TO THE TRAILHEAD: This trail is located right off Newfound Gap Road. From Sugarlands, it is 22 miles up and over the gap. From Cherokee it is roughly 12 miles. The parking area is small, and not marked as distinctly as Chimney Tops, Alum Cave, or basically any other. That is to say, it is easy to miss, so don’t drive to fast when you get close or you will have to turn around, which can be a pain on this road, especially when there is construction or maintenance in the area. If coming from Sugarlands the parking is on the left side of the road, from Cherokee it is on the right. Unfortunately, the trailhead is on the opposite side of the road as the parking, so you do have to cross. Not usually much of a problem, but occasionally people fly through this area, so just keep your eyes open for cars, especially if you are taking the little ones with you. If the parking area is full, you can park on the shoulder adjacent to the parking area as long as your car is pulled well off the road.
THE HIKE: The Kanati Fork trailhead sign will greet you as you start. At least it should. I have seen it missing more than once. Just an FYI. But it is the only trail on that side of the road for some time, so you can’t miss it. You will be traveling a total of 6 miles roundtrip on this moderate hike. But the good news is, it can be 6 miles, you can turn around wherever you like, or make it a loop or shuttle hike.
The biggest attraction on this hike is flowers and views, and both are abundant. The best time to do this hike is in late Spring in April and May. The wildflowers are blooming the most at that point and the trees are starting to fill in. However, they are still bare enough that the views between the trees are great. It is a good hike any time, but definitely best in Spring.
As you start, there is not a lot going on except the sounds of the rushing cars along Newfound Gap Road. But you are hiking away from that, so you won’t have to deal with it for too long. What you will start to notice once you are away from the sounds of traffic is the trail itself. It is not difficult, but is certainly a steady incline. It is uphill almost the entire way to the junction. You will gain just over 2000 feet in three miles. The good news is that as views open up, you will have a good excuse to stop and rest and take it all in. You will hear the sounds of Kanati Creek below you to the left of the trail. You don’t actually pass over the creek, but you will often hear it and sometimes see it. There are no official trails leading down to the creek. There are a couple of trails people have made over the years, but I don’t recommend it. The walk down is steep with thick foliage. It’s just not worth it, so stay on trail and enjoy the flowers.
If you want to know about all the different species of flowers along the trail, I am sure there is a good book about it somewhere. It simply is not my forte. I do know they are very pretty. But it is an enjoyable part of the hike that helps you forget how high you are traveling. As you continue, you start to get some good views (depending on the tree cover) of Mount LeConte way off in the distance and views back onto Newfound Gap Road. It reminds you of just how far you have come.
There are no trails that connect or even come close to this one for the 2.9 miles that it lasts. The steep terrain around this trail is a good indication of why. This one is about the flowers and the views, so when you get 2.9 miles in, you hit a trail junction with the Thomas Ridge Trail. From here you have a couple of options. The most obvious is to turn around for a total of 6 moderate miles. You can take a right onto the Thomas Ridge Trail and follow it for 1.8 moderate miles until it terminates with the Newfound Gap Road about 8 miles north of where you started. This is where you could have a shuttle pick you up or hitch back to your car.
The final option is possible with a little planning. You can turn this into a semi-loop hike by hiking the 2.9 miles of the Kanati Fork Trail, take a right and hike the 1.8 miles of the Thomas Divide Trail, take a shuttle to Newfound Gap from there. Then hike North on the Appalchian Trail (towards Charlies Bunion) for 1.7 miles, take a right onto Sweat Hefifer trail and follow for 3.7 miles, and then right on Kephart Prong for another 2 miles to get to your car. That takes your total mileage for the day to 10 miles. That is certainly a doable day hike, though strenuous for certain. It is just a lot of turns and logistics, so if you do this one, take a map or print this and take it with you so you don’t take a wrong turn.