Distance: Approximately 5.5 miles one-way; Difficulty: Strenuous (long, sustained climbs; occasionally harsh, high-elevation weather conditions; nearly 3000-foot elevation gain); Other considerations: see more info on the hike and natural area (prior to the AT junction) here and plan your trip carefully using information from a variety of sources.
We occasionally feature hikes outside of the immediate regional focus of our site in the Cumberland Mountains to showcase especially scenic places in nearby corners of the Appalachians. Little Hump and Big Hump Mountains, known collectively as just “The Humps,” are one of those places. Reaching near or over 5500 feet above sea level in elevation, the Humps are among the highest peaks in the far western NC and eastern TN area outside of the Smokies, giving wonderful views in almost every direction. On top of that, both mountains are “bald,” meaning that they are virtually treeless and are instead covered with a dense collection of grasses and occasional small shrubs.
Reaching the Humps by way of a dayhike can be difficult. While the hikers’ superhighway, the Appalachian Trail, crosses both peaks, the Humps are located some 6-7 miles from the nearest road crossing in both directions…meaning that hikers are looking at a 12-14 mile roundtrip trek to get in and out. The closest access from the Tennessee side – up a side trail from Hampton Creek Cove – is a bit shorter at 11 or so miles roundtrip but comes with the tradeoff of requiring a near 3000-foot gain in elevation from trailhead to summit. Despite the intense climbing, this route is still a great dayhike option for serious and experienced hikers who are willing to make the trek.
The trailhead is located at Hampton Creek Cove State Natural Area, part of the state of Tennessee’s collection of public conservation lands. Unlike state parks (which are developed primarily for public access), state natural areas are preserved to protect rare and/or unique natural features and often lack major public access facilities. While Hampton Creek Cove is protected under this conservation philosophy, public access is still included through a trail system that begins at a gravel parking area just off of Hampton Creek Road outside of the town of Roan Mountain, Tennessee. Several shorter trails exist in the cove, although the system’s premier route – and the one featured in this hike – is the Overmountain Victory National Historic Trail. The route gets its name from the path taken by militiamen in 1780 from the Great Valley in east Tennessee over the Appalachian highlands to the Battle of Kings Mountain, South Carolina. Do make sure to check out the fascinating history behind this march here.
The OVNHT leaves the trailhead and spends its first 2 or so miles winding up in elevation, steeply at times, through a series of open pastures at the heart of the cove. Along way, it passes across a couple of bridges over Hampton Creek and through multiple gates, some of which will be open while others are closed. Since these pastures are still a working farm, be sure to close any gates that were already closed when you arrived behind you. While the OVNHT route is marked by obvious trail signs and markers, an alternate, white-blazed route parallels the OVNHT’s roadbed-happy path and forms a great option when cattle block the way in the pastures above (see the map linked at the start and end of this post). The amount of elevation gained during this pasture walk can be surprising since you’re technically hiking a roadbed and are climbing through open fields.
The OVNHT leaves the pastures at roughly 2 miles in, rock-hops one of the headwater feeders of Hampton Creek, and then shortly swings onto trail. From here, you’ll follow a much more graded path that drops down to a few headwater tributaries, crosses them (some can be technical at high water), and slabs around the next spur ridge to the east. White triangle blazes and OVNHT signs mark the way. Eventually, this pattern changes to more of a grunt straight up the mountain, alternating between singletrack path and old roadbeds, until the trail tops out at Yellow Mountain Gap some 3.75 miles from the trailhead.
The AT crosses through the gap from left to right, with the righthand route heading south on the AT to the balds and highlands of the Roan Mountain massif several miles beyond. A blue-blazed trail straight ahead leads to the Overmountain Shelter – a repurposed barn – in a short distance. To reach the Humps, turn left (north) on the AT and climb for another 1.5 or so miles. This stretch of trail is particularly scenic and alternates between treeless fields and thin woods, with the Overmountain Shelter framed by Roan Mountain down below when views open up.
When you reach the Humps, you’ll know it: Little Hump Mountain is the first of the two peaks reached and is an open bald with a near 360-degree view. Big Hump Mountain sits in front of you, with the Roan Highlands back down the trail to the south. Grandfather Mountain’s high, craggy peaks stick out off to the east, with the Sugar Mountain ski resort’s gaudy buildings just below. To the west, the Great Valley spreads out before you, where it may even be possible to see steam rising from the Eastman chemical plant in Kingsport (to the southwest) on a clear and cold day. The Cumberland Mountains lie far on the horizon to the west, and you may even be able to pick out the grassy balds of Virginia’s Whitetop Mountain on the horizon just to the left of the summit of Big Hump with binoculars. While it’s possible to hike all the way to Big Hump, it’s best to enjoy the views on Little Hump and backtrack down the cove from there – getting to Big Hump adds additional mileage and climbing to an already bulky dayhike.
Grassy balds like Big and Little Hump Mountains are insanely scenic places and rightfully get a ton of visitation. But behind all of the scenery is a pressing question: how the heck did mountains like these end up lacking trees? In some cases the answer is simple: we made them. Many of our mountains, in fact, used to be cleared by humans and kept open through grazing. It’s only after these activities lessened that the forests that cloak our mountains’ higher summits have come back to dominate our region.
Still, though, many grassy balds like the Humps, nearby balds on the Roan Highlands, and even Virginia’s Whitetop Mountain defy an easy explanation. These balds predate clearing by European settlers, and there’s no clear reason for why they exist. While they might seem to look like alpine areas above treeline on higher mountain ranges elsewhere in the world, there is no true treeline in southern Appalachia since our climatic conditions never get that harsh. The balds might have been created by intense high-elevation winds, but many balds exist right next door to equally high or higher summits that are totally cloaked in forest. Could frequent forest fires have maintained the balds? Soil analyses from some grassy balds don’t back this up.
Perhaps the most wildly-accepted explanation for the balds currently situates around the grazing activity of large, prehistoric “megafauna” in Appalachia: creatures including mastodons, woolly mammoths, and musk ox, among others. But wait…that seems crazy. Did we ever have those animals here? The answer to that is an emphatic yes; incredibly diverse fossil deposits of these and many other animals have been found literally near the feet of the ranges housing Appalachian balds at places like the Gray Fossil Site in Tennessee and near Saltville, Virginia. Since these large animals would have exerted a huge grazing pressure, ecologists have hypothesized that they may have kept forests from encroaching on the balds. And once they were extinct, forest-clearing activity from Native Americans and European settlers kept the balds open through to the present day.
While this idea is attractive, we’ll likely never know the balds’ true origins with 100% certainty since we can’t go back in time to see them form. As a result, these unique habitats are one of the region’s true ecological mysteries. With all this uncertainty, though, there is one thing that we know for sure: without periodic disturbance, the balds will eventually be replaced by forest through the process of succession. That’s why today (and maybe on your hike) it’s possible to run into cows, horses, or even goats placed on the balds by humans to keep them open – modern-day organisms maintaining what may be an incredibly ancient habitat.
Directions: Since this hike is outside of our website’s primary focus area, we won’t be providing overly detailed information here. Instead, feel free to check out Hampton Creek Cove Natural Area’s website for directions and detailed visitor info and, as always, hike at your own risk.