it comes around during one of the most scenic time in the Smokies doesn’t hurt either, and I wasn’t about to let the month slip by without heading out on a family hike. To make it more fun for the kids, I decided to pick some trails with interesting and somewhat spooky history behind them.
We started our journey at the end of the valley, on Big Fork Ridge Trail, which ascends gently enough to carry on a conversation. As soon as the hike begins, one of my favorite trees in the fall dominates the scene: Striped Maples. Its leaves take on an almost glow-in-the-dark quality to them as they change, and the light reflected from them fills the forest with an otherworldly glow. And if you use your imagination, peering at them from below, they kind of look like little ghosts!
At a small creek crossing a mile or so into the trail, Aidan found an enormous Blackbelly Salamander under a rock! After we appropriately oohed and aahed over Aidan’s awesome (and quite adorable, I might add) find, we headed on and soon crested the ridge.
As we walked along the ridge, eventually descending it, we couldn’t help but notice the tree graveyard to the left of the trail. It was rather sad, more so than spooky, as there were countless dead Hemlock trees, many of them very tall. Despite their early demise thanks to the Hemlock Woolly Adelgid, their skeletons were impressive all the same, standing tall and proud in the woods.
We cruised along, the edge of the trail filled with Patridge Berry plants, their green leaves and red berries a striking contrast to the forest floor. Wait a minute–red and green? This isn’t a Christmas hike, we said!
We ate a lunch of pumpkin shaped pasta and homemade pesto by a stream and discovered what appeared to be stonefly shucks (which is basically the empty skin of the nymph stage of a stonefly) under the hand rail of the bridge crossing it. Another spooky find in the books!
Satisfied from our lunch, we cruised along and quickly came to the intersection of the Caldwell Fork Trail. Just a few minutes beyond this trail junction, there is a side trail to the left that leads to a small cemetery with two unmarked graves. Three men are buried here after they were killed on April 1, 1865. Two men are buried in one grave (Ellsworth Caldwell and Levi Shelton). Acccording to this website about cemeteries in the Smokies:
It is known that Shelton and Caldwell are buried in one of the graves together. The other grave is unknown. The cemetery is also known as the Civil War Graves and the Confederate Soldiers Cemetery. Shelton and Caldwell were killed March 1865 by Kirk’s Raiders. The Civil War brought many hardships for those left behind. Many people in the Smokies were divided in their loyalties to one side or the other. Some men avoided the duty of war and hid out near their homes. George Kirk, known as a renegade Confederate turned Union, led a band made up mostly of criminals and deserters into the Smokies during the last years of the war. In March of 1865, Kirk and his men came to Cataloochee looking for Confederate supporters. Often this was just an excuse for looting homes and murdering individuals. This particular night they were looking for Shelton and Caldwell. At night when the wives went out to bring supper to their hiding husbands, Kirk’s Raiders followed them and killed the two men.”
Their graves were a somber reminder of an incredibly unfortunate time in our nation’s history, and it was hard to believe they died 152 years ago.
Another mile or so down, we took a break at campsite 41 (a beautiful campsite, by the way). Larry read the story of Spearfinger to the kids while we ate a special spooky trail mix I made to share (recipe follows the post). It’s a great Cherokee legend and not too scary for young ears. This website gives a good recount of it, but we read it from a book called Living Stories of the Cherokee. It’s a collection of stories from six Cherokee storytellers and is a fun and educational way to teach kids about the first residents of the Park.
Moving along again, we nearly missed the turn off for the giant Tulip Poplar tree (which aren’t actually Poplars, but Magnolias!). It’s difficult to appreciate the girth and height of this giant in the forest until you’re standing next to it, but it is truly one of the biggest trees I’ve ever seen in the southeast.
From this point, it was another mile or so of climbing to the top of the ridge, but the time went by quickly as we looked for more large trees off the trail (although nothing came close to topping the Tulip Poplar!). We also looked for signs of bear, as I had seen some along this stretch last summer when I was hiking by myself (a sow with two cubs–talk about being spooked!). We weren’t lucky enough to see one on this hike, unfortunately.
At the ridge line, we connected to the Rough Fork Trail and began our descent back down towards Cataloochee Valley. A mile from the end, we came across a haunted house in the woods! Well, if the truth be told, it’s not really haunted (at least that we know of!). It’s just the old Woody homestead which is actually quite lovely and quaint. It is in the process of being renovated, but we were thankful for the opportunity to still walk around inside and find a cool bat hanging out against a wall!
As we sat on the porch of the house eating our last fun treat of the day, I read a story from my favorite trail guide in all the land, Hiking Trails of the Smokies, otherwise known as “the little brown book” (seriously, if you hike in the Smokies, this is a must have book and it’s one of my favorite hiking books of all time). The story tells of the “Wild Man” of Cataloochee. You can Google that phrase and learn quite a bit about who he really was, but the “little brown book” does a nice job of telling the tale, among many others in each hike description.
Before we knew it, we were back to the start, with countless cars filling our vision as folks were lined up along the edge of the meadow, waiting for the nightly Elk rut show to start. We weren’t able to stick around long, since we had a canine friend to tend to back home, but we did pass a large group of the amazing beasts as we drove out of the valley. We heard a male Elk bugling somewhere in the distance, wrapping up our perfectly spooktacular day in the Smokies!
Trail Report Card:
Overall Grade: A+ when you hike it in the fall along with the spooky theme! This hike isn’t full of long range views, waterfalls, or the like, but it’s my favorite hike out of Cataloochee Valley. The history, combined with the mixture of forest types is a treat any time of year, but especially in fall when it lends itself to being “spooky!”
Mileage: Our total hike was 9.59 miles.
Type of Hike: Loop. We hiked it in a clockwise direction which I recommend, since it avoids the steep uphill on the Rough Fork Trail.
Suitability for Kids: The ascent is gentle to moderate, climbing 1819 feet in total. The descent on the Rough Fork Trail is a bit steeper than any other section, and feels longer than it really is as a result. Overall, I think this is a great hike to take kids on, assuming they can handle a hike of this distance.
An alternative to this loop is a short out-and-back option on the Rough Fork Trail, to the Woody House and back. This hike would total roughly 2 miles.
How to Get Here: Take I-40 to exit 20 (NC 276) west to Cove Creek Road. Stay on Cove Creek Road. to the entrance to Great Smoky Mountains National Park (there is a sign on the side of the road, indicating that you’re entering the Park’s land). From the park sign, drive three more miles down a curvy, gravel road to the junction with Mt. Sterling Rd. and Cataloochee Rd. Turn left on to a paved road which will take you into Cataloochee Valley. Go all the way to the dead end of Cataloochee Rd. and park in the parking area.
Resources for Hike
My Gaia GPS Track of the Hike with Waypoints Marked of “Spooky” Stuff!
Candy Stuffed Chocolate Chip Cookie Bars Recipe from Joy Food Sunshine Blog: These were a unanimous hit with my crew! Check out my Pinterest page for lots more ideas for trail snack recipes. I’ve recently become an avid Pinterest user because it’s so dang addictive!
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