TO THE TRAILHEAD: You will reach the trailhead by heading to the North Carolina side of Newfound Gap Road. The trailhead will be on your left if you are heading from Newfound Gap. You will be looking for Kephart Prong Trail. The parking area is small, but you won’t have a lot of company.
THE HIKE: This is a long hike around Richland Mountain for 12.5 strenuous miles. It’s not high mileage for an overnight, but it gives you up to three nights to complete your journey. I like to do this one as an overnight, but you have two additional places to stop for the night along the way that I will highlight.
This hike starts with plenty of water to the side and is a great visual as you hike, but you don’t have to worry about tons of water crossings. Just after the 2 mile mark, you will see a trail junction with Sweat Heifer Trail. Ignore this and continue straight. You will almost immediately see Kephart Shelter. This shelter is one of only a couple in the Smokies that are not located directly on the Appalachian Trail. Remember that you cannot tent camp at a shelter, so be sure to plan for that and make your reservations early. If you choose not to stay, its a great place to chill and have a snack or lunch and be on your way. The next 2.5 miles are uneventful as you hike to where this trail dead-ends at the Dry Sluice Gap Trail. Take a right here. The next three mile are peaceful bliss as you go through areas that are not heavily traveled and very quiet. You don’t get road noise or any of it. It is an amazing place to hike and be in peace. And that takes me to where you can spend the night. You will take a left onto the spur trail called Cabin Flats Trail for a half mile to campsite 49. There are no other trails around and your water source is right there. It is perhaps the best wilderness experience in the Smoky Mountains.
The next day come down the .5 mile spur and take a left to continue onto the Bradley Fork Trail. Again you are surrounded by water from the Bradley Fork as you hike for the next 5 miles. This is one of the reasons I love this hike in summer. Water is all over place, so refilling your bottles is never a problem except in the worst drought conditions. Your final option for overnighting is at the junction with Chasteen Creek Trail. If you don’t want this, then just keep going. If you do, hang a left and the campsite is almost immediately on your right. It will be campsite 50. Continuing on our trail down, As you descend, you will again begin to hear civilization and Smokemont will come into view. You will finally end your journey at the Smokemont Campground. You might be saying, wait a minute, my car is on Newfound Gap Road. Well, I have a couple options for you. One, have somebody drop you off and pick you up. Two, hike it all in reverse. that is my least favorite option. Three, have a shuttle service pick you up and drive you back up the 8 miles to where you left your car. Four, hitchhike to your car. Anyone driving up the mountain is going to pass where you are going. Any of these ways work, so do what’s best for you. Regardless, this is a terrific and unique hike that you won’t find in many hiking books or people’s top 20 hikes list. The scenery, water, and overnight opportunities, and serenity make this one awesome.