Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Cataloochee Valley, Great Smoky Mtns. May 2011

We spent a weekend camping in Cataloochee Valley in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.  This blog entry is about the area that can be visited without a long walk.  The next two entries will be for the longer trails that we hiked on.  This valley was home to about 1200 people before it became a national park.  Only a few of the building remain and most of the roads are now hiking trails.

We entered the valley by exiting Interstate 40 at exit 20 in North Carolina.  From here it is eight miles into the valley.  After stopping to find a geocache at the exit and another at a one lane bridge on a side road a short distance from the highway we continued up Cove Creek Rd.  This winding mountain road starts out paved then becomes gravel. 

There were a number of chipmunks playing in this area.  We stopped to find another geocache and spotted many varieties of flowes including these bright red fire-pinks growing beside the road.   The road is narrow in spots but well graded.  We had to back off a curve to allow a park vehicle towing a piece of heavy equipment to pass.

At the ridge there is room for several vehicles to park.  The Cataloochee Divide Trail crosses the road at this point and can be hiked in either direction.  A short walk on this single track trail revealed several varieties of flowers that like the higher elevations.  Back in the van we were now headed downhill and soon the road was paved once more. 

Just before entering the main valley area there is an overlook.  For the best views we parked and walked up the short hill.  In the distance is Mt. Sterling.  The sign made note of the fact that most of the valley that was once farmland and orchards had been taken back over by the forest.  We saw the first of many wild turkeys sitting on a fence not far from here.

We stayed in the primitive campground for the weekend.  It is considered primitive because there are no showers or electric hookups.  The area is very clean and well maintained.  The toilets flush,  there are lights in the restrooms, and every site has its own bear proof garbage can.  We could hear the creek running behind our tent lulling us to sleep.

The big attraction in the valley are the elk.  They were reintroduced to the Smokies at this site in 2001 and the herd is slowly growing.  They are beginning to visit other parts of the park but return to this valley.  They can be seen in  the fields most evenings for an hour or two before dark.   Every time we drove by the fields we saw wild turkeys.  Only once did we see a deer.

We visited Palmer Chapel which is a Methodist Church beside one of the mountain creeks that flows through the valley.  Like all the buildings we visited the doors were open and we were welcome to look around inside.  The pews are in place as well as the pulpit with an open Bible.  The horse trail passes beside it allowing easy access to spots along the creek.

Across the road is a short but steep trail climbing the hill to the Palmer Chapel cemetery.  Have you noticed that most old cemeteries are at the top of steep hills?  After looking around the cemetery we started slowly down the hill looking for the lady slippers that we had heard grew on this hill.  We found them hiding near the trail.  One in particular was hiding behind a tree or maybe it had put itself in time out.

Another stop along the road is the Beech Grove school.  It is the only one of the three schools in this area still standing.  It is not a one room schoolhouse - it is a two room schoolhouse.  It was built in 1901 to replace an older log building.  One of the rooms still contains the old desks.  Like most of the buildings in the valley it is beside a creek.

Continuing down the road the Caldwell house is on the left and a barn is on the right.  You can walk through the house upstairs and down but it is not furnished.  The house was completed in 1906 and is a modern frame structure.  The barn is open and we walked up to the loft above the main floor.  There were holes in the floor but the remaining boards were solid.

The Caldwell family cemetery is just down the road.  To reach it we crossed the field at a mowed area.  There was a line of bushes at the edge of the field followed immediately by a steep climb in the woods.  We were about twenty feet into the woods when a turkey suddenly took off from the bushes.  I am not sure who was more startled, the turkey or us.

Further back near where we entered the valley a turn at the intersection leads to another house and a small museum.  There are many hiking trails starting in the valley that can be walked a short distance or for miles.  There are lots of single log bridges over the creeks.  The next two blog entries will talk about the hikes we took this trip.

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