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Unicoi Gap, Cantrell Top, and Joe Brown Highway May 25, 2012

Posted by Jenny in conservation, hiking, Wilderness Society.
Tags: , , , , , , ,

Azalea near Cantrell Top

This post is the first of a series about “North Carolina’s Mountain Treasures,” lands targeted for higher protective designation by the Wilderness Society.  For more information about this campaign, please visit the Mountain Treasures website.

Half the fun of this outing was getting to the starting point of my hike at Unicoi Gap via the Joe Brown Highway. We are talking about the very stub end of North Carolina.

Cherokee County, NC

You notice that from the southwestern corner, the TN-NC state line goes north-northeast in a straight line and then starts trending in a more easterly direction to follow a divide. Unicoi Gap is located exactly at the point where the state line makes that turn. My hike started from the gap (2044′) and took me over several lumps and bumps about five miles to the summit of Cantrell Top (3600′). At that point, I stood on the threshold of the Upper Bald River Wilderness Study Area, one of the areas highlighted in the Wilderness Society campaign.

This map of prominent summits in Cherokee County will give you a  feel for the lay of the land in this far corner of North Carolina. Zoom in on the map, and you will see state road 1326 leading from the town of Murphy to Unicoi Gap. That is Joe Brown Highway. It more or less follows the path of the Unicoi Turnpike, a trading route between Cowee Town (now Murphy) of the Middle Cherokee and the Cherokee town of Tellico in Tennessee. This route also represents one of the first segments of the Cherokee Trail of Tears by which the original inhabitants of these mountains were forcibly removed to Oklahoma.

I don’t know who Joe Brown was. If you do, please let me know. But I really enjoyed following the road that now bears his name. Proceeding from downtown Murphy, I turned onto Tennessee Street, which becomes Joe Brown. Noticing that my gas was low, I decided I’d best fill my tank before proceeding into what looked on my map like “the back of beyond.” I pulled into the Joe Brown convenience mart, and found that the pumps did not have credit card technology, nor was prepayment required. You pumped first and then walked into the store to pay—something I haven’t seen for a long time.

You soon pass a big yellow sign that says “TRAVEL ADVISORY—NARROW, WINDING UNPAVED ROAD AHEAD. NO TURN-AROUNDS. TRACTOR TRAILORS NOT RECOMMENDED.” The pavement does continue through Grape Creek, Hanging Dog, Ogreeta, and Unaka. In many places side roads split off, but signs were plentiful. They even indicated with arrows which way you should go.

The Joe Brown signs had helpful arrows on them.

The gravel portion was in good condition. My only concern was that if I had a flat tire or a mechanical problem, I’d probably have no cell signal, and it might be hours before the next person drove by.

But I made it to the gap with “no incident,” as they say. The footpath I followed is a portion of the Benton MacKaye trail, which travels 300 miles from Springer Mountain, GA to Davenport Gap at the northeast end of the Smokies: you could consider it an alternate to the Appalachian Trail, which connects the same points before continuing northward.

The MacKaye Trail is blazed with white diamond-shaped blazes. At least in this section, the paint was not actually a pure white, but a more stylish ivory shade. I liked it.

MacKaye blaze

From the trailhead onward, I saw many wildflowers.

Phlox at Unicoi Gap trailhead

Lyre-leaved sage. It smelled like mint.

I passed two white oaks with very strange shapes. I saw something like this near Brasstown Bald, the Georgia state high point, last summer, as well. I would be interested to know what causes this.

This oak had a freakishly long branch extending out.

This one nearby also had a strange shape.


View to the south near Peel’s High Top

Fire pinks spangled the trailside

In a steep sidehill area, trail maintainers had built some steps. Here the diamond MacKaye blaze was more like a stamp of authorship than a route designation.

Blaze beside constructed steps

Big yellow wood sorrel



White violets

I passed a sunny glade inhabited by giant filmy angelica.

The filmy angelica was as tall as I was.

Laurel near Cantrell Top

A little past prime, but still pretty

The final push to Cantrell Top was a steady climb of 600′. From the dome of its summit, I had no unrestricted views, but I was unmistakably on the highest point around, with sky visible in all directions. Many small chestnut trees populated the summit.

Chestnut leaves

After stopping for a rest and something to eat, I turned to retrace my steps. Below Cantrell Top I encountered a backpacker who said he was doing a 22-day trip ending at Little Frog Mountain Wilderness (but he was not doing the whole MacKaye Trail). He cheerfully carried a gigantic pack that looked as though it weighed at least 50 pounds. I have the impression that you carry more food with you than on a comparable trip on the AT because of the lack of resupply points.

I returned to the trailhead and enjoyed maneuvering the twists and turns of Joe Brown back down the mountain. With my windows rolled down, the summer breezes pleasantly cooled me as I traveled through woods and past meadows under a sky populated by distinct flocks of fleecy, sheeplike clouds.

At the junction with the Hiawassee Dam road, where gravel changes back over to pavement, I spotted the wonderful little structure of “Murphy’s Mercantile, established 1939. Open Saturdays. Farm fresh eggs, honey, hair cuts, and cold drinks.”

Murphy’s Mercantile


1. tipiwalter - June 10, 2012

It was neat running into you and finding out about this blog while I was breaking a sweat hiking up the ridge around Peels Gap. I’m the backpacker you mention and just returned from 22 days “in the Hiwassee furnace” as I like to call it. I made it to the top of Big Frog Mt and then returned to Reliance for a last couple days. This looks to be an interesting blog so thanks for telling me about it.

Jenny - June 10, 2012

I’m so glad you jotted down or remembered the name of my blog and visited! It was nice to chat with you on the trail that day. I bet those days in the “Hiwassee furnace” were a good adventure.

2. Slowalk - June 11, 2012

Enjoyed this post. Looks like your trees may be Native American Trail Markers?

Jenny - June 11, 2012

Thanks for posting that link, Slowalk! Yes, another person also said to me he thought they were marker trees. Certainly those shapes couldn’t have been created by nature alone. As mentioned, I’ve seen another white oak with a similar shape on the Jakes Knob trail near Brasstown Bald in Georgia.

3. Tina Fain - July 23, 2012

So happy to run across your blog. My gps took me on this alternative route to Murphy NC from Knoxville. I had the same thoughts of a flat tire and no cell service! I thought I was lost for the first few miles then just “went” with it. Beautiful drive! Would love to bike it in the fall.
Thanks for blogging.

Jenny - July 23, 2012

I’m glad you visited my blog! Yes, I guess it would be an awful long way around to avoid Joe Brown Highway connecting those two points—the alternative would be 129 over the “Dragon” and through Robbinsville.

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