Sweat Heifer Cascades Loop, Newfound Gap Trailhead, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, North Carolina

Sweat Heifer Cascades Loop - 13.35 miles

Newfound Gap Trailhead

Autumn foliage on the Sweat Heifer Cascades Loop

Autumn foliage on the Sweat Heifer Cascades Loop

Round-Trip Length: 13.35 miles
Start-End Elevation: 5,054' - 5,054' (6,014' max elevation - 3,715' low elevation)
Elevation Change: +2,299' net elevation change (+3,479' total roundtrip elevation gain)
Skill Level: Strenuous
Dogs Allowed: No
Bikes Allowed: No
Horses Allowed: No
Related Trails:

Sweat Heifer Cascades Loop - 13.35 Miles Round-Trip

Great Smoky Mountains National Park's extensive trail network provides innumerable routing options through the backcountry. The Appalachian Trail joins the Dry Sluice Gap, Grassy Branch, and Sweat Heifer trails to form an ecologically varied lollipop loop through high mountains and low hardwood forests.

Visitors will enjoy several forest types with excellent backcountry camping and wildlife viewing opportunities throughout. The following description heads northeast from Newfound Gap on the Appalachian Trail, and travels clockwise on the loop:

The AT rises over Newfound Gap along the North Carolina - Tennessee border on a rocky, rooted path. Note the absence of hardwoods as you progress through this high-elevation pine-oak forest. The trail crests at 1.5 miles and drops to the Sweat Heifer Creek Trail split (1.65 miles : 5,815').

Grades moderate past 2.0 miles and cross 6,000' (2.2 miles) through columns of red spruce and fraser fir to the Boulevard Trail split, the route's highest point (2.65 miles : 6,014').

The Appalachian Trail continues NE to Icewater Spring Backcountry Shelter (2.9 miles : 5,954') and Icewater Spring, which spills from a pipe directly on the trail (2.95 miles : 5,929'). The shelter is large and well built, but its location on the Appalachian Trail and proximity to Newfound Gap mean it's often crowded.

The trail drops steeply and moderates once again past 3.5 miles on exposed ridges to the spur for Charlie's Bunion (3.85 miles : 5,530'). The landscape changes considerably past Charlie's Bunion, opening to thinly treed hillsides of pine, chestnut, oak, and grasses. This nut and berry-rich ecotone is an important food source for bears, and a good place to see deer, turkey, and grey fox.

Enjoy unabated views down open slopes en route to the Dry Sluice Gap Trail split (4.35 miles : 5,385'). The minimally maintained Dry Sluice Gap Trail rises then undulates on high ridges and sparse hillsides to the Grassy Branch Trail junction (5.6 miles : 5,260').

Veer right on the Grassy Branch Trail, which transitions rapidly from oak and chestnut to Northern Hardwood Forest on the descent. Aptly named Grassy Branch Trail is lightly used, and the verdant grasses lining it may overgrow during peak wet periods.

The trail drops quickly down the west side of Richland Mountain beneath American Beech, yellow birch, and maple, joining Carolina silverbell, basswood, dogwood, and magnolia as you progress in a visibly wetter forest to Upper Grassy Branch (6.95 miles : 4,269'). The understory here is contrastingly thick to drier slopes at higher elevations.

Trail conditions improve on the final descent to Kephart Backcountry Shelter at the Sweat Heifer Creek Trail - Kephart Prong Trail junction (8.1 miles : 3,735'). Turn right on the Sweat Heifer Creek Trail, which crosses Kephart Prong at the route's lowest point.

Once over, the Sweat Heifer Creek Trail begins a long, steady climb through luxuriant forests back to its connection with the AT. Footing is markedly better on this more popular trail. Grades moderate briefly at Sweat Heifer Cascades, which slice down a hairpin turn on the trail (9.3 miles : 4,554'). Three tiers fan out across ribbed rock slabs, all visible but difficult to safely access.

Hardwoods are gradually replaced by spruce and fir on the final push to rejoin the Appalachian Trail (11.7 miles : 5,815'). Retrace your steps back to the trailhead at Newfound Gap (13.35 miles (5,054').

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Interactive GPS Topo Map

Key GPS Coordinates - DATUM WGS84

  • N35 36.659 W83 25.480 — 0.0 miles : Newfound Gap Trailhead
  • N35 36.840 W83 25.121 — .5 miles : Rocky, rooted climb on the Appalachian Trail
  • N35 37.064 W83 24.742 — 1.0 miles : High, thin ridge with partial views
  • N35 37.273 W83 24.231 — 1.65 miles : Sweat Heifer Creek Trail split
  • N35 37.324  W83 23.858 — 2.0 miles : Moderate grades on variously rocky trail
  • N35 37.705 W83 23.438 — 2.65 miles : Boulevard Trail split
  • N35 37.800  W83 23.193 — 2.9 miles : Icewater Backcountry Shelter
  • N35 37.817  W83 23.187 — 2.95 miles : Icewater Spring
  • N35 37.920  W83 23.182 — 3.1 miles : Undulating travel on high, open ridges
  • N35 38.209 W83 22.605 — 3.85 miles : Charlies Bunion access spur
  • N35 38.288 W83 22.146 — 4.35 miles : Dry Sluice Gap Trail split
  • N35 37.568 W83 21.456 — 5.6 miles : Grassy Branch Trail split
  • N35 37.406  W83 21.809 — 6.4 miles : Minimally maintained and overgrown trail
  • N35 36.991  W83 21.938 — 7.6 miles : Fast drop through luxuriant hardwoods
  • N35 36.595 W83 22.128 — 8.1 miles : Kephart Shelter -Sweat Heifer Creek Trail
  • N35 37.133  W83 22.859 — 9.3 miles : Sweat Heifer Cascades
  • N35 37.013 W83 23.524 — 10.1 miles : Steady climb into spruce-fir forest
  • N35 37.273 W83 24.231 — 11.7 miles : Appalachian Trail junction
  • N35 36.659  W83 25.480 — 13.35 miles : Newfound Gap Trailhead

Worth Noting

  • Arrive early to secure parking at Newfound Gap.

  • Late spring blooms and early autumn peaks at high elevations make early summer - early fall the best time to hike this route.

  • Note ecological variations as you change elevation, and move from the east to west sides of the loop. High, dry slopes on the east side host sparse pine, oak and chestnut forests, while the Sweat Heifer Creek Trail (west side) is considerably wetter and sees much thicker stands of spruce and fir at comparable elevations.

  • A gap is a low point in a mountain ridge. At 5,046', Newfound Gap is the lowest pass through the Great Smoky Mountains. The Appalachian Trail crosses over Newfound Gap Road and straddles the state line between North Carolina and Tennessee for most of its 80 miles track through the Park.

  • Those with time should consider an excursion to Mt Kephart (6,217') and the Jumpoff (6,133'). Mt Kephart is the ninth highest peak in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The Jumpoff is located .2 miles past the summit on its northeast shoulder. This appropriately named cliff edge offers one of the best - albeit from one of the most precarious - viewpoints in the Smokies.

Camping and Backpacking Information

The Icewater Spring Shelter is located 2.9 miles from Newfound Gap Trailhead on the Appalachian Trail. The Kephart Shelter is located 8.1 miles from Newfound Gap Trailhead at the Grassy Branch - Sweat Heifer Creek Trail junction (distances for this route only).


Great Smoky Mountains National Park requires a permit and advance reservations for all backcountry camping in the park. Before planning your backcountry trip, please read through this important information about reservations and permits, regulations, bear safety, trail closures, and more.

Reserve your Backcountry or Thru Hike permits here: https://smokiespermits.nps.gov/

Please direct questions concerning backpacking trip planning to the Backcountry Information Office at (865) 436-1297. Phone calls are the preferred method of contact. The information office is open daily from 8:00 a.m. until 5:00 p.m. (Eastern Standard Time). In addition to answering your backpacking questions, the experienced backpackers in the Backcountry Information Office can provide you with tips to make your trip safe and enjoyable.

Backpackers and hikers are subject to all Backcountry Rules and Regulations. Failure to abide by park regulations may subject you to a fine under Title 36, Code of Federal Regulations. Maximum fine for each violation is $5,000 and/or 6 months in jail.

General Backcountry Regulations

1. Camping is permitted only at designated backcountry campsites and shelters.

2. You may not stay at any backcountry campsite for more than 3 consecutive nights. You may not stay consecutive nights at campsite 113 or at any shelter.

3. Maximum party size is 8. Two parties affiliated with the same group may not stay in the same campsite or at the same shelter on the same night(s). Special permits may be issued for a few sites that accommodate parties of up to 12.

4. Fires are only allowed at designated campsites and shelters and must be contained in a fire ring. Constructing new fire rings is prohibited. You may only burn wood that is dead and already on the ground. You may not cut any standing wood.

5. It is illegal to possess firewood originating from a location from which a federal or state firewood quarantine is in effect. Read information about this quarantine and the states affected.

6. Building a fire in the fireplace of any historic structure or removing any parts of a historic structure, including brick or rock, is illegal.

7. Backcountry permit holders may not use tents at shelters.

8. Hammocks may only be used within designated backcountry campsites. They may not be used inside shelters and may not be attached to shelters in any way.

9. All odorous items (e.g., food, trash, lip balm, toothpaste, stock feed, hay etc) must be hung on the bear cable system at each campsite or shelter.

10. Human waste must be disposed of at least 100 feet from any campsite, shelter, water source or trail and must be buried in a hole at least 6 inches deep.

11. All food, trash, clothing, equipment or personal items must be packed out.

12. Burning food, trash or anything other than dead wood is prohibited.

13. Carving into or defacing trees, signs, shelters or other backcountry features is illegal.

14. Soap, even biodegradable soap, may not be used in any water sources. Bathing and washing dishes should be done well away from water sources and campsites.

15. No dogs or other pets are allowed on any park trails except the Gatlinburg Trail and the Oconaluftee River Trail. No dogs or other pets may be carried into the backcountry.

16. No motorized vehicles are allowed in the backcountry.

17. No hunting is allowed anywhere in the park

18. Feeding, touching or teasing wildlife is prohibited. You may not willfully approach within 50 yards (150 feet) of elk or bears.

Fishing Information

  • Fishing is permitted year-round, from 30 minutes before official sunrise to 30 minutes after official sunset.

  • The park allows fishing in all streams except Bear Creek at its junction with Forney Creek, and Lynn Camp Prong upstream of its confluence with Thunderhead Prong.

  • A valid fishing license from Tennessee or North Carolina is required to fish in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Either state license is valid throughout the park and no trout stamp is required. Fishing licenses and permits are not available in the park, but may be purchased in nearby towns or online.

  • Daily Possession Limits: Five (5) brook, rainbow or brown trout, smallmouth bass, or a combination of these, each day or in possession, regardless of whether they are fresh, stored in an ice chest, or otherwise preserved. The combined total must not exceed five fish. Twenty (20) rock bass may be kept in addition to the above limit. A person must stop fishing immediately after obtaining the limit.

  • Size Limits: Brook, rainbow, and brown trout: 7 inch minimum. Smallmouth bass: 7 inch minimum. Rockbass: no minimum. Trout or smallmouth bass caught less than the legal length shall be immediately returned to the water from which it was taken.

  • Lures, Bait, and Equipment: Fishing is permitted only by the use of one hand-held rod. Only artificial flies or lures with a single hook may be used. Dropper flies may be used, with up to two flies on a leader.

Rules and Regulations

  • There is no entrance fee to Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

  • Pets, motorized vehicles, and bicycles are not permitted on backcountry trails in GSMNP.

  • Leashed pets are allowed in developed areas and along roads, but are not allowed on park trails.

Directions to Trailhead

The Newfound Gap Trailhead is located 12.7 miles south of the Sugarlands Visitor Center on Highway 441 in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The trailhead is located on the east side of the road.

Contact Information

Great Smoky Mountains National Park
107 Park Headquarters Road
Gatlinburg, TN 37738

Visitor Information - Recorded Message

Backcountry Office - Camping and Reservations
The Backcountry Reservation Office is open from 8 am - 6 pm daily (EST)

Backcountry Information Office - Trip Planning Questions
The information office is open daily 9 am - 12n (EST)

Sugarlands Visitor Center (Tennessee side - north entrance)

Oconaluftee Visitor Center (North Carolina side - south entrance)

Trip Reports

There are no trip reports on this trail.


"I turned this into a three-day, two-night backpacking trip for my teenage son and a couple of his friends who have never been backpacking. Same route - staying in the Icewater Spring Shelter the first night and then the Kephart Shelter. Great views - Great time!"
Dave Poppe  -  Cumming, GA  -  Date Posted: October 2, 2015
"great hike worth the climb cascades are a great view"
s cullen  -  waynesville  -  Date Posted: December 27, 2013


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