Monday, September 3, 2012

Huskey Gap - Little River Trails

New Trail Miles Completed: 7.6
Total Trail Miles Hiked: 15.2
2 Sept. 2012

Phew...  I finally got a chance to get out and add some new trail miles to my quest!  This has been a great summer for outdoor activities!  I've gone hiking in the Smokies, camping & hiking in the Big South Fork, paddling in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, Boy Scout Camp at Camp Buck Toms...  But it hasn't been a great summer for adding new trails to my Smokies list - there's just been too much else going on.

This trip was a spur of the moment decision - I was faced with an unexpectedly free afternoon so I grabbed my map and decided to tackle the Huskey Gap trail and the upper end of the Little River trail up to campsite #30.  

Huskey Gap trailhead on Newfound Gap Road

The Huskey Gap trailhead is on Newfound Gap road just about 1.5 miles south of Sugarlands Visitor Center.  The Little Brown Book says that this area was part of the Sugarlands community back in the days before the park, although I didn't see any signs of the previous occupants.  Huskey Gap trail gains about 1300 feet in elevation over the first 2 miles up to Huskey Gap where it junctions with the Sugarland Mountain trail.

This first part of the trail is quite nice - LOTS of big Tulip Poplars and more grape vines than I've seen anywhere in the park except for maybe the Grapeyard Ridge trail.  There were buckeyes littering the trail here and there and sun filtering through the trees despite a forecast of rain.

From Huskey Gap the trail descends about 600 feet over 2.1 miles to its junction with the Little River trail.  The lower part of this section of the trail is a little more on the southwest facing slope and so is drier with more pines and mountain laurels.  As you approach the end of the Huskey Gap trail you start to hear and then finally see the Little River below you.  As you reach this section you pass backcountry campsite #21 (the new one - the old campsite #21 is on the Sugarland Mountain trail and is still marked as a campsite despite the fact that it's been out of commission for a while now).  Campsite #21 is currently closed due to "aggressive bear activity."  The rangers have even set up a tent in the site with a wildlife camera attached to a tree to photograph any marauding bears :-)  It looks like a very nice campsite - close to the Little River and very large.  It'll be a good spot to go back to once the bears have gone to sleep.

Campsite #21

Not far down from campsite #21 is the junction with the Little River trail.  I remember visiting here a couple of springs ago when there was still snow on the ground.  I always love coming back to places I have been before.

Little River - Huskey Gap trail junction

The Little River trail parallels the Little River for its entire length.  Down near Elkmont the Little River is quite wide and carries a lot of water.  But the further up the mountain you go the narrower and shallower it gets.  And especially at this time of year the water was fairly low.  The trail itself is an old railroad bed so it's straight and wide and flat and even covered with gravel for most of its length.  It crosses over some of the old railroad bridges that have been converted to trail bridges.

The Little River is more of a creek up the mountain near its source

old railroad bridge

The Little River trail meets the Goshen Prong trail which leads further up (7.7 miles) to the crest of the Smokies and the Appalachian Trail.  The Goshen Prong trail is currently closed though due to downed trees from a big storm that ripped through the park earlier this summer.

Shortly after this junction you reach backcountry campsite #24 - also closed due to aggressive bear activity.  This looks like a nice spacious site - there are at least 3 tent areas / fire rings and it sits pleasantly by the banks of the Little River.  Apparently it's quite popular with both backpackers and bears.

Campsite #24 - Danger!  Aggressive Bear Activity!

The next landmark from here is the junction with the Rough Creek trail.  I briefly considered taking the Rough Creek trail over to the Sugarland Mountain trail and then back down to the Huskey Gap trail on my return trip, but that would have added an extra 3.2 miles to an already long day so I decided to just retrace my steps.  I'll have to come back someday to do the Rough Creek trail.

The upper parts of the Little River trail seemed very deep and dark and undisturbed to me.  Strange considering the fact that the trail is an old logging rail line and campsite #24 is very popular, but it just had the feel of true wilderness.  The trail parallels the river on one side and is often bounded by tall cliffs on the other.  The fall wildflowers were out in profusion as well.

As the Little River trail winds its way to its end at backcountry campsite #30 it gets narrower and narrower, and the bridged creek crossings give way to rock hops.  In particular, there are about 3 creek crossings that require significant rock hopping just before you get to the end of the trail at campsite #30 that were no problem with the low water, but could be quite difficult (if not impossible) when the water is high.

creek crossing near campsite #30

Campsite #30 is pretty nice.  The only folks I saw all day long were here at the campsite.  There was one group who had just arrived and another who had been there for a couple of days and were headed out.  It's a nice site - a few different tent site are available all on a nice high bank that overlooks the confluence of several small creeks that make up the headwaters of the Little River.  I stopped here for a bite of dinner and to rest for a few minutes before heading back to my car.

Overall I'd give this hike a high rating.  Huskey Gap trail has a nice variety of habitat types and some good ups and downs, as well as some really big trees.  The Little River trail is quite nice - I love trails that parallel water and the Little River trail doesn't disappoint.  There are lots of landmarks along this route too that help you keep track of where you are and provide interesting places to stop and take a break.  I'd love to come back to this area and camp in any or all of the campsites (21, 24 & 30).  And last, but not least, it was great to get out in the Smokies again and see some new places!  Hopefully it won't be quite this long again before my next hike.

Til next time, happy hiking!