Trails I've Hiked: The Great Smokies' Mountain Farm and Oconaluftee River Trails

Summer flowers on Oconaluftee River Trail

Late summer jewel weed is just one of many flowers that bedazzle hikers on the Oconalutee River Trail from August through autumn in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Photo by Randy Johnson.

The Great Smokies’ stellar Mountain Farm Museum at the new Oconaluftee Visitor Center may just be a stroll, but combine it with one of the Smokies best-kept-secret easy walks, the Oconaluftee River Trail, and you have one of the park’s best combinations of scenery and interpretation. It is a masterful meshing of insight into Native Americans and later settlers. In addition, this is one of the few trails in the park where bikes and dogs on leash are permitted.

A Great Combo Trail

If you’ve ever wondered what a hog does when an overspreading oak drops a September acorn into its artfully sited sty—this trail can answer that question.

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The Mountain Farm Museum is a truly living history interpretive site. Photo by Randy Johnson.

From the Oconaluftee Visitor Center, the Mountain Farm Museum path goes left into a flat, half-mile wander among a nicely signed collection of 19th century backcountry farm structures. It offers a vivid picture of a settler’s life, complete with chickens cackling and pigs grunting.

Also from the Visitor Center, the Oconaluftee River Trail heads right (where the farm trail goes left) and leads from the farm along the Oconaluftee River to the streets of Cherokee—or from Cherokee to the farm.

Cherokee Culture

Hiking either way offers a major dose of riverside scenery along with what may be the park’s best insight into Cherokee Indian culture. A half dozen interpretive plaques on the trail explain Cherokee beliefs and respect for the natural world (in English and Cherokee). The signs include evocative illustrations by Cherokee artists that will make you want to visit the tribe’s Qualla Arts and Crafts gallery in town. There’s a bench at each sign and at other places along the path.

One reason the Oconaluftee River Trail is a good family hike for visitors is that it’s very popular with Cherokees as a place to jog or stroll with family. Seeing local Native Americans enjoying their ancestral homeland while you pause to read interpretive signs about Cherokee legend is a rich experience.

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Colorful interpretive signs reveal Cherokee beliefs. Don't miss this inspiring story about how some tress became evergreens, and other lose their leaves. Photo by Randy Johnson.

A Riverside Flower Show

The Oconaluftee River is narrow and fast along Newfound Gap Road, but here along the Oconaluftee River Trail, the river spreads wide and dances over ledges and around islands. The river starts in one of the East’s biggest wilderness areas and the refreshing clean smell of the water matches the emerald green color in a way that defies visual description.

Now is the time to hike the trail—late summer and fall flowers are amazing! The open riverside understory of grasses and ferns is abloom with bee balm and entire trailside borders of jewel weed or Touch-me-Not (in late August). And later on, autumn color is great here.

Combine Both Hikes

If you start at the Visitor Center, explore the farm first. The interpretive signs that explain the structures, all gathered in 1950 from throughout the Smokies, also picture many in their original locations. Then exit past the Apple House near the corn field and turn left on the Oconaluftee River Trail. along the farm’s fence line. At 0.7-mile the trail goes under the Blue Ridge Parkway bridge and sidesteps lead right to a roadside parking slip (the first of three alternative recommended places to park). The trail swings away from the river and crosses a small bridge. There’s another roadside trailhead, a designated parking area on Newfound Gap road at 0.9 mile, immediately before the sign “Blue Ridge Parkway Next Right.” The trail then crosses Big Cove Road next and reaches the sidewalks of Cherokee across from the Cherokee Transit parking area at the reservation boundary at 1.5 miles.

If you don’t start at the visitor center, choose the roadside parking area above that’s right for you and tour the farm for a round trip. It’s a roundtrip hike of 3 miles from Cherokee Transit (great place to park). From all of the potential roadside starting points, you begin with Cherokee culture, in a scenic, natural setting, and end with the backcountry farm structures of newcomers.

By the way—when the acorn drops into the pig sty—the pig trots right to it!

If You Go

Mountain Farm Museum Trailhead parking: Oconaluftee Visitor Center

Trail length: About a half-mile if you wander it all

Difficulty: Very Easy

Payoff: Real insight in Smokies settlers

Cautions: No dogs or bikes in the farm itself!

Oconaluftee River Trail

Trailhead parking: Start at the Oconaluftee Visitor Center and go right at the farm (or after a tour of the farm, exit and go left). Or start in Cherokee at Cherokee Transit tight at the park boundary.

Trail Length: 1.5 miles, 3 miles round trip.

Difficulty: Very easy

Payoff: Deeply moving insight into Cherokee culture and legend.

Cautions: Bikes are OK, and so are dogs (but on leash).