CATALOOCHEE VALLEY, GREAT SMOKY MOUNTAINS NATIONAL PARK
One of the most popular and visited national parks, Great Smoky Mountains, boasts 522,427 acres and is divided evenly between Tennessee and North Carolina. The vastness in nature, outdoor recreation and sightseeing will keep each and every visitor engaged and in awe of its wonder.
Cataloochee Valley remains the most remote area and one of the most picturesque within this park. If you’re looking for wildlife, awesome scenery, historic structures, exceptional hikes and something a bit out of the ordinary, this is your kinda place.
The closest town to Cataloochee Valley is Maggie Valley, NC. Many people know Maggie Valley for its beauty, skiing and leaf peeping opportunities come Fall. You’ll need to, however, get off the beaten track in order to find your way to this one-of-a-kind valley.
Your journey begins with a 13-mile drive on Cove Creek Road out of Maggie Valley. Cove Creek is a steep, narrow, curvy mountain road. There are 3-miles of unpaved road leading up and over Cove Creek Gap. It then winds down the other side of the mountain. When you again reach pavement, turn left and make your descent into the valley.
Be sure to have whatever food, water and necessities you need and a full tank of gas. There are no commercial services here. It is also not advisable to drive an RV on Cove Creek.
A Snippit of History
The Cherokee used Cataloochee Valley as a hunting ground, even into the 19th century, when early settlers began moving to this area after the Treaty of Holston was signed with the tribal nation.
By 1834, families began settling here where descendants remained until the late 1930s when the land was incorporated into the national parks system. Eventually the forest reclaimed the farmland and orchards, but today a handful of structures remain in the valley and are preserved by the NPS. Still others can be seen by hiking Little Cataloochee Trail.
Big Cataloochee Valley offers visitors the opportunity to view several historic homes and buildings simply by making the 13-mile drive on Cove Creek Road into the valley.
Originally a log cabin, the Palmer House was built in 1869. A framed addition and weatherboarding were added by Palmer’s son. It now serves as a self-guided museum.
The Palmer Chapel was built in 1898.
The Caldwell House and barn were built in 1903 and 1923, respectively.
The Messner Barn, built in 1905, has been moved near the Ranger residence.
The Woody house, built in 1880, is located one mile from the valley on Rough Fork Trail. Originally built of logs, extra rooms and paneling were added as lumber and sawmills became available.
The original Beech Grove School, a log building, was replaced by the 1901 school house that stands today.
Little Cataloochee, an offshoot of Big Cataloochee, were joined by blood and marriage. By 1910, nearly 1,300 people resided in both communities. Travel to view the historical structures remaining in Little Cataloochee is limited to horseback or hiking boots on Little Cataloochee Trail – which is, after all, what this article is about. So, are you ready to take that hike?
Little Cataloochee Trail
After wandering Big Cataloochee Valley and taking in some historical sights, we made our way towards the Little Cataloochee trailhead.
From the valley, access to the trail lies via a gravel road named Pretty Hollow Gap just beyond the Palmer Chapel. Your initial hike of 0.8-miles on this gravel road will lead you to the trailhead.
The trail is an out and back and varies in length depending on how far the hiker wants to take it. Our goal today was Little Cataloochee Baptist Church, making our total hike 8 to 8.5 miles. The trail does continue another 1.3 miles beyond the church, taking you to Hannah Cabin, the last historic building on this trail.
As we made our way to Pretty Hollow Gap, we found that Palmer Creek ran parallel along this gravel road, making for some babbling brook sounds as we began our journey. At the junction to Little Cataloochee Trail, we headed to the right.
The next two miles are uphill as you traverse over Noland Mountain. It is not necessarily strenuous, however, is continuous. Within those first two miles you’ll find a series of creek crossings over Little Davidson Branch. Use of creek stepping stones is a plus, however, if heavy rains have fallen recently, you may find out how waterproof those hiking boots really are.
At 1.5-miles, still crossing Noland Mountain, you’ll notice a stone wall, most likely covered with greenery, that is a ruin of the old Messner farmland. Messner tried his hand with various crafts and farming, but it was eventually an apple orchard that brought sustainability to the Messner family.
As you begin to drop down the other side of Noland Mountain, you might be relieved that your climb is over. While the downside seems easier, it is a steep decline and remember, you’ll have to hike back up that (now decline) on the flip side back to your vehicle. The trail does have a few switchbacks at this point.
It’s time to add that during our RV trip to Maggie Valley, my husband, Dave, and I had invited a friend, living in Asheville at the time, to hike with us. The three of us had decided to carry a bear bell and a small-sized air horn on our hike. I was in charge of the bear bell, which was a pretty easy job, while Janelle carried the air horn. We might also add we were hiking during elk mating season, which runs mid-September to the end of October. I, for one, was more concerned seeing a bear (which we did not) along the way than an elk.
Hiking our way through one of the switchbacks, we quickly noticed a female elk ahead of us. We actually felt relieved for some reason that it was a female and not a male. It was a good time to stop, keep a safe distance, observe and see what she decided to do. We knew what we were doing, which was not moving forward any further. We took a break, drank some water and waited. She didn’t seem particularly disturbed by 3 people staring at her.
I knew Janelle wanted to try out that air horn in the worst way. I wasn’t a fan of the idea, but we were all ready for Ms. Elk to move along. Janelle sounded the air horn briefly. The elk didn’t budge. We waited, sounded it once more, while I furiously rang the bear bell, and finally she got the hint and moseyed off the trail into the forest. We were on our way again.
We felt as if an oasis was in front of us as we came upon our first historic building, Cook Cabin. This cabin, built in the 1850s, was restored to its originality by NPS in the 1990s. One of Daniel Cook’s ten daughters married Will Messner, whose farmland ruins we’d recently hiked past. This locale seemed a beautiful setting for a homestead. It sat on Coggins Branch giving the Cook family a fresh supply of water.
Beyond Cook Cabin lied our goal of Little Cataloochee Church. The trail became more of a dirt road at this point, and you could just imagine the families of days gone by using it as they traveled to church on Sunday mornings. The road seemed flat at this point; a much easier hike for our next 0.7-miles.
As we made our way up the grassy ridge, the iconic church sat front and center. We’d reached our goal. Local families worked together to build this church in 1889. Twenty-five years later, Will Messner designed and built the church’s steeple. To complete the belfry, the Hannah family donated its 400-pound bell.
This irenic church cemetery shows graves dating back to the 1830s. We were surprised to note the number of young women and babies buried here, but we also forget that childbirth in those days was not for the faint of heart. There are three other cemeteries located within the drivable portion of Cataloochee Valley. Annually on a June day, descendants gather at these cemeteries to remember and honor family members.
Approximately 1.2 miles from the church sits Hannah Cabin. Between the church and the cabin, several remnants of tools, farm equipment and old structures can be found. Evan Hannah arrived in Cataloochee Valley in the 1830s and is known to be one of its first settlers. We were running low on time, water and energy for our return hike so decided to forego the additional round trip mileage to see Hannah Cabin. From what I’ve read, plan for it, as it’s worthy of the trek.
Our hike back to the valley seemed much quicker – isn’t that always the way? Of course, we recounted our journey by passing everything we’d already seen, except for the elk! We took a break at Cook Cabin to eat a granola bar and down some water. From there we had the difficult task on the flip side of a steeper walk up and over Noland Mountain. It did seem more strenuous than at the beginning of our day, but from there it was downhill for the remaining hike.
Once over Noland Mountain, we noticed a few horse tie-out stakes which seemed a great place to catch our breath and drink more water, which was now almost depleted.
At the junction we turned onto Pretty Hollow Gap and knew we’d be back into the valley soon. Our hike took us 5 hours to complete which seemed reasonable when stopping to sightsee and wait on that female elk. It was a day well spent and definitely worth a redo.
Wildlife in the Valley
Our day was actually about to get a whole lot better. Late afternoon as we walked toward our vehicle, we were rewarded by seeing several elk grazing in the valley. What a magnificent sight! While we did not witness any elk bulls fighting for a female’s attention, we did see and hear them sounding their bugle calls out into the valley. We were lucky to have been in the right place at the right time.
Other people had made the drive on Cove Creek Road late afternoon in hopes of seeing elk. Signs were up warning people to keep their distance. After all, it was elk mating season, also known as the rut, and male elk are known to be dangerous with unpredictable behavior. They can weigh upwards of 1,000 pounds. Each year someone disrespects the rules of safety and human injuries occur. During the rut, no one is allowed in the valley’s fields at any time of the day or night. Keep to the road and stay near your vehicle.
Elk once roamed the southern Appalachian Mountains and Eastern areas of the US but were eliminated in this region by overhunting and loss of habitat. Conservation groups became concerned that elk were headed towards extinction. The National Park Service reintroduced 52 elk to Cataloochee Valley in 2001. By 2016 their numbers had grown to 200.
Most of the elk are radio collared and monitored as rangers are able to do so. Several elk have migrated to the Cherokee, NC area. It’s a plus to Cataloochee Valley’s environment to have the elk once again roaming these lands as they did hundreds of years ago.
A variety of bird species, wild turkeys and white-tailed deer are commonly seen here. The black bear also calls this valley home.
This one-of-kind experience is at your beck and call. The Great Smoky Mountains seem to be on everyone’s bucket list. Check it off and get to Cataloochee Valley. Aside from Little Cataloochee there are numerous trails here waiting to be explored.
The tranquil scenery is inspiring. Whether you view it from the valley, hike the trails, paint a picture or just breath it all in, you’re sure to find a peacefulness and the reason those first settlers called Cataloochee home many years ago.
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