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.
While the fall colors are beginning to peak in the higher elevations of the Great Smoky Mountains, enjoying a hike is the best way to take in the spectacular sight.
The Cove Mountain Trail, whose trailhead is located behind the Great Smoky Mountains National Park headquarters (just before the Sugarlands Visitors Center, if entering from the Gatlinburg entrance). This trail offers a unique perspective into the struggles that many national parks face.
Along this 8.7-mile trail, to your left you will see spectacular views and possibly plenty of wildlife. To your right, you will see the challenges that the park faces—private homes, rental cabins, Ober Gatlinburg Ski Resort and a public hunting area.
Despite these challenges, the hike to the summit is well-worth it, as you will encounter the Cove Mountain Fire Tower. This historic structure is one of four towers that still exist in the GSMNP. The other three are located at Mount Cammerer (on the Tennessee side of the GSMNP), Mount Sterling (on the North Carolina side of the GSMNP) and the Shuckstack (also on the North Carolina side of the GSMNP). Once, there were also fire towers on Spruce Mountain, Greenbrier Pinnacle, High Rocks, Bunker Hill, Rich Mountain and Blanket Mountain. It is not recommended to climb the fire tower at Cove Mountain.
As you begin this hike, you will start out on the trail and hike towards Cataract Falls, located at 0.1 mile. This 12-foot waterfall offers a cool, refreshing breeze in the heat of the summer months. The trail goes through the creek—caution, you will have to cross over potentially slick rocks—and continues uphill. You will pass rhododendrons, hemlocks, and dog-hobbles, which boasts a delicate white flower in May and June.
The small shrub known as dog-hobble got its name from the early settlers of the area, who hunted the mountains. In the 1800s, bear hunting was done with traps, guns, and dogs. When being chased by the dogs, the heavily furred bears would charge into patches of dog-hobble, getting through it with ease. The dogs, however, would often become tangled, or hobbled, by the leaves. When hiking the Cove Mountain Trail, look closely at the dog-hobble leaves—sharp, tiny teeth along the leaf margin will cut into anything that passes the wrong way (tip to base).
As you continue, you will notice Double Gourd Branch, which tumbles through a worn fissure in the boulders and crosses the trail. Despite being small, the falls have an attractive cascade.
The trail will moderately climb after this point for the next eight miles. You will pass through pine-oak stands, sometimes passing beneath hardwood forests.
Dry Pond Branch parallels the trail for a short distance around mile 1.0. The shade from the hillside and the moisture from the water provide the perfect environment for the rosebay rhododendrons. These large shrubs have white blossoms that are in full-bloom in July.
At mile 1.5, you will reach the park boundary—and someone’s backyard. You will follow the park boundary to the summit of Cove Mountain. At this point in the trail, you will see first-hand a prime example of one of the challenges that the GSMNP faces: development along the boundary lines. Human activity like this puts stress on the park and its natural resources.
More visitors means more traffic and a greater amount of resources devoted to roads, parking areas, restrooms, garbage pickup, etc. Development around the park continues this never-ending cycle. The GSMNP struggles with this every day, but it is a struggle that we can help reduce. As visitors to the park, we can become more aware of our impact and work to reduce the stress.
At mile 2.0, you will start to pass under dead pine trees. If you look closely, you will see the tell-tale grooves left by the Southern Pine Beetle on the underside of the bark. These native beetles killed the pines; however, at the same time, they are helping the forest. The beetles provide food for woodpeckers, and they also provide more sunlight to the forest floor, which allows the next generation of pines to grow. Disturbances such as native insect infestations and fires are a part of the cycle that also renews the forests.
In the winter months, and late fall, you are able to see spectacular views of Mount LeConte around mile 3.0. There is a larger opening through the trees at mile marker 3.0 that gives you year-round views. However, you will need to pay close attention for the opening.
After this point, you will pass a short spur trail that leads to Saint Moritz Drive, Gatlinburg, and make a short climb towards Holy Butt. No one seems to know why this area has such an unusual name. At mile 3.5, you swing around the butt to face more of the development around the park. If you look back, you will see the top of one of the chair lifts for Ober Gatlinburg.
The trail will continue to moderately climb another ridge then pass below Mount Harrison and its ski lift. As you circle Mount Harrison, you can catch one last glimpse of Gatlinburg while moving away from the most developed area of the park boundaries. The trail still follows the park’s edge, but the development has stopped.
From the small gap, you gently climb around the head of Hickory Flats Branch. The stream actually begins well below the trail, so you will not expect to see water at this point. Here, you begin the longest, steepest climb of the trail.
Up to this point on the trail, you have hiked a little more than five miles with a moderate elevation gain of 1,600 feet. As you continue for the next 1.5 miles, you will have an elevation gain of more than 600 feet, as you come to a small ridge called Phils View. Word has it that this point was names for the GSMNP first ranger, Phil Hough. No records exist to support this tale. Either the forest has grown significantly since Hough’s time or he had quite the imagination, but there is no view at this point today.
From Phils View, the trail will drop from the ridge line to a small gap. You will parallel an overgrown jeep trail for another mile until you reach a second gap. At this point, you will briefly leave the park, as you intersect with a more developed jeep trail.
The Cove Mountain Trail continues straight ahead of you and climbs approximately 0.25 miles to the ridge line again.
As the trail passes along a small, narrow ridge, you need to be more cautious on this part of the trail, especially during hunting season. You are not completely inside park boundaries and you are not boarded by private lands.
The land on your right is the Cove Mountain Wildlife Management Area. This land is heavily used to hunt deer, bear, and wild hog during the respective seasons. It is not uncommon to hear dogs barking and/or gun shots. When hiking on the Cove Mountain Trail, it is always a good idea to wear brightly colored clothing. During the fall, it does not hurt to even wear something blaze orange, whether it is a vest or a hat.
Finally, you will intersect with a well-maintained 4-wheel-drive road. From here it is a short, easy trek to the top of Cove Mountain and to the fire tower.
With only 0.1 mile to go, you will intersect with the Laurel Falls Trail. If you thought ahead and arranged to have vehicle left for you at the end of the Laurel Falls Trail, on Little River Road in the GSMNP, you can take this day-hike trail to Little River Road. On the Laurel Falls Trail, you will pass through old growth forest and the popular Laurel Falls. After this intersect, you will have a moderate climb to the fire tower.
In the past, hikers were able to climb the tower to get a bird’s eye view of the park. Today, you have to settle for a view of Wear Cove from the trail—down the power lines past the tower. A large shed halfway up the trail limits access to the tower itself. This shed contains instruments to monitors air quality in the park.
Research conducted by the park shows that several hundreds of plant species are adversely affected by ozone levels in the park’s air. It is also suggested that acid rain levels are a cause for the reduced growth or red spruce in the high country areas of the GSMNP. Poor air quality also hinders the views of the GSMNP. Continuous monitoring in and around the park helps tracks the sources of pollution and assists park officials as they find ways to reduce the negative impact.
At this point, you can turn around and descend to the park headquarters, the original starting point, or, if you planned ahead for transportation, you can descend to Little River Road via the Laurel Falls Trail.