8 Mile Out and Back Day Hike
Spring has sprung here finally after some early April snow flurries and the weather and blooms are ripe for hiking season! Looking for a day hike to someplace unique? Check out the Little Cataloochee Trail in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. This trail will lead you to a little white chapel sitting on an 8 mile total out and back trail. Highlights include the recently restored Cook Cabin, Little Cataloochee Church and cemetery, and spring wildflowers. You may even see a few elk hanging out in the valley.
We joined Friends of the Smokies for their monthly group hike. Friends of the Smokies is an official nonprofit partner of Great Smoky Mountains National Park and has raised more than $60 million to support critical park programs and maintain the Smokies as a crown jewel of the National Park Service. Since the GSMNP is completely free to enter they are one of the major support systems for funding to keep the park maintained.
The group usually has a few carpool pick up points that meet up before the hike. This is great since the roads can be steep in the GSMNP and not ideal for cars without 4 wheel drive on bad weather days – and better for the environment! Our volunteer driver had been hiking with Friends of the Smokies for over 10 years and had great stories of the adventures he had gone on before with them. The total group was about 25 hikers total which one would think would be hindersome but it was not at all! Two members hang in the back to make sure leisurely hikers in the group don’t get lost and the group stops every few miles to regroup and sip water.
For more technical details on the hike visit Little Cataloochee Church Hike.
Upon arriving in Cataloochee Valley we were greeted with 5 or so elk with the morning munchies hanging out in the forest. As Founder of the Classic Hike Series, author and hiking expert Danny Bernstein explained the route we’d be taking for the day many of us stole glances at the majestic elk behind her.
This hike crosses several creeks and at some points it can be tricky to keep your feet dry. We lucked out with beautiful weather but on a rainy day this trail can get very muddy so hiking boots or shoes you don’t mind getting dirty is suggested over sandals. The trail is shared with horses as well so be on the lookout for poop piles. Losing count of how many crossings there were, 5 or 6 would be a good estimate for one way.
As we approached the Cook Cabin, Sean Perry of The Hands of Sean Perry Company told us of his unique partnership with Friends of the Smokies and the National Park Service. Sean and his crew donated their time and expertise to restore the Cook Cabin in 2017. During the project, Sean and his team camped in the remote area of the park by the cabin. They refinished the porch around the cabin and our crew happily sat along it as we heard more from Sean. The cabin was built by Daniel Cooke in the 1850s with his wife. Dan Cook was known as a master carpenter in his day and built a number of structures in the area. Shortly after settling in he was called out for war and his wife was left to raise their children and livestock as were many in the area.
Around this cabin there are a few foundations and stone walls such as the one below which was an apple house – the cash crop of the valley. In fact, throughout the entire hike there are mossy stone walls stacked up. When settlers were clearing the land they would stack the stones in these walls to serve as livestock fences and harvest storage houses. Can you imagine moving stones all day? What a fun chore for the children…
The hike continued along what used to be the “Main Street” of houses of the settlers. More road than trail it led to the beautiful Little Cataloochee Church. This is the halfway and turnaround point for our crew so we stopped for lunch and conversed with Danny Bernstein about the history of the area and the church. The church was built in 1889 and is also host to a small historical cemetery were Daniel Cook is buried. At the back of the church are tall wooden tables used to host the yearly Declaration Day, held the first Sunday after Memorial Day, where descendants of those who once lived in Cataloochee Valley return for a reunion church service, perform any maintenance needed to the church and cemetery, and share lunch together.
“Years ago, I went to a Little Cataloochee Reunion and met a woman who was a little girl before the park came in. She remembers walking from Big Cataloochee to Little Cataloochee to visit a relative and stay for a few days and then return. We walked the same way she did.” Says Danny.
Little Cataloochee Valley was established by the children of the original Cataloochee residents who found Big Cataloochee too crowded. It is called an island community because one can trace the community from its birth to its end in the 1930s. All of the settlers within the valley were forced to leave in the 1930s when the area became the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Park Commission allowed residents to obtain lifetime leases and remain in their homes but most left by the 1940s due to restrictions on farming and logging.
Returning the way we came we were quite thankful for such a lovely day hike spent on a Friends of the Smokies Hike. The trail is horse friendly and we ran into some riders also enjoying the day on our way back. Once at the parking lot we saw maybe 15 or so elk still munching.
To learn more or register for any Classic Hike visit Hike.FriendsOfTheSmokies.org. Individual hikes are $20 for current Friends of the Smokies members and $35 for new and renewing members. If you’d like to explore more hikes by Danny Bernstein check out her books Hiking the Carolina Mountains and Hiking the Blue Ridge Mountains. We sell both in our Visitor Center.