The Kephart Prong Trail in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is a popular hiking destination for those seeking a gentle walk with plenty of interesting features. Few trails in the park offer as much in such a short span as the Kephart Prong Trail.
The hike to the Kephart Shelter is just over two miles on a gentle grade that climbs only about 400 feet per mile. It begins a few mile North of Smokemont on the Newfound Gap Road. It’s an easy trailhead to spot with parking on both sides of the road and a broad footbridge over the Oconaluftee River.
I like to linger on the bridge for a moment when I start this hike. The sound of the river drowns out the traffic on the road, and crossing the bridge is like entering another world.
The first part of this hike is parallel to the river on a broad path that was once a road to a CCC camp. You’ll notice lot of wildflowers in most seasons, and you may be so distracted that you might not notice the remnants of the CCC Camp right away.
Look for a large stone chimney, a rock sign board, a drinking fountain, a fire hydrant and other remnants of the place where workers were assembled during the depression to build the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
After crossing Kephart Prong, you should be able to spot some cisterns high on the bank on the left side of the trail. These were used by a early fish hatchery to replenish fish harvested in the park.
From the hatchery it’s another mile up to the Kephart Shelter. Along the way look for artifacts from the old logging railroads that used to ride these grades.
The shelter sits in a rather small clearing at the point where the Kephart Prong Trail ends and splits into the Sweat Heffer and Grassy Branch Trails.
Overnight camping at the shelter is by permit only. If you are not spending the night here resist the temptation to have lunch or a snack here. The smell of food can attract bears and pose a danger for overnighters.
The trip back to the parking lot always seems shorter to me. But it’s a good time to spot some of the things that you may have missed on the way up.
Typical time for the round trip is three hours, but plan for four and take plenty of time to see everything that this trail has to offer!