Chestnut Branch Trail – Great Smoky Mountains National Park – Saturday, March 2, 2013.
Difficulty: Moderate. Mile 1 is a nice, graded uphill, with great views of Chestnut Branch. Mile 2 is all *up.* Go 1.1 miles to the sharp right turn and the small cascade for a nice easy hike; continue to feel your legs burn.
Location: Big Creek
Distance: 4.0 Miles, round trip. Chestnut Branch Trail is 2 miles from Big Creek Road to the Appalachian Trail.
Total Ascent: 1,316 feet.
Weather: Snow, 33 degrees.
Gear: Vasque Bitterroot Boots (Break-in day hike.) Superfeet insoles, Baselayers, MH Warlow softshell pants, Marmot fleece, TNF Hardshell jacket, Leki Trekking Poles (demo from www.riversportsoutfitters.com)
I can tell this story in two photos:
Mother Nature was feeling generous today.
Continuing my weekend goal of playing in snow, I headed back to the Smokies. Chestnut Branch Trail has been mocking me since I started breaking in my new Vasque Bitterroot boots.
“I’m only 2 miles; a great day hike” it says, every time I passed the trailhead.
“Yeah, straight up.” I thought, and I was (mostly) right.
Chestnut Branch Trail begins from just beyond the Big Creek Ranger Station parking lot. Right out of the gate, or before it, as it turns out, the creek starts showing off:
A short ways further, and you are greeted with this contraption:
I dubbed it the “you must be this wide to hike this trail” gate, because me and my pack just barely fit. (Turns out it is a horse barrier, but you have to hike to the top to find out.)
The trail ascends quickly at the start, surrounded by rhododendron, hemlocks and tuliptrees, then eases into a gentler grade. The early going was a little muddy, given all the recent rain, but the sights and sounds of the burbling creek and the ever expanding view draw your attention away from the footing.
At approximately .5 miles in, it began to snow.
At .6 it was coming down *hard.* It looked like someone had decided to pack the world and they were going to use little styrofoam pellets to do it. In minutes my fleece was white, and had already begun to wet out. I stopped and put on my hardshell, dreading the tropical atmosphere to come. As I put my pack back on, this is what the trail looked like:
As I said, Mother Nature was feeling generous.
At 1.1 miles, there is a sharp right turn in the trail, and a nice cascade that beckons you to take a moment and watch it:
As I turned to continue, a young couple passed and the man said: “It’s all up from here.”
And he wasn’t lying.
From 1.1 to 1.7 miles the trail give you steep pitches with small breathers. At one point passing through a rhododendron tunnel with a large blow down to duck under:
At 1.7 miles there is an area of even-growth Tuliptrees. This area was once cleared for agriculture but has been reclaimed by the forest:
From 1.7 miles to the 2.0 mile junction with the AT Chestnut Branch Trail is all about gaining altitude. About 2500 feet to 2900 feet in .3 of a mile:
Turning right (East) on the AT will take you 1.9 miles to Davenport Gap, while the Davenport Gap shelter is .9 miles. You could hike the AT to Davenport Gap, then down Highway 32 about 1.2 Miles to the Big Creek Park entrance. (It’s about .2 of a mile to the parking lot.)
Turning left (West) on the AT it is 1.9 miles to the Lower Mount Cammerer trail, which leads 7.3 miles to Cosby Campground, passing campsite #35 roughly half way down. Mount Cammerer Trail is 3.2 miles, and the trail to the unique Stone lookout tower is an additional .6 miles.
As the snow increased again, I headed back down Chestnut Branch, glad that I had the Leki Demo trekking poles, as the muddy and snow covered descent was pretty slippery: