This route has been a project of mine for the last couple years. I’ve always been intrigued by geographically significant points, from exploring property boundaries as a kid, to studying maps to see where our water flows, and more recently to peak bagging to find those special spots where a step in any direction is down. But what about the spots where every direction is up?
While on a long training run for the SCAR in 2021, I passed Clingmans Dome and the mind began to wonder where the lowest point was in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park? Logically, these points usually correlate with a body of water but was that Fontana Lake? Or maybe Oconaluftee River at Cherokee or maybe in the Gatlinburg or Greenbrier Areas? Could it be Big Creek or Deep Creek? Following the run I dug into the maps and it turned out that it is in fact Abrams Creek way out on the western edge of the park.
Now that the low and high points in the Park were known, the idea of linking the two points with a run began to develop. Given the low point locations (isolated from the rest of the trail network), it wasn’t immediately clear as to if a route existed and if so, what it could be. After exploring a few options, I determined that through Cades Cove was the shortest milage route and would be the one I would try to run.
Sam Runyan and I gave the route a go last fall but we pulled the plug in Cades Cove deciding to save the harder second half for a later date. This time around, Sam elected to crew/pace me. We started the day well before sunrise by staging a car at a cold, wet, and windy Clingmans Dome then drove down to US129. We were surprised to find the weather at the lower elevation a bit muggy but a pleasant 60°F.
With headlamp on, I started the clock at 7:19 am touching the water of Abrams Creek at the US129 bridge (side note, there are no restroom facilities at the start point). From here I ran up the short access trail then south on US129 for a half mile before turning right onto Happy Valley Rd. This kept me on pavement for the first 7.5 miles of the run and brought me down Abrams Creek Rd. This first road section has a few steady climbs but runs nicely with pretty views of Happy Valley along the way. Early in the morning traffic was light and there were only a few dogs (none of which came out into the road or posed any threat, thankfully!). Headlamp came off in the first mile and legs warmed by mile three.
As the road turns from pavement to gravel, it follows Abrams Creek to the front-country campground. Here there are restroom facilities and a water spigot. I elected to bypass both as I still had plenty of fluids, but this would be a great aid spot for future unsupported/self-supported efforts. Beware though that the campground closes during the winter months, November-April (restrooms locked and water turned off). An hour into the run at this point (around 8:19am) the temperatures were still mild but the air seemed to be getting thicker and wetter.
Leaving the campground and the roads, I followed Cooper, Little Bottoms, Hatcher Mountain, then Abrams Falls trails. Outside of a few semi-technical sections (slippery and rocky by the creek) and a few short climbs, all trails were very runnable in this first 7.5-mile section. Fall colors were exploding at every turn and Abrams Falls was flowing nicely. While I had the falls to myself as I stop shortly for a photo around 9:10am, the morning hikers were not far behind. As I finished out the trail to the parking lot, I was greeted by a steady stream of early bird hikers.
At the Abrams Falls Trailhead at 9:30am, I filled my filter flask from the creek. Then I headed out the gravel road to the paved main Cades Cove Loop Road. I elected to follow the flow of traffic clockwise around the loop. This makes for a rolling road run that is mostly in the woods. With about a mile and half of roads left, Sam joined me and led the way to the resupply car. Going clockwise took us near Abrams Creek Campground which has restrooms and a water spigot open year-round (another great spot for aid in an unsupported/self-supported effort).
Before beginning the second trail section, we stopped for a full reset at Sam’s car, including fresh attire and vest as well as water and Gatorade refills. For the run, I stuck with Huma gels every 45 minutes which kept energy levels nicely balanced.
We (Sam and I) then began the long climb up to the AT around 10:30am via Anthony Creek and Bote Mountain Trails. We found the climb to be steady but easy to maintain a consistent pace. As we neared the AT we began to feel the cold wind and started to drift in and out of clouds. Thankfully though we found the high elevations drier then when we left Clingmans earlier in the morning. We turned north on the AT going over Rocky Top and Thunderhead before rolling over to Derricks Knob Shelter. This section of trail is a mixed bag of steep climbs, techy descents, and nice flowing trail.
At 1pm we stopped at Derricks Knob Shelter to refill water before continuing north along the AT. As we began the undulating climbs, Sam began to feel the cumulative gain on his legs, so we decided to ease the pace. This brought us through the series of smooth ascents all the way to Silers Bald by 2:37pm. After a quick stop, and with Clingmans now fully in view, we pushed on.
We didn’t break any records going up the final climbs, but we did manage to keep constant forward progress through the steepening ascents and thinning air. By the time we began the final section above the Dome Bypass Trail, the slower pace and cold weather (in the low 40s and windy) had my body temperature dropping and legs starting to tighten up. Thankfully, Sam was there to pull me through to the top! We ran up the tower ramp and stopped the clock at 3:41pm as we touched the tower center column on the observation deck.
This was a beautiful run through all the fall colors, and it was challenging to balance the variety of trail and road surfaces. I’m excited to see how others take on the route and if the make any modifications to my selected course. Good luck out there!
correction: I ran counter-clockwise on the Cades Cove Loop Road.