This loop has a little bit of everything - lovely, rolling hills along Cataloochee Divide, great views from Hemphill Bald, iconic Smokies' forests, a remote, backcountry feel, and a challenging descent and climb to round out this great hike.
Begin your hike on the the Hemphill Bald Trail
which starts at the east end of Polls Gap along a wide, level, smooth trace that was once a railroad grade. The first noticeable change in grade is a mile and half beyond Polls Gap when the trail reaches the Cataloochee Divide and drops into Garretts Gap.
From the gap, the trail enters an easy 500-yard climb around the north side of Buck Knob
. Upon circling the knob, the trail returns to the crest of the divide and begins a gentle three-quarter-mile descent to Maggot Spring Gap.
From Maggot Spring Gap, the trail resumes an easy cadence of climbing and descending along the spine of the Cataloochee Divide which, from this point, also corresponds with the park boundary. Over a two-mile interval, the trail visits Sheepback Knob, Little Bald Knob, Pine Tree Gap, and Hemphill Bald.
When it leaves the summit of Hemphill Bald, the trail enters a steep three-quarter-mile descent into Double Gap. For most of the way, the trail remains within the woods, offering no clear vantage points. At Double Gap, the path meets the western terminus of the Cataloochee Divide Trail
From there, the Hemphill Bald Trail
turns left and proceeds into the Cataloochee basin on a steep angling course across the north flank of the divide. The trail becomes progressively rougher, soon reaching a boulder-strewn terrain thick with vines and low woody infestations. A little more than a half-mile below Double Gap, the trail makes a sharp switchback across the boulder field. Seepages are frequent. In places where the slope is especially steep, openings in the forest permit views of Mount Sterling Ridge and the main Smoky divide.
Seven hundred yards below the switchback, the trail crosses the headwaters of Double Gap Branch. The trail continues descending steeply for a little more than a half-mile to a second switchback that brings it into the Double Gap Branch drainage. Over the next mile, the route crosses a couple of feeder streams and crosses the Double Gap Branch four more times.
Just prior to the third crossing, a large northern red oak sits to the right of the trail. This particular tree was once identified by the TVA Forestry Division as having superior timber-producing qualities and as a source for developing seed stock.
A little more than a half-mile below the third crossing, the trail clears Double Gap Branch for the final time before proceeding 250 yards to terminate into the Caldwell Fork Trail
in a small forest opening. Take a left and continue on the Caldwell Fork Trail
. Shortly after this junction, you'll come to Backcountry Camp 41, Caldwell Fork which is the only backcountry camping option along this loop. You'll begin a steady climb on this trail which is heavily forested until you come to a junction with the Rough Fork Trail
after approximately two miles of climbing.
Take a left onto the Rough Fork Trail
which will continue to climb and will get a bit steeper offering, at various times, nice views of the Cataloochee Divide. The trail climbs a bit more through the thick woods as it eventually comes to a stop at the Polls Gap parking area completing the loop.
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
The previously clear-cut slopes along the start of the trail is most populated by yellow birch, with sugar maples becoming noticeable about a half-mile out from Polls Gap.
Rhododendron thickets enclose much of the trail along the two-mile interval between Sheepback Knob and Hemphill Bald. In more open areas wild geranium, prostrate bluet, blue bead lily, false Solomon’s-seal, wood-betony, and Jack-in-the pulpit may be seen.
The descent into Double Gap is characterized by a progression from a red spruce, yellow birch, northern red oak mix to that of second-growth stands of white basswood, mountain maple, eastern hemlock, and sugar maple.
On the ridge near the Double Gap Branch drainage, black locust, greenbrier, and mountain laurel are prevalent. As the trail approaches the stream, hemlock and rhododendron become predominant.