Little River Trail offers a glimpse into the past
Photos Courtesy of the Great Smoky Mountain National Park
Editor’s Note: This information was gathered from two books, ‘Hiking Trails of the Smokies’ and ‘The Best of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park: A Hiker’s Guide to Trails and Attractions’. These books, and others, are available at various visitors’ centers in and around the GSMNP. They are also available online through the Great Smoky Mountains Association.
If you are looking for a relatively easy hike that offers a glimpse into the historical past of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park (GSMNP), peaceful scenery, and is abundant with wildflowers, then the Little River Trail is the perfect choice.
Little River Trail is a fairly easy trail that is 4.9 miles roundtrip with an elevation gain of 412 feet. The highest elevation on the trail is 2,637 feet.
The entire length of the trail gently climbs an old gravel road that parallels with The Little River. The river has numerous large boulders and several small waterfalls.
At the beginning of the trail, you will stroll past several cottages that were once the resort cottages of Elkmont. Despite a “documentary” that recently went viral, where the author claimed to have “discovered” an “abandoned town” in the Smokies, these cottages have an interesting history. Built in the 1920s, these cottages were used as summer homes by the affluent from the Knoxville area. As the national park was formed, the NPS offered long-term leases to the families who still owned the cottages. The leases were meant to be life-long leases, but they ended up being terminated in the 1970s. However, after many petitions, the NPS extended the leases in the 1980s, and some into the early 1990s. But in 1992, all of the leases ran out, and the families who still owned and occupied the cottages had to vacate the premises and take all belongings with them. The famous Wonderland Hotel served its last meal in the dining room on November 15, 1992 and closed its doors forever.
Many of the cottages, including the Wonderland Hotel, are in complete despair and are off-limits to the public. In the fall of 2008, NPS crews completed an emergency stabilization to 18 of the cottages—including the Appalachian Clubhouse. The NPS plans to fully restore all 19 structures so they could be open to the public for viewing.
As part of Phase I of the Elkmont Restoration Project, the NPS reopened the Appalachian Clubhouse for public day use rental in June 2011. There is no indication when the project will be completed. The park also plans to remove an additional 55 buildings around the Elkmont area and returning those to their natural habitats.
The Elkmont area was heavily logged from the 1800s until 1938. During the earliest years, logs were hauled out of the area by ox teams and then floated down the river. Just after the turn of the century, The Little River Lumber Company purchased nearly 100,000 acres of timberland along the Little River and its tributaries. Workers built rail lines to Elkmont and eventually built a spur that extended to Clingmans Dome, the highest peak in the GSMNP. This spur eventually became the Little River Trail.
The rail lines allowed The Little River Lumber Company to extract timber at a much faster pace. After the Smokies became a national park, the lumber company ceased operations in 1938 and rolled up its tracks by early 1940.
The Little River Trail is best hiked between mid-March and April, especially if your goal is to view the wildflowers. During the early spring, you can expect to see flowers such as hepaticas, yellow trillium, dwarf cinquefoil, stonecrop, Canadian violets and umbrella leaf, especially as the season progresses.
During the summer, be on the lookout for mountain mint, orange and pale jewelweed. However, any hike you take in the fall will give you the best opportunity to capture the splendor of the fall colors in the higher elevations. You may also see an otter in the Little River. Between 1988 and 1990, NPS biologists released 14 river otters into the Little River, as part of a successful effort to reintroduce the species throughout the Smokies.
At approximately 2.2 miles, you will reach Huskey Branch Falls, a small 20-foot cascade that tumbles into the Little River. It flows down a slope on the hill next to the trail before flowing underneath a small footbridge.
At 2.5 miles, you will reach the Cucumber Gap Trail Junction. This point is typically the turn-around for the Little River Trail. You do, however, have a few options if you prefer to continue hiking. You can continue following the Little River upstream for a couple of miles or you could extend your hike up to Huskey Gap. You can also make a loop trail back to the parking area by turning right onto the Cucumber Gap Trail.
To reach the Little River Trail and parking area, you will need to travel to the Elkmont Campground. From the Sugarlands Visitor Center, just outside of Gatlinburg, drive 4.9 miles on Little River Road to Elkmont, which will be on your left. After turning into Elkmont, drive 1.4 miles until you reach the campground. Rather than proceeding into the campground, you will turn left to reach the trailhead. The parking area is 0.6 miles from the campground.
You can also reach the area from the Townsend “Y” near the intersection for Cades Cove. You will turn left onto Little River Road and travel 12.6 miles to the Elkmont Campground.
If you are interested in further reading about the Elkmont area, you can pick up the book, “The Last Train to Elkmont: A Look Back at Life on Little River in the Great Smoky Mountains,” by Vic Weals. It is available at bookstores, online, and at the visitor centers throughout the GSMNP.