I looked forward with much anticipation to today’s hike on Old Settlers Trail for several reasons. One, Greenbrier Road to the trailhead would be closing on December 31 and I would not have another chance to hike here until March. Two, this hike is 17 miles without bailout points (well, actually…) and so not for the faint-hearted. Three, Judy would be hiking it with me and she’s always happy to be hiking. Four, winter is a great season for this trail because it is filled with old home sites and signs of pre-Park habitation that is easiest to see when the leaves are off the trees.
Judy and I met at the Oak Orchard store, left my car, headed to the trailhead off Greenbrier Road and were hiking by about 8:00 a.m. The trail almost immediately passes into the heart of the former Greenbrier community. As the “brown book” (“Hiking Trails of the Smokies”) describes it: “Although it is not known exactly how many people lived along the watershed, more than 250 children attended school here in the early 1900s and the community supported a general store and two churches. Several hundred families made their living here, primarily as small farmers, until Tennessee began purchasing their land for a national park in the late 1920s.” And once the families had moved out, the CCC moved a base camp in.
The only hiker we met on the trail today was a Park ranger hiking in the opposite direction. He clued us in to the numerous unofficial side trails (also called manways) along Old Settlers. Most trails in the Park only have signs at intersections, but occasionally there are signs that simply name the trail and point in two directions, as if to say “keep going.” These are to divert hikers from the unmaintained side trails. Old Settlers Trail has many such places because it roughly parallels Highway 321, and the ranger told us that on the backs of the signs people have scratched in the destination of the side trails, usually a campground or resort or public road. So if you really need an emergency bailout point, keeping track of where these side trails are can help. Talking with the ranger was a real treat and Judy and I wished we had a ranger or interpreter for the entire trail.
The temps were cold today as the trail went up and down, up and down. The names of some of the creeks we crossed: Bird Branch, Copeland Creek, Snakefeeder Branch, Soak Ash Creek, Timothy Creek, Noisy Creek, Tumbling Branch, Texas Creek, Webb Creek, Indian Camp Creek. We also walked up and over places known as Copeland Divide, Snag Mountain and Chestnut Divide (the toughest climb, highest elevation today and a little bit of snow.) Now, how can you resist a place with such colorful names?
Some of the biggest chills we got, literally, were in the bottomlands at old home sites near creeks. The air would suddenly feel cooler as we passed through the trees – was the cold air trapped in the holler or were the souls of former residents still living there? There are a couple of cemeteries along the trail that we did not visit today – but I know I’ll be back.
As we came around a switchback on Chestnut Divide we glimpsed a hunting dog wearing a large radio collar. He took a quick look at us and then ran off in the same direction we were going – didn’t give us even a backward glance. Within a couple of moments he began barking his head off along with another dog. We speculated that they had probably sent some animal up a tree. The barking went on and on and on until we finally walked out of earshot. They are probably still there.
The highlights of the day (and there were many of them) were the old home sites along Old Settlers Trail. The “brown book” has a good description but even it cannot list them all. There are extraordinary rock walls like the one at the beginning of this post, four or five feet high and two or three feet thick, that go on for a hundred yards or more. At one point they line both sides of the trail. Some have been knocked over by fallen trees and some look like they were just completed yesterday. I particularly liked this one where the farmer started with what God had already placed there – a big boulder.
We passed at least a dozen chimneys in various stages and they all had the distinctive inverted V shape in the outline of the hearth. We learned later that the same man built nearly all the chimneys in the Greenbrier area and this was a sign of his workmanship. If you see chimneys elsewhere in the Park they are straight across the top of the opening because they were made by other people. One homesite boasted two chimneys in the home, and one site was particularly awesome because we could see the remains of the chimney, the rock wall marking the front of the property, and outside the edge of the photo is a beautiful creek with a little cascade – an idyllic setting.
Closer to the Maddron Bald end of the trail (but don’t ask me how close) is the Tyson McCarter Place. The home is gone but the barn is still standing intact and is an amazing example of design, boards and ingenious door hinges.
The small outbuilding's new roof was made from a tree that had recently fallen about 10 yards away from it.