This loop starts off easy and is mostly pleasant to navigate for the first 12 miles. Then it gets tough. There are numerous downed trees, and the trail can be very difficult to follow. The views are reward enough for the challenge, though.
Several creek crossings and downed trees.
Begin at the Beech Gap Trailhead at the NC/TN state line to head east on a forest road (trail 95/Fodderstack Horse Trail/Strawberry Knob Road) for 1.7 miles.
At the first junction, bear right on the Bob Bald Connector #54A
trail, to climb 900 feet over the next 2.3 miles, bearing right around mile 3.0 to turn on to trail 54, Stratton Bald Trail #54
. The dense forest transitions from pines to oaks and poplars and finally to rhododendron and mountain laurel. Water up at mile 3.8 at a piped spring.
At mile 4.0, enjoy the open, grassy summit of Bob Stratton Bald with views of the surrounding peaks and Santeelah Lake.
At mile 4.7, bear left on Haoe Lead Trail #53
. This trail offers expansive views of the valleys on both sides.
At the next junction (mile 6.0), bear left on Hangover Lead Trail # 56 . At mile 6.2, detour right 0.3 miles to The Hangover for great views of lakes and ridges.
Returning to Hangover Lead Trail # 56 , begin your descent to Big Fat Gap. There are several seeps over the next few miles, but no major creeks with year-round water. At mile 7.0, there are some amazing overlooks of the valley below, but don't miss the sharp right turn in the trail. The game trail leading down the ridge quickly becomes an overgrown adventure l through the rhododendron if you're not paying attention. Continue on to Big Fat Gap at mile 9.7, an alternate ending point if you don't want to do the whole lollipop.
Turn left on Big Fat Trail #41
, to descend 1,200 feet over the next 2.5 miles. At the bottom of the hill, turn left at the junction with Nichols Cove Trail #44
, then almost immediately right on trail Slickrock Creek Trail #42
. At mile 12, turn right to ford Slickrock Creek and detour 0.6 miles to Wildcat Falls
(after another ford of Slickrock Creek). The pool at the base of the falls is perfect for a swim on a hot summer's day. Watch for coyote, black bear, and whitetail deer in this area.
Retrace your steps back upstream to Big Stack Gap Branch Trail #139
, (mile 12.75). Turn right on Big Stack Gap Branch Trail #139
and start the long climb (1600 feet in 1.6 miles) up to Trail 95. Around mile 14.4, you'll find a small spring where you can top off your water. It may be a while before you find any more. Turning left on trail 95 at mile 14.7, the going gets tough. There are numerous downed trees for the next several miles that make following Trail 95 difficult.
Trail 95 climbs slowly for about 0.7 miles before descending 0.3 miles to Big Stack Gap. This is where the fun begins, an intense climb (900 feet in 1.0 miles) up to mile 17 near the top of Big Fodderstack Mountain, taking a left at a sharp right switchback near the top. The trail becomes difficult to follow around this point because of light usage and downed hemlocks. Skirt around the southern side of the mountain to Harrison Gap, keeping an eye out for places where the trail disappears. A GPS will come in handy during this section.
Around mile 21, continue straight on Trail 95 at the junction with Trail 98. At mile 21.3, turn right to stay on trail 95. At mile 22, top your water off with the headwaters of Citico Creek's North Fork. At mile 22.6, turn left on Forest Road Trail 149, Cold Spring Gap trail. At mile 24, turn right turn onto Strawberry Knob Road and continue 1.7 miles back to the trailhead, retracing the first section you took.
Expect to see wildflowers in spring around any of the valleys. This area has one of the largest concentrations of bears in East TN/Western NC, so keep an eye out.