We hike (walk) this trail frequently. It is not too strenuous for us seniors, but the climb up to the top of the mountain is good exercise. There are several nice peek-a-boo views of the lake, and a few side trails to waters edge. The view from the top is unremarkable - too heavily wooded with no real open vistas. The trail is generally in very good condition.
Toward the end of summer a portion of the trail near the start/end of the loop can be somewhat overgrown, making pants a better choice than shorts.
Pat Helm's review below is pretty much spot on. I will say that if you are looking for beautiful vistas and views, this is not your hike. There are only a couple of these on the entire trail during the "green season". It is, however, very peaceful and quiet.
Even with the "orange guide book", the water was very, very, very scarce. Getting to the sources and gathering the water was very time consuming and I would definitely bring a pump filter next time.
Compared to the AT, many sections of the trail are not well-maintained. There are many confusing points on the trail where a blowdown blocks the trail. And no matter how hot it is, you're gonna need to wear long pants or suffer the wrath of constant briers scraping your legs. There are even sections where you have to walk through shoulder-high blackberry bushes.
And yes, poison ivy is everywhere.
If you're going to do this, don't do it without the orange guide book (amazon) and bring a GPS device.
It's a good little hike, though. I finished it in one night and one day, but it could be easily done over the course of three days. And yes -- the climbs and downhill sections are pretty epic, so no beginners for this one unless you're doing super low-mileage days.
Initially, I did the loop in 2 days, camping on Tusquitee during a very chilly blackberry May evening. However, upon my return to the car, I discovered I'd left my glasses where I had camped and eventually day hiked back up to the bald to get them two weeks later. As a result, I've gotten a pretty good taste of doing the loop both ways.
It's a challenging and in no way "moderate" trail......but it's a mighty pretty one!
Just to add a little to the great reviews already here:
- The most accessible water on the north rim is at the Shinbone Trail spur. Just go down about 50 yards to fill up.
- When you pass through Johnson Bald, give reverence to the plane wreckage on your left. Two folks died there in '74.
- If you decide to go counter-clockwise, eat a whole candy bar before starting the 6th mile. It's a relentless 1000 ft ascent straight up before reaching the 7th mile ( which is no picnic either ). Conversely, before going down ( mile 19 on a clockwise trip ), take 2 naproxens - not only is it steep, but the loose rocks make navigating the descent a slow and strenuous process. You'll be thankful you brought your trekking poles too!
- For goodness sakes, wear some pants when your walking in these parts! Shorts ain't gonna do it through the briars and blow downs, not to mention poison ivy, along and ON the trail.
Like others have said, this place is very remote. Of the combined 46 miles traveled on the trail, I've only seen one other person! It is truly a hidden jewel of Southern Appalachia and real privilege to have under my belt, twice!
Marcus B. on Fires Creek Rim Trail
Great trail, most of the 25 mile hike along the top of a ridgeline that once ascended is over 4000 ft. culminating at Tusquitee Bald at 5240 ft. I began at Leatherwood Falls and took the northerly route. Very few switchbacks, steep up and down with some relatively level stretches. I got a late start, if I had it to do over again, I would start early and set up camp the first night at Big Stamp, spend the second night atop Tusquitee Bald, and hike out the third day. Hikers in good shape could probably do the hike in two days, but for this 62 year old wheezer/geezer, I took 3 days, hiking out the last 2 miles in the dark using flashlights. And I was plum tuckered out. Some serious strenuous sawtooth action on the soufhern loop and before Weatherman Bald, fortunately more water to be found on the southern hike. A few great open views, a continuous view through trees of the Fires Creek basin and surrounding valleys, the cooler months with less foliage will offer better viewing. Thanks to the Mountain High Hikers Club for all the good work they have done maintaining the trail, though there was some deadfall and briers towards the midpoint and southern section. Saw a couple of bear cubs hightailing it away from my approach, grouse, hawks, signs of wild hogs everywhere, deer tracks, and 3 people in the first couple of miles, after that no one, truly a wilderness area once you hike back in there. Check on prescribed burns before you go, on the second day afternoon, I encountered one of these obnoxious procedures, between the smoke, pollen and steep terrain, the going got pretty rough. Fortunately on the third day, the wind was blowing the smoke away from me, it was a beautiful hike, one I will always remember. Also a good map is invaluable, very few of the peaks have signs. the main trail seems to bypass several of them, but there are usually side trails to the peaks. The trail itself is well-marked with blue blazes.
It wasn't the best mountain biking trail in the world but it was still extremely fun. Make sure to watch out for other bikers around the sharp corners because we nearly crashed into other bikers twice. I would not recommend hiking because you are constantly on alert for on coming bikers.
Good hike for everyone, including small family members. There is a nice bathroom facility at the parking lot. The trail signage is very clear and you can easily figure out which trails you want to take. The Central loop is 3.1 miles and the loops off of it are very well marked at each intersection, even giving you the mileage of the extra loop. You can add loops and make up a hike of around 6 miles or juswt stick with the basic loop of 3.1 miles. Having the lake in view most of the time is an added bonus. Really enjoyed this hike.
After sourcing a guidebook available on Amazon, a topographical trail guide from NatGeo, a group of students (including first-time campers) hike from Leatherwood falls to the top of both ends of the trail in a few hours. The North-West head was much more difficult, but had amazing views once atop the ridgeline during the winter, and the South-East head from Leatherwood was also breath-taking, with more growth as it had not been hit by the 99' forest fire. We walked 4 other trails along the ridges and down into the bear sanctuary valley before taking an amazingly refreshing dip in the flowing creek. Water was not difficult to find as snow melt had happened just weeks prior and heavy rain occurred on our first night. We did filter along our hikes, which ranged from 3-8 miles long. We visited at the end of this March, so this should help you gauge your water use.
Not an "easy" hike, but if you are in decent shape this will be of moderate difficulty. Surprised to see so many people whine about the steepness of the trail; I may be biased as an ourdoor guide, but this is no where near what I would gauge as "difficult." I plan on coming back and doing the entire trail in 3-4 days, but I'm sure it can be done in 3 by an experienced hiker.
Only saw 1 hiker within our 3 night stay, trails were in great shape, aside for some small trails with briers.
We originally opted to stay 3 nights in "Hunters Camp" but changed our minds and shelled out the $5 /night /site for Bristol Horse Camp: More secluded, along the creek and nearby more trails.
Please note that the road is CLOSED after Bristol Horse camp this/next year for "renovations" and that we did encounter a bear within the sanctuary one night.
Let me begin by saying this was a beautiful hike with several types of forest. We did this hike May 24, 25, 26th 2014. We saw no one at all on the trail for three days and I think I know why. We hiked the entire loop clockwise from the picnic area. I hiked with two other guys that are in excellent physical condition, run marathons, and are experienced backpackers. I needed to say that so I didn't sound like a crybaby. There were little to no scenic views on this trip this time of year. Not much wildlife. The hike was rated "difficult" but in my opinion it was "You're gonna regret it dummy!". Constant very steep inclines and very steep declines left our body's screaming for it to stop. Collectively over the 30 or so miles I would estimate less than 1 mile was fairly flat. Water was very scarce and down extremely difficult descents in order to fill up. I would recommend a very good map not like the one they give at the ranger station. If you're going to do this hike I would strongly recommend training for it months in advance. It was crazy! I certainly have no desire to do it again.