The one way 6.4 mile Cataloochee Divide Trail along the Nat’l Park boundary with Haywood County begins at Cove Creek Gap and ends close to the Hemphill Bald summit. There are several fine intersecting trails and opportunities for multi-day backpacking trips. One option we enjoy quite regularly is to leave from Appalachian Highlands Science Center gate at Hemphill Road and joining the Cataloochee Divide Trail on the ridge near the center.
On the semi-strenuous hike up the road up to the science center you have steep slopes, tumbling creeks, and great views of Cataloohee Ski Area and Jonathan Creek Valley. Once you reach the science center at 4,850′ there are several diversions here. The center is closed in the winter, but you can hang out on the big sunny decks and take in incredible views of both sides of the divide. There is Fergusons Cabin (an 1800s restored cabin), an old evergreen tree farm, and the open grassy bald areas around the center.
You pick up Cataloochee Divide Trail north or south. Going south the trail follows an old locust fence line on your left along the national park boundary and through a hardwood forest. The trail is in good condition and there are boardwalks across wet sections. It is up and down for a while and then a fairly steep ascent to the grassy bald of Gooseberry Knob and the private Swag Country Inn property. This is a gorgeous spot to hang out at and also a good turn-around point for a 5 mile round trip. The property belonging to the Swag Inn is on open grassy summit with Adirondack chairs, a big hammock, and huge views east toward Pisgah and Cold mountains and the Plott Balsams to the south. The Swag Inn is private property but they graciously allow hikers to enjoy. During the winter months you’ll have the opportunity to enjoy beauty in solitude for hours.
Back on the trail you can see the Hemphill Bald summit ahead, Cataloochee Ski Area to the left, and views toward Mt. sterling to your right. You descend to Double Gap at Cataloochee Ranch and then begin the half a mile grind to the partial bald summit of Hemphill Bald. this is officially the end of the Cataloochee Divide trail and you are now on the Hemphill Bald trail. On the summit of Hemphill Bald you’ll be rewarded with sweeping views of the high peaks of the Plott Balsam Mountains to the south. You’ll also see cattle during the summer open grazing on Cataloochee Ranch lands. The total round-trip is about 8.5 miles and you’ll gain 1600 feet but keep in mind there is up and down so you’ll really gain more on your out and back trip.
We’ve done Hemphill Bald from both directions and this one is a longer trip, but definitely more interesting. There is a lot of exploring to do and several trip options with different access points and side trails. This area is the best hiking area close to Waynesville and Maggie Valley in my opinion.