“An arduous trail full of wet and difficult terrain.
— Ken Wise
River/Creek · Wildflowers
At the bottom of a narrow boulder-strewn gorge, the Cold Spring Gap Trail competes with the Cold Spring Branch for the path of least resistance through wet, cramped, and intensely rugged terrain. The grade is steep, cluttered with loose stones, and often saturated from channels escaping the stream.
The lower stretch of the Cold Spring Gap Trail is a deceiving prelude to the rough conditions ahead. From the intersection with the Hazel Creek Trail
, the trail follows an old wagon trace that descends gradually to a difficult crossing of Hazel Creek. At the crossing, the creek is well over 10 yards wide and can easily exceed three feet deep when running high.
After crossing Hazel Creek, the trail climbs gradually through a scattering of old homesites tucked in among the lower contours of High Rocks Ridge, before merging onto an abandoned railroad grade. Just over a mile past the Hazel Creek crossing, the trail completes a long sharp switchback, upstream, to the left.
From this point, the grade markedly steepens and the way is wet and difficult. Feeder streams and seepages have washed away the soil, leaving a rough track of exposed water-slickened rocks to scramble over.
As the trail progresses, the grade continues to steepen. Occasionally overflow from the Cold Spring Gap escapes into the trail making it difficult to gain traction. A footbridge in one of the wetter places does little to help, as the wet wood is slicker than the wet rocks. Altogether, the trail here is an exceedingly difficult and exhausting climb.
Despite the arduous conditions, the boulder strewn slopes flanking the trail are oddly attractive. Minimal undergrowth and stands of tall slender poplars allow hikers an unobscured field of view. A mile past the switchback the trail makes the first of two crossings with the Cold Spring Branch. Progress is difficult here as the ground is often rutted and muddy. When it rains, the track becomes a mess of shifting stones and mire. Conditions do become a bit drier as elevation is gained, but the steepness and ruts remain.
The final 300 yard climb into Cold Spring Gap is perceptibly steeper. The trail over this stretch is wide, rocky, and littered with ruts. Once in the gap, the trail intersects the lower terminus of the Welch Ridge Trail
This content was contributed by author Ken Wise. For a comprehensive hiking guide to the Great Smoky Mountains and to see more by Ken, click here
Flora & Fauna
Except along the stream bed where the rhododendron is thick and luxurious, there is very little woody undergrowth along the trail. Most of what thrives close to the ground are leafy plants and low browse, particularly stinging nettles and may-apples. Wild ginger, yellow lady’s-slippers, wild geraniums, crested dwarf irises, pink turtleheads, purple wakerobins, and a variety of other trilliums are among the wildflowers that dot the slopes in the spring. The tree cover is mostly tall, slender, second-growth yellow poplars sparsely scattered across the landscape.