The Cataloochee Valley sits isolated on the northeast end of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, its flat valley floor encircled by ridgeline that gives the feel of an old-time football stadium. Only in this case, the spectators are mostly on the field taking in the entertainment above. That’s especially true in fall, when color cascades down from the ridgeline. But there’s plenty to see in the valley as well, from the buildings that remain from a century back, when 1,300 people called the pre-park valley home, to the elk herd introduced more than a decade ago, which routinely appears in the valley’s meadows at dawn and dusk. This scenic loop encompasses the Rough Fork, Caldwell Fork and Big Fork Ridge trails, with a diversion up the Hemphill Bald Trail to the ridgetop bald of the same name.

More info: “Backpacking North Carolina,” Trip No. 18, National Park Service website

Maps: “Great Smoky Mountains National Park,” Tennessee/North Carolina, Trails Illustrated, National Geographic.

Map of trailhead here.
View 20 Classic North Carolina Hikes: Cataloochee Valley in a larger map

Location: Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Nearest town: Waynesville
Latitude: N35 37.167
Longitude: W83 07.197
Difficulty: Moderate
Distance: 9.5 miles
Loop/one-way: Loop
Time to complete: 7-10 hours