The rich forest surroundings are a sure draw, but the narrow eroded trail during the second half of this steady climb may dissuade many runners.
The Pretty Hollow Gap Trail begins just before a weedy meadow at the intersection with the Cataloochee Horse Trail
and Little Cataloochee Trail
. Three-quarters of a mile ahead, the trail enters a bottomland know as Indian Flats. Here it intersects the lower terminus of the Palmer Creek Trail
just above the mouth of Pretty Hollow Creek.
The Pretty Hollow Gap Trail soon leaves Palmer Creek and narrows to a rough course following along the especially attractive Pretty Hollow Creek. The terrain here is so constricted that the trail rarely diverges away from the stream.
Five hundred yards above the Palmer Creek junction, the trail enters Backcountry Camp 39, Pretty Hollow. Just after the camp, the route proceeds into one of the finest cove-hardwood stands anywhere in the Smokies. These large trees cast a deep gloom over the narrow, steep-sided hollow.
From there, the trail begins a long, steady climb that rarely abates until reaching Mount Sterling Ridge. The nearby stream remains closely confined to the trail, but the stream itself remains obscured from view.
A little more than a mile above the campsite, the trail makes the first of three footlog crossings of Pretty Hollow Creek. After the final crossing, it veers sharply to the left and enters the Onion Bed Branch drainage. The nearby fast-moving stream rushes about beneath the thickset rhododendron, hemlocks tower from the stream’s edge, and wildflowers grow luxuriantly. Enjoyably the trail remains a bit above the stream, affording lovely views of this Smoky Mountain forest.
Soon the trail crosses Onion Bed Branch before looping back to Pretty Hollow Creek and continuing its climb up the hollow. The grade increases incrementally as the trail enters a transition from the cove-hardwood mix to primarily hemlocks and pines. The running surface deteriorates to a thin, eroded berm etched into the steeply pitched slope. The stream runs far below while Indian Ridge rises straight up from the stream’s edge to command the far side of Pretty Hollow. This climb continues with little variation in grade and surface condition as it edges out of the hemlock-pine stands and into the balsam zone.
Weeds encroaching closely on the path herald the long approach into Pretty Hollow Gap and the trail’s terminus into a crossroads intersection with the Mount Sterling Ridge Trail
and the Swallow Fork Trail
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 cove-hardwood stand found just after Backcountry Camp 39 features huge sugar maples, yellow buckeyes, yellow poplars, and a variety of oaks.
The luxurious surroundings of the Onion Bed Branch is a great place to spot crimson bee-balm, ox eye daisy, wild golden-glows, great lobelia, foamflower, blue cohosh, and Clingmans hedge nettle when in season.
Along the upper reaches of the trail, mature yellow birch and mountain maple are prevalent among the red spruce and Fraser fir.