Trailside Talk: Quiet History and Scenic Beauty in Cataloochee Valley

Trailside Talk: Quiet History and Scenic Beauty in Cataloochee Valley

Mike Hembree

Visitors to Cades Cove, one of the most popular spots in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, might be interested to know that there were discussions in the park’s formative days of preserving parts of another Smokies community in similar fashion. 

A view of Cataloochee Field, 1938.
A view of Cataloochee Field, 1938. Courtesy of GSMNP archives.

Cataloochee Valley, on the opposite end of the park from Cades Cove, was also a settled, vibrant mountain community when the park was approved. There was talk of making much of the valley a major tourist destination, similar to the way Cades Cove ultimately evolved. Some residents who were leaving the valley to make way for the park supported such a plan, hoping officials would preserve much of their beloved valley as it had been.

Easy access via the one-way loop that surrounds Cades Cove brings millions of tourists to that part of the park every year. On many days, particularly on pleasant weekends, vehicle traffic is heavy.

Fortunately, Cataloochee Valley did not become a parallel to Cades Cove. This is not a rap on Cades Cove, which certainly merits a visit (actually more than one), but rather an appreciation for Cataloochee.

Some of Cataloochee’s 19th and early 20th century buildings were preserved. A neighborhood school is open for visitation, and churches and homes were saved. The Caldwell House is particularly interesting and is fronted by a beautiful creek. But Cataloochee is not Cades Cove.

Pupils and teacher outside of Cataloochie School circa 1940
Pupils and their teacher standing outside of Cataloochie School, circa 1940. Courtesy of GSMNP archives.

It is smaller. Quieter. More placid. Here you can sit in an old school behind an ancient desk and imagine what it must have been like to be a second grader in 1920, dipping a pen in an ink well and trying to figure out division. Or you can wander the banks of a wide stream and then sit a spell, enjoying the rippling waters and the birdsong that define much of the park.

Several trails, including Boogerman Trail, Cataloochee Divide Trail, and Big Fork Ridge Trail, can be accessed in the area, leading hikers through some of the park’s best old-growth forest.

On many mornings and evenings, some of the Smokies elk population show up in the wider part of the valley. In the early years of the elk reintroduction project, Cataloochee was sort of headquarters for the animals, and that made the valley more popular than it had been in years. Traffic increased on the narrow road in the valley’s heart, and there were minor jams here and there as visitors maneuvered for the best parking spots to view the elk show.

Cove Creek Road, which provides access to Cataloochee, is reached via an exit off Interstate 40 near Maggie Valley, North Carolina. The ride into the valley is an 11-mile run on a winding road that is mostly gravel, but the reward is more than worth the journey.

Smokies LIVE

Reserve a day, pack a picnic, put on your sneakers, and give Cataloochee a try.

Mike Hembree is a veteran journalist and the author of 14 books. He has visited 26 national parks and hopes to add many more to that list.

Related Posts
  1. Grave Words What will your last immortal words to the world be, those ‘carved in stone’ on the monument that marks your grave? For inspiration, here are some famous examples: Merv Griffith: “I will not be right back after this message.”
  2. The Strange Case of Cades Lake The Strange Case of Cades Lake Depending on who you were and what you stood for, the idea of turning most of Cades Cove into a 50-foot-deep lake—three miles long and two miles wide—was either brilliant or terrible. Pro-lake constituents included National Park Service
  3. Why Some Mountain Children had to Wait an Extra 11 Days for Christmas Why Some Mountain Children had to Wait an Extra 11 Days for Christmas During the early to mid 19th-century, in some remote areas of the Great Smoky Mountains and elsewhere in rural America, Christmas might be celebrated in January, not December. Stranger still, one of the old Christmas traditions was to stay up until m
  4. Are the Smokies the true 'Land of Lincoln?' Are the Smokies the true 'Land of Lincoln?' Both Groundhog Day and Presidents’ Day occur in February. The former can be celebrated in the Smokies by a trip to the Oconaluftee Mountain Farm Museum to check on the activity level of the robust population of groundhogs (aka woodchucks) livin
Related Products