Friday, February 5, 2016

Trail heads through former chestnut grove

Gold autumn leaves of a rare chestnut tree
in Great Smokey Mountains National Park.
Photo courtesy of GSMNPS.

Short path crisscrosses isolated
valley at Great Smoky Mountains

Day hikers can walk through what once a grove of majestic chestnut trees in Great Smoky Mountains National Park via the Cades Cove Nature Trail.

The 1.4-miles round trip trail (from the parking lot) sits in Cades Cove, an isolated mountain valley that is a popular destination thanks to many well-preserved structures from pioneer days. The chestnut was one of the trees that those settlers depended upon.

To reach the trailhead, from the park’s Townsend Entrance Road in Tennessee, go right/west on Laurel Creek Road. The scenic highway heads straight into Cades Cove. Once there, go left/south into the Cades Cove Campground and park at the ranger station.

Topo map, Cades Cove Nature Trail.
From the lot’s southwest corner, walk south alongside Campground Drive. The road curves east. As it begins to curl north, look for the Cades Cove Nature Trail trailhead on the right/east.

A short stem trail leads to the main loop. Where the loop begins, continue straight/southeast. The loop is about a half-mile.

Saplings and overlook
In the 1800s, the mountainsides of Cades Cove looked dramatically different than today. At that time, nearly a third of the forest surrounding Cades Cove consisted of towering chestnut trees. During spring, the chestnut blossoms made the mountainsides appear as if they were covered in snow. Each autumn, settlers could stand knee-deep in chestnuts. Many of the trees had diameters of nine to ten feet.

As the trail comes to Cooper Branch, which it crosses four times, there are no chestnuts to be seen. These days, oak, dogwood, sourwood and pine dominate.

What killed the chestnuts? Blight, via a fungus accidentally introduced from Asia, quickly wiped them out. By the 1940s, the blight had killed about 4 billion trees nationwide.

After the last crossing, the trail winds away from the creek to an overlook about 60 feet above the creek. Look along the way for spindly chestnut saplings, all that remain of the once mighty groves.

Significant changes
The loss of the chestnuts greatly changed life in the valley. Lumber from the tree, which was considered straight-grained and durable, no longer could be sold. Many settlers also had incorporated the sweet chestnut into their diets and gathered them for sale in nearby urban markets.

Animals suffered as well from the collapse of the chestnut groves. The fall nuts were a source of high calories for bears. They now rely on the less nutritious acorn for food.

From the overlook, the trail winds down the small hill then rejoins the stem. From there, retrace your steps back to the parking lot.

Despite the loss of the chestnut tree, the trail is still beautiful. Dogwoods bloom in spring while the sourwoods and maples turn red in autumn.

Note that older maps and literature refer to this route as the Vista Trail.

Learn about other great trails at this national park in Best Sights to See at Great Smoky Mountains National Park.