This is a description for a 9 mile loop in the Great Smoky Mountain National Park. This ride does have a few tricky spots, but I would rate this much easier than the 8.6 mile ride I described yesterday. The elevation gain on this ride is also not as severe even though it makes a loop and has two climbs and two descents.
This ride starts at the first truck and trailer accessible parking spot when you enter the park from Townsend and are heading towards Cades Cove. The parking spot is about a mile past the tunnel and is indicated as a black half circle on the Trails Illustrated Map.
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).
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.
The parking spot (#1 on the map) is where both the Schoolhouse Gap Trail (to the north of the road) and the Bote Mountain Trail (to the south of the road) terminate at Laurel Creek Road. We rode this route clockwise by starting heading north from the parking spot on the Schoolhouse Gap Trail. This part of the ride is nice with a smooth grade and can be ridden two abreast for most of the climb.
The Schoolhouse Gap Trail intersects (@ #2 on the map) with the Turkeypen Ridge Trail. Follow the Turkeypen Ridge trail to the left. This trail is single file and has some pretty steep terrain. There are times when you are riding on the side of a very steep mountain with a very long drop on the down hill side.
Once you have descended all the way to the bottom of the Turkeypen Ridge Trail (before the intersection) there is a nice lunch spot with some running water that the horses might enjoy.
The Turkeypen Ridge Trail intersects at a four way intersection (@ #3 on the map). Take the left most trail which is the Finley Cane Trail. This is a bit tricky as the trail goes under the road in a stream. You wouldn’t want to hike this portion as you will be wet from the ankles down, but the ponies didn’t seem to mind.
Just under the bridge there is a fork in the trail (# 4 on the map), just stay to the left on the Finley Cane Trail. The Finley Cane Trail is mostly gentle grade and we did trot intermittently. We did come across a very large underground hornet’s nest but luckly nobody was stung. My wife yelled out “Hornets!” kicked her mare into a run and left me with the swarm. I likewise ran up the trail a few hundred yards then dismounted to check for hornets. There were some stuck in my mare’s mane and two trying to sting the polo wraps. This is why from now on we will ride with hornet/wasp spray in our saddle bags.
There is a hitching post about 3/4 of the way up the Finley Cane Trail before you reach the next intersection which would be another good stopping place to give the ponies a break.
The next intersection with the West Prong Trail (@ #5 on the map) is well marked. From here back to the parking area the trail is very well maintained and wide enough to ride two abreast and can also be trotted or cantered.
The intersection with the Bote Mountain Trail (@ #6 on the map) is also well marked and is a gentle grade back down to the parking areas. While this could be another area to trot or canter, we kept it at a modest walking pace as we like to let them cool down as we get towards the end of our ride.
This ride was a good four hours. While not as rough as the 8.6 mile ride I listed yesterday, this is still a 3/5 in terms of terrain and skill (while the other was like a 4 or even a 4.5). 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:
- Water Bottles
- Snacks (trail mix, sandwiches, granola bars)
- Small first aid kit
- Wasp/Hornet spray
- Hatchet (for trees on the trail)
- Vet Wrap and Duct Tape (which is like a mini horse first aid kit)