25 Miles Through the Smokies: DIY Loop From Cosby Campground
There are well over a hundred different trails in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and the opportunity for a three-day hike gave my friends and me the overwhelming choice of figuring out what loops to take. We decided to hit Cosby Campground, the northern end of the Smokies, and sleep there for a $14 spot. The next morning we took a closer look at our map of the Smokies (which is imperative for finding your way around this huge park) and concluded we could take many various trails for a successive loop. After calling the ranger’s office and taking care of our necessary backcountry camping permits, we took one of the three trailheads available, the Snake Den Ridge (SDR) Trail.
Snake Den Ridge Trail
As you begin from Cosby Campground at 2,360 feet, you’ll follow the SDR Trail as it gradually takes you up to 5,800 feet where it meets the AT. The trail is a steady climb, yet very accommodating for your feet, not too rocky and free of most debris. During late October there was plenty of water throughout the ascent. After the first mile you will cross Rock Creek, and the next mile you will pass Inadu Creek. Shortly after, a view of the mountains is offered above the shrubbery. Once you pass the Maddron Trail junction, there will be another, less obstructed view of Inadu Knob and Old Black. From here, the AT is only about a half mile away. The trail gives way to a steeper ascent, a mild challenge for the experienced hiker. Shortly before the AT junction, you will find fragments of a F-4 Phantom plane wreckage.
Total trail miles: 5.3
Appalachian Trail to Tricorner Knob Shelter
We reached the AT junction and hiked south towards Tricorner Knob Shelter. Some more of the plane wreckage can be found after .1 miles. Within the next mile you will have an unobstructed view of Balsam Mountain, and a wide, grassy landing made for a helicopter. It is about a 500 ft ascent from the SDR/AT junction up to Mt. Guyot, lasting about 2.4 miles, with a spring water source at the second mile, and another within .4. The hiking to Tricorner Knob Shelter is relatively easy, and you will top out at about 5,900 feet of elevation.
Total trail miles: 3.8
Tricorner Knob Shelter to Balsam Mountain Trail
Head north on the AT for just .1 of a mile to the Balsam Mountain Trail junction. The whole hike is mostly level and made for easy hiking. It descends quite slowly, and not remembering if there are any water sources show how much I didn’t need it for this section. Beautiful scenery all around for ridge walking.
Total trail miles: 4.9
Balsam Mountain Trail to Gunter Fork Trail
This is where things get tricky. When we saw the sign for the Gunter Fork Trail, it read: “During Times of High Stream Flow, Gunter Fork Trail is Impassable.” With a hunger for something exciting, we decided to take the GFT. The GFT is extremely narrow. You can tell immediately that there is little-to-no maintenance. There are blow-downs, sticker bushes in the way, and even a landslide that occurred in 2014. This landslide provides a small view of the mountains above. Going south, you are descending, which is a plus, but you are going through technical terrain the whole way. Further on towards the latter half of the trail you will encounter a beautiful 10-foot waterfall and shallow pool to take a dip in. Not much farther is a cascade shooting out from a higher elevated cliff down a sheet of rock. Afterwards, there is not much left of the GFT, but this is where it takes the longest. The stream crossings begin at a small stage, and there are ways to rock hop them, although it is still challenging. There are five large stream crossings on this trail, and it feels like they get tougher as you move to the next one. The trail zigzags through Big Creek, and although the stream flow was low enough to rock hop, the rocks are too far apart to make an attempt. There are two choices: bushwhack through rhododendron to find closer rocks, or get your feet wet for every crossing. I chose the former, as I bushwhacked and shimmied on logs to cross through with dry feet. It took about 1-2 hours to finish the end of the GFT, and it was quite challenging, yet fun.
Total trail miles: 4.1
Camel Gap Trail to Campsite #36/37; and #36/37 to Low Gap Trail
Once we reached the Camel Gap Trail junction, we went northeast towards campsite # 36 and #37, where we would spend the night. This was less than a half mile. The whole Camel Gap Trail lasts for only a mile, is extremely level and easy, and you follow Big Creek during its length. Elevation is at 3,100 ft.
Total trail miles: 1
Low Gap Trail to Cosby Campground
There is a 1,000-foot hump of elevation to climb at the beginning of this trail, starting about 1.5 miles in, and gaining steadily for about a 1.5 miles. Once you reach the peak at around 4,200 feet, you will meet the AT junction. From here, it is a somewhat steep downhill hike all the way back to Cosby Campground.
Total trail miles: 5.5
Hiking the Smokies responsibly can be a treat, and this outing was no exception. From the wonderful and brisk fall weather to the fiery red and orange colors of the leaves, it truly is breathtaking. There are so many different intersecting trails to take, and can be overwhelming. Make sure you talk to the rangers to see what they have to say before choosing a certain trail—you may be left dealing with something along the likes of Gunter Fork Trail.
A 24.6-mile trek over the course of 2.5 days was enough for my group to take in the scenery and be relaxed and not exhausted when the day was over.
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