Whether you’ve been visiting the Smokies for decades or if its your first time, there are always secrets around the corner here in the Great Smoky Mountains. Being some of the oldest mountains in the world, and the home of the only national park that was once occupied by European settlers, its only natural to expect there to be hidden gems. These secret spots go unnoticed by folks sticking to the beaten path, but are worth the journey to discover.
1. Dark Island Swinging Bridge
There’s a lot of fun to be had in Townsend. This amazing Smokies destination is only about 30 minutes from Pigeon Forge, and has lots of things to do. From cool little shops, to river tubing, unique restaurants, a museum, and even caverns to explore, Townsend is a perfect place for a day trip. It even has its own entrance to the National Park (and is probably where you’ve driven through on your way to Cades Cove). But, what you may not know, is that there is a cool hidden gem right off the main road in this sleepy Mountain town.
Located behind the Little River Railroad and Lumber Museum, adjacent to the intersection of Depot Ave. and Old State Hwy 73 you can discover the Dark Island Swinging Bridge. The bridge spans across a beautiful section of the Little River. And, it has parking for a few cars right at the entrance to the bridge. Up to four people can walk out onto the bridge at a time, but you can’t continue past the other side of the bridge, as its private property.
Still, its a fun free stop for anyone visiting Townsend, and it is one of the last public swinging bridges in the area that you can still cross!
Here’s a hidden gem to check out on the way to Cades Cove: The Dark Island Swinging Bridge spans the river in Townsend, Tennessee.
Posted by Pigeon Forge Chamber on Sunday, April 23, 2017
2. Harrisburg Covered Bridge
You may have been visiting Sevierville all your life, and never knew that the city was home to the only covered bridge in Sevier County and one of four in the entire state! The Harrisburg Covered Bridge is only a 15 minute drive from downtown Sevierville. And, it has been on the National Register of Historic Places since 1975.
The bridge has a storied history in the community. McNutts Bridge was the original brige in this location, but was demolished by a flood in 1875. Sevier County contributed $25 towards the construction of a new bridge, while the Harrisburg community provided the remaining $50 for the project. It was completed in late 1875.
Harrisburg Bridge was eventually threatened with demolition in the 1970s. But, through the work of the Daughters of the American Revolution, the bridge was placed on the National Register of Historic Places. It was rehabilitated in 1983 with a new wood deck and select timber beam replacement. And, extensive rennovations were completed in 2005 by the county with the help of a federal grant. So, you can be sure that the bridge is safe to cross!
The bridge is 83 feet long and 14 feet wide on the outside with nearly 11.5 feet of clearance inside. There’s a little pull off area on one side of the bridge where two cars can park. But, be aware that it is an active street. To get to the bridge, take Main Street off of the Parkway in Sevierville and drive past the Walmart to your right. You’ll pass by a Weigels gas station and the two lane road will turn into a one lane. After it turns into a one lane highway, take Harrisburg Rd. to your right and follow the signs to the bridge.
3. The Troll Bridge and Abandoned Appalachian Club Resort
I know what you’re thinking: seriously, another bridge? Although the Troll Bridge, found on the Little River Trail, is a nice bonus, you’ll discover so much more as you explore this abandoned resort community.
A Storied Past
The Elkmont area has a very interesting past. It began in the late 1800s as a logging community working for the Little River Lumber Company. Eventually, Knoxvillians started to travel to the area for fishing and hunting trips.
This prompted the Little River Lumber Co. to deed a tract of 50 acres to the existing Appalachian Club. The club erected a clubhouse on the location, and eventually built more vacation homes. Over time, the rough and tumble logging town became a resort for the wealthy of Knoxville.
When the area became a national park, though, this put a damper on the clubs activities. Owners of the land, clubhouse, and cottages were allowed to stay until 1992, but afterwords were forced to leave the area. The abandoned buildings and formerly-gorgeous homes make for an interesting backdrop as you travel along the Little River Trail. The trail itself is a gravel road that used to be a railroad bed, so it is relatively flat.
The Little River Trail
The Little River Trail is a 4.9 mile trek that runs alongside the Little River for essentially the entire hike. If you keep on the trail for 2.2 miles you’ll find Huskey Branch Falls, a small 20 foot cascade that flows from a high slope. If you’re lucky, you may spot a River Otter in the river. This species were successfully reintroduced to the area between 1988 and 1990.
If you’ve hiked the trail in the past and come back this year, you’ll notice most of the abandoned homes have been removed. Since the last residents of the area vacated in 1992, the National Park has been working to figure out what to do with the homes. In 2016, the park service started demolition on most of the homes on the trail
A total of 55 are scheduled to be demolished and removed, but the Park Service is restoring a total of 19 homes! In the past, you weren’t allowed to enter any of the homes because of security concerns. But, with the rennovations, you’ll be able to enter the refurbished homes and mansions and see for yourself what life was like at the vacation resort!
Wildflowers are blooming in the Smokies, and the Little River Trail in Elkmont is one of the best places to see them 🌺🌸🌷 In the first two miles of the trail, you’ll see some of the best blooms!
Posted by Pigeon Forge Chamber on Tuesday, March 28, 2017
Finding the Troll Bridge
In addition to the 19 homes that are being preserved, the Park Service is also preserving the famous Troll Bridge! And, here’s how you find it.
You’ll find the small stone bridge slightly off-trail. About 100 feet from the trailhead you’ll see a small path to to your right. Follow this path, which takes you by beautiful stone walls and abandoned homes. Eventually you’ll find yourself at the bridge itself. If you come in early spring, you’ll probably also find wildflowers surrounding the bridge!
Off the beaten path of the Little River Trail in Elkmont, Tennessee, you’ll find the retreat houses reclaimed by the forest and the troll Troll Bridge – remnants of the abandoned Elkmont community in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Posted by Pigeon Forge Chamber on Sunday, June 26, 2016
4. Perry’s Mill Dam
After a hot hike alongside the Little River you may way to find a place to cool down. Downstream from Elkmont, alongside E. Lamar Alexander Highway on your way to Maryville you’ll find Perry’s Mill Dam. The dam is actually located in the town of Walland, TN, about 40 minutes from Pigeon Forge, or only 20 minutes from Townsend.
Like most of the entries on this list, the dam has a long history. Perry’s Mill Dam was originally built over 100 years ago as part of a series of dams created to provide electricity for the area. The dam doesn’t provide electricity anymore, but it has evolved into a popular local swimming spot.
If you’re driving towards Maryville, you’ll find the dam right after the Melrose Station Rd. bridge on the right. There is a small parking lot that can quickly fill up in the summer. I suggest taking the first turn in to the parking lot, as the second turn-in has a rather big pothole.
The dam creates a deep pool of water on one side, which is perfect for taking a dip in the hot summer. On the other side of the dam, the water is deep enough to wade and has lots of rocks and small islands to explore. Also, on a tree next to the water, you’ll find a rope you can use to jump in.
If you’re looking for a good fishing spot, this is also a good waypoint to remember. You can find lots of smallmouth bass and rock bass downstream and upstream of the dam. Upstream of the dam, the river is stocked with trout when the temperature allows.
A couple words of caution if you decide to visit this secret spot. First, locals often visit the area and sometimes can get a little rowdy. But, generally, rowdy folks stick to the area with the rope swing. This leaves plenty of area for families to enjoy. Also, local law enforcement regularly check the area every hour or so. Second, there are no lifeguards on duty. As always when you’re swimming in water with a current, you must be aware and cautious. There are underwater currents, and the current going over the dam can be stronger than it looks.
5. Mt. Cammerer Fire Tower
Not everyting in life is easy, and this secret spot definitely takes some effort to see. The Mt. Cammerer fire tower is at a dizzying height of 4,928 ft. and offers panoramic views of the surrounding mountains. It is definitely a breathtaking view, and one every hiking fanatic should have on their bucket list. Although the trek to the fire tower can be challenging for some, it is definitely worth the hike.
The mountain itself is actually named after Arno Cammerer, the director of the National Park Service from 1933 until 1940. He is well-known in the area as an instrumental figure in the establishment of the Great Smoky Mountains National park. The fire tower itself was constructed in 1937 as part of the New Deal programs designed to offer work to unemployed young people.
As opposed to your typical fire tower, the Mt. Cammerer fire tower has just a few steps leading out to a wide veranda where you can take in the magnificent views. This is good for folks who are more used to the rickety stairs of your typical fire tower.
The Hike to the Summit of Mt. Cammerer
The shortest way to make your way to the fire tower is via Cosby Campground. But, even with the shortest hike you’re looking at a 11.1 mile roundtrip! You’ll probably want to allot an entire day to the hike. Be sure to bring plenty of water and snacks. Also, this area is known for having lots of bear activity. So, be noisy as you’re walking the trail and stand your ground if you see a bear.
Start at the Low Gap Trailhead near the Cosby Campground. You’ll climb upwards with several switchbacks for a while. At 0.4 miles in, you’ll reach the Mt. Cammerer Trail junction. Take a right here.
You’ll continue on for a while longer, and eventually will come to the junction with the Appalachian Trail, just about 3 miles from the trailhead. Take a left here.
Once you’re on the Appalachian Trail, the path will begin to level off, and by the time you are around 3.5 miles in, the hike becomes much easier. At right under 5 miles, you’ll reach the trail leading up to the fire tower. The trail to the tower is about 0.6 miles long, but is very steep and does involve some rock scrambling. But, when you make it to the top, you’ll be rewarded with what many claim is the best view of the park!
There are, of course, other ways you can reach the fire tower. I suggest you check out this awesome article by East Tennessee local, Logan Mahan. In the article he covers the hike via Cosby Campground, as well as two alternative routes! Although these alternative routes do take longer, they have some unique features as well.
6. Whiteoak Sink and Blowhole Cave
This amazing area and cool cave aren’t easy to find if you don’t know where you’re going. Located off-trail off of the Schoolhouse Gap Trail. There are actually lots of trails in the Great Smoky Mountains National park that you’ll never find on the official maps. These trails are remnants of the old paths used by settlers before the park came into being and are no longer maintained by the park service. That said, it is imperative whenever you go off trail to know where you are going, bring a map, and let someone know where you are heading.
Like I said earlier, Whiteoak Sink is found off of the Schoolhouse Gap Trail. You can reach the trailhead of Schoolhouse Gap Trail 3.7 miles west from the Townsend Y junction on the right. The trail to Whiteoak Sink is approximately 1.1 miles from the parking lot, right past the junction for Turkeypen Ridge Trail.
You’ll know you’re at the trailhead for Whiteoak Sink because there is a small gate to block horse traffic. If you’re looking for an in-depth discussion into the Whiteoak Sink, its features, and what you can find there, you definitely have to check out this awesome article from Joe Kegley on Wildlife South. A big shout out to Joe, as well, for letting us use his photos in this article. Before you go out and try and explore this area, be sure to download this PDF map of the area from Wildlife South.
In Whitoak Sink, you’ll find tons of artifacts hearkening back to the time when settlers populated the area. From old homesteads to grave sites to stone walls and more, you’ll see lots of history in Whiteoak Sink. This area is also well known for its spectacular displays of wildflowers in the spring. You’ll find more than two dozen different types of wildflowers on your hike!
There are actually four different caves in the Whiteoak Sink area, including one with a waterfall falling into it! The second cave you’ll encounter is called Blowhole Cave, so named because of the blast of cold air you’ll feel when standing next to it. All of the caves in the area are blocked off to hikers due to concerns about the local bat population. Bats in the Smokies are very vulnerable to being infected with White-nose Syndrome, a disease that can be spread from humans interacting with bats. The Whiteoak Sink area was even closed off for a time by the National Park because of these concerns! If you encounter any areas closed off by an orange fencing, do not enter for the safety of the bats.
Despite this, Whiteoak Sink is an amazing area to explore, and should definitely be on your Smoky Mountain bucket list.
7. Spruce Flats Falls via Tremont Institute
The final item on our list is a little-known waterfall situated behind the amazing Tremont Institute. The institute itself offers experiential learning for youth, educators, and adults through a plethora of programs. If you’ve never heard of them, you definitely want to pay them a visit. But, its behind the institute’s visitor center where you’ll find this hidden gem.
Park at the visitor center at the end of Tremont Road. From there, walk up the paved road into the Tremont complex until the pavement ends. You’ll be entering the real trail here. Walk uphill to the left and continue for 0.1 miles, taking a right at the junction. Take another right at your next junction at 0.2 miles. At around 0.8 miles, the trail will begin to dip down to a descent into Spruce Flats Falls. The trail in this section is very rocky, so be careful. Following this path will take you to the falls, which are about 30 feet in height. These beautiful cascades are a little-known attraction, and one you can reach relatively easily.
Video of Spruce Flatt Falls today.
Posted by Joe Ferrell on Saturday, April 15, 2017