Old Settlers Trail

Old Settlers Trail

One of the most interesting trails in the Great Smoky Mountain National Park is Old Settlers Trail. Its historical OST Trail marker landmarks set it apart from most other trails. It is less rocky and smoother than many other trails. Add to these points its biological diversity and you have three distinguishing features. The trail may be accessed in the Greenbrier area approximately 12.3 miles from Cosby or about 4 miles from Gatlinburg. Or, it may be accessed 1.2 miles up Albright Grove trail, which is about 2.3 miles west of Cosby, Tennessee, on state road 321. At that point turn toward the GSMNP onto Baxter Rd. Drive through a quaint mountain subdivision of cabins to Laurel Springs Road; then turn right and drive a few hundred yards until you see a gated gravel road on the left.

Parking is permitted along the road so long as you do not block the gated entrance. Another, lesser known, entrance exists near Steiner Bell Lodge parking lot, which is about 13 miles from Cosby and about 1/2 mile up a narrow driveway leading to the Lodge. Next to the left side of the parking lot the trail begins. It descends about 700 yards down to a marshy area where there is a post-marker. An old cemetery exists beyond the field to the right, up on a hill. But, the trail to OST goes left and leads to another post-marker and Old Settlers Trail – hereafter OST. The following descriptions will take us on a hike east from the Greenbrier area of the GSMNP. This Park entrance is about 4 miles east of Gatlinburg, Tennessee. The park road winds into the park along side the Little Pigeon River, past the ranger station, past a picnic area, and to a wooden bridge over the river. Turn left onto the bridge, cross over it, over another smaller bridge, and another larger bridge. On the left of the road, a parking area and a sign to Old Settlers Trail exist. The trail begins here and parallels Little Pigeon River for several hundred yards.

Bird Creek

The first creek crossing is at Bird Creek. The adventurous may hike up the west side of the creek and find the remains of a few home sites – four once existed along this creek. One fireplace will be found a few hundred yards up the creek, but more picturesque ones will be found further on OST. The trail passes two large stone outcropping on the right about 100 yards apart, and then it begins to climb a small ridge beside the river. At one point, the river can be seen down below, through the rhododendron. It then curves around the ridge and descends to cross a small tributary. One homesite exists up this small valley. On the left the astute observer will see the old-road bed. The trail widens as it merges with the road to become one. The adventurous may follow the old road to the river and discover, upstream, remains that once held a walk bridge over the river.

Little Bird Creek

The trail continues into Little Bird valley. One short stone wall will be seen on the right and then another as the trail narrows between the creek and the stone wall. Some say the walls were used as boundary lines; others say they were used to keep livestock. The trail crosses over Little Bird Creek and continues up the valley parallel to the left fork of Little Bird Creek. A white pipe exists behind a tree on the right with a metal tag on the tree. These markers are used for research in the park. The trail then turns west and crosses over a deep trench that contains the left fork of Little Bird Creek during the rainy seasons. The remains of what supported a small bridge can be seen in the trench. The tail then climbs up alongside the left fork a few hundred yards. Another short wall of stones can be seen on the south, across the drainage area. In a few more paces, at the point where the trail veers perpendicular to the left fork of Little Bird Creek, the homesite belonging to the wall of stones may be seen. OST zigzags west and north several times as it gradually climbs Copeland Divide. The ridge of Copeland Divide can be seen to the north. It passes through a forest of young hemlocks, sassafras, maples, and oaks. It continues past a large 100 year-old oak and a shagbark hickory as it approaches the crest of Copeland Ridge, turns to a 20-degree east-northeast heading in a flat area on the ridge top and continues for several hundred yards at a 2200′ elevation. It crests the ridge and descends on the northern side with a large hollow on the left. This is the watershed area for Copeland Creek. OST zigzags north and east as it continues in an east-northeast direction. In the late fall and winter when the leaves have fallen, the trail will darken as it enters into a hemlock forest. An unusually large holly tree is seen on the right as the trail gradually climbs back up to 2200′. Here it passes between two large old oaks. This is a good place to take a rest or have a snack. The trail then descends past a large, split tulip poplar tree on the left and zigzags through hollows continuing its course east-northeast. It goes through a pine forest, a deciduous forest and into another cluster of pines as it approaches Copeland Creek.

Copeland Creek

The slope is very steep on the left of the trail as enters into another rhododendron thicket – indicating a watershed. Pipsissewa can be seen growing on the forest floor and the sound of Copeland Creek can be heard. As the trail crosses over the creek the old road, overgrown with young trees and brush, can be seen to the left as it follows Copeland Creek down into the valley. Early settlers once inhabited this valley. The old 1932 map shows that eight homes once existed along Copeland Creek – with the last of the eight above the creek crossing and to the right of the trail. West of the junction of the creek and a tributary, near the 1400′ elevation, Bonwell Chapel once stood. Five more homes once existed up along this tributary, three more below the chapel along side Copeland Creek and two more up Left Fork. After crossing Copeland Creek the trail ascends through a large mountain laurel thicket and enters another unusually flat area for more than a hundred yards. A tall pin oak stands above the thicket on the left and in the autumn its colorful red leaves identify it. It then begins to descend past a stand of large oaks, over one hundred years old, on the south. What appears to be a ravine on the right of the trail becomes the trail as it switches back from a northern heading to a southern heading. It goes through a rhododendron tunnel with a ridge to the right and a small mountain peak on the left 1/4 of a mile away. Large loblolly pines are seen on the left and a ridge on the left blocks the view to the north. As it continues it turns to a southern heading at Cat Stairs pinnacle can be seen straight ahead, to the south, above the trail. The trail descends into a hollow as it enters a quiet region of mixed conifer forest of pine and tall hemlock. It continues is descend to the headwaters of Snakefeeder Branch.

Snakefeeder Branch

OST crosses the headwaters of Snakefeeder Branch where several settlers once lived. A fallen chimney will be seen on the right, and the vegetation noticeably changes. More sunlight enters this valley and cane grass, ferns and little brown jugs can be seen on the forest floor. Another fallen chimney is passed on the left of the trail and a large grapevine hangs beside the trail. A third chimney in a large flat clearing is seen on the left, then OST crosses the creek and continues down with the creek on the left, or west of the trail. It soon approaches a signpost identifying Old Settlers Trail. Across the deep creek bed is a road that leads up to old Lindsey Cemetery. Beyond it another road leads to 321, so in an emergency this can be used as a quick access out. However, OST goes east through a large brushy area and crosses Soak Ash Creek.

Soak Ash Creek (elevation 1400′)

Another settlement existed in this very flat area. The trail continues another half mile and soon crosses Evans Creek as it goes through more rhododendron and pine to a signpost. Behind this signpost is a trail that leads to Steiner Bell Lodge and highway 321.

Evans Creek (elevation 1424′)

The choices are right, or west to Greenbrier and the Little River, or left, east toward Cosby. Turning left the trail follows Evans Creek gradually uphill. The old map shows a road going south less than 400 yards from the intersection and another going north 50-100 yards beyond. The southern road shows 7 homesites, and the northern shows two, along with Fairview School and continues to intersect 321. It also shows the old road going due east and nearly straight to Timothy Creek – it does not appear to veer south around a ridge on the old map, as the trail seems to do – check it out! OST then levels, until it crosses Timothy Creek.

Timothy Creek

On the other side of Timothy Creek are the remains of a chimney with the “V” hearth and a smokehouse next to the creek. Beside it is an old roadbed that continues up along side the creek. A few more home sites existed upstream. The trail then climbs up alongside the roadbed for about 400 yards, passing a stone wall that runs from the trail to the old roadbed, then it turns left (el. 1803) and continues past several stone walls on both sides of the trail. It continues a few hundred yards and crosses Darky Branch Creek, which is surrounded with rhododendron then goes around a ridge with a view to the left to the condo units at Cobbly Knob directly to the north.

A little further on the trail exists a signpost identifying OST. Near it, another unmarked trail can be seen on the west side of the trail that begins down a ridge top and eventually leads to highway 321 I about 6/10th of a mile. Martha McCarters Road can be seen on the opposite side of the highway and to the east about 3/10th of a mile is a restaurant. This unmarked trail may be used in case of an emergency, but be prepared to climb over and under fallen logs. Be forewarned that when going off trail in the summer months you may encounter snakes.

Old Settlers Trail continues around the ridge to the right to campsites 33A and 33B next to an old fallen fireplace. Both sites have posts marking their location and the park service has erected wires and pulley to hang food and gear high above the reach of animals. Beyond campsite 33B the trail begins to descend to Redwine creek. The old map shows two or three home sites upstream from the intersection of OST and Redwine Creek. The continuance of the original road can be seen to the right before crossing the creek.

Redwine Creek

Fireplace with After crossing Redwine Creek the trail goes up a slight rise and around a ridge in a southeast direction then up along a ridge through an extensive outgrowth of mountain laurel. There are views to the west as the trail climbs the ridge and at one point the trail passes around a large sandstone outcropping (elevation 2000 feet) it continues south through a pine forest with soft needles on the trail. The Cobbly Knob ridge can still be seen behind – if you look to the north. Then the trail goes east around the ridge (from the topographical map it looks as if the trail is at the 2200′ line) and enters into a flat area before it turns to the left and begins its descent to Ramsey Creek. We nicknamed this Bill’s hill after Bill Steiner, who has hiked it many times with me. On the right of the trail in the brush, almost out of sight, is another fireplace with a fallen chimney. There are some big old-growth trees, several hemlocks, on both sides of the trail and a very steep ravine on the right, which is the source of the creek. Perhaps the steepness of the ravine kept the loggers out. The trail drops 500′ rapidly over a couple hundred yards with Ramsey Creek on the right.

Ramsey Creek

OST crosses the creek and will cross it again four more times. A pile of stones up on the right may have been Stone wall beside trailanother chimney. Further down the ravine is another chimney on the left of the trail. The trail crosses the creek again and continues down into Ramsey Creek ravine, until another fireplace with a fallen chimney is seen on the right – broken parts of a crock pot lie around it as well as a piece of a fire stove. After crossing Ramsey Creek several more times it climbs up and west, out of the Ramsey Creek ravine, goes though a forest mixed with pine and deciduous trees, to an elevation marker 1969 feet (identified on the old 1932 map). It curves around a ridge and comes upon stone walls first on the right and then on both sides of the trail. On the right or east is one of the few remaining full, standing chimneys with a “V” hearth in the fireplace. This “V” hearth is distinctive among the chimneys on OST. In fact, there are two fireplaces on each side of this chimney. The stone walls continue along OST and further along a pile of stones exist on the same side as the chimney – I assume it is a fallen chimney, for the 1932 map shows another house existed here. In the fall when the “acoustical” vegetation has fallen to the ground, the noise from highway 321 can be heard to the west. Eventually the trail makes a sharp east-southeast turn to the right. On the left is the original OST hidden and overgrown. It then climbs up about 650 yards through a forest of green rhododendron, until the sounds from Noisy Creek can be heard as the trail approaches the creek.

Noisy Creek

A few hundred yards before Noisy Creek are two signposts identifying OST; one sign points west and one east. Between the signs is an unmarked man-way that leads 6/10 mile down to highway 321. Only in an emergency should this old trail be used, for it is unmarked and often seems to disappear into the creek. It has fallen trees on it that have to be climbed over and under, and is dangerously close to a steep hill at one point. It will pass through a dark pine forest where the remains of a few homes still exist. As the sounds of the highway are heard, the trail veers left, passes a wall of stones and then crosses a small creek and eventually ends up on the highway next to a sign for an underground cable. To the left one-half mile is the entrance to Cobbly Knob where there is a security guard.

At the two signposts the trail continues east, and remains of an old home site are seen on the right, just before it crosses Noisy Creek and climbs again. Up the trail climbs until it comes to another homesite in a large clearing. At this point you may cross the creek to the right and return to the trail in 50 yards by crossing back, or you can stay on the left and cross its small tributary and rejoin the trail on the left side of the creek. It then climbs up and passes another old chimney. Up, up the trail climbs then turns left away from Noisy Creek. It follows another deep ravine on its left, which I believe is the source of Tumbling branch – a tributary of Noisy Creek. It is so deep no sound of Tumbling Branch can be heard. It appears to cross over the ridge around 2900 feet and then descend to Texas Creek.

Stone wallTexas Creek

A bench marker is burried near the headwaters of Texas Creek – elevation 2789. Another chimney from a homesite can be seen on the right with a wash bucket on it and further down on the right another chimney with the “V” hearth in it. Down the trail goes though rhododendron thickets until it comes upon a lengthy stone wall five feet high on the right side of the trail. The wall continues to Webb Creek, and it is most unusual in that it exists on both sides of Old Settlers trail for some distance.

Webb Creek

After crossing Webb Creek hikers have a choice of continuing on OST to the right, or south, to ascend a small mountain, or straight ahead. If OST is followed, it will climb and then cross over

Snag Mountain and then descend into a beautiful valley where the trail crosses Snag Branch, just beyond one homesite on the left. A few stone walls will be found in the valley and two homesites on the left. Fifty yards beyond Stone walls lining trail can be seen second home site, where the remains of another collapsed chimney are found. About fifty yards further a cemetery will be found. One old sandstone headstone reads 1877. Careful observation will reveal that most of the cemetery contains very young children. Many children died of childhood and other diseases that were then incurable at that time. Continuing on the trail crosses Dunn Creek, Spring Branch and Indian Camp Creek before it eventually intersects the trail that goes to Albright Grove to the south or to highway 321 and Laurel Springs Road to the north, or Cosby, past Henwallow Falls to the east.

However, at Webb Creek, if you go straight-ahead about 100 yards, it will lead to a wide old road, and the roof of McCarters pioneer barn can be seen straight ahead. Beyond the barn the home site can be found with the remains of two chimneys, and beyond the chimneys a small smoke, or springhouse can be seen. Or, at the intersection of the unmarked trail and the old road there is another unmarked trail on the left that leads about 800 yards back to highway 321 and a small parking area. Or, if you follow the wide old road, it will also lead to highway 321 where you may park.