I did not go back to Panthertown last weekend. I pondered my maps and thought about it but felt like going somewhere completely different and decided to head to Cataloochee in the Great Smokies National Park. Cataloochee is the closest trailhead in the Smokies to my house and I can be there in under an hour but still seem to often neglect it when planning my adventures. I'm not sure why as the valley is one of the most peaceful places I know of.
I pulled up and was greeted by the Elk who were hanging out right where I wanted to park.
My route for the day was to take me on several trails I had not done yet and up to Hemphill Bald.
Rough Fork > Caldwell Fork > Hemphill Bald > Cataloochee Divide > McKee Branch > Big Fork Ridge
Rough Fork started out as a pleasant stream side stroll that took me across several excellent bridges over the pristine mountain stream that had me wishing I had brought my fishing pole along.
I was expecting the entire stretch of the trail I was taking to remain next to the stream and gradually climb but instead it left Hurricane Creek and climbed steeply up Little Ridge before reaching the intersection with Caldwell Fork. Along the way were some Big Poplar trees that deserved a slight detour.
Caldwell Fork took me right back down a different ridge to its namesake stream where Hemphill Bald trail was waiting to take me up to the Catloochee Divide. This was the big climb of the day and even though there was no shortage of physical exertion to keep me warm there was a shortage of sunshine and the warm temperatures I had been experiencing where nowhere to be found and I was glad I had brought along some layers. As always the climb ended and as I jogged up to Double Gap I saw a large group of people coming down from Hemphill Bald and decided to skip going up to the bald so I could stay in front of them and keep the solitude I had been experiencing intact.
Cataloochee Divide was a very pleasant trail that offered abundant views but also brought me back to civilization. It was very warm again and as I paused at one of the overlooks I could see Cataloochee Ski area off in the distance and marveled at all the people skiing or tubing or whatever they were doing. It was an idyllic stretch of trail but I wasn't sad to make the turn down McKee Branch and back into the wilderness of the park.
McKee Branch was a steep descent that didn't appear to see too much traffic. The trail was completely covered with a layer of knee deep leaves that were hiding a plethora of jagged rocks and twisted roots. Running was all but impossible. I had gotten a late start and was chasing the sun before it set and was a little worried about what Big Fork Ridge was going to be like. If it was slow going I was going to really be pushing it and so I was relieved when the tread was in good shape and I was actually running again. This was a very nice sidehill bench cut trail that twisted around Rabbit Ridge before taking me back down to a stream and eventually the trail head just as the sun was starting to set.