Heart in the waterfall at Midnight Hole in the GSMNP

Swimming at Big Creek in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Best  Swimming Hole Ever

Jumping in a creek in summer is one of the most refreshing experiences the Southern Appalachians have to offer. For swimming in summer, we love to have a nice dipping hole with places from which to jump.  One of our favorites is Big Creek.

This  is a pristine creek that rushes down the mountain in the GSMNP.  Our favorite spot on the creek is  Midnight Hole.  Just past this is Mouse Creek Falls which is also quite beautiful.   The hike up to this special spot is fairly short and easy.  It is about 1.5 miles and begins in the  parking lot of the Big Creek Campground  which is on the exit 451 on I-40 just over the border in Tennessee.

Directions

From our cabins there are a couple of ways you can travel to this magical place.  If you have a truck or 4 wheel drive you can go on the dirt roads up and over the mountain.  But, I do not suggest this route if you have a car without much clearance.  The road can get washed out and it can be pretty bumpy and challenging.  However, if you don’t mind going slow and taking your time, it’s a great way to see wildlife.  There is an elk herd along the way and they are pretty easy to spot.  We have also seen bear driving this way.  The other ways you can go are either through Waynesville for through Newport, Tenn.

To go the rugged way, take Roaring Fork and turn right on Meadowfork road.  Go about  1.5 miles and you will see a brown sign that says Max Patch.  Turn right onto Little Creek Road.  Go to where the pavement ends.  We advise you to turn right on Poplar Gap loop road as this is paved.  It’s very windy, so go slow.   When you come to a stop sight you will be back to Little Creek Road,  turn right.  Go until you come to a T intersection and turn left.  There are no signs on this road.  (Max Patch would be to the right).   After you turn left,  take the first right toward Harmon’s Den.   This road will take you to I-40.  Take  I-40 west to Exit 451 and go to the Big Creek Campground.   The trail head is across the road from the bath house.

Swimming Midnight Hole at Big Creek in the Great Smoky Mountain National Park

Can you see the heart?

Swimming Big Creek in the Great Smoky Mountain National Park

Here is a short video from swimming at Big Creek today.

Swimming can happen in many spots along the trail.

Elk herd at Harmon Den

Elk Herd

The elk hang out between the Harmon Den horse camp and the Harmon Den parking area.  There is a beaver pond they like to play in and some fields where they like to graze.   They are not hunted, so they are very calm and easy to observe.  But, they are very large, so do be careful and keep your distance.

 

Hiking is endless at Dancing Sun Cabins

Hiking Tips

Here are some things to think about when hiking in our woods.

Max Patch hiking is the best
Max Patch is one of our favorite places to hike
  • Take a map along. We have provided maps for you to carry with you that will help you find your way in our forest and connect to the Appalachian Trail.
  • We take a Garmen GPS unit with us, but we ALWAYS compare it to our maps. GPS can get you lost around here and it rarely gives you a good idea about how long a trail might be.
  • The blazes for the AT are white. When you see 2 blazes, that means to pay attention as there is another trail crossing the AT.
  • In the summer, the understory gets thick with stinging nettles, poison ivy and blackberry vines. Come prepared for this, or plan to hike on trails that are heavily traveled.
  • We do have snakes here. Most are not poisonous. Rattle snakes make a pretty loud sound. Copperheads are shy and prefer not to be bothered. These are the only two kinds of snakes that are poisonous here. It is best just to leave them alone. If you should experience a snake bite, just stay calm and get to help. Slow breathing and keeping your heart rate low is the best treatment.
  • Yellow jackets can be ferocious if disturbed. Please be aware that they live in holes in the ground. It is best not to poke holes in the ground. If they come after you….RUN!!!! Run away from their nest and try to get them off of you. They can sting more than once. Jewel weed takes the sting away.
  • It is good to carry 50 mg of Benadryl and 150 mg of Zantac with you just in case you experience and allergic reaction.

Here is a link to little video on helpful and harmful plants you may encounter along the way.

Rankin Bottoms: A great place for bird watching

One of our favorite places to visit in the winter is Rankin Bottoms.

This unique wildlife area is located where the Nolichucky and French Broad rivers meet and enter Douglas Lake. This is a flood plane area.

The water level is managed by the TVA. The water level is dropped very low in the winter leaving mud flats and watering holes that are perfect areas for birds to gather. This high altitude swamp has unusual features such as Osage orange trees, Cyprus trees, and Honey Locusts.

This is often a warm sunny spot in the winter and a great place to see large birds such as Egrets and Herons. Geese,Sandpipers, Gulls and many other birds find this the perfect spot to feed. Check out what the Tennessee Ornithological Society has to say about this place. It’s incredible!

The landscape has unique plant life that create surreal colors and scenery. We find it a great place to wander.

​To reach Rankin Bottoms, you must travel to Newport, Tennessee. We advise going to Hot Springs and following 25/70. The road is not really closed even though the bridge is out. You can take Fugate Road, just go slow as the locals do. When you get to the end of Fugate, turn right on Hwy 107 and cross the bridge. Turn left toward Newport on 25/70.
Go through downtown Newport and bare right on Industrial Road. Stay on Industrial Road about 5 miles you will have to turn left to remain on Industrial road, the go another 5 miles until you reach Rankin Hill Road. There will be a Wildlife refuge sign here. The road follows the railroad tracks and is a little rough in places, though you do not have to have 4 wheel drive unless it is muddy.

Wolf Creek Falls excellent swim

Wasp and Wolf Creek Falls

Wolf Creek FallsT & R Rating
Excellent Hike! Excellent Swim!
Difficult
2000 ft total elevation
5 miles in and 5 miles out
10 miles total
Short areas of steep climbing, otherwise climb is gradual.

This favorite swim holes and hiking experiences is Wolf Creek Falls.  This is one of the most beautiful waterfalls around and is accessible for a swim.   We suggest you pack a lunch and head out with plenty of water.  We often stash a bottle of water along the way for the return trip home.

This hike begins right behind our house and goes up to the forest roads and AT as the others do.  It’s a tough hike, but it rewards you with a wonderful swimming experience is the clear waters of Wolf Creek.

So, head out behind the house and go up and through the fields. After about a mile you will come to a “T” intersection with a forest road. Turn left and go less than 1/4 mile and turn right onto an ATV trail. (If you get to the gate on the forest road you have gone to far)

Go up the ATV trail. This is a short steep climb (the steepest you will encounter on this trail)

In less than 1/4 mile you will reach the AT.  This is Kale Gap. Go straight across on an old road.  Continue on this road and you will come to a “Y” in less than 1/4 mile. Go to the right at this Y intersection and travel down.  You will walk over a mile down and eventually you will come to a “T” intersection with another old road.  DO NOT TURN LEFT here, but go right.  In less than 1/2 mile the road will come to a subtle “Y”.  You will go left here.  There are huge rocks on both sides of the road, a culvert to your left and a sign on the tree that say” US Forest Land closed to all vehicles” Continue down the road here. You will begin to see orange, yellow and blue marks on the trees that were marked for a timber sale years ago. Continue down this old road.  You are entering the area of the community of Wasp. In about a mile, you may notice a road to the Right.  Do NOT take this road. Continue straight.  You will cross a creek and bear to the right.  Here you will begin to follow the creek .  In less than 1/4 of a mile you can view a beautiful waterfall if you go over toward the creek.  You should be able to hear it.  There are, in fact, many places you can walk over to the edges of the rocks and view the creek as you walk down this section.

Not far after this waterfall, you will come to a road to the right. This leads into the old community of WASP.
(If you want to take this side trip, the road will cross a stream then you can begin looking for signs of old homesteads. Come back out this road to continue your hike to Wolf Creek falls)

To continue to Wolf Creek Falls

You will come upon an intersection with a road entering from the left. DO NOT TURN LEFT, stay on old road and continue walking down.

NOTE: Rattlesnake Gap Road sort of runs parallel to this old road you are on, but you do not want to get on this road too soon as it twists and turns and adds mileage.

Continue walking down the old road. Eventually you will come to a place where the old road almost joins the gravel road. Merge onto the gravel road here and turn right to go down. This is Rattlesnake Gap Road.

In less than 1/4 mile you will come to a sign that says Wolf Creek Falls 1/3 mile and points left.
Turn left here and cross Wolf Creek.  Go to the camping are.  To hike to the bottom of the falls, head out right from the camping area down by the creek.  (NOT the ATV trail) To head to the top, go left of the camping area.  Both are very short trails to the fall..not even 1/8 mile and provides privacy for a swim.

After your nice swim, rest, enjoy, replenish and prepare for your journey back.

 

Eagle fishing on the French Broad River

Murray’s Branch Hiking

Murray’s Branch is a great Winter’s day hike. It offers beautiful views of the French Broad River as it flows into Tennessee. You can do this as a loop trail or hook up with Jack Branch Trail blue blazes)which meanders on up the ridge and offers sweet spots to look up the river toward Hot Springs.

T & R Rating
Excellent Views
Moderate difficulty
1.3 mile loop trail
Yellow Blaze

Directions to Trail Head

Go to Hot Springs on Hwy 209. Continue across the French Broad as if you are going out of town and just on the other side of the river turn LEFT onto River Road. It will take a hard right and follow the river. The road turns to dirt and then you will come to Murray’s Branch Picnic area which is well marked. The trail takes off on the right hand side of the road across from the picnic area. It goes up to the ridge and follows the river up on the cliffs for beautiful views

Swimming Hole

If you follow the road on down to the paint creek you will come to a paved road.  If you stay on the lower road which is not a rough as the high road, you will come to Dudly Falls a great swimming hole.

 

.Eagle fishing on the French Broad River Dudly Falls French Broad River Easter Box Turtle found on our hike Forest in fall Paint Rock area

Paint Creek

Great Hike and Drive and Swimming
Can be combined nicely with dinner or lunch in Hot Springs
Picnic tables available by the creek
Waterfalls, Beautiful Rocks, Views of River, Picnic opportunities

To access this general area:

Drive to Hot Springs on Hwy 209 N.
Go through town and cross the French Broad River
Immediately after you cross the river, turn left to access River road.
At the stop sign, turn right to head downstream.Love Road is so romantic
This road takes you several miles down the river on a very scenic drive.

In a few miles it will turn to dirt road. Then you will come to Murray Branch Recreation area.
The parking lot is on the left and the trail begins on the right of the road, just before you enter the parking area.

Hiking
T & R Rating
Moderate
Yellow Blazes
1.3 miles
This short loops has gentle switch backs through the forest up the the ridge. About 3/4 mile in you will come to a Y. This is the loop. Stay to the right to see incredible ridge top views of the river. Continue on and this trail joins with another trail, that has blue blazes. It winds on in the woods but does not loop. You can add onto your hike with this “in and out” section.

(4 wheel drive may be needed on this section only if it is muddy)
Continue down the road and look for a road that crosses Paint creek on the right. It will have a brown sign with a camping sign to the right and fishing to the left. Turn left and follow to the end. There is a beautiful pond here.

Paint Creek to Dudley Falls
Paint Creek Road is very passable, but is narrow with turnouts. You will have a choice to take the high road or low road. The low road takes you to Dudley Falls. It takes you by a beautiful creek with lots of picnic opportunities. Dudley falls is a beautiful waterfall that is accessed by car. This is a great place to wander around.

Shelton Laurel Area Hiking Pisgah National Forest

Swimming Holes in Shelton Laurel

We have just started exploring this area and we find it quite beautiful.
The trails here are remote and are more for those experienced in back country hiking.
Most require a drive up a forest road to get to the trail heads. This is not a well traveled area, so sometimes the trails are a little harder to read. It is important to know about trail safety and back woods travel before attempting these hikes.

Hickey Falls
T &R Rating
Excellent
2.3 miles one way (best done as in and out unless you know how to loop it with White Oak Trail) It is not well marked on how to do this loop. But the In and Out is easy to follow.
Difficult

This hike is very scenic. It is especially nice when the rhododendrons are blooming. The trail leaves FR 465 right at a gate. You cross the creek on a really nice bridge and follow the trail through the woods. It then joins the creek again and offers the traveler many chances to dip it some wonderful swimming holes. The falls are gorgeous and well worth the climb. The Trail continues past the falls, but we don’t advise this unless you are heading on to connect with another trail. It is very, very steep. If you turn around at the top of the falls, the hike is very pleasant back to the starting point.

To get to the trail head, go to Hot Springs and Follow 25/70 East towards Marshall. When you get to The Laurel River Store and where 25/70 takes a hard right at the river, turn left on 208 to to 212 and turn right. Drive until you see the brown sign for Hickey Falls trail. Turn left of FR 465 and follow the road up to the gate. The gate may be open or closed, but the trail head is right there.

Midnight Hole at Big Creek, excellent swimming hole

Hiking Big Creek in the Great Smoky Mountain National Park

Tom and Rebecca Rating
Excellent Hiking

Midnight Hole at Big Creek, excellent swimming hole

Easy Trail
2 miles in and 2 miles out Excellent Swimming Hole…..Our Favorite!!!!
Excellent Jeep Trip (Call for directions)

One of our favorite places to go on a hot summer day is Big Creek. This creek offers great swimming holes and fishing holes. It has a nice gentle hike to 2 beautiful waterfalls.
We love to go here and cook a little lunch in the picnic area then go up to the falls for a dip.
The trail takes off from the picnic area. About a mile up if you look very carefully to the right you will see a trail that is not marked that goes up through some big rocks. About 100 ft up you will find an amazing and unique cave. It is work the climb.
However, if you are just enjoying the gentle hike, continue on up the main trail and look for a well traveled path to the right that leads to Midnight Hole. This is a glorious place to swim. Perhaps Rebecca’s favorite, as it offers a nice wide pool and the water is so clear you can see the fish swimming with you. Also, hearts appear here in the rocks as the sun changes position. It is really and amazing place.
Further up the trail is Mouse Creek Falls. This is also a beautiful waterfall and worth the extra half mile walk.
There are many different ways to get to Big Creek from Dancing Sun Cabins.
The Google map shows a way via Max Patch that includes dirt roads.
But, if you want to go the paved road way, see the directions below.

From Dancing Sun Cabins:Big Creek Waterfall

Take Roaring Fork to Meadow Fork and Turn Right
Go 3 miles to Caldwell mountain Road and Turn Left
Go to the end of Caldwell Mountain Road and turn Right on Hwy 209 S
Travel until you come to Furgeson’s store where Hwy 209 turns Left, but instead turn Right to go toward
I-40W. Turn Right on Fines Creek Road and Follow it as it bares left toward I-40.
Take I-40 W to exit 451 (Waterville Exit)
Turn left after crossing the Pigeon River and continue 2.3 miles and continue straight through the intersection past the ranger station and continue on to the picnic area. The trail head is at the picnic area. Big Creek favorites, can you see the heart?

Hiking Mount Pisgah

A great day trip to the high country is to drive to Mount Pisgah on the Blue Ridge Parkway.
It takes about an hour to get to the section of the Parkway then it is about 30 miles north to Mount Pisgah.
If you want to take a dip along the way you may want to stop at one of our favorite swimming holes, Skinny Dip Falls.

We have given you our “Tom and Rebecca Ratings”on the areas below:

Mount Pisgah Trail

Mt. Pisgah

T and R Rating:
Excellent Hiking

Moderate Difficulty
Excellent Views
Excellent Photography
Unique Tower at Top

Back on the Parkway you will head North to Mile post 408. Here you will find a trail to the top of Mount Pisgah which is 1.5 miles in length with about a 700 ft elevation gain. The gain is at the very end and is about .5 miles of very steep climb. It is well worth it.
We highly recommend enjoying a meal at the Pisgah Inn. The service is excellent, the food delicious and the view is exceptional.

Skinny Dip Falls:

T and R Rating:
Excellent Swimming
Easy to Moderate Hike
Short with some steep places
Approximately 1 mile in and 1 mile out

Located at Milepost 417 which is the Looking Glass Rock Overlook there is a trail head for Skinny Dip Falls. This Trail is across the road from the overlook to the north. The falls area has many private pools that are perfect for swimming.

Cradle of Forestry
T and R Rating
Excellent place to take Children or Elders
Best Wheel Chair Accessible Area we have ever visited!
Interactive Museum
Lots of Trails

Mile post 412 is known as Wagon Road Gap is where 276 crosses the road.
Take this exit and turn left to go to the Cradle of Forestry. It is well marked. You will be traveling toward Brevard.

Looking Glass Rock and Pisgah Wildlife Center

T and R Rating
Excellent Drives to photograph Looking Glass Rock
Wonderful Hiking Trails that are well marked with easy access

For a Jeep Trail Experience here is one way to drive to see the rock:
Further down Hwy 276 is a Forest Road 475B. This road is a pretty well maintained Forestry Road but it is gravel. You can take it down to 475 and head Left to the Fish Hatchery and Pisgah Wildlife Center.
Then you can travel further down 475 traveling the same direction and it rejoins Hwy 276 at Looking Glass Falls.

For a gentle Car Experience
Just continue on down Hwy 276 toward Brevard and you will see signs for the Fish Hatchery and Pisgah Wildlife Center

T and R Rating

Excellent Drive
Excellent Photography
Nice Swimming Experiences

Heading back toward the Parkway on Hwy 276 back toward Waynesville will take you back to the parkway. On the way you will pass Sliding Rock. This unique area is a fee area that allows you to slide down an amazing part of the creek if you are so inclined.

Hiking the Craggy Gardens Area

June brings daily showers that make our flowers grow and bloom into incredible shows. Rhododendrons, Flaming Azaleas and Mountain Laurel are some of the most dramatic in our region

We find it interesting that these blooms often occur earlier up in the higher elevations due to the different species of plants.

Our Rhododendrons tend to bloom in late June and early July while the ones at Craggy Gardens and Mount Pisgah seem to bloom in Mid June.

Craggy Gardens is locate at Mile Post 364 on the Blue Ridge Parkway.

There are several short and easy hikes from the visitor center. It is really wonderful to hike from the visitor center to the picnic area and back. This takes you through a wonderful display of blooms.

For a more dramatic show, go past the visitor center to a well marked parking area where you can hike up to a peak. This is well worth the short climb and offers incredible views especially when the Rhododendrons are in bloom.

We have reviewed a longer hike below. All are really wonderful.

And if you have time, go on up to Mount Mitchell and enjoy their restaurant for a nice meal with a fabulous view!

Directions:

To get to Craggy Gardens from Dancing Sun Cabins
Go to Weaverville and access the Blue Ridge Parkway from there.
Go North to Craggy Gardens
It’s about a 90 minute scenic drive from the cabins.
Tom and Rebecca do this as a day trip. We like to eat dinner at the restaurant on Mount Mitchell when we are through. It is a short drive further north, but well worth it as the view is fabulous. The food is great too.

Tom and Rebecca Ratings:
Moderate to Difficult
Stumble Factor is HIGH- so consider taking a walking stick
Highlights:
Craggy Trees, Large Rocks, High Altitude Flora and Fauna, Beech Forest
Total Elevation Gain: Approx 2000 ft
Mileage: In and Out Trail total 10 miles

Craggy Gardens is an incredible place to be when the Rhododendrons are in bloom. We discovered that the flowers are not the only attraction here. The forest is amazing! It is a wonderful place to take a high altitude hike.

The forest is full of old “bonsai-like” trees. They are like the “old crones” of the forest, twisted and bumpy and full of character. The ground underneath is covered in beautiful green grass along with a wide variety of wildflowers and a surprising lack of poison ivy.

In late May, we took the trail from the Craggy Gardens Picnic area to Douglas Falls. We found the trail to be well marked and pretty well trodden. It is an “in and out” trail and is approximately 5 miles each way making it a good 10 mile hike.

The trail is quite rocky which is part of it’s charm. However, that makes it a bit difficult as this goes on for miles. The whole area is covered in unique rocks and trees with up and down sections that take you across the mountain. I suggest taking a good walking stick on this hike as my knees get tired near the end and it is nice to have a stick to prevent the stumbles. The total elevation gain for the entire hike is approximately 2000 ft. It is a good work out.

On the way to Douglas Falls, you pass through a beautiful Beech Forest. You will also cross 2 waterfalls which are delightful places to stop and cool off. They are not as dramatic as Douglas Falls, but they are nice places to stick your feet in the water.

As you get close to Douglas Falls you will begin a steep walk down. You will pass some dramatic rocks and then come to Douglas Falls. The water level was not particularly high the day we visited, but the beauty is in the way the water drops off a huge cliff. The cliff has a cave and you can walk behind the falls and be dry. There is a little pool for quick dips, but not large enough to actually take a swim. It is a great place to picnic.

We really enjoyed this somewhat challenging hike. It made us tired, but very happy that we experience such a unique forest.

 

Beautiful Craggy Gardens Beautiful Moth we found on the trail Craggy Gardens are covered with Rhododendrom