The Dark History of the Most Feared Area in the Smoky Mountains

Pictured: Alum Cave trailhead to Mount Le Conte

There's a spot just below Mt. LeConte near Alum Cave Trail that's considered to be the most feared area in all the Smoky Mountains. Pictured: Alum Cave trailhead to Mount Le Conte (photo by Yuan Yue/iStockPhoto.com)

Welcome to the aptly named Huggins Hell – the most feared part of the Smoky Mountains due to its dark history

I have always been fascinated with the hidden, oddly named, rarely explored parts of the Smokies – Mellinger’s Death Ridge, anyone? So, the minute I heard about Huggins Hell, I had to know everything I could about this dense ravine below Mt. LeConte and how it came by its name. And just who this Huggins guy was.  

There is a spot below Mt. LeConte, not too far from the Alum Cave Trail along the Styx Branch – named after the underground Greek River of the dead. Known as Huggins Hell, the region is one of the tougher, more remote spots in the Smokies. It’s not for a lighthearted expedition. 

A View of Huggins Hell 1925
A view of Huggins Hell in 1925 (Thompson Brothers Digital Photo Collection, UT Libraries)

What is Huggins Hell?

It is a region of the Smokies mountains that is nearly impassable except for the most strident of off-trail, backcountry hikers. It’s thick with laurel and rhododendron. Hikers going up the ravine usually travel in the Styx Branch riverbed, so named because the stream goes underground at several points. The topography makes it hard to get and keep your bearings. It is a place where you can easily get lost. Experienced off-trail hikers encourage others to take topographical maps, and an altimeter and to use a GPS to mark a point before you go so you can follow it once you’re on site. It is not what you’d call a human-friendly place. It’s better for snakes and yellow jackets. 

Why the dark history? 

Well, in the old days, European-descended explorers, like Horace Kephardt, documented the mountains and renamed things. Also, sometimes, they’d encounter portions of the mountains they deemed impassable. These sections were so remote and impassable that Kephardt, a man used to being alone in the mountains, found them creepy.

Over the years, settlers would say areas like Huggins Hell were places only the devil could love. With this in mind, areas like Huggins Hell lent themselves to the idea of mysticism. As if an evil power ensnared or ensorcelled it, making it hard for anyone who’d wandered in to find their way out. Any rugged place must surely be for the devil. Then, if someone did get lost in the area, their spirit would be assumed to haunt the area. A kind of self-fulfilling prophecy. 

But why is it named Huggins Hell? Well, that’s a little hard to pin down. There is more than one Huggins Hell, even though only one appears on Google Maps

According to George Ellison, writing for the “Smoky Mountain News” in 2008, there was a herder named Irving Huggins who got lost while keeping cattle up on Silers Bald. In the days before the National Park, mountain people like Huggins, or Kermit Caughron, the last resident of Cades Cove, kept their herds up on the balds in the high mountains. Well, this particular herder was working on Silers Bald which is way over on the other side of Clingman’s Dome. According to Ellison – who mentions the other Huggins Hell near the Alum Cave Trail – old Irving tried a shortcut to make his way to the next ridge. As a result, he got himself lost for a week before he was found more dead than alive.

So why the two Huggins Hells? It’s unclear. Ellison is pretty specific in his facts, citing Elizabeth Skaggs Bowman’s writings from 1938. It’s possible that later generations heard Irving’s story but didn’t have a clear version of the location. When they saw the impossible ravine below LeConte, maybe they assumed that’s where Irving got lost.  

Mt Leconte Camp Early 1900s
A makeshift kitchen used by Adams at Mt. Leconte in the early 1900s (Thompson Brothers Digital Photo Collection, UT Libraries)

Is it still dangerous today? 

Yeah, it is. People who haven’t experienced backcountry and off-trail hikers really shouldn’t be in there. There are hundreds of miles of well-established trails in the Smokies. Hike those. The backcountry mountains are a serious place, not for mucking about. But it’s not like it’s the Bermuda Triangle or something. If you find yourself accidentally lost in Huggins Hell, follow the stream down the mountain. You will eventually intersect with the Alum Cave Trail just above Arch Rock. 

That’s what Paul Adams did, anyway. In 1925, Adams was chosen to be the first man to set up a permanent camp at Mt. LeConte. In late August, Adams, and some companions – including a dog named Smoky Jack – set down the mountain from LeConte to explore the edge of an area that was already known to them as Huggins Hell. According to an article published in the “Great Smoky Mountain Colloquy” by the University of Tennessee Library in 2016, Adams left the group to go further into Huggins Hell to look for a roosting site for duck hawks. 

While inching along a “knife-edged ridge,” Adams stopped on an unstable rock. It gave way and sent him tumbling over a precipice and down a steep slope. He was knocked unconscious. He awoke a couple of hours later with a leg injury and a broken water bottle. Smoky Jack – who I guess had been on the knife-edged ridge as well – had made his way down to the fallen Adams. 

Did Adams survive?

When the explorer did not return, word went out he was lost in Huggins Hell – which was in danger of being renamed Adams Hell at that point. Search parties were sent out, including a group of Boy Scouts who’d been camping on LeConte. Adams followed the Styx to the Alum Cave Trail and began to work his way back up to the base camp where he’d left his companions. He met the scouts looking for him and was excited to find out they’d been sent with supplies. However, he was less excited to find out they’d gotten hungry and eaten the supplies. He sent them back up the mountain to tell everyone he was safe and to send help. 

However, by the time the young men reached the group, word had already gone out to the papers. It was published the next day that Adams was missing in the mountains. The Scouts made it back up the mountain, telling comrades that Adams had been found. But they were so slow, that when help went out, they found the missing man limping his way back up the trail, not far from the camp. 

Whether it’s one Huggins Hell or the other, it’s better to stay on the beaten paths in the Smokies and leave the backcountry, off-trail exploring to the experts. 

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