The rich history behind Middle Prong Trail in the Smoky Mountains

A cascade in the middle prong of the Little Pigeon River

There are a number of minor falls, cascades and drops along the Middle Prong Trail (photo by NaturalStock/shutterstock.com)

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Every so often, I completely lose my faith in Hollywood. 

Oh sure, I like a good superhero movie as much as anyone. But why in the world are we making the 15th Batman movie while nobody has gotten around to turning the life of William Marion Walker into a film yet? 

Sure, Batman has wonderful toys. However, consider the man who first settled the Middle Prong area of the Little River.

Walker created the community that would become Tremont. He was a bee-charming polygamist who fathered 26 children.

Born in the Tuckaleechee Cove area of the mountains, Walker is thought to be the first settler to make his home along the Middle Prong.

In fact, the Walker homestead site is the location of the Great Smoky Mountains Institute at Tremont today. 

The first settler in Middle Prong

What made Walker so special? He was a mountain legend in his own time. He settled the area the year before the Civil War began. In addition, he was known for traveling around Tuckaleechee, chopping wood and doing chores to aid struggling families. 

He kept over 100 beehives that he harvested without face protection or smoke. It’s possible he kept the bees away by threatening to take the queen as his wife.

In fact, he believed the Bible gave him the right to take more than one wife, so eventually, he had three. It’s possible while he was going home to home doing chores, he was also doing a little scouting. He had a total of 26 children, though not all of them survived infancy.

Walker also allowed tenant farmers to move into Walker Valley. As a result, when the community developed, he constructed a trio of gristmills. 

He lived until 1919 when – at the age of 81 – he apparently allowed himself to join the choir invisible following a stroke. You can see his unassuming grave at the Bethel Baptist Cemetery in Townsend.

Read Also: Elkmont ghost town: Why was it abandoned, what does it look like today?

Middle Prong of the Little River
Middle Prong refers to the middle prong of the Little River in Tremont (photo by Jerry Whaley/shutterstock.com)

Tremont and deforestation

It’s important to remember that during this era, the mountains were an especially wild place. Not in terms of animal life, but in terms of what was allowed to go on.

Logging companies found the forests of the Smoky Mountains especially lucrative. Chopping rates were so extreme, that I’m surprised the Lorax didn’t show up. 

Safety and good judgment were thrown to the wayside. For example, train wrecks ensued due to shoddy safety practices. Additionally, the Little River was rerouted by the loggers when they tried to clear a massive logjam with so much dynamite they changed the face of the region forever. 

The appropriately named town of Tremont, however, stood in opposition. Walker held off the Little River Lumber Company for years. So when Walker, after suffering his stroke, finally agreed to sell, it was with the caveat that the trees of Thunderhead Prong be protected.

Tremont served as a home base of sorts for the loggers and transients who worked those high-risk jobs created by the logging industry. As time passed, the logging operation moved further up into the mountains due to the changing landscape. Tremont became something of a popular resort destination for tourists. 

The massive deforestation operation of the loggers was one of the key drivers for the creation of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. As the National Park Service began negotiating the price of the land, some of the loggers secured rights to keep logging even in the early days of the park. 

How all of this isn’t a movie is beyond me.

Today, you can explore this part of the park’s history by accessing the Middle Prong Trail. The trail is also known as the best waterfall hike in the Smokies. 

What is the Middle Prong Trail?

The Middle Prong in question refers to the Middle Prong of the Little River.

With a trailhead located in Tremont, it is a great way to see many of the park’s most beautiful waterfalls and scenic cascades. The old railroad grade is also a great trail if you want to connect with the system of trails that carry hikers back deeper into the forest.  

GSMNP Tremont Signage
A sign at the entrance of the Tremont Institute in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park during the fall season (photo by jadimages/shutterstock.com)

How do you get to Middle Prong Trail?

If you’re starting from the Sugarlands Visitors Center or Gatlinburg, continue straight onto Laurel Creek Road as you pass the three-way intersection at the Townsend Wye, like you’re going to Cades Cove.

It’s not very far from the Wye that you turn left onto Tremont Road.

Continue up past the Institute parking lot and past the main road onto Upper Tremont Road. You’ll pass Spruce Flat Falls. The trailhead is located right at the confluence of the river’s Lynn Camp Prong and Thunderhead Prong.

There is a parking area. 

Read Also: The popular Abrams Falls Trail: What you should know before you hike

How long is Middle Prong Trail? 

The hike along the Middle Prong Trail to Indian Flats Falls is 7.8 miles round trip.

The end of the trail is located a little further on to where the Lyn Camp Prong Trail meets the Greenbrier Ridge Trail. That area is a part of the park where only serious hikers venture much further. The entire hike is 8.3 miles round trip.

Further up the Greenbrier Ridge trail, following the Indian Flats Prong to the Seng Patch Prong of the river, you can find a ridge where the remains of a blacksmith who went missing in the early 1900s were found.

Middle Prong to Indian Flats Falls
You can hike the Middle Prong Trail to Indian Flats Falls (photo by Lucas Hamilton/shutterstock.com)

Is the Middle Prong Trail difficult? Is it popular?

It’s considered by hikers to be moderately challenging. It would not be an easy hike for an inexperienced hiker. For example, there are multiple switchbacks deep into the trail though the elevation gain isn’t bad.

It is a popular area for fishing and backcountry camping, so on the first parts of the trail, you’re likely to see other people. The further you go into the forest, the more difficult it becomes and the fewer people you will see.

The entire trail basically follows the path of the river bed. Following the main trail could be confusing. Make sure you’re properly equipped and have a good map. The trail itself is a former railroad bed, remnants of days gone by.

What waterfalls can we see?

In addition to Indian Flat Falls, Lynn Camp Cascades (aka Lower Lynn Camp Falls) and Lynn Camp Prong Falls, there are also a number of minor falls, cascades and drops.

Spruce Flats Falls
A woman views Spruce Flats Falls near the Tremont Institute in the Smoky Mountains (photo by Jim Vallee/shutterstock.com)

Is the Middle Prong trail paved?

No, the trail is not paved.

But it does follow an old railroad bed, so part of the trail appears to be a gravel road. 

What other trails does the Middle Prong Trail connect to? 

The arteries of moving through the Smokies created generations ago remain today.

One trail leads to another which leads to the next. Like poor Mellinger getting to North Carolina, you could theoretically make your way across the mountains to the Appalachian Trail.

Also, depending if you head north or south, you could head to Georgia or Maine if you have the supplies and inclination.

The Middle Prong intersects with the Panther Creek Trail. From there, you can continue to Jakes Creek Trail and Backcountry campsite No. 27 and on to Elkmont and the Little River Railroad Trail Junction.

Further on, where the Middle Prong Trail ends, it meets with the Greenbrier Ridge Trail.

It goes all the way – and it’s a long way – to the Appalachian Trail near the Tennessee-Carolina border. You also can connect with the Lynn Camp Prong Trail.

What is the Rusty Cadillac on the Middle Prong Trail? 

Don’t forget, in the last days before the National Park, there was some money in Tremont due to tourists and the logging companies. In addition to the resort hotel, there was a general store, post office and community center. The Middle Prong Trail wasn’t a gravel road, but a railroad bed used to haul logs.

At just short of two miles, hikers can step off the trail to see the remains of a late 20s model Cadillac on a faint side trail off to the right – maybe 20 yards off the main trail.

If you reach the Panther Creek Trail at 2.5 miles in, you’ve gone too far. It’s unclear how or why the Caddy was left behind. But there it is, a remnant of life before the park and the things left behind in the location of an old lumber camp. 

Read Also: The lost steam engine of the Smokies: Uncovering the ancient wreckage

Have you hiked the Middle Prong Trail? Let us know in the comments.

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2 thoughts on “The rich history behind Middle Prong Trail in the Smoky Mountains”

  1. Seems like a very nice trail. I’m planning on coming up in late November to hike so may try it then
    I’m hopeful the weather isn’t terrible. Haven’t been there that time of the year

  2. Did this trail two years ago. I would say the trail was moderately easy due to there is an incline. For the Caddy, it is about 200 feet on your right beyond a wood bridge and not far off of the main trail. There are two paths that go over a small mound. Remember, anything you find there, leave it there for others to enjoy. Further up the trail where there is an open area, look for an old railroad rail on the left. For the Indian Flat Falls, the path goes off to the right. It is not a trail that is taken care of and can be slippery. The trail goes down to the falls and i believe it is about 1/10 of mile. I think it is on the second switchback and there was carne near the trail head. Very nice falls. Sit and relax and enjoy something to eat there. Leave no trace.

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