Tennessee Trails: Hike 3.5 Miles on the Pine Ridge Trail in the Citico Creek Wilderness

By Tim Homan

PINE RIDGE IS A DESIGNATED HORSE TRAIL, although you can walk it if you want to. I didn’t particularly want to and did so only for the sake of completeness. Perhaps low expectations boosted my opinion of this trail; I enjoyed it and think that under similar conditions most other walkers would too.

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  • Distance 3.5 miles
  • Dayhiking In Moderate
  • Dayhiking Out Easy to Moderate
  • Backpacking In Moderate to Strenuous
  • Backpacking Out Moderate
  • Start Pine Ridge Trailhead, 1,720 feet
  • End Fodderstack-Benton MacKaye Trail, 4,000 feet
  • Trail Junction Fodderstack-Benton MacKaye
  • Topographic Quadrangle Whiteoak Flats TN·NC
  • Features Excellent winter views of North Fork Citico’s upper basin and surrounding mountains

Except for the obvious, I don’t know what the trail conditions would be like after heavy horse usage, especially after rain. However, since most of the trail runs along the dry southern slopes of Pine Ridge, the footing will probably be fairly good under normal conditions. When I walked Pine Ridge on a weekday in mid-April, well after hunting season and before horse riding picks up again in May, the trail was utterly deserted – except for a pair of gobblers – and in good shape. The few horse tracks were old, and there wasn’t a boot print anywhere. Horse usage usually peaks during Memorial Day weekend.

Pine Ridge, though a horse trail, is the only ridge and upperslope trail that runs west to east through the Citico Creek Wilderness. And by virtue of that fact, it is the only trail that provides numerous bare-branch views of the wide, rugged southern half of the wilderness: Jeffrey Hell. Those views to the south give you a good feeling of isolation, of elbowroom and wildness of big woods. If you want to try this trail, I recommend you do so in March or April, after it has had some time to rest after hunting season and before leaf-out (early May). In mid-April warm weather, birdsong, blooming red maples, and serviceberries come with the views.

Pine Ridge gains its elevation – all 2,280 feet of it – as gently as possible in 3.5 miles. It doesn’t undulate up and down with the ridgecrest like some trails, nor does it gain half of its elevation all at once like others. It rises steadily all along the way. The grades are predominantly easy or easy to moderate. There are no long, sustained moderate grades, and no strenuous gradients at all. I gave this trail its difficulty rating for the sake of consistency, because of the number of feet gained per mile and the cumulative effect of the steady climb. It does rank, however, at the lower, easier range of its ratings.

The route follows an old road straight away from its FS 29 trailhead. It quickly reaches a vantage point above a bend in Citico Creek, then dips to and crosses an unnamed tributary branch. That dip is the last downgrade, and that branch is the last reliable source of water. Beyond the stream the trail – now an open path brushed out for the high clearance required by horseback riders – begins its remarkably steady ascent. The treadway switchbacks onto the top of a Pine Ridge spur at 0.6 mile. Pine Ridge is the sharply rising ridge less than a mile to the north. The route slowly angles over and up to the crest of Pine Ridge, which it finally reaches at its exact ending point.

Most of the next mile (except where it slants onto the northfacing slope for a short distance) remains on or near the keel of the spur. At mile 1.6 it angles onto the southern slope of Pine Ridge, continuing its slow climb through a largely hardwood forest dominated by the oaks. Here the walking winds around or passes above the heads of steep hollows that plunge into Jeffrey Hell country.

The route continues its steady ascent, often S-looping around the heads of hollows and over the ribs of spurs. At mile 2.4 the treadway crosses the rocky notch of a steep-sided upper hollow. Two-tenths mile farther, it passes a prominent outcrop – smoky gray rock splotched with dark green moss on the upslope. On a recent May 2 you could still see far down the open hardwood hollows, and still see Big Fodderstack’s conical peak nearby to the east.

At mile 2.8 the path passes an intermittent, wet-weather spring, not even close to reliable during dog-day drought. Up higher, as the treadway maintains its steady march toward Pine Ridge’s crest, the trailside forest alternates between open hardwoods and view-blocking mountain laurel thickets. The oaks – northern red, white, scarlet, chestnut, many of them 30 inches or more in diameter – thoroughly control the canopy along the upper half of the trail.

The trail ends as soon as it gains the narrow backbone of Pine Ridge, at a cleared campsite that marks its junction with the Fodderstack Trail. If you want to walk on the Fodderstack Trail to the south (low to high) toward Beech Gap, angle slightly to the right and follow the crest up toward the rounded crown of Big Fodderstack (4,346 feet). If you want to walk on the Fodderstack Trail to the north toward Farr Gap, cross over the ridgecrest and follow the trail as it curls sharply to the right and down.

Nature Notes

This trail passes through a second-growth oak-hickory forest. In general pines – pitch, Table Mountain, Virginia, and white – occur on the lower ridges and the hardwoods dominate the slopes and higher ridges. When the leaves are gone, there are views of hollows and spurs and basins and long ridges floating in the hazy distance. Looking off the southern slopes of Pine Ridge, you will see three striking, easily recognized features. The first is North Fork Citico Creek’s troughlike upper basin – remote, wild, big enough for a bear or two. The second is the dividing line ridge of the Unicoi Mountains, roller-coastering away from Big Fodderstack to Bob Stratton Bald – from nearly east to south-southeast – dividing drainages, wildernesses, counties, national forests, and states. And last, but never least, is the long, high-flung, seemingly level wall of Bob Stratton Bald.

On a recent May 2, scattered clumps of flame azalea were in bloom and bud, and the abundant mountain laurel was just beginning to bloom at the lowest elevations.


From the FS 345-FS 35 junction, turn right onto FS 35 and continue on this dirt-gravel road for approximately 2.4 miles to a sharp downhill curve to the left. Near the middle of the curve, turn right onto the road (FS 29 on the wilderness map, unmarked at its entrance) that almost immediately crosses Citico Creek on a low concrete bridge. Follow that road across the bridge to campsite #13.

The Pine Ridge Trailhead is easily found. Follow the single-track road (FS 29) 135 yards past the end of the bridge to the vehicle-blocking boulders. The trail, marked with a carsonite sign (the number 99 plus horse and hiker symbols), begins up and to the left just beyond the boulders.

For an overview of Tim Homan’s three-tiered system for navigating the access roads in the combined Joyce Kilmer-Slickrock and Citico Creek Wildernesses, read his Regional Directions for Navigating the Joyce Kilmer-Slickrock and Citico Creek Combined Wildernesses

For a cultural and natural history of the combined wildernesses, plus practical hiking tips, read Tim’s informative and entertaining An Overview of Hiking in the Combined Joyce Kilmer-Slickrock and Citico Creek Wildernesses.

Tim Homan

This hiking guide to the Pine Ridge Trail is adapted from Hiking Trails of the Joyce Kilmer-Slickrock & Citico Creek Wildernesses by Tim Homan and is published in cooperation with the publisher, Peachtree Publishers. With his meticulous attention to detail and keen observations of the natural environment, Homan has long been recognized by serious hikers as the authority on southeastern hiking trails. His other books include Hiking the Shining Rock & Middle Prong Wildernesses; Hiking Trails of the Southern Nantahala Wilderness, Ellicott Rock Wilderness, Chattooga Wild and Scenic River; and others. For a complete inventory of his books see his Amazon Author Page. For an inventory of Peachtree Publishers books including its Nature books for children, go to the Peachtree Publishers website.

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