Follow along with outdoorsman and writer Johnny Molloy as he treks through the mountains of Northeast Tennessee.
From the banks of the Nolichucky River to the top of Roan Mountain, wildflowers paint colors across Northeast Tennessee. As warmer days take over winter’s cold snap, hikers will find an array of blooms throughout the Cherokee National Forest.
Hiking Old Forge
This five-mile loop begins at Old Forge Campground. First you’ll head towards Round Knob Branch, a small stream you’ll cross more than 20 times during your trek (don’t say we didn’t warn you to bring extra socks). Here you’ll find oak, magnolia, and birch trees lining the trail.
Next, join Cowbell Hollow Trail, where panoramas open from a fire-scalded slope. Drop into Jennings Creek, a small stream with surprisingly large pools. Pass a backcountry swimming hole and forgotten homesites, all before returning to Old Forge. Intersect Cowbell Hollow Trail at 2.2 miles with Round Knob Picnic Shelter nearby.
Continuing on the trail, views open to your right of the state line crest showcasing Coldspring Mountain, following a switchback downhill, highlighted by pine, mountain laurel, and blueberries. Rock hop Jennings Creek, then pass an abandoned homestead on your right, leading to a luscious wildflower garden.
Intersect Poplar Cove Trail at 3.8 miles, taking you to Horse Creek Recreation Area. This circuit keeps straight, and after a pair of creek crossings, you’ll find a small campsite and series of cascades, culminating in a swimming hole filled with rainbow trout. The trail descends to another homestead, complete with a rock chimney. You’ve now reached the turnaround point, to backtrack to Old Forge Campground.
You’ll continually crisscross Round Knob Branch in this rich valley full of trillium colored white, yellow and maroon, along with a host of other vibrant wildflowers and wild mountain rhododendron. Have your camera ready, no filter needed!
Camping at Old Forge
Made exclusively for tent campers, this area is set in a flat alongside Jennings Creek, which tumbles into numerous falls and pools, some large enough for a swim. It presents waterside and wooded walk-in tent campsites, each with a fire ring, picnic table, tent pad and lantern post. The campground is normally open from mid-April through mid-December. It is advised to call the Cherokee National Forest 423-638-4109 prior to planning your trip.
History of Old Forge
Old Forge was the site of an iron forge in the early 1900s. Iron was melted and made into tools for use on a logging railroad that extended up to Cold Springs Mountain. Timber was cut by hand with cross cut saws, then transported the logs via horse or mule. The setting is much different today – with alluring Jennings Creek, the centerpiece of a recreation area amid a tent-only campground. Name aside, the watercourse tumbles over mossy rocks, occasionally resting in crystalline pools. Even this stream, as small as it is, has trout in bigger pools.
For guided day and overnight backpacking trips, we recommend White Blaze Outdoors.
Leave No Trace
Johnny Molloy is the author of many outdoor guides including Best Tent Camping: