Late October is a great time to hike Tennessee’s mountains. My pal, Tom Lauria, a South Florida resident, and I headed to Citico Creek for some, hiking, trout fishing, mountain climbing and general camaraderie. The weather was great — warm days, cool nights and just a few drops of rain. Citico Creek is located in the Cherokee National Forest, south of us, lying just south of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. In fact, the Citico Creek Wilderness is every bit as scenic as the Smokies, with fewer crowds. The trails are a little tougher — and less maintained.
I picked Tom up at the Knoxville airport. We then went on a nightmare grocery run (Tom is very picky. He can take 10 minutes to decide which mustard to buy.) before hitting the South Fork Citico trailhead. We were hurrying to get our grub and get to a campsite before darkness fell. After finally hitting the trail, we found a color-drizzled camp and cooked steaks for dinner. “Nothing like red meat to draw in the bears,” I said to my guest. Tom then got scared of the bears. I reminded him traffic in South Florida is much scarier than a Tennessee black bear.
After a mild night, we set forth up South Fork Citico Creek. The trail made several fords, but the stream was at low autumn levels, eliminating any challenges. The higher we went, the deeper into the forest, the more the vibrant the fall became. After finding a streamside campsite, we went trout fishing, climbing waterfalls for productive, deep trout pools, landing several small but acrobatic rainbow trout. I remarked on how different this was from deep sea fishing off the Florida coast. The trout we were catching here wouldn’t even qualify as bait in the ocean.
Next day we headed up South Fork Citico Creek, climbing steeply to Bobs Bald, an open mountaintop meadow. Between heaving breaths as he fought his way uphill, Tom commented on how steep our mountains were compared to the flatness of South Florida.
Bobs Bald was warm in the sun and cool in the shade. Autumn had taken over at this mile-high destination. The two of us soaked in the rays atop the bald, ate lunch, and hated to leave but it was too early to camp. Tom was about to take a nap, so I decided to get us going. We dropped to a gap the Cherokee Indians had named Naked Ground, as it was unforested. Trees grow there today.
Tom and I should’ve stopped at Naked Ground to camp, but there were some Alabama fans that had already commandeered the camp. The two of us — University of Tennessee graduates — would have none of that. Instead, we took the rough upper Slickrock Trail through seemingly endless rhododendron thickets that grabbed at our overloaded packs. I was getting a little concerned about our pace, but we arrived at Slickrock Creek just before dark. Tom was whipped and sat there, leaning against a tree, while I did all the chores. I laughed every time he groaned in pain. Since Tom is a lawyer, I wondered if he was plotting to sue me for something. Needless to say, we crawled onto our bedrolls early that night.
We decided to do a little fishing while on Slickrock Creek, so we traveled the next day just a couple of miles to a nice, wide flat campsite. The two of us went on a couple of fishing sessions and enjoyed the above-average temperatures. I grilled a few rainbows over hot coals, and we enjoyed them along with some baked potatoes. Our fourth night was windy as a front was moving through, promising colder temperatures.
After breakfast, the two of us climbed just a few miles up Big Stack Gap Branch Trail, then made camp at Crowder Place, an old homesite in a gap on Fodderstack Mountain, 3,400 feet in elevation. We hurriedly set up camp in order to be ready to listen to the Tennessee-Alabama game on the radio, historically played on the third Saturday in October. That weekend is also when the leaves in the mountains generally reach their peak color.
We hung on every word of the announcer. Alas, the Vols lost. It would’ve ruined our day except we were in such a gorgeous setting. That night we drew close to the fire, lamenting our last night in the mountains. A real chill set on Crowder Place that night, dipping below freezing.
A bright sun lit the colorful trees during our five mile march back to the car via Pine Ridge Trail. Our five night loop was a success, except for the Vols loss to the Crimson tide. Tom demanded to take a shower before getting on the airplane for Miami. I arranged such, and away he went, leaving fall in the Tennessee mountains with us.
Citico Creek Wilderness is located near Tellico Plains, Tennessee. For more information about Citico Creek Wilderness, please visit www.fs.usda.gov/cherokee.