One of our favorite spots for winter camping is along the Old Settlers Trail in the Greenbrier section of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. While the mountaintops do offer spectacular views in the crisp winter air, we crave for some greenery amid the bare, gray branches of the trees. And you can find just that in the rhododendron thickets that line the lush mountain streams of Old Settlers Trail. This bottomland is also home to an abundance of evergreen Christmas fern and mosses galore. So if this winter is got you craving for green, wonderful green…glorious green, then you’re gonna love this refreshing walk in the woods.
The approximately17-mile trail was actually created by the Park Service in the 1970’s as a wintertime long-hike alternative to the famous Appalachian Trail whose higher elevation threatens hikers with severe weather during the cold season. Old Settlers Trail is best hiked using a two-car shuttle with the second vehicle parked at the Maddron Bald Trailhead. For experienced hikers, it can be accomplished in one, very long dayhike. Better yet, divide it in two and stay overnight at backcountry campsite # 33 which is approximately 6.7 miles from the trailhead off Ramsey Cascades Road.
Although Old Settlers Trail never attains much in elevation, it continually rises and falls, winding from one watershed to another. Because it’s one of the flattest of mountain trails, Old Settlers makes for even a nice short walk; you can reach some of it’s wonderful stone walls in about an hour from the parking area off Ramsey Cascades Road. And in springtime it’s easy to see where the old homesteads were located by all the daffodils blooming. The trail traverses an area that was once the most heavily populated in the Smokies making it one of the most historically rich trails in the park.
The numerous creek crossings on the trail are by footlogs or rock-hops, and they are fairly easily maneuvered except during high water periods usually in spring. At about mile 1.5 at the top of Copeland Divide, winter is the season to catch a glimpse of the Cat Stairs of the rocky Greenbrier Pinnacle. Because the ridges are so narrow and the creek valleys are so numerous, many of this hike’s highlights are the sights of old chimneys, remnants of outbuildings and barns, and rock walls along the creeks. One such homestead you pass when at Little Bird Branch is of the great aunt of Sevier County’s hometown hero Dolly Parton. So many Partons grew up along Little Bird Branch that it was known to many in the community as “Partontown.”
Great Smoky Mountains National Park required a permit for all backcountry camping. The permits are free and are available at Park Ranger Stations, Visitor Centers, and Campground Offices.