This nearly 20-mile loop is a challenging backcountry excursion, but runners who are ready to take on the route will be rewarded with iconic Smokies scenery including forests, flowers, ferns, mosses, creeks, and cascades.
Be prepared to be self-sufficient for this remote loop. Bring plenty of food and water and be ready for a long, unrelenting climb from mile 8 to mile 18.
To reach the trailhead, drive 13.2 miles south from Sugarlands Visitor Center on New Gap Road to Clingmans Dome
Road. Turn right and drive another 7 miles to the end of the road where you reach the parking lot. Look for the trailhead at the end of the parking lot by the access road to the Clingmans Dome
tower. Start your run from the Clingmans Dome
Visitor Center (which is closed in the winter). Briefly, head up the Clingmans Dome Trail
before taking a left onto the Forney Ridge Trail
You'll descend along the Forney Ridge Trail
for about 1.1 miles before the Forney Creek Trail
breaks off to the right. Take a right and continue your descent along this trail. Forney Creek Trail
follows old logging railroads that were used to heavily log this area before it became part of the national park.
The trail descends steeply (1700 feet in 2.5 miles) as it follows the high ridge down the mountain. After a quick view of Clingmans Dome
, the trail descends through a red spruce forest that gradually transforms into a hemlock forest as the elevation changes. You come to the first crossing of Forney Creek, which consists of a rail holding rocks in place. Looking up the creek, you can see a series of cascades surrounded by rhododendron. From this point, the trail follows a railroad bed and evidence (cables, buckets, etc) of the logging companies can be seen around the trail. About 2 miles into the trail, Forney Creek goes down Rock Slab Falls, a spectacular cascade.
The trail passes Campsite 68, and then crosses the creek several times. After passing Campsite 69, there is a creek crossing that requires wading followed by another creek crossing that can be tricky in high water. After this, the trail runs along the left side of Forney Creek until it comes to a foot log that crosses the creek. At about 8.5 miles, Campsite 70 lies between Forney Creek and Jonas Creek, and runners will want to look for the intersection with the Jonas Creek Trail
The Jonas Creek Trail
immediately crosses Forney Creek on a foot log and enters a pleasant stream-side excursion following an old logging grade. In places the stream takes over the trail, making the running wet and messy. Up ahead, the trail makes two additional crossings - both crossings can be difficult when water is running high. After another 215 yards, the trail crosses Jonas Creek for the fifth and final time, now on a foot log, and then turns away from the stream for a steep course along Little Jonas Creek up the eastern flank of Welch Ridge.
A quarter-mile up Little Jonas Branch, the trail crosses the stream and begins following Yanu Branch. Just beyond a foot log over Yanu Branch, the trail begins negotiating a series of grade-mitigating switchbacks, remnants of the logging railroad. Four switchbacks follow in quick succession and then, after a quarter-mile interval, another pair. Soon the rocky course moderates to a hard-packed dirt track that is fairly free of obstacles. After a sharp turn, the trail enters the drier confines of a southern exposure. The last half-mile is marked by a short rhododendron tunnel and a final return to open woodland. The Jonas Creek Trail
terminates in a nondescript intersection with the Welch Ridge at Silers Bald.
From Silers Bald, take a right and head north on the Welch Ridge Trail
. Above Mule Gap, the trail negotiates a succession of knobs and gaps while switching back and forth across the spine of Welch Ridge, passing the upper end of the Hazel Creek Trail
on your left. Shortly after, you'll come to Mule Gap, a pleasant setting in a wide gently sloped saddle on Welch Ridge.
From Mule Gap, the trail ambles along an easy uphill grade, traversing a bramble-ridden hillside before reaching the junction with the Appalachian Trail (AT). Head west (right) on the AT, past Jenkins Knob, the Double Spring Gap Shelter, and Mount Buckley until coming to a junction with the Clingmans Dome Bypass Trail
which you'll take to finish off the loop.
This content was contributed by author Ken Wise. For a comprehensive hiking guide to the Great Smoky Mountains and to see more by Ken, click here
Due to the amount of water that can be found in this area, a wide variety of flowers, ferns, and mosses can be found throughout the area. Since the area was heavily logged, it is a prime example of a forest and ecosystem in recovery.
Creeks, cascades, pools, and other water features can be found along this trail as the Forney Creek is fed by a variety to tributaries.