Kephart Prong Trail, Sweat Heifer Creek Trail, Grassy Branch Trail

December 5, 2015

“It is one of the blessings of wilderness life that it shows us how few things we need in order to be perfectly happy.” – Horace Kephart

Horace Kephart exemplifies why anyone of any walk of life can become an outdoorsman. A librarian by trade, he worked in St. Louis and Yale University.[1] His family found their way to Western North Carolina and he became the forefather of the establishment of The Great Smoky Mountain National Park.[2] His books are legendary: The Cherokees of the Smoky Mountains, Our Southern Highlanders, and my personal favorite: Camping and Woodcraft.

Among his writings he looks philosophically at nature in a manner that I agree with: “Houses, to such a one, in summer are little better than cages; fences and walls are his abomination; plowed fields are only so many patches of torn and tormented earth. The sleek comeliness of pasture it too prim and artificial, domestic cattle have a meek and ignoble bearing, fields of grain are monotonous to his eyes, which turn for relief to abandoned old-field, overgrown with thicket, that still harbors some the shy children of the wild. It is not the clearing but the unfenced wilderness that is the camper’s real home. He is brother to that good old friend of mine who in gentle satire of our formal gardens and close- cropped lawns, was wont to say, ‘I love the unimproved works of God.’”[3]

This hike was a pensive retracing of Kephart. I started at the trailhead of Kephart Prong Trail, hiked two miles to Kephart Shelter, hiked Sweat Heifer Creek Trail to the Appalachian Trail (AT), summated Mt. Kephart (6,217 ft.), then headed to Charlie’s Bunion, Dry Sluice Gap Trail, Grassy Branch Trail back to Kephart Prong Trail. It was 15.4 miles of pure delight.

The Kephart Prong Trail traces beside the namesake creek for two miles amid one of the prettiest portions of woods in the area. The grade is fairly gentle until the Kephart Shelter. The shelter is one of two in the Smoky’s not located on the AT. I rested for a moment before heading up Sweat Heifer Creek Trail. This is a beast of a trail, with a 16% grade and amazing views. A quarter of the way up you cross the Sweet Heifer Cascades sluicing down the mountain.

On the AT, I immediately saw throngs of people streaming out from Newfound Gap. Most were heading to the Jumpoff or to Charlie’s Bunion, two great destinations for families seeking awesome views of Tennessee. The trail heads down for 1 mile to Boulevard Trail. Then it is a .5-mile hike to the summit of Mt. Kephart. A short distance further is The Jumpoff.

I retraced my route to the AT and headed 1.3 miles to Charlie’s Bunion, a remarkable rock cliff with amazing vistas. I then headed to Dry Sluice Gap Trail and Grassy Branch Trail.

I’ve hiked a lot of trails this year, in a lot of different areas, so I say this with no trepidation: Grassy Branch is the most amazing trail I have hiked. It might have been the fact that I was tired, or was heading downhill, but this was marvelous terrain. The grade is steep, but every turn is rewarded with creeks tumbling down the mountain, grassy knolls on the sides of hills, beautiful moss on rocks, views of the sun bathing the mountaintops. Assuredly, this trail is special. I saw no other person, I only saw the forest at its finest. And rest assured I understood a fraction of what Kephart understood: No further proof of the awesome unimproved work of God is evident than wilderness.

Total mileage is 15.4 miles.

[1] “Horace Kephart: Biography”. Horace Kephart: Revealing an Enigma. Hunter Library Special Collections, Western Carolina University.

[2] Id.

[3] Kephart, Horace (1988). Camping and Woodcraft: A Handbook for Vacation Campers and for Travelers in the Wilderness. Univ of Tennessee Pr.


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