Enjoy Spooky Season With These Smoky Mountain Haunts
By: Nancy Mecure East
Many moons ago, I took my first backpacking trip in Great Smoky Mountains National Park (GSMNP). It was October, and I hit the trails around midnight with four of my classmates from Auburn University’s Veterinary School. Our clinical rotations commanded our presence until late in the day, but we were young and invincible so we didn’t hesitate starting our nearly 6-hour drive at 6:00 p.m.
We hiked Gabes Mountain Trail in the dark of night, heading toward our backcountry campsite a few miles away. By the time we arrived at the campsite, we were punch drunk from the late hour, filling the forest with the sound of our giggles.
A lot has changed in my life since that backpacking trip 25 years ago, including my base weight. A few things, however, remain constant: my love for the Smokies (especially in October), my quest to remain young at heart, and my affinity for Halloween. Lucky for me, it’s easy to merge all three this month.
If you find yourself in the Smokies during October and are seeking some good ol’ fashioned spooktacular fun, no matter your age, here are my favorite ways to do just that.
Hike a Spooky Sounding Trail
GSMNP is located only a day’s drive from one-third to one-half of the country’s population, so it’s consistently the most visited national park. But with over half a million acres, it’s easy to escape the leaf-peeping crowds on one of its 150 trails, covering over 800 miles. Some of my favorites for fall color and spooky sounding names (without massive crowds, usually) are:
- Bone Valley Trail: The park named this ominous sounding trail for cattle carcasses that littered the adjoining valley after they were caught in a deadly blizzard in the late 1800s. Other wildlife eventually picked the bovine bones clean, but at trail’s end you’ll still find the Hall Cabin—the most remote structure in the Smokies backcountry that’s still maintained by the National Park Service. There’s an eerie quality to the scene, including rumors of resident rattlesnakes taking up residence under the exterior stairs and hikers who’ve come across a bear inside the cabin. I’ve never witnessed either, but I always watch my step and make lots of noise as I approach it!
- Boogerman Trail: Located in the Cataloochee Valley, this trail was named for Robert Palmer, a resident of the valley before the park’s inception. As the story goes, Palmer’s grade school teacher asked him what he wanted to be when he grew up. Without hesitation, Palmer replied, “The Boogerman!” Palmer promptly received a trail name before such a thing was even in vogue. You’ll pass remnants of the Palmer homestead along with some of the largest trees in the area, thanks to Palmer’s rejection of buy-out offers from lumber companies.
- Big Fork Ridge, Caldwell Fork, and Rough Fork Trails: These trails can be combined for a fantastic fall day hike with an overnight option at backcountry campsite 41. Here’s an article I wrote about the loop and all the features that make it so special, especially close to Halloween.
Visit a Smoky Mountain Cemetery
The park has 150 documented cemeteries peppered throughout its vast half million acres. While we often find cemeteries in Halloween-themed decor, a visit to any of them in the Smokies is a stark reminder of how difficult life was before advanced medical care was available.
Three interesting trailside cemeteries I’ve enjoyed exploring are along Little Cataloochee, Cane Creek, and Meigs Mountain Trails. But the most unique is on Caldwell Fork Trail where three Confederate supporters were killed in 1865, two of whom were buried in the same grave.
Check Out the Elk Rut
Fifty-two elk were reintroduced to the park in 2001 and 2002. That number has grown significantly over the last 20 years, expanding to three primary herds on the North Carolina side of the park. Cataloochee Valley and the meadows near Oconaluftee Visitor Center are two places to guarantee a sighting. Elk are crepuscular, which means they are most active at dusk and dawn, so time your visit accordingly.
During the fall, expect to have company watching them—it’s elk breeding season, and the males put on quite a show with their haunting bugles and testosterone charged, antler-locking battles with other bulls. Remember to stay at least 50 yards away from the elk, to avoid adding your name to the roster of gruesome wildlife encounters in the park.
Enjoy a Night Hike
Grab a headlamp and hit the trails at night! This is best done with a friend or two, both for safety and added fun. Some of my most memorable hikes in the Smokies have taken place at night. Nothing compares to seeing and hearing nocturnal wildlife, especially the park’s owl population. The blood curdling yips and yelps of coyote will raise the hair on even the bravest of hikers. Thankfully, the invasive species want nothing to do with humans, and they avoid interaction at all costs. Salamanders and snakes are also more active at night on trails, especially when it’s still warm outside, so watch where you step (both for your well-being and theirs). Bonus points for night hikers who don costumes suitable for hiking!
Share a Spooky Story
You’ll find many interesting books in the park’s visitor centers (or online) through Great Smoky Mountains Association (GSMA), including some that include harrowing stories of search and rescue operations in the park and even some ghost stories.
Into the Mist: Mishaps and Misdeeds, Misfortune and Mayhem in Great Smoky Mountains National Park is one of my favorites, but I also love reading the tale of Spearfinger around a campfire from Living Stories of the Cherokee. Good ol’ fashioned ghost stories can be found in Mountain Ghost Stories and Curious Tales of Western North Carolina. Bonus points if you purchase them through GSMA or in visitor centers, since the proceeds benefit the park.
Look for Eerie Flora
The Smokies are alive with fall color in October, and some of the flora show up in full costume.
Striped maple leaves take on the appearance of ghosts with their shape and translucent color. In the higher elevations, witch hobble’s beautiful blood red leaves are easy to spot. Legend has it that settlers hung boughs of witch hobble on the doors of their homes to ward off evil spirits.
Stalked puffball in aspic mushrooms are as slimy looking as they sound. Jack o’ lantern mushrooms are another favorite, especially since they’re bioluminescent and glow in the dark!
And if you ever feel like you’re being watched on trail, white baneberry, commonly referred to as “Doll’s Eyes,” may be to blame. It is arguably the creepiest (yet still lovely) plant in the park.
Enjoy Spooky Season This Year in the Smokies
Wherever the trail leads you this fall in the Smokies, soak in the splendor and stay safe out there!
---Nancy lives and plays in the mountains of western North Carolina with her husband, three children, and rescue dog. She is an avid day hiker and backpacker and is passionate about her position on her county’s search and rescue team. She is a small animal veterinarian, but her focus increasingly shifts towards outdoor education, such as equipping hikers with the knowledge and skills they need to survive any unexpected ordeals in the backcountry. She is also a strong advocate for curing “nature deficit disorder” in children and leads by example, showing what’s possible in wilderness areas with kids on her family’s many adventures. Follow along with Nancy’s work at: Hope and Feather Travels.