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Hiking Stecoah Gap Loop And Huckleberry Knob

Mike Rhodes | February 9, 2020

In December I shared in my Camp, Hike The Southeast blog my trip to Robbinsville, NC and my stay at Cheoah Point Campground on Santeetlah Lake. I did some hiking while there and promised to share them in a future blog. I covered the Yellow Creek Falls hike in the review for Cheoh Point Campground, but I also hit Stecoah Gap Loop and Huckleberry Knob. I made both of these hikes on the same day, and they couldn’t have been more different.

After a hearty breakfast of freeze-dried Mountain House scrambled eggs and bacon at camp (BTW this was my first freeze dried meal and it was pretty darn tasty), I headed off toward the Stecoah Gap trailhead. It’s just outside of Robbinsville on Highway 143, known locally as Stillwater Road. There is a small parking area on the south side of the highway in a hairpin turn. The AT crosses the road here, and Stecoah Gap Loop trailhead is on the south side with the small parking area. Small as in maybe eight spots. Once parked you can’t miss the trail head.

Stecoah Gap trail is part of the AT. As a day hiker I was happy to find that my AllTrails app showed there was a way to make this a loop. Basically a little better than 3 miles on the AT, then the rest is a Forest Service road. From the parking lot you can start down the FS road and go clockwise or start on the AT part and go the other way. I chose to start on the Stecoah Gap trail portion.

Right from the start this part of the trail is full of elevation. All summer I had been taking hikes and feeling good about my conditioning. I’d go 5 to 6 miles at a clip with 50 to 60 floors of elevation, according to my iPhone health tracker. I mean I was ready for this AT hike! That is until I started it. The first mile was full of switch backs, rocks, roots and the usual toe stubbers. That along with 36 floors of elevation. I had to stop a few times to get my wind back, but I wasn’t deterred because I was on the trail and couldn’t wait for the views I was about to be rewarded with as I went up.

By the time I hit the second mile I was at 75 floors. I still hadn’t come across that wonderful vista overlooking the Appalachian Mountains I had been anticipating, but hey this is a loop trail and I’m not even halfway finished. I told myself the view was just around the next turn. It had to be. Onward it was.

Beyond mile two I found there were fewer rocks and roots, but the summer growth made it somewhat narrow in spots. I passed two or three small spots on the trail that would fit a one person tent in the first 2.5 miles. Other than that it was tight. As I was approaching mile three, the trail began a descent toward Locust Cove Gap, which is just over 3 miles in. My iPhone showed I had 127 floors of elevation. My legs and lungs were in complete agreement with this report!

View of Stecoah Gap from the forest service road.

Locust Cove Gap is a pretty open area where you could put up a few tents. There is also a water source off to the right if you are headed south. It’s also a bit tricky if you’re doing the loop trail like I was. My map was telling me the trail to loop back was off to the left, but I sure as heck couldn’t see it. After sitting for a few minutes I began searching for the trailhead for the loop back. I was determined because I sure didn’t want to walk back the way I just came! It took 5 minutes and a couple of mistaken walks down game trails, but I finally found it. I’d say it’s at about 10 o’clock from where I entered Locust Cove.

Take this spur trail down hill and it ends at the forest service road. The road was pretty overgrown and mostly flat. It was here that I finally got a view of the mountains. I mean I had just hit that 3.1 miles of elevation gain and there wasn’t a single view worth a picture until now. The walk back to the parking area from here was a little better than 2 miles. Nothing remarkable about this part of the return, but I did have a few views and saw a number of birds.

When I got back to the truck I took time to rest at one of the picnic tables. I had packed a turkey sandwich and chips in my day pack so I sat to eat and recover before striking out again. The camp hosts had mentioned Huckleberry Knob as a fairly short hike with a great view that morning. I found it on my phone and headed out.

I trekked back to Robbinsville on HIghway 143. Once in town you’ll come to the traffic light with Tapoco Road. Turn right as if you are headed back to the campground. A few miles up the road you’ll see Highway 143 off to the left again. This is the start of what is called Cherohala Skyway. Just follow the road signs for Highway 143 west and you’ll be fine.

The Cherohala is a 43-mile National Scenic Byway that goes from Robbinsville to Tellico Plains, Tennessee. Full of twists and turns, it climbs over the mountains as you head west. There are several places to pull off to soak in the overlooks along the way. It really is a beautiful drive.

The parking lot for Huckleberry Knob is at 5,300 feet of elevation and about 20 miles out of Robbinsville. This too is a small parking area with maybe 12 spaces. It is well marked but my GPS took me directly to the trailhead. Like Stecoah Gap the trailhead is right there in the parking lot.

The hike itself starts out on a fairly wide, old forest road. It’s a 2.5-mile out-and-back trail. Basically you are steadily hiking uphill all the way in. Maybe .75 miles in you’ll leave the forest road and hit Oak Knob. Pretty much a meadow with a few trees. This is where I started to realize I was going to see some great views. Follow the trail through the meadow and enjoy the wild flowers along the way. The app said it was a lightly traveled trail and on this day they were correct. I passed one guy who was headed out while I was on Oak Knob. I asked if it was worth going further to Huckleberry Knob and he quickly said yes.

It wasn’t 10 minutes later and I was standing in another meadow at the top of Huckleberry Knob. Holy cow. That man was right. This was worth every step. However, if you’re not into the most amazing 360 degree view of the Appalachian Mountains, then I suggest you don’t take this hike. The wind was blowing hard and there were several clouds hanging in the valley, but this was the absolute best view I had come across since I arrived in Robbinsville.

360 degree view from atop Huckleberry Knob

After taking several pictures and just enjoying the quiet it was time to head back out. The walk out was mostly down hill and a welcome to my tiring legs. At this point I had a little over 8 miles and 140 floors of elevation under my feet. About 100 yard from the parking lot I passed a couple headed in. “Is it worth the steps?” they asked. “Worth every one of them and you’ll have it all to yourself” I replied.

Robbinsville and the Cherohala Skyway are filled with hiking trails and a number of places to throw up a tent. It had been several years since I had spent time there. I promise it won’t take that long again. In fact I plan to head back this spring. Maybe knock off a few more miles of the AT with some day hikes and for sure hit the Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest. The last time we were there my hair wasn’t quite this gray and our oldest son Michael was riding in a carrier on my back. He graduated high school in 2017.

It’s time to visit again. I’ll follow up after that hike with an updated report of the trail and the memories attached to it.

 

 

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