Lots of steady elevation gain over nearly 12 miles.
The Noland Divide Trail is long and steep, with the greatest net gain in elevation of any trail in the Smokies. Initially, the trail starts with an easy grade, but soon steepens as it ascends through dry-ridge conditions for almost two miles until crossing a tributary of Juney Whank Branch.
Above the crossing, the trail works its way into a narrow shaded hollow. The trail soon completes a switchback and proceeds a half-mile back out of the hollow to reach the rocky spine of Beaugard Ridge. At this juncture, the trail turns northerly along the east side of the ridge which affords plenty of vantage points. The grade and trail conditions remain unchanged for the next two miles until a very sharp switchback ushers runners onto a very narrow ridge where openings in the forest afford astonishing panorama views.
The knife-edge spine on Beaugard Ridge extends for no more than a hundred yards, its upper end punctuated by Lonesome Pine Overlook, which can be reached by a 50-yard access path. The summit of the overlook is a great spot to sit and enjoy the views over snacks or lunch.
A mile and a half above the overlook, the trail completes another sharp switchback and passes through a wet patch while circling east below the summit of Coburn Knob. After the knob, the trail begins an easy one-mile descent into Lower Sassafras Gap. For much of the way the divide is narrow, and the trail stays to the crest of the ridge, affording occasional views. At the gap, the trail veers to pass around the west side of Sassafras Knob.
A little more than a mile past Lower Sassafras Gap, the trail completes its circumnavigation of Sassafras Knob and drops into Upper Sassafras Gap, where it intersects the Noland Creek Trail on the west and the Pole Road Creek Trail
on the east. From the gap, the trail continues steeply into a rhododendron-laurel tunnel. A mile above Upper Sassafras Gap, the crest of the divide widens to a noticeable flat, marking the upper end of Roundtop Knob.
The climb continues as the trail soon enters a pleasant stand of silent fir trees. The grade is moderate, and the thick spongy humus of a boreal forest renders the track soft underfoot. A mile-and-a-half above Roundtop Knob, the trail widens to a grassy jeep track. The moderately-easy grade continues until the trail terminates on Clingmans Dome
Road about a half-mile east of the dome.
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 trail begins through stands of yellow poplar, red maple, and a variety of oaks. Soon the forest gives way to stands of white pine as the trail climbs. The hollow above Juney Whank Branch is shaded by pignut hickories and a variety of oaks and maples.
The descent into Lower Sassafras Gap is surrounded by stands of black cherry, black locust, and northern red oak interspersed with fallen American chestnut trees.
The rhododendron and laurel tunnel after Upper Sassafras Gap is also decorated by patches of galax and the occasional flame azalea. A mile above the gap, the forest begins yielding to the boreal species - Fraser fir, red spruce, American mountain-ash, and yellow birch interspersed with mountain winterberry and mountain maple. Indian-pipe, rosy twisted stalk, and Curtis’ aster.
The boreal forest above Roundtop Knob is encroached by jewel weeds, crimson bee-balms, white wood asters, red elderberries, blackberry bushes, and turfs of rich mountain grass.