Rube Rock Loop
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See UPDATES at the bottom of this page for addition info gleaned from my second hike along this loop
This is a strenuous (almost 2800 feet elevation change) 10.1 mile loop hike which begins and ends at Brown's Gap, located along the Appalachian Trail, just a few miles southbound from Max Patch. The loop is made up of 3 trails: the AT, Groundhog Trail, and Rube Rock.
If a hike of this length and difficulty is within your interest and ability, I encourage you to check out this loop. It has everything: solitude, scenery, wildflowers, waterfalls, rapids, fast-flowing creeks, and a freeway.
OK ... I grant you that that last item is a bit weird. More on that freeway later. But honestly, this loop, especially if done in the spring during wildflower season, is going to totally "WOW" you. One person who hiked this said she found over 60 different wildflowers. Flowers I've seen include both pink as well as yellow ladyslippers, many varieties of trillium, including the gorgeous yellow wakerobin one, bloodroot, and wild geranium.
I'd seen this loop of trails on the Harmon Den and Hot Springs Area Trail Map, and was immediately intrigued by it because of the area's isolation. No other trails intersect this loop, except for a forest service road (FS357) that bisects the upper portion of this loop. There are also a few other overgrown forest service roads (that aren't even on the map) that invite exploration, but other than those, there's NOTHING nearby. To the west, there is nothing except an unbroken chain of steep mountain ridges along the south face of Snowbird Mountain. Further west is the Smokies. To the north is Tennessee's Cherokee National Forest. To get to the trailhead, you exit Interstate 40 directly onto a gravel road. That alone always intrigued me ... a freeway exit that exits right onto a gravel road!!
Elevation Profile of the trail
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GPX data for download (zip file which includes both GPX format, as well as GDB format for Garmin users):
AT to Groundhog to Rube Rock Trail Loop.
This loop begins and ends at Brown's Gap, which stradles the North Carolina/Tennessee state line, northwest of exit #7 on I-40. This is the last freeway exit in North Carolina if you are heading westbound on I-40 from Asheville, NC. If traveling in this direction, once you exit, turn right onto the gravel road at the end of the exit ramp (Cold Springs Creek Road, also labeled as FS 148). If coming eastbound on I-40, turn left at the end of the exit ramp, go under the freeway to pick up this gravel road.
Follow this gravel road for 3.2 miles. You follow the very scenic Cold Springs Creek the entire way. Turn left onto FS148-A (the first gravel road that comes in from your left). There is a pull off area here with a signboard and pit toilets, although you don't see these coming from this direction on Cold Springs Creek Road.
FS148-A climbs 600 feet in elevation, moderately at first, and then rather steeply, although the road is in good enough shape that you do not need a high clearance vehicle or 4WD to navigate it. Brown's Gap is not labeled, but is where the terrain levels out, with a road going both left, as well as straight ahead. The Appalachian Trail crosses at this point as well. Park anywhere along the side of either of the gravel roads ahead of you.
This loop can be done in either a counterclockwise or clockwise direction. The latter has you descending the steepest portion of the loop (Rube Rock Trail); the former has you going up this portion. My knees do better going up steep grades rather than down, so I did it in the counterclockwise direction. Additionally, if done clockwise, you end your loop with 3 pretty tough uphill miles on the Appalachian Trail. Counterclockwise has you end a tough 10 mile hike with level to gently downhill hiking. This trip report is written following the counterclockwise direction for the loop.
Another reason to do this in a counterclockwise direction is that finding the upper portion of Rube Rock Trail that is just south of FS357 is sketchy. If coming up Rube Rock from the south, you see the FS road above you and just head for that. But I've made two trips where I've tried to find Rube Rock trail FROM the FS road, without success. See below for more details.
To start your hike, pick up the Appalachian Trail at Brown's Gap, following it southbound. Just uphill from Brown's Gap you'll see a signboard giving mileages to the Groundhog Shelter, the AT's crossing of I-40, and Brown Gap's elevation.
AT Sign at Brown's Gap
You climb rather steeply for the first half mile, coming out along the top of a ridge. Here, you'll see a trail come in from your left, with an old weathered sign nailed to a tree labeling this as Rube Rock Trail.
Sign at Rube Rock's junction with the AT
See NOTES (below) for my comments on that section of trail (basically ... it's not there!!)
Continuing on with directions for a counterclockwise hike of this loop, stay on the AT, going past the Rube Rock intersection. You will have a descent of almost 1000 feet in the next 2.2 miles. The trail is well labeled with the AT's white blazes, and well traveled and easy to follow. If you do this hike in the spring, this area is thick with wildflowers. You will also meet many northbound through hikers in the April/May time period.
Just shy of 3 miles from Brown's Gap, at the bottom of a long downhill, you'll come to a "T" at a labeled interesection, with the AT continuing to the right, and Groundhog Shelter (from where Groundhog Trail begins) to the left.
Bear left, and in a tenth of a mile or so, you'll come to the Groundhog AT shelter.
Groundhog Trail begins just downhill from the shelter, and is labeled. In the photo above, you can see the back of the wooden sign for the trail on the far right side of the photo. This photo is shot from the upper portion of Groundhog Trail, looking north towards the shelter and trail that brings you here from the AT.
After passing by the shelter, in less than a tenth of a mile, Groundhog Trail crosses FS357.
Soon after crossing the Forest Service Road, the fun and beauty begins. The trail soon parallels the beginnings of Groundhog Creek, and follows it downstream, crossing various tributaries and creeks that feed into Groundhog along the way. The further downstream you go, the more water volume there is everywhere.
Groundhog Trail is wide and clear in most places, and in the lower sections, it has some impressive rocky walls paralleling the trail.
Groundhog Trail, above and below
Groundhog Trail is blazed blue, and Rube Rock yellow. I had assumed the switchover was either at the bottom of this loop, or where one crossed Rube Rock Creek. But the change over seems to occur arbitrarily in the lower third portion of Groundhog Trail. The GPS track above shows a waypoint where I saw my first yellow blaze.
As you get farther down Groundhog, you begin hearing traffic sounds from Interstate-40. And that is where that "freeway" part of the trail comes in ... you hike down Groundhog Trail (which by now has turned into Rube Rock Trail) following Groundhog Creek downstream until you come out almost to the interstate. A side trail goes down to the freeway itself (to an old parking area that is now blocked off). Just before this, Rube Rock Trail makes a sharp (almost 180 degree) turn to the left, heads uphill slightly, and begins bearing east and north, following an old railroad grade that lies about 100 feet in elevation above the freeway, curving along the ridge that lies between Groundhog Creek and Rube Rock Creek.
The freeway is quite visible (and audible), but I didn't find its presence as "yucky" as I was expecting. Instead, I felt really "free" ... walking along in a remote section of woods that just happened to come down near a freeway, where all those other folks are stuck in their cars heading various places!!
Interstate 40, as seen from Rube Rock Trail
As you head around the ridge towards Rube Rock Creek, you leave the freeway, and come to the creek itself, which, of all the creeks and creek crossings this loop provides, is probably the prettiest of them all. Rube Rock Creek comes downstream at a significant grade, and there are lots of boulders and rocks in the stream, as well as along the sides, and all this makes for a really impressive stream and stream crossing. This is a great place for lunch, as there are lots of rocks to choose for a picnic spot. The freeway is out of sight and out of earshot, and you are once again surrounded by wilderness.
Rube Rock Creek
After crossing Rube Rock Creek, you climb steeply uphill, heading south again, back towards the freeway, crossing the next ridge and coming out near the next creek, Tom Hall Branch. If you've ever driven along this section of I-40, especially during a period when there's been a lot of rain, you've probably seen several areas where creeks are literally tumbling full force down the tall, vertical, rocky walls that border the westbound lanes of the freeway.
Tom Hall Branch is one of those; I did this loop shortly after a week of heavy rains, and as I got closer to the stream, is was so loud, with its several areas of waterfalls crashing down so hard, that the freeway noise was totally drowned out. The creek and the magnificent waterfalls really begged exploration, but it would be one heck of a bushwhack to get over to the creek from the trail. Do not let the short distance that the map shows fool you; the terrain is almost straight down between the trail and the area on the creek where the waterfalls are, and the undergrowth is as thick as any I've seen. But you sure do get a great view of it all from the trail, albeit at a distance!!
Rube Rock Trail eventually comes to creek level on Tom Hall Branch (far from where the waterfalls are!!), and then begins heading back to the north to once again join up with Rube Rock Creek. Studying the map, the idea of bushwhacking up Rube Rock Creek from where you initially cross it, to where the trail again joins it is very enticing. I imagine there is a reason the trail builders looped you way over to the other side of the ridge to make your ascent up to this point ... I'll bet that is some rugged area along Rube Rock Creek between those two points!
The trail gains 500 feet of elevation in the 0.6 mile section that goes from Tom Hall Branch back up to Rube Rock Creek. Steady, steep, uphill climbing. Once you join the creek again, the grade eases, and provides more opportunity for enjoying rapids, small waterfalls, and their associated swimming holes.
A small waterfall and swimming hole along Rube Rock Creek
After an enjoyable stretch along Rube Rock Creek, the trail heads north, following an unnamed tributary, and you again climb another 500 feet in elevation in another 0.6 mile. In this section, you see the forest opening up a lot, changing from its previous character of thick rhododendrons and other undergrowth.
The trail makes a gentle 90 degree right hand turn, going from heading almost due north, to heading almost due east (this is around countour line 3280 to 3300 feet or so). It is at this point that I lost track of Rube Rock Trail, both the trail and blazes. Having been in this section two other times (attempting this loop in a clockwise fashion), I recognized where I was, and should have just hopped up to FS357, which is visible above you to your left.
But I wanted to try and see where Rube Rock actually went, but as my GPS track shows, basically I just zig-zagged back and forth, ending up on the UNLABELED Forest Service Road. I had explored this road on a previous trip and knew where I was, turning onto it to take me over to FS357. Be sure not to confuse THIS FS road with FS357! As mentioned, FS357 is clear and wide. This unlabeled FS road is quite overgrown with briars and heads south, away from FS357.
Once you get yourself onto FS357, you'll come to the juncture with the upper portion of Rube Rock Trail on your left, right where FS357 makes a big left turn. This is the portion of Rube Rock Trail that runs between the AT and FS357, and is labeled Alternate Route on the GPS map above. You'll see a trail sign leaning against a tree.
Sign at Rube Rock's junction with FS357
At this point, if you have tons of energy left, you can follow this alternate route. But see the NOTES below about how non-existent this trail is!
However, you'll have almost 9 miles of tough hiking under your belt at this point, and from this point on, FS357 provides a wide, pleasant one mile walk in which you drop 200 feet of elevation. A pretty nice way to end a tough 10 mile hike in my book!
Forest Service Road 357
FS357 comes to a "T" (and a gate) at FS148-A, the road you drove up to reach Brown's Gap. Once you hit this road, turn left. Another 0.2 mile, and 100 feet elevation climb brings you back to your starting point.
More photos in my flicker set for this hike.
A few places along Groundhog Trail, it was unclear whether the trail crosses Groundhog Creek or not. You remain on east side of Groundhog Creek the entire way. Realize however, that the trail does cross 4 different tributaries that feed into Groundhog Creek.
This loop had been all but obliterated by downed trees for most of 2011 and 2012. I made my first attempt at the loop in fall of 2012, attempting it in the clockwise direction, only to totally lose Rube Rock Trail once I got below FS357. An Asheville Hiking Meet Up group actually completed the entire loop in April of 2012, and comments by folks who completed the hike talked about "the hike from hell" due to all the downed trees and associated briars. In 2013, the trail maintainers of Carolina Mountain Club spent many, many hours clearing this loop (7 - 10 folks making over 7 trips to this loop to work), and it now is in great shape. I did this loop in April of 2013, and there still were some sections of downed trees, but the CMC completed their clearing of the loop soon after I did that hike. My flickr photos show a lot of the downed tree sections, but all of those are now cleared according to CMC's latest newsletter.
My GPS track above shows an area of zig zagging back and forth as I came to the intersection of Rube Rock and FS 357 and another, unlabeled FS road. This is where I lost the last part of Rube Rock Trail (no blazes, no clear trail), but at that point the forest is quite open, and all you really need to do is head straight for FS357, which Rube Rock parallels quite closely, just downhill a bit from it. Once you see FS357, get on it heading east and follow it to its juncture with FS148-A, the road up to Brown's Gap. Just make sure you don't end up on the nearby "unlabeled FS road" that I have a short track of on the GPS map above. That road continues heading south, away from FS357. It is much more overgrown than FS357. FS357 is a clear, wide road with no overgrowth at all.
The portion of Rube Rock Trail which goes from the AT to FS357, is on the above GPS track in black, and is labeled as "Alternate Route". My first attempt at this loop had me turning onto this trail from the AT, and following Rube Rock Trail south. Very soon after leaving the AT, the trail basically disappears. Since the map has it following the ridgeline, it was easy enough to follow what is supposed to be the route by just keeping myself on the ridgeline, and in fact, every now and then I saw an occasional very faded yellow blaze on a tree.
But basically you are walking through open forest, with no trail in sight. If you continue to follow the ridgeline, you come out on FS357, and at THAT intersection there is also a trail sign, leaning against a tree, as shown above.
My recommendation is to follow the loop shown in red on the GPS track above, which, if you do the loop in a counterclockwise direction, has you follow FS357 for the last portion of the hike.
The above webpage was written after my April 13, 2013 hike of this loop. The overriding impressing of that entire day's hike was TONS of wildflowers and TONS of full, rushing creeks.
I did the loop for the second time on May 24, 2015. One of the things I was most hoping to do was to get better photos of all those rushing, raging creeks, since I now had a tripod and a camera with manual settings. Well!! When I got to Rube Rock Creek, I almost didn't recognize it since the water volume was so much lower!! Note the two photos below, taken from almost the same spot in the creek:
Rube Rock Creek, 2013 (above)
and 2015 (below)
The 2013 hike was done the day after 2 days of rain. The 2015 hike was done after a period of about 2 weeks with no rain. Additionally, whereas in 2013 I was literally overwhelmed with the volume and variety of wildflowers, on the 2015 hike, the only wildflowers seen were lots of mountain laurel, which were just beginning to be past peak, a spiderwort or two, and a few wild geraniums.
My recommendation is to do this hike in early April, after a period of lots and lots of rain. Without all the wildflowers and full, rushing creeks, this hike changes from a fantastic loop full of blooming flowers and raging creeks around every turn to a rather ordinary 10 mile hike in the woods.