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The Old Settlers Trail

Narrative and photos contributed by Gary Acquaviva
(click on smaller images to view larger ones)

The Old Settlers Trail is not only one of the Great Smoky Mountain National Park's most historical trails, it's also one of the most interesting. OST Trail markerHistorical and interesting in that its landmarks set it apart from other trails found in the park. It's also one of the smoother and less rocky trails. On top of that, you have its biological diversity, which gives it three distinguishing features. To reach the trail, start out in the Greenbrier area, about 4 miles from Gatlinburg and approximately 12.3 miles from Cosby, Tennessee. It may also be accessed 1.2 miles up Albright Grove trail, which is about 2.3 miles west of Cosby, on state road 321. You'll then turn toward the GSMNP onto Baxter Rd. Make your way through a quaint mountain subdivision to Laurel Springs Road; turn right and drive a few hundred yards until you come upon a gated gravel road to the left. As long as you do not block the gated entrance, you are permitted to park along the road. Near the Steiner Bell Lodge parking lot, which is about 13 miles from Cosby and about a half mile up the lodge driveway, another lesser known entrance exists. The trail begins next to the left side of the parking lot and descends about 700 yards down in to a rather marshy area where a post-marker stands. Beyond the field and up to the right on a hill you'll see an old cemetery. Still, the path to the Old Settlers Trail goes left and leads to another post-marker. The following entries will describe hikes east of the Greenbrier area of the national park. This entrance lies about four miles east of Gatlinburg. The Little Pigeon River follows the road into the park, past the ranger station, a picnic area, and under a wooden bridge. Make a left across the bridge, proceed over another smaller bridge, and yet another larger bridge. You'll notice a parking area and a sign to Old Settlers Trail on the left side of the road where the trail begins.

Old Settlers Trail Hike Map

Bird Creek

The Old Settlers Trail makes its first creek crossing at Bird Creek. For the hardier hiker, a trip up the west side of the creek might be the order of the day. There you will find what's left of a few old homesteads - four that once flourished along this creek. There is still the remains of one fireplace a few hundred yards up the creek, but more picturesque ones can be found further down the Old Settlers Trail. Two large stone outcroppings come into view to your right about 100 yards apart, and then the path starts to climb a small ridge beside the river. As you pass a growth of rhododendron, the river can be seen down below. The river takes a curve around the ridge and crosses a small tributary after its dissension. One of the aforementioned home sites stood, at one point, up in this small valley. To the left, the astute observer will see the old-road bed. As the trail merges with the road, they eventually become one. The adventurous are encouraged to follow the old road to the river and discover, upstream, the remains of which once held a walk bridge over the river.

Little Bird Creek

The trail continues on to Little Bird valley. On the right, hikers will come across one short stone wall and then a second as the trail narrows between the stone wall and the creek. While some say they were used to keep livestock; others said that the walls were used as boundary lines. After crossing over the creek, the path continues up the valley parallel to Little Bird Creek's left fork. On the right, there is a tree with a metal tag posted to it with a white pipe behind the tree. These pipes are used for park research. The trail then takes a turn to the west and crosses over a deep trench that, during rainy seasons, takes on the overflow of Little Bird Creek's left fork. In the trench, you can see the remains of what once supported a small bridge. For a few hundred yards, the path climbs up alongside the left fork. Another short wall of stones, across the drainage area, can be seen to the south. A bit further along, the homestead belonging to the wall of stones can be seen at the point where the trail veers perpendicular to the left fork of Little Bird Creek. The Old Settlers Trail then zigzags north and west numerous times as it gradually climbs Copeland Divide. To the north, hikers can see the ridge of Copeland Divide. It passes through a forest of young oaks, hemlocks, maples, and sassafras. The path continues toward a shagbark hickory and a large 100-year-old oak tree as it approaches the Copeland Ridge crest. The trail then makes a 20-degree east-northeast turn heading towards a flat area on the ridge top and continues at a 2200' elevation for several hundred yards. After cresting the ridge, the trail descends on the northern side with a large hollow paralleling the path on the left. This is Copeland Creek's watershed area. The Old Settlers Trail zigzags north and east as it continues in an east-northeast direction. When the leaves have fallen in the late fall and winter, the trail darkens as it slowly transforms into a hemlock forest. Hikers pass an unusually large holly tree on the right as the trail gradually climbs back up to 2200'. You'll pass between two large old oaks here. This is as good of a place as any on this trail to take a rest or have a snack. Once you get back on the trail, it descends past a large, split tulip poplar tree on the left and cuts back and forth through hollows continuing on its east-northeast course. The trail will lead you through a deciduous forest, a pine forest and into another cluster of pines as it approaches Copeland Creek.

Copeland Creek

The slope to Copeland Creek is very steep on the trail's left side as it enters into another rhododendron thicket - indicating a watershed. On the forest floor you'll notice Pipsissewa growing and the sound of Copeland Creek can be heard. Eventually Copeland Creek flows down into a valley, which was once inhabited by early settlers. Eight homes once existed along Copeland Creek according to an old 1932 map. Just above the creek crossing and to the right of the trail stood the last of these eight homesteads. Bonwell Chapel once stood just west of the junction of the creek and a tributary, near the 1400' elevation mark. This tributary was once home to five other homes, two more up Left Fork and three more below the chapel along side Copeland Creek. Across the creek, the trail continues through a large mountain laurel thicket and enters into another flat area for over 100 yards. Above the thicket, a tall pin oak stands to the left and in the autumn its colorful red leaves make it stand out amongst the forest. The path then descend past a stand of large oaks, over 100 years old, on the south. On the right of the trail, what appears to be a ravine actually is the continuance of the trail as it switches back to a southern heading from a northern heading. You'll pass through a tunnel of rhododendron with a ridge on your right and about 1/4 of a mile away a small mountain peak on the left. Large loblolly (North Carolina) pines are prevalent in this area and a ridge to your left blocks the northern view. As the trail continues, it turns to a southern heading and Cat Stairs pinnacle can be seen straight ahead, above the trail. Next, the trail enters a hollow and becomes a quiet region of mixed conifer including tall hemlock and pine. From there, the path continues its descent to the headwaters of Snakefeeder Branch.

Snakefeeder Branch

The Old Settlers Trail crosses the headwaters of Snakefeeder Branch where many settlers first called home. On the right you'll notice a fallen chimney, and a noticeable change in vegetation. Due to the amount of sunlight that enters this valley, more ferns, cane grass and little brown jugs can be seen on the forest floor. You'll pass another fallen chimney to the left of the trail and also see some large hanging grapevine. A third chimney in a large flat clearing is seen on the left, then the Old Settlers Trail crosses the creek and continues onward. There will be a signpost identifying the Old Settlers Trail. A deep creek bed marks the beginning of a road that winds up to Lindsey Cemetery. Beyond that is another road that leads to 321. In case of an emergency, this road can be used as a quick exit out of the area. However, the Old Settlers Trail veers east through a rather grown-up area and crosses Soak Ash Creek.

Soak Ash Creek (elevation 1400')

This flat area was once home to another settlement. Another half mile of trail walking and you'll cross Evans Creek, come across more rhododendron, pine, and eventually reach a signpost. Behind this signpost is a trail that leads to Steiner Bell Lodge and Highway 321.

Evans Creek (elevation 1424')

The choices at this point are left, east toward Cosby, or right, which would turn you west to Greenbrier and the Little River. To the left, the trail starts gradually moving uphill, following Evans Creek. The old map shows a road going north 50-100 yards beyond and another going south less than 400 yards from the intersection. There are seven home sites along the southern road, while the northern road shows two, as well as Fairview School, and intersects 321. It also shows the old road traveling east - straight to Timothy Creek. On the old map, it does not appear to veer south around a ridge, as the current trail seems to do. The Old Settlers Trail then levels out, until it crosses Timothy Creek.

The remains of a chimney with the "V" hearth and a smokehouse are located on the other side of Timothy Creek. Next to it, there lies an old roadbed that moves up alongside the creek. There were more homesteads that once existed upstream. The trail makes a 400 yard climb up alongside the roadbed, passing a stone wall that runs to the old roadbed, then turns left (el. 1803) and continues past several stone walls aligning the trail. A few more hundred yards worth of trail and you'll cross Darky Branch Creek. Darky Branch is surrounded with rhododendron and follows a ridge on which one can see the condo units at Cobbly Knob to the north.

A signpost identifying the Old Settlers Trail stands a bit further down the path. Near it, another unmarked trail can be seen to your left that follows down a ridge top and eventually ends up at Highway 321 about 6/10th of a mile. You'll notice Martha McCarters Road on the other side of the highway and a restaurant lies about 3/10th of a mile to the east. In case of an emergency use this unmarked trail, but be prepared to climb under and over some fallen logs. And watch out for snakes, especially during the summer months.

Old Settlers Trail will then make its way around the ridge to campsites 33A and 33B. At these campsites, you'll find another old fallen fireplace. Each site is marked along the trail and the park service has hung wires and a pulley in order for campers to hang food and gear so that they are out of the reach of animals. Redwine Creek is the next point of interest along the trail. Looking at the old map, it shows two or three home sites upstream from the intersection of the Old Settlers Trail and Redwine Creek. To the right, the continuance of the original road can be seen prior to the creek crossing.

Redwine Creek

Fireplace with hearth After crossing Redwine Creek, your ascension begins around a ridge traveling southeast then along another ridge marked by an extensive outgrowth of mountain laurel. As the trail climbs the ridge there are majestic western views. At one point the path traverses a large sandstone outcropping (elevation 2000 feet) before continuing south through a pine forest littered with soft needles along the trail. A quick glance over your shoulder and you can still see the Cobbly Knob ridge. From there, the trail takes an easterly direction around the ridge (from the topographical map you've reached the 2200' line) before entering into a flat area and beginning its descent to Ramsey Creek. I nicknamed this spot “Bill's Hill” after Bill Steiner, who has hiked it numerous times with me. Almost out of sight and covered by brush, is another fireplace with a fallen chimney on the right. There are several hemlocks and some big old-growth trees on both sides of the trail and a very steep ravine on the right - the source of the creek. The steepness of the ravine could have been one of the reasons loggers shied away from this area. The trail then makes a 500' descent rather rapidly over the next couple hundred yards with Ramsey Creek on the right.

Ramsey Creek

Old Settlers Trail crosses Ramsey Creek and will cross it again four more times.Stone wall beside trail There is a pile of stones to the right that may be the remnants of another chimney. Another chimney lies further down the ravine on the trail's left. Continuing down Ramsey Creek ravine after crossing the creek again, another fireplace with a fallen chimney is seen on the right. The hiker will notice broken parts of a crock pot that lie around the chimney as well as a piece of an old fire stove. You'll cross Ramsey Creek several more times as it climbs up and west, out of the Ramsey Creek ravine, and through a forest mixed with deciduous and pine trees. Eventually, the path reaches an elevation marker of 1,969 feet (identified on the old 1932 map). It curves around a ridge and comes upon stone walls first on the right and then on both sides of the trail. On the trail's right, or east, is a full, standing chimney with a "V" hearth in the fireplace – one of the few remaining from a time since passed. This "V" hearth is distinctive among the chimneys on the Old Settlers Trail. In fact, on each side of this chimney there are two fireplaces. The stone walls continue along the Old Settlers Trail. On down the trail, a pile of stones can be seen on the same side as the chimney. I'm assuming this is a fallen chimney due to the fact that the 1932 map shows that a home existed here. In the fall, the noise from highway 321 can clearly be heard to the west due to the lack of "acoustical" vegetation. Eventually the trail will make a sharp right turn east-southeast. Hidden and overgrown on the left is the original Old Settlers Trail. Following a 650 yard climb through a forest of green rhododendron, the trail approaches Noisy Creek.

Noisy Creek

There are two signposts identifying the Old Settlers Trail a few hundred yards before you reach Noisy Creek; one sign points east and one west. Between the two signs is a man-way, unmarked, that leads 6/10 of a mile to highway 321. This old trail should only be used in emergency situations, for it often seems to disappear into the creek and is unmarked. The path has many fallen trees laying across it that have to be climbed over and under to pass, and at one point comes dangerously close to a steep hill. The trail continues through a forest of dark pine where the last remnants of a few homes still exist. The trail veers to the left but you can still hear the sounds of the highway. You'll pass a wall of stones and then cross a small creek before ending up on the highway beside a sign for an underground cable. The entrance to Cobbly Knob is one-half mile to the left where there is a security guard.

At the two signposts the trail continues on its eastern path. The remains of an old homestead can be seen on the right, just before the trail crosses Noisy Creek and begins another climb. The trail continues upward until it comes to another home site in a large clearing. Here you can stay on the left and cross the creek's small tributary and rejoin the trail on the left side, or you may cross the creek on the right and return to the trail in 50 yards by crossing back. You'll eventually pass another old chimney. The trail continues its climb then takes a left turn away from Noisy Creek. You'll notice a deep ravine on the left, which I believe is the source of Tumbling Branch - a tributary of Noisy Creek. Due to its depth, Tumbling Branch can't be heard from this spot. Around 2,900 feet Tumbling Branch appears to cross over the ridge, then descend to Texas Creek.

Stone wall Texas Creek

A bench marker is buried close to the headwaters of Texas Creek - elevation 2,789 feet. An old chimney from a prior home site can be seen along the trail, complete with wash bucket, and further down you'll see another chimney in the "V" hearth mold. Rhododendron thickets mark this part of the trail, until it meets a lengthy stone wall, approximately five feet high, on the right. The wall makes its way to Webb Creek on both sides of the Old Settlers Trail.

Webb Creek

After crossing Webb Creek, hikers can continue on the Old Settlers Trail south, and ascend a small mountain, or keep on straight ahead. If you follow the Old Settlers Trail, it will continue to climb and then cross over.

The trail crosses Snag Branch, just beyond one former homestead on the left. A few stone walls can be found in the valley and two home sites on the left. Fifty yards beyond that, a second home site appears, where what's left of another collapsed chimney is found. About 50 yards further is a cemetery. One of the headstones reads 1877. After looking around, it seems that most of the cemetery contains very young children. At that time, many children died of childhood and other diseases that were then incurable. Back on the trail, you'll cross Dunn Creek, Spring Branch and Indian Camp Creek before it eventually intersects the trail that goes to Highway 321 and Laurel Springs Road to the north, or Cosby, past Henwallow Falls to the east, to Albright Grove to the south. Stone walls lining trail

However, if you go straight-ahead about 100 yards at Webb Creek, it will lead to a wide old road, and you can see the roof of McCarters pioneer barn ahead. Beyond the barn, the former homestead can still be found. The remains of two chimneys are still present, and beyond the chimneys is a small smoke, or springhouse. Or, at the intersection of the unmarked trail and the old road there is another unmarked trail on the left that leads about 800 yards back to highway 321 and a small parking area. Or, if you follow the wide old road, it will also lead to highway 321 where you may park.

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