TO THE TRAILHEAD: The trailhead for this hike is located just behind the Sugarlands Visitor Center outside of Gatlinburg. Walk behind the restrooms to reach the trailhead and begin this easy, 1.5 mile roundtrip hike.
THE HIKE: This little and easy gem is the starting point for many of those venturing out onto the trails of the Smokies, but others that have been coming for years either haven’t done it, or don’t even know it is there. But, this is a nice and pretty hike that is great for a warm-up, cool down, beginners hike, people with families, etc. It’s basically good for just about anyone.
This hike is just behind the visitors center, so if you walk past the restrooms, vending machines and solar panels, you will see it. There is also a booklet on this hike that you can buy right at the trailhead that points out various things you are seeing along the way. At last check, the booklet was .50 cents. You can’t go wrong for that.
This hike will take you on a 1.2 mile loop around Fighting Creek Nature trail and a 1/4 mile to Cataract Falls. So in total, we are looking at just under a mile and a half. And with only about 100 feet of elevation change, you know its going to be pretty easy. And like most nature trails in the park, it is easy indeed. But easy doesn’t necessarily mean lame, and this hike has a lot to offer.
As you start, take a left at the sign to do the loop for Fighting Creek Nature Trail. The trail itself is wide and flat. This hike does not have a ton of rocks or roots or anything like that, so footwear is fairly unimportant here. There are a couple of steeper sections with inclines, but they last such a short time that it doesn’t affect the rating at all. People have taken strollers on this hike, but once they reach the first uphill they end up carrying the kids and the stroller, so that is something to keep in mind. The trail is pretty level and wide, but it is gravel and dirt, so strollers and wheelchairs are not going to work out great for this one. There are also a couple of footbridges to cross over water, but they are simple and do not go over a high place where you might worry about kids tumbling off the edges.
The main feature of this trail takes you around John Ownby Cabin with Cataract Falls nearby. But, you won’t see both of these as you walk around the loop. You will have to take a side trail about a quarter mile to reach the falls. Basically, if you go to the right at the start of the trail, you will head to the falls. If you go to the left, you will take the loop hike around the cabin. So let’s start with the falls.
The short hike is uneventful to the falls, but they are one of the easiest falls to reach in the park and can be quite nice. The small, 20 foot waterfall can be just a trickle or rushing water depending on the rain the area has had. Either way, it won’t impress you nearly as much as Abrams Falls or Ramsey Cascades, but it is a great waterfall for the work you have to do to reach it. Once you have taken this in, head back to do the loop.
The best feature of this loop is the John Owenby Cabin. The cabin was built in the 1860’s and restored a hundred years later after the land was acquired by the government. It is not a large structure, at about 20 x 20, but it gives you an idea of how simple and difficult life was back then. It is a good one to check out. The cabin is located almost exactly halfway thourgh the 1.2 mile loop.
A couple of points to ponder on this trail. This place is a favorite hangout for bears, so make sure there are no bear warnings on the day that you go. Occasionally, they will close the trail if bear activity is too high. However, the trail is very well traveled, so you don’t need to worry about being stuck alone in the woods with a bear. If you are lucky enough to see one, just keep your distance, take a few pictures, and move on. Next, this is not a hike that you do for solitude. If you want to be alone, get there very early. Once the visitor center opens, people start using this trail…and sometimes a lot of them. Also, this hike gives you a good taste of the Smokies, but it is far from a back country experience. Since it is so close to the visitors center and the road, you will likely hear people and traffic for most of the hike.
There are guided walks to the falls and the cabin with a ranger that happen very regularly. These experiences are free and should not be missed. You may have come to the Smokies once or over a hundred times. But the rangers can give you information that likely most of the rest of us simply do not have about the trails here, so going on even a short hike like this with them is a treat. You can complete this entire hike within an hour pretty easily even if you are moving pretty slowly, so you will still have almost the whole day to plan other things. If you haven’t done it yet, get out and try it.