As always, the drive up and over Newfound Gap was pleasant, a bit cloudy this day and on the cool side. Thanks in part to the snowfall of a few nights past, the changing of the leaves had accelerated noticeably, especially in the vicinity of Newfound Gap. When I arrived at the Smokemont campground, trees were beginning to transform there as well. I parked at the Bradley Fork trailhead for the third time this year, but this time, the hike would be much shorter and easier on the legs. The air was cool and crisp, but it felt tantalizing. It was wonderful to finally be out in the park again, hitting the trails without a worry in the world. I was curious to see how my legs would react to moving again, since the last couple days around town my gate was more of a waddle than a walking stride. Luckily the ascent up Bradley Fork is slight as it follows the river. Occasionally, I'd come across a sudden but brief climb in which the back of my thighs would tighten. The more I pressed on, the looser my legs got, and I eventually forgot the matter all together. Many of the trails out of Smokemont are also used by horses, so they're wide but extremely muddy, especially after recent precipitation. There were a few places I had too dodge puddles or mounds of goop.
Finally I reached the intersection with the Smokemont Loop Trail. This meant I was putting the horse trails behind me and raking in some new miles. Immediately one has to cross over the Bradley Fork on a lengthy single log footbridge. It has to be one of the longest of its kind in the park, for it's suspended the entire way across and extremely bouncy. A cable extending along one side serves as a meager handrail. Certainly one of the more interesting bridges I've crossed in the park, but I made it to the other side without a fuss. After that, the trail became narrower, less traveled, and steeper. The Smokemont Loop Trail reconnects the campground with Bradley Fork Trail by going up and over the crest of Richland Mountain's southern end. The ascent is gradual and satisfying. You never come to an overlook or a summit, but along the way it's possibly to see through the canopy and look down on the Oconaluftee River valley to the west. It was even better since the leaves were starting to change on the mountain opposite. My cadence was steady, but it sure seemed like an eternity before I finally reached the high point of the hike. I passed an older couple just before reaching the top, the only people I had seen on the trail all day, who had stopped for lunch and were thoroughly enjoying their afternoon as seen by the smiles on their faces.
The descent wasn't all that exciting, and it passed quickly, perhaps because I was eager to be finished or that my mind was racing. Not quite sure, but I made it down with ease. The trail comes out near a cemetery and follows a service road for a few tenths before returning to the campground. I crosses an old stone bridge that is now gated off and also lacks a sign marking the trailhead.