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Thursday, November 19, 2015

Seeing Holly, Being Jolly - Old Sugarlands Trail

This trip to the Smokies has been an unbeatable mix of alone time and companionship.  Used to being on my own I enjoy hiking in solitude, but having someone to share discoveries with is a welcome change.

On Monday Sharon and I met to do a shuttle hike of the Old Sugarlands Trail.  The trail is wide for the Smokies and is relatively flat with just a short section of uphill to tackle where we started after parking at the Rainbow Falls parking area on Cherokee Orchard Road.

We smelled skunk and were glad it was not a live one on the trail!  The Old Sugarlands Trail was the original first paved road to Newfound Gap and before the road was paved it was a wagon road through the center of the Sugarlands Community.

possibly stone wall created when land was cleared for farming

We spied a lot of old foundations, stone property line fences and stone retaining walls and some of them warranted further exploration off-trail.  Sharon even spotted a few she hasn't noticed before.  I brought up the fact that every time I saw holly on the trail side during this visit it was just little knee-high stragglers and no sooner had we started discussing whether holly was actually indigenous to this area or not we started seeing American holly trees everywhere.

Many thanks to Sharon for patience with repeated posing requests

While the tree above is quite a bit larger than what I'd been seeing, research tells me a more mature tree could be anywhere from 33-66 feet tall!  Maybe that's why I hadn't been seeing them, maybe the holly was all above my head!  American Holly is a slow grower, and most of what we were seeing was around old homesites so was probably planted purposely for ornamental reasons even though it is indigenous to the region.

The Sugarlands community was actually named for the abundance of maples that the settlers encountered when they arrived in the early 1800's, but most of those were cleared when building began. Residents typically lived in one-room cabins until the 1900's.  Here's a link showing a photo of what the area looked like before the forest started reclaiming it.

One of the things I wanted to see on the trail was a cemetery that can be reached by taking a side trail.  Round trip it added another 1.5 miles to our already 4 mile hike but it was worth the extra effort.

temperatures are rising here again for the rest of the week

After enjoying a quiet lunch at the cemetery we resumed our trek through the Sugarlands, and it wasn't long before we came upon the CCC ruins which included some stairs in the middle of the forest floor, the clock tower remains and a large flag pole circle.  See this link for a picture of the clock tower when it was built and how quickly the landscape will fill in with trees when mother nature is left to her own devices.

Clock Tower

Soon we met up with the Little Pigeon River, making its way toward Gatlinburg. The gradual downhill slope of the trail leveled out as we enjoyed its soothing sounds.

The trail ends at Newfound Gap Road just down the road from the Sugarlands Visitor Center.  The mild, damp fall that the region has been having is confusing the rhododendren and I got my first glimpse of what its blossoms will look like if I ever get here during bloom time outside of Park Headquarters.

We also saw a rather large and extremely healthy American holly bursting with berries.

Don't miss this hike, lots to discover no matter what time of year you visit!


  1. Good to see you and Sharon hiking together! Maybe next year I'll have to meet you guys here and join you. :)

  2. It's fun to have someone to hike with to share what you find at times:) I always enjoy finding any type ruin. Nice find!

  3. I had an American holly in my yard in NJ that was up to the roof of the two story house. My girls hated it because they couldn't go barefoot in the yard because of the sharp leaves.