Added by Chaney Swiney
An (almost) all downhill, one-way hike that descends from the spruce-fir forests of the Great Smoky Mountains' highest peaks to the cove hardwoods, rhododendron, and hemlock forests below. Sugarland Mountain Trail is a fantastic transect that allows hikers to see a wide variety of the biodiversity the Smokies are known for in one marvelous hike from the AT to Fighting Creek Gap.
Starting on the AT at just under 6,000 feet and ending at Fighting Creek Gap, just under 2,300 feet in elevation, the Sugarland Mountain Trail is a grand descent from the high divide of the Smokies. The spruce-fir forest where the trail begins is a remnant of the last ice age, when a cooler climate meant that these trees were far more widespread along the Appalachians than they are today. Now, these leftover populations cling to the highest peaks of the Southern Appalachians, where elevation is a substitute for latitude. These woods seem more like Maine than Tennessee. Indeed, elevation and relief are what give the Smokies the biodiversity that make this not just a National Park but a World Heritage Site, as well. The high peaks, verdant lowlands, and forested coves harbor a spectacular array of species, especially rich in trees and salamanders. All this, and more, is on display on the Sugarland Mountain Trail.
This is best achieved as a day hike with two cars. Park one in the parking lot at the Laurel Falls Trailhead, then head up Newfound Gap and out towards Clingmans Dome, parking at the pullout where the Fork Ridge Trail heads off to the south and an access trail connects to the AT to the north.
Once on the AT, head south (which is really west on this segment) briefly until you arrive at the junction with the Sugarland Mountain Trail. From here, it's basically all downhill. Shortly after leaving the junction, a side trail leads to the Mount Collins Shelter. You're just below the peak of Mount Collins, which sits east of Clingmans Dome, the park's high point. Check out the shelter, used by AT hikers on their way north as well as backpackers exploring the park. A nearby spring provides water (which should be filtered) but you probably aren't too thirsty yet.
The first 4.8 miles of the trail follows the ridge north as it descends, flanked by two valleys: the Little River to the west and the West Prong Little Pigeon River to the east. About three miles from the junction with the AT, the forest breaks and you should have a view east towards Chimney Tops, a popular hike that's very much worth doing. As you descend, notice the changing forest. The spruce-fir gives way to northern hardwoods like striped maple, white basswood, and yellow buckeye. At 4.8 miles from the AT, the trail arrives at another junction, this time with Rough Creek Trail (which descends east to the Little River Trail below).
It's 4.1 miles to the next junction, and eventually the trail leaves the ridge as the ridge becomes less defined. Now below 4,000 feet, the forest again shifts in favor of hemlocks, tuliptrees, red and sugar maples, and other hardwoods that inhabit these slopes and coves. Rhododendron becomes more prevalent, too, and a well-timed summer hike can see these blooming in beauty.
At Huskey Gap, the aptly named Huskey Gap Trail descends to the east and west. East leads again to the Little River Trail and Elkmont. West leads to Newfound Gap Road and is a slightly shorter alternative to following Sugarland Mountain Trail all the way down (though only if you parked your car at this trailhead instead).
The final 3.1 miles wind among the lower ridges, crossing through Mids Gap before dropping at last down to Fighting Creek Gap. Laurel Falls is an extremely popular hike, so don't be surprised if the parking lot is far fuller than when you first deposited your car.
Deer and black bear are common sightings along this trail, along with a vast array of birds and salamanders (if you know where to look). Few day hikes in Great Smoky Mountains National Park can compete with the biodiversity on display in a descent along the Sugarland Mountain Trail. Summer is the best time for high species counts, but spring holds the colorful wildflowers and fall is ablaze with red, orange, and yellow leaves. Winter, though surely beautiful, is less feasible as Clingmans Dome Road is closed, thus thwarting the two-car system.
- Hiking boots
- Field Guides if you can - salamanders, birds, and plants all merit identification
- Trekking poles - could help ease the long descent
- Nat Geo Trails Illustrated map - helps ID the views and keep you oriented
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