A short, easy, all-ages loop, the Fighting Creek Nature Trail gets you out into the depths of a gorgeous Smoky Mountain forest within a stone’s throw of downtown Gatlinburg. Handsome trees, babbling streams, and the option of quick side trip to a waterfall make this an ideal short hike for anyone with a young family in tow or who’s short on time.
Only about 1.2 miles long and involving a mere 160 feet or so of elevation change, the Fighting Creek Nature Trail proceeds along a very gentle grade overall. Most hikers, including those on both ends of the age spectrum, won’t find it terribly challenging.
The Fighting Creek Nature Trail begins near the Sugarlands Visitor Center, northern portal for Great Smoky Mountains National Park and jumping-off point for a number of hiking trails.
You’ll be following Fighting Creek, an important tributary of the West Prong of the Little Pigeon River, for much of the route. There are a few stories floating around about the name of this stream, the leading one concerning an argument among mountain residents over where a schoolhouse should be situated.
Speaking of mountain folk, the woods you’re strolling through on the Fighting Creek Nature Trail have recolonized the old farmsteads of the Forks of the River community that once existed here. You’ll see evidence of these vanished settlers along the way.
Pick up a brochure at the trailhead: This is a self-guided nature trail with some illuminating insights into Smoky Mountain history and ecology. You’ll cross a bridge over the Ash Hopper Branch and then over Fighting Creek itself, soon reaching a fork in the trail. You can take either fork—this is a loop, remember—but we’ll follow convention and assume you’re proceeding clockwise.
The forest here includes a nice mix of trees: sycamore, sassafras, hickories, butternut, sweet birch, and shortleaf pine among them. There’s a particularly eccentric and timeworn sycamore, gnarled and hollowed-out, at the early bridge crossing of Fighting Creek.
About a third of a mile down the trail, you’ll pass the site of Noah McCarter’s former cabin, betrayed by exotic yuccas and boxwood—planted ornamentals—and a clearing. Watch for an old stonewall as you head onward: more evidence of Forks of the River.
Midway down Fighting Creek Nature Trail at the loop’s turnaround point you’ll come across its historical showpiece: the John Ownby Cabin. Restored by the National Park Service, this modest shack dates to about 1860. You can walk inside and admire the craftsmanship of it, pondering as you do the hardscrabble backwoods life here in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, long before Great Smoky Mountains National Park existed.
You’ll then head northeastward again on the return leg to close the loop.
-Where the Fighting Creek Nature Trail forks at the base of its loop, you also have the option of taking a spur path to the Cove Mountain Trail. Less than a half-mile from where the spur branches off, you’ll reach Cataract Falls: well worth the short detour.
-Just a heads-up: Black bears are common in these woods, and it’s not unheard of for local bear activity to temporarily close the nature trail.
Take the main Parkway (Highway 441) out of Gatlinburg into the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. When you reach Sugarlands Visitor Center (on your right), turn Right on Little River Road and park at the Sugarlands Visitor Center. To find the trail, begin walking down the concrete path to the left of the Sugarlands Visitor Center (near the outdoor restrooms and vending area). This will quickly turn into the Fighting Creek Nature Trail.
Whether you’re especially keen on the relic homesteads or you’re simply looking for a stretch-your-legs mosey near Sugarlands Visitor Center, Fighting Creek Nature Trail provides a quick and easy woodsy idyll just minutes from Gatlinburg.