"Take a course in good water and air; and in the eternal youth of Nature you may renew your own. Go quietly, alone; no harm will befall you." -- John Muir
It was cold. And quiet. We stretched our legs after a 3.5 hour trip from Nashville to exit 451 (Waterville Road) off I-40. Only a couple of cars loitered in the sunshine by the trailhead to Big Creek. This region is in the extreme northeast of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, an area that was once the stomping grounds of moonshiner / TV personality Popcorn Sutton. Upon visiting on a weekday in March, you feel like you have the nation's most popular National Park all to yourself.
The Big Creek trail was once a railroad grade for loggers hauling trees out of the old forests. While the railroad was used for lumber during the week, picnickers would ride the rail up to Walnut Bottom for a lazy Sunday afternoon fishing, swimming, and catching up with friends. We ambled up the gently-sloping trail to crowdless gems like Midnight Hole and Mousecreek Falls. The water was frigid and quite clear. I was tempted to jump in. Lacking a towel and the intestinal fortitude to plunge clotheless into a mountain stream in March, I perched myself on a boulder with Dan and my dad. The ceaseless sound of water filled our heads. The Big Creek section does get busier in the summertime, but it is without doubt an excellent spot for a low-key getaway into the Smokies.
Though loggers carved up much of this area in the early 20th century, it's crazy how fast Big Creek's trees have recovered. Dan took us through a patch of old growth forest that had avoided the axe altogether. The sheer girth of these 500+ year old specimens will stop you in your tracks, and you'll crane your neck as far back as you can to try and find the top.
One of the unique comforts of hiking in the eastern Smokies is knowing that at the end of a long day, a quality brew pub is never more than an hour away. That evening we raised a glass to our new adventure at Boojum Brewing Co. in Waynesville, NC. (Try the Brewmeister burger with a Balsam Brown Ale. Fantastic.)
The next morning we were out the door early on our way to Cataloochee, a mystical land of switchbacks and wild elk. Unfortunately, you have to endure the switchbacks to reach the elk, and Dan drives up mountains like the Law is hot on his heels. Nevermind that his van has over 300k miles on it (remember Old Danger from the last blog post? That truck is a baby compared to the unnamed Toyota Sienna he currently drives. Dan said he keeps a gallon of oil and a roll of duct tape in the van's trunk at all times in case of sudden breakdown, so, don't worry, you're in good hands).
I was courteous (read: foolish) enough to offer my dad shotgun, so I suffered in nauseous silence as Dan attacked the gravel roads like Mark Wahlberg in Italian Job. I think he noticed something was amiss about halfway up when he turned to look at me while going 50 mph around a curve. "You alright, Nathan?" Heh. I meekly asked if I could ride shotgun the rest of the way up and the front seat occupants chuckled. Pops and I switched and life soon had meaning again.
Cataloochee is a relatively spacious valley tucked away in the eastern end of the Smoky Mountains. Though now part of the National Park, the Cataloochee region once hosted several mountain farm families who lived, worked, and played beneath the mountain walls. Some of their barns, homes, churches, and schools have been preserved and are now open to the public. The primary attraction in Cataloochee, however, is the large herd of elk that graze in the fields each morning and evening. It is eerie and wonderful to see abandoned buildings surrounded by these massive creatures. Elk were reintroduced to the Park first in 2001 when 25 animals were brought down from the Land Between the Lakes in Kentucky. They've since flourished and now draw a large crowd of on-lookers throughout the year.
One memorable trail in Cataloochee worth visiting is the Boogerman Loop. Pre-park local Robert Palmer's family once owned several acres in Cataloochee. When Palmer was a young student at Big Cataloochee School, his teacher asked him what he wanted to be when he grew up. "I wanna be the Boogerman." His teacher replied, "Don't you want to be something else?" "Nope, that's what I wanna be." His friends must have found this hilarious because Palmer was known as the Boogerman for the rest of his life. You can still visit the local schoolhouse down the road from Palmer Chapel.
Boogerman liked his old trees and kept loggers from tearing up the backyard of his family home. Today, the Boogerman Loop Trail ambles through an ancient forest and around a lovely creek bend. The Boogerman Pine, once one of the world's tallest pine trees before an unfortunate lightning strike, can be found here. We had to do a little bushwhacking to reach this ole knotty pine, but the view was well worth it.
We were caught off guard by a large elk that apparently enjoyed hiking the Boogerman Loop as well. We dove behind a tree to let him pass. Notice the smug look in his eyes. Elk are royalty around here and they'll be sure to let you know it.
Next time - an icy hike on the Appalachian Trail and the highest point in the Smokies: all at Newfound Gap.
Our Illustrated Guide to the Smoky Mountains book is just about done! Release date is October 8th but we'll begin accepting preorders for signed copies in August. Stay tuned!