Charlie’s Bunion via Kephart Prong Hike :: Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Hiking in the Smokies has always been special to me, whether it was the short hikes I did as a child visiting for almost every Spring Break or the backpacking trips that helped me gain confidence in the outdoors.

But, oftentimes, I’m hiking alone and, for whatever reason, this brings me so much more anxiety when I’m in the Smokies. I think there’s a lot of reasons I’m more anxious here (bears, no cell service, etc.) but I don’t let it stop me from experiencing a place that means so much to me.

This hike to Charlie’s Bunion was no different. I was straight up scared, but I wouldn’t admit it to myself. It was a combination of little sleep the night before, an early wake up call and the fact that I had to make the drive back to Nashville that same day.

Panoramic view of the Smoky mountains in the fall
The view from Charlie’s Bunion

I wanted to see this highlight of the park, but, of course, I didn’t want to do the typical route. It just wasn’t a “long” enough hike and I wanted to challenge. So, I took an alternate route via Kephart Prong, Grassy Branch, Dry Sluice Gap, the AT, then back down the Sweat Heifer Trail connecting back to Kephart Prong. It was a bit ambitious for a day hike (about 15 miles), but that’s what I do! It would also make a fantastic overnight backpack. There’s 2 shelters along the way – Kephart (2 miles from trailhead) and Icewater Spring (7 miles from trailhead) – that are great places to camp. Just make sure you get a permit!

I drove to the Kephart Prong trailhead in the dark, the sun rising just as I stepped out of my car on the trailhead and the rushing creek greeted me, providing some solace. The first part of the trail follows the Kephart Prong and it’s the perfect picture of a Smoky Mountain stream complete with log footbridges crossing the creek as the trail gently zig-zagged over it. It was a beautiful walk in the early morning as I made sure to keep my eyes up around every corner, to be sure that I didn’t startle any wildlife. My initial anxiety calmed a bit and I decided to have a snack just before the Kephart shelter.

Let’s just say that snack was not the best idea. A few minutes later, my anxious belly was churning as I began a steady climb on the Grassy Branch Trail. Soon, I began to feel nauseous and light headed. I stopped, put my hands on my knees and tried to take deep breaths. But, that only partially helped and that snack came right back up. I plopped down right in the middle of the trail and had to evaluate if I was going to continue on. After a few cautious sips of water and sitting with my head between my legs for a few minutes, I decided to truck along. I kept evaluating each step I took to make sure that I felt ok.

I don’t remember a small portion of the Grassy Branch trail because all I was focused on was putting one foot in front of the other. I climbed steadily and passed rhododendron groves and colorful trees and parts of the trail that look like deep ruts through the trees. I always find it interesting that many of the trails in the Smokies are not blazed at all. But, they are so well worn that you don’t worry if you aren’t on the trail.

Over the course of Grassy Branch and Dry Sluice Gap, you gain about 3,000 feet of elevation. I’m sure my legs notices it but I was so focused on not feeling sick, that the elevation gains flew right by.

I didn’t see a single soul until I turned onto the AT. It’s always equally thrilling and scary to not see someone when you feel so remote. Most of the portion on this section of the AT is flat. So, it’s a nice break from the climb you just conquered.

Now, the actual Charlie’s Bunion is not the classic “tourist” Charlie’s Bunion. I’ll leave it to you to find the “real” one. There’s a little narrow path that branches off the AT and takes you to the geographic Bunion. (Plus, I was the only one there. I was most definitely NOT the only on at the other one!) While it is a cliche place in the Smokies, it is definitely a beautiful view. I went almost at the peak of fall color, so I was rewarded with a rainbow of fall colors.

After departing from the Bunion, I headed southbound on the AT headed for the Sweat Heifer turn-off. Not long after, a nice gentleman asked if I could take a picture of him next to a wayfinding sign to send his wife. He was hiking a long section of the AT and we got to hike together for a few miles. While I’ve never seriously considered thru-hiking, it felt like I got a little ‘trail magic’ in getting to have a hiking partner. It also greatly calmed my nerves even more. I was ready to attack the back half of the hike. (Plus, I managed to get a few calories in my body, so I was feeling a bit stronger.)

The Sweat Heifer Trail was a diamond in the rough. I really enjoyed this hike back down the mountains. There were great views peeking through the tree, little stream cascades and everything just felt like a Smoky Mountain Trail. I really haven’t heard much about the trail, but I do highly recommend it if you’re ever in this part of the park.

As I met up with the Kephart Prong Trail again, I was overwhelmed with gratitude for these mountains, this hike, and my body for carrying me 15+ miles in under 7 hours while feeling ill, not to mention the total 3,600+ feet of elevation gain. While this was an ambitious route, even feeling at my best, I do feel like it’s doable as a day hike. Just be prepared to be real sore the next day!

I can’t recommend this alternate route to Charlie’s Bunion enough. You get to explore lesser known Smoky Mountain trails and feel very proud of yourself for hiking up a mountain to get there.

Distance from Nashville: 4.25 hours

Trailhead: Kephart Prong Trailhead on US-441 (Newfound Gap Rd)

Trails: Balloon loop formed by Kephart Prong, Grassy Branch, Dry Sluice Branch, Appalachian Trail and Sweat Heifer Trails

Link to trail map: GSMNP Map (Note that this is the map of the whole park. I suggest using GAIA GPS on this, and any, hike!)

Length of hike: about 15 miles

Type of hike: Balloon loop

Camping: Kephart Shelter (2 miles from Kephart trailhead) and Icewater Spring Shelter (7.5 miles from Kephart Trailhead). Either is a great place to stay if you are doing an overnight of this route.

Overview: Climb to the stunning views from Charlie’s Bunion on a lesser known route following Smoky Mountain streams, log footbridges and lush, magical flora.

Edward’s Point :: Cumberland Trail, Tennessee River Gorge Segment

Edward’s and Signal Points serve as the southern terminus to the Cumberland Trail and are part of the Tennessee River Gorge Segment of the trail.

The view worth hiking for

I originally planned to hike Signal Point to Edward’s Point. But, that trailhead was closed. So, thankfully, there was another trailhead for a similar route right down the road, Rainbow Falls Wilderness. The parking lot for the trailhead is pretty small, so if you are hiking from this point, I suggest arriving early.

I thought this was going to be an easy hike to a beautiful view. The view was amazing but I wouldn’t rate it as ‘easy’. A portion of the trail was pretty rocky and full of boulders so be prepare your ankles. I also am glad that I brought my trekking poles because there were a few sections of ascents and descents.

Before you reach the pinnacle of the trail, Edward’s Point, you’ll pass by a small “waterfall” that is actually a small dam that created Rainbow Lake. This lake was created in the early 1900s for Signal Mountain Hotel. So, this hiking trail has been around for over 100 years.

You’ll also cross a suspension bridge over Middle Creek and see a small rock arch called Lockhart Arch. So, you get a few different features on the way.

Edward’s Point boasts a beautiful, sweeping view of the Tennessee River Gorge. There are gradual bluffs on both sides of the river that level out so that you can see far into the distance.

It was rather hot when I hiked this trail, so that contributed to me sweating way more than anticipated. Because of this, I had a less-than-desirable impression of this hike. I’m sure it would be much better in the fall/winter. (I mean, what hike ISN’T better in the fall/winter?) I’m hoping to return when the weather is cooler and hike from Signal Point to Edward’s Point.

However, this hike shouldn’t be missed. You get a gorgeous view and a few bonuses on the way there. Plus, you get to hike a section of the Cumberland Trail, which is always a welcome part of any of my hikes.

Distance from Nashville: 2 hr 15 min

Trailhead: Rainbow Lake Wilderness Trail on Ohio Ave (at the time I hiked this, Signal Mountain was closed and gated)

Trail: Rainbow Lake Trail to Cumberland Trail

Link to trial map: Signal & Edwards Points Section of Cumberland Trail

Length of trail: 4.7 miles total, out-and-back

Campsites: Lockhart’s Arch Campsite (Please note there is no overnight parking at either trailhead.)

Overview: Take a moderately strenuous hike to a beautiful view of the Tennessee River Gorge passing by a dam waterfall, stone arch and suspension bridge at the southern terminus of the Cumberland Trail.

Black Mountain Trail :: Grassy Cove Segment, Cumberland Trail

I always get a little nervous doing a hike in an area that I am unfamiliar with. It didn’t help that I couldn’t find much about this specific trail on other hiking sites. If I am being completely honest, I almost bailed on the drive there. My hiking confidence is very low; I haven’t done a new hike in almost two years. Right before I left for the hike, I found a card for a free year of a GPS service through GAIA, which was the confidence boost I needed to feel like I could tackle this hike. (Although, I did forget to end the route on the GPS when I finished hiking, so it tracked my entire drive back to Nashville. COOL.)

This trail is part of the still-in-progress Cumberland Trail. When finished, this trail will run from the TN-VA border to the TN-GA border traversing across the best of the Cumberland Plateau. Right now, you can hike sections of the trail. (I’ve also hiked the Mullens Cove Loop in the Tennessee River Gorge Segment.)

Cumberland Trail Marker

I pulled into the trailhead (just a paved pull-off on the highway), laced up my boots, and started off on what I thought was the hike. (It wasn’t.) The trailhead and section that I wanted to hike was on the other side of the road. However, walking up to the trailhead sign, all I saw was a barbed wire fence. Surely, this was not the beginning of the trail. So I set off in the opposite direction. But, looking at my map, I knew I wasn’t going the right way. So, I turned back around and just climbed over the barbed wire fence and only snagged my pants twice. (On the way back out, I realized there was a trail to the far right of the trailhead sign – see below. -__- Yeah, I’m rusty.)

So, don’t make the mistake I did! Start on the right trail and don’t hop a barbed wire fence!

Trail starts right by that tree with the orange flag, across the highway from where you park.

This hike was a good challenge with a great payoff. The trail is relatively easy to follow; keep your eyes up for the white blazes. You will wander through wooded areas, see Windlass cave, pass by huge boulders and switch back up Black Mountain. It’s hardly a ‘mountain’ at 2828 feet, but it’s still got a killer view into Grassy Cove. On really clear days, you can see the Smoky Mountains in the distance. There’s also a backcountry site about 3 miles in, if you wanted to hike in and stay the night.

South Overlook on Black Mountain

This trail is 3.6 miles one way from the trailhead to the Black Mountain Loop Trail. But, you’ll want to add on just a little bit more to see the sweeping views. So, you’ll end up doing more than 7.2 miles if you go to the overlook, which is basically the whole reason for the hike. I ended up doing about 9 miles, but about a mile of that was when I wandering around trying to find the correct trailhead at the beginning. I was also being pulled along by a dog that seems to love hiking more that I do, so my pace was probably faster than it should have been. (I completed the hike in about 3.5 hours.) Since you are climbing a small mountain, you will gain elevation – about 1300 feet – but the good news is that this hike is an out-and-back hike, so half of the hike is downhill.

The Black Mountain Loop Trail is a 1.5 mile loop, which is also accessible from another trailhead/parking at the top. So, you could just do the shorter, flat loop and see the great view. But, if I am driving 2 hours to hike a trail, I am making it worth it. (For me, apparently that’s hiking 9 miles up a hill).

Once you reach the loop trail, I would suggest only seeing the south overlook if you don’t want to add on the whole loop. That’s where you will see the stunning views. The north overlook is a bummer because it’s just standing on top of a large rock and looking at trees that are blocking a (potentially great) view.

So, if you want a semi-challenging, less-crowded hike showcasing the best of the Crossville area, this trail is perfect.

Windlass Cave
House-sized boulders
Thread the needle through the rocks up to the Black Mountain Loop Trail
Fall colors finally peeking through
The best hiking bud

Distance from Nashville: 2 hours

Trailhead: Brady Mountain Trailhead on TN-68 outside of Crossville, TN.

Trail: Black Mountain Trail (part of the Cumberland Trail) and Black Mountain Loop Trail (See my mistaken path south of the trailhead?)

Link to trail map: Black Mountain Section (Also includes more detailed info about the hike.)

Length of hike: 3.6 miles one way with the addition of part of the loop trail makes this come in just around 8 miles total (more if you do the entire loop trail around the summit), allow around 4-5 hours depending on pace

Type of hike: Out and back

Camping: Black Mountain Campsite about 3 miles from trailhead

Overview: Woods walkin’, elevation gains, a cave, and a great view make this hike a perfectly challenging day trip from Nashville.