If a little bit of Great Smoky Mountains National Park history with a nice easy hike and not too many other people is your cup of tea, then the Old Sugarlands Trail could not come more highly recommended. Located directly across from the park headquarters on Newfound Gap Road, this small treasure is almost hidden in plain sight. Just park in the small pull-off on the side of the road.
This is a remarkably easy trail to complete. It is slightly less than four miles to the cemetery and back, and has only a few short stretches of mild incline.
The first thing you might notice as you begin to walk into the forest is that the sound of the traffic seems to completely disappear. Although some cars may be visible as they cross the bridge near the trailhead, the sound of the West Prong Little Pigeon River completely drowns out the sound of civilization.
The bridge near the trailhead, like many other stone structures in the national park, was built in the early 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps, or CCC. This Depression-era organization was part of an effort to employ young men who were unable to find work. It's purpose was to build and upgrade national park infrastructure.
At roughly 1/5th of a mile in, you may notice a huge rock cliff formation of gray feldspathic sandstone, which is one of the oldest types of rock found in the Appalachian Mountains. This cliff face was used as a quarry to build the original paved roads across the Smoky Mountains.
From this point onward for a little more than a mile, the trail winds lazily into the forest as you follow the river. The next destination you will find is the old CCC camp, but in the meantime there are plenty of places to stop and enjoy the river. After a good rain, the water volume here can be very impressive.
You may notice as the trail flattens and straightens, that the remains of an actual paved road was once where you are walking. This was Tennessee Highway 71. It may be hard to believe with all the dense forest having taken over the landscape, but this was once the location of the Sky-u-ka hotel and a general store with gas pumps, among other amenities which supported the Sugarlands community and the early fledgling tourism industry.
As you continue your journey, there will be a “T” intersection with an old stone structure that can just barely be seen through the trees. This is the CCC clock tower. This general area was the site of two CCC camps that operated here from 1933 to 1942. Turn right to continue on the Old Sugarlands Trail.
Along your path you’ll be able to find faint remnants of the communities that once lived here. Plates and flatware, cans and bottles, and even the remains of utility poles, chimneys and guardrails can be found scattered around the surrounding landscapes. Year after year they slowly fade into history as they’re slowly consumed by nature’s unstoppable will.
The trail will curve to the left just past a perfectly straight row of Eastern Hemlock trees, which were planted as decoration in the Sugarlands community. After the trail curves you may continue straight on the Old Sugarlands Trail which will eventually junction with Cherokee Orchard Road. Our destination for this post is the Old Sugarlands Cemetery, which can be reached by a small service road that begins on the trail just past the row of hemlocks.
You will arrive at another “T” intersection, turning left will take you to the cemetery. Here you will be as close to the history of this community as you may ever get. The names of many prominent families are represented here such as the Partons and the Ogles. These are the people that called the Sugarlands home. They grew the crops, made syrups and medicines from the local trees, and developed the original community that gave this place its rich history.
If ever there was a trail on which to immerse yourself in the history of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, this one is certainly it.
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