GSMNP 8.6 mile trail ride (loop)

This is a description of an 8.6 mile loop for horses (or people) in the Great Smoky Mountain National Park.  I will be posting trail rides and horse information for the National Park occasionally so please check back. Also, please leave a comment if you know of other online resources for trail riding in and around the GSMNP.
This ride starts at the Cades Cove Riding Stable parking lot.  We parked our truck and trailer just outside their gates on a large gravel turn-around area.  I asked at the stable offices if it was OK, and was also given plenty of information for future trail rides as the receptionist seemed to be a horse person herself and gave us some great pointers for the near future.
For this ride I suggest the National Geographic Trails Illustrated Map #316 Cades Cove – Elkmont Map which in addition to the GSMNP map has contour lines and it’s much easier to distinguish between hiker only and horse and hiker trails.
You can pick up both maps at the Visitors Centers or the Heritage Center or any of the back country vendors outside the park. I can not imphasize enough … Do NOT go without a map. A GPS doesn’t cut it and your smart phone is a brick once in the park. I also suggest a compass, but that’s just me. Also, learn to read a map and learn to identify map features (like contour lines) as they can inform you ahead of time what you are getting yourself into. Orienteering is a life skill that everyone should have. More so if you enjoy the outdoors and being in the back country.
I’ve included a map below with some arrows and numbers (you can click the map to expand it to full size).  I used black arrows and red numbers (there are already black arrows, but with a little bit of studying you’ll see the trails I’m recommending in this ride).
From the parking lot you can ride up the fence line to where the Cades Cove Loop Road becomes one way. Just after the road switches to one way the trail head is well marked on the north side of the road (#1 on map).
It’s a half mile ride to the first fork (#2 on map). This part of the trail is well maintained, wide, flat, with few rocks.  At the first fork (#2) we went left to make the loop counter clockwise.  In hindsight, the clockwise route may have been better as the Crooked Arm Ridge Trail (which is what we came down) has a lot of very rough switchbacks and a lot of rock.
I’ll continue narrative in the counter clockwise direction….
From the first fork (#2) we took the Rich Mountain Loop trail. Before the climb, you will come up to the John Oliver site which is an historic cabin.  The trail makes a right angle turn to the right and is labeled “Trail ->”. Once past the cabin this trail follows a creek up a ravine and crosses a few times. There is some very steep terrain and we dismounted and walked up some tricky spots with very large flat rocks. There was evidence on those rocks from slipping horses (scars from shoes) so we played it safe. Once you leave the creak the ride is rather steep heading west, and can be done on or off your horse. There is a nice lunch spot just before the Indian Grave Gap Trail (#3) (you’ll know it as it’s after you turn back North but before the fork).
The trail merges with the Indian Grave Gap Trail (@ #3) and heads due east. At this point (and if you have the Trails Illustrated Map you will see this via the contour lines) the trial is a gentle grade on the very top of a steep ridge. There are beautiful views to the north (Townsend) and south (Cades Cove).  This might be the ridge where you can see 5 states, but I’m not sure. This section of the Indian Gap Trail is also a great place to trot or slow canter. The trail is mostly gravel and well maintained. There is one fork (@ #4) where you just stay to the right.
The decent starts when you reach the Crooked Arm Ridge Trail (#5).  This is a very steep descent and there are some very tricky switchbacks. Our horses are very surefooted but we still dismounted a few times. There was also a tree across the trail that could not be ridden around (hikers had just gone under it).  We hacked it up and moved it enough to get past, but it wasn’t easy.
There is a creek once you reach the bottom of the descent. This is the first open water since leaving the creek on the Rich Mountain Loop Trail and the horses were thirsty as it was a hot and humid day.
We walked the half mile back to the trailer once we reached the final fork (#2) to let the horses have a break.
This ride was a good four hours as the descent is rather slow. Take plenty of water and some snacks for yourself. A few peppermints for the ponies would be a welcome treat during the breaks.
Things we have in our saddle bags:

  1. Map
  2. Compass
  3. Water Bottles
  4. Sunscreen
  5. Snacks (trail mix, sandwiches, granola bars)
  6. Small first aid kit
  7. Wasp/Hornet spray
Other suggestions:
  1. Hatchet (for trees on the trail)
  2. Vet Wrap and Duct Tape (which is like a mini horse first aid kit)
  3. Bug spray if you will be out early or close to sunset


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