Great Smoky Mountains National Park: Purchase Road to Purchase Knob & Cataloochee Divide Trail - Purchase Knob to Hemphill Bald, Maggie Valley, North Carolina
The Cataloochee area of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is an overlooked and very scenic region. Cataloochee Divide marks the eastern boundary of GSMNP in this area, separating Cataloochee Valley and Maggie Valley. Cataloochee Divide Trail might be one of the most spectacular trail in the entire park, if hiked during winter. Views sprout in all directions. However, the section described here is a good hike even during summer, with amazing views from Hemphill Bald and Purchase Knob. Along the way back, take a minute to stop at and explore the Ferguson Cabin located just below Purchase Knob. This hike occurred on Thursday, December 25th, 2014. My plan was to park at the gate on Purchase Road, and then hike up Purchase Road to Purchase Knob. From there, I would pick up the Cataloochee Divide Trail and follow it past the The SWAG to Hemphill Bald. I would retrace my steps back, but instead of climbing back up Purchase Knob, I would shortcut it using the Ferguson Cabin Trail.
R/T Length of Trail: 9.4 Miles
Duration of Hike: 5:05
Type of Hike: Out and back
Difficulty Rating: 6 out of 10
Pros: Many views; historical features
Cons: Confusing sections of trail on Ferguson Cabin Trail
Scenic Views: Purchase Knob - 8 stars; Gooseberry Knob - 7 stars; Hemphill Bald - 8 stars
Water Features: None
Best Season(s) to Hike: Winter
Trail Blaze Color(s): None
Beginning Point: Pullout at Great Smoky Mountains National Park gate on Purchase Road
Directions: From Maggie Valley, NC: Follow US Route 276 north for 2.9 miles until Grindstone Road. Turn left onto Grindstone Road and follow it for about 5 miles to the gate and a small pullout on the left right before it. Road name will change to Hemphill Road and eventually Purchase Road.
The Appalachian Highlands Science Learning Center is located in a pretty spot, up on Purchase Knob. The true summit of Purchase Knob i actually a bit farther and higher, and technically where AHSLC is is Purchase Gap, but most people refer it to as Purchase Knob anyway. The first part of this hike is along a gravel road, but you're unlikely to see anyone driving, except sometimes on weekdays. Also, if by some chance the gate on Purchase Road is open, DO NOT drive in. You may get locked in.
From the gate, Purchase Road climbs slightly, following a small creek. In 0.2 miles, the gravel road crosses the creek and a powerline cut, and then continues to climb the slopes of Purchase Knob. Winter views are abundant. Most of the first mile is not very steep, but still a steady climb. At around 1.3 miles, the gravel road continues forward, while a grassy road goes left, with the AHSLC visible on the top of the Purchase Knob. Take the grassy road, and immediately, keep right, while the Ferguson Cabin Trail continues forward. The grassy path steeply climbs up the bald, with increasing views behind you. The steep climbs ends at 1.7 miles at the Appalachian Highlands Learning Center. Great views abound in all directions, and the next summit just to the the north is the true summit of Purchase Knob. Take a minute and enjoy the panorama. From here, there are several ways to reach the Cataloochee Divide Trail. I went behind the building and saw a sign "To Cataloochee Divide Trail", but the way that path twisted around (and it is seen on the map too), I doubt it was the quickest route. The description will follow the route I took though. The path starts at the upper left corner and starts to descend. What I don't like about this is that you descend 70 feet, and then climb back up to just a bit higher than you were before. This trail descends until it reaches another, wider trail at 1.8 miles. Turn right here, and begin climbing back up. Reach yet another trail at 2 miles. I suspect turning right is a shorter way back to AHSLC, but for the Cataloochee Divide Trail, turn left. This trail shortly brings you out onto the Cataloochee Divide Trail.
If you turn right, it will eventually bring you to Cove Creek Gap in 4.5 miles. However, Hemphill Bald is the left way. Once you turn left, it is a delightful downhill through a rhododendron tunnel. At 2.3 miles, the trail reaches a gap. Here, McKee Branch Trail turns right and heads down toward Caldwell Fork and Cataloochee Valley. Ferguson Cabin Trail turns left. Remember this spot - you will turn onto Ferguson Cabin Trail here on the way back. After this, boardwalks help you get through a short muddy section, and then the trail rounds a small knob. The next gap is reached at 2.8 miles. From here, the trail starts the climb up to Gooseberry Knob and The SWAG. The climb is not very steep for the most part. At 3.1 miles, an opening in the fence on the left provides access to a nature trail. I assume this nature trail goes to Cataloochee Ranch. The Cataloochee Divide Trail reaches Goosberry Knob at 3.3 miles. There are great views here, similar to those from Purchase Knob, but a little more blocked by trees on the right. Cataloochee Ski Resort is now in the view on the upper right - on the way back, it made for a great night photo. After Gooseberry Knob, the trail steeply descends into an unnamed gap, only to steeply ascend onto an unnamed knob at 3.7 miles, home of The SWAG. Judging by the solitude around the inn, it seemed like it wasn't their season and no one stays there in winter. After The SWAG, some more climbing will lead to another unnamed knob at 4.1 miles. Winter views abound into the heart of the Smokies. A short descent leads to Double Gap at 4.2 miles.
Double Gap kindof lives up to its name - the gap is long, and one could say it is double. The gap marks the end of Cataloochee Divide Trail Here, Hemphill Bald Trail comes out from the right and goes forward. If turning right, the Hemphill Bald Trail eventually reaches the upper reaches of Caldwell Fork. From Polls Gap on Heintooga Ridge Road, an excellent loop option ( a longer hike than the one described here) would be Rough Fork Trail - Caldwell Fork Trail - Hemphill Bald Trail Loop, equal to 13.7 miles. I haven't hiked it yet,but it is in my plans for one day. Anyways, back to the trail description, the second main climb of the day starts after Double Gap. Over the next 0.7 miles, the trail climbs 500 feet o the summit of Hemphill Bald. From Double Gap, you can see much of the bald portion of Hemphill Bald, but the summit observation area cannot be seen from here. The trail first follows the Cataloochee Ranch barbed wire fence, but then veers into the woods. As I rose above 5000 feet, a trace of snow appeared on the ground from last night's light snow event. As the trail climbs, it provides good views to the ridges to the north and west. As you near the summit of Hemphill Bald, the closest ridge on the right is Heintooga Ridge/Balsam Mountain. While there are several views before the summit, you will know when you reach the main one. A small passage through the fence on the left lets you into a fenced area of land, with outstanding 180-degree views. While there are similar to Purchase Knob, they might be even better. The reason is that since Purchase Knob is at a lower elevation, the ridge that houses Cataloochee Ski resort would block the view beyond it. Now, that ridge is directly below you, and you can see the numerous ridges to the right that fade away into Nantahala National Forest. Straight ahead on the horizon, the farthest ridge is the Black Mountains. The observation area also has some information about Cataloochee Ranch and a stone table. This is a place not to rush from. I waited for nightfall and got an excellent picture of Cataloochee Ski Resort and Maggie Valley shining in the dark.
It may be tempting to stay for a while at Hemphill Bald, but eventually, you'll have to go back. Retrace your steps all the way back to where I earlier talked about the Ferguson Cabin Trail junction. This trail is now on your right. Turn onto it, and start descending steeply along the slopes of Purchase Knob. Soon, the trail splits - the hiking trail goes right and the horse trail keeps forward. Turn right, and continue descending steeply. Then, reach a confusing spot. The trail briefly follows a small stream's bed (usually you should be able to stay dry here). After leaving the stream, reach Ferguson Cabin. take a minute to look around it and inside it, then go to the back of the house and take the wide path that heads right. There will shortly be a small spring. Even though there are few sign,s you should be able to tell what is the main path, as it is the widest. Climb slightly, with Purchase Knob and Appalachian Highlands Science Learning Center coming into view, and then reach Purchase Road. Turn right, and follow the road back to your car.
To summarize, this might be one of the best hikes I've done in the Smokies yet. Mt. LeConte was supposed to b really good, but if you have been reading my blog for a while, you'll know that I didn't manage to see any views that day. I rate this hike a Best Hike. Below are my pictures and videos.
Year 1: 540.0 Miles
Year 2: 552.3 Miles
Year 3: 518.4 Miles
Year 4: 390.5 Miles