Whiteoak Sink - Tennessee
Joe Kegley | E-Mail | Updated 6-11-2012
Metal Cogs at Whiteoak Sink - Joe Kegley
Approximately halfway between Townsend and Cades Cove on Laurel Creek Road lies the beginning of the route to one of the most magical locations within the Great Smoky Mountains National Park called Whiteoak Sink. The botanical splendor of the wildflower display can be breathtaking during the very early spring. One can almost imagine a fairy or hobbit peeking around a tree or exiting one of the caves within the ethereal landscape.
Whiteoak Sink is a small basin surrounded by steep hills. Unlike the long swath of valley in Cades Cove, the basin is much smaller and more elliptical in nature. In fact the name might have been derived because of this basin (sink) or maybe because of the many individual sinkholes found in the area. In addition to the sinkholes, there are four caves located in the immediate vicinity. The most visited section of Whiteoak Sink appears to be the cave with the waterfall that tumbles into it and disappears. Like Cades Cove, Whiteoak Sink was inhabited by homesteaders before the creation of the national park. Structural remains such as rock walls, a collapsed chimney, metal cogs, and a rock-lined root cellar provide evidence of the past history.
If you decide to visit Whiteoak Sink please be respectful of the flora and stay on the existing footpaths during the spring. If you wish to explore off trail then do so in the late fall and winter. Note that it's against the law to enter any of the caves.
The hike to Whiteoak Sink is just under two miles. The trail is located off of the "Schoolhouse Gap Trail" just past the junction with the "Turkeypen Ridge Trail". There is no "official" trail to Whiteoak Sink. You won't find it on any of the Great Smoky Mountain National Park trail maps. But the "unofficial" trailhead is well beaten down with foot traffic; you won't have any problem finding and following it.
For a trail map to the Whiteoak Sink area see the "Trail Description and Map" section below.
Basin Floor, Whiteoak Sink - Joe Kegley
Whiteoak Sink is a destination during early spring for wildflower enthusiasts. If you time your trip accordingly you may be blessed with a thick carpet of phlox and yellow trillium on the basin's floor.
Calculating peak bloom times is tricky business and depends on the severity or mildness of the winter. I consider the first week of April a good target date for those wishing to experience some of the best wildflower viewing in the Whiteoak Sink area, but be flexible in your planning.
All the wildflower images on this page were taken at Whiteoak Sink during the first week in April 2012, with the exception of the Pink Lady's Slipper. That image was captured during the third week of April 2012, which I consider a little early for that particular species.
As noted in the Introduction, please stay on the footpaths during spring to minimize the impact to the flora. If you wish to explore off-trail then come back during the late fall or winter. Also realize the footpath leading into the Whiteoak Sink basin can be a little steep and isn't level in places.
Below is a list of some of the wildflowers I encountered during my two trips in April. Included in the list is also the Walking Fern which is particularly interesting because of how the slender leaves root at the tip and produce new plants ... thus "walking". See image below.
I particularly liked the fiery yellow and red flowers of the Columbine that graces the cliff area above the Blowhole cave. From a photographic standpoint this is not the best area to try to shoot Columbine, but they sure are pretty. Another favorite is the Shooting Star which can be found in the northern section of the basin slopes. There is one particular sinkhole with a high enough density one might think Shooting Stars were planted there.
Showy Orchis (HDR version), Whiteoak Sink - Joe Kegley
Yellow Trillium, Whiteoak Sink - Joe Kegley
Pink Lady's Slipper, Whiteoak Sink - Joe Kegley
Yellow Lady's Slipper, Whiteoak Sink - Joe Kegley
Squawroot, Whiteoak Sink - Joe Kegley
Walking Fern, Whiteoak Sink - Joe Kegley
Rue Anemone, Whiteoak Sink - Joe Kegley
Metal Oven Door? - Joe Kegley
The historical artifacts in the Whiteoak Sink basin are as fascinating as the wildflower bonanza is ethereal. Realize some of the artifacts are off the paths and should be explored during the late fall or winter to minimize disturbing the vegetation. Also note it's illegal to remove any artifacts from the park.
One of the more interesting remnants of history is the grave on the small hill in front of the Blowhole cave. If you're standing facing the cave (the one with metal grating boxed around the entrance), turn around and walk about two hundred yards up a steep but small hill. The grave is right there as the hill levels off.
The foot and head markers of Abraham Law's grave look to be the original stone slabs. There are no markings on them. The carved river stone appears to be more recent and was probably created and carried to the location by family members or friends of the family after the creation of the park.
Per the Daily Times of Blount County (Law Family Genealogy), Abraham Law moved to Blount County with his wife and their children to a parcel of land in Whiteoak Sink sometime after 1820.
The article goes on to say, per census and court records, the correct dates for his birth and death are actually 1775-1844. In addition, the article mentions some family lore that implied his death occurred during a large snow fall and he couldn't be moved to Townsend, so the family made due with the hill top burial.
Abraham's daughter Caroline married James Spence and they lived on a grassy bald overlooking the eastern end of Cades Cove. The bald became known as Spence Field. Both James and Caroline Law Spence are buried in Myers Cemetery in Townsend TN.
Another interesting artifact is the collection of metal cogs (gears) propped up against a tree. The origin of the machinery is a mystery to me. Could they have been parts of a saw mill in the area? There doesn't appear to be any consistent water source so if they are parts of a mill then it was probably powered by steam and/or gasoline. Another guess is that the cogs might have been part of some 20th century farming equipment.
Various rock piles and stone walls can be found in the area. One of the more interesting stone remnants is a small dug out section of earth with a descending entrance lined with stones. I suspect this structure might have been a root cellar. The intermittent outline of a stone foundation surrounds the dugout implying a house or other structure was on top of the depression. In addition to the stone work, cast iron stove parts, metal tubs, and sometimes bricks can be located in the vicinity.
Abraham Law Grave, Whiteoak Sink - Joe Kegley
Old Roadbed and Rock Wall, Whiteoak Sink - Joe Kegley
Bricks and Metal at Whiteoak Sink - Joe Kegley
Waterfall Cave - Joe Kegley
There are four caves in the Whiteoak Sink vicinity. All cave entrances within the national park have postings with the official verbiage "ENTERING PARK CAVES AND MINE SHAFTS IS PROHIBITED". The Whiteoak Sink caves are no different. More on the cave closures later in the article.
Three of the four caves have footpaths leading to them.
The most popular cave is the waterfall cave, sometimes referred to as Rainbow Falls Cave. Water tumbles over the top of a cliff and disappears into the cave entrance. It can be quite impressive in early spring after a decent rain.
The main footpath to Whiteoak Sink (from the Schoolhouse Gap trail) leads straight to the Blowhole cave. The Blowhole cave is surrounded by a metal grating frame to keep folks out. The name probably originates because of the cool breeze one feels coming from the cave entrance. This cave has signage indicating the Indiana bat (an endangered species) hibernates in the cave. While the Indiana bat spends its summer living throughout the eastern US, during winter hibernation the bat congregates in a very few caves. This is one of them.
A third cave is north of the Blowhole cave. If you're facing the Blowhole cave, look to your right for a small footpath. Follow the footpath north up a gully which was originally one of the manways in and out of the basin. Approximately 1/8 mile from the Blowhole cave you will see a small sink on the left which contains the third cave.
The fourth cave entrance is located at the far northwestern section of the basin. There is no consistent footpath to this cave entrance which lies at the bottom of a steep sink. For a general location see the pdf map below. This is by far the least impressive of the four cave entrances.
One of the reasons entry into the caves is prohibited is because of White-nose Syndrome, a disease that's decimating the bat population within the eastern United States and spreading. Wildlife officials are recommending caves be closed in an effort to mitigate the spread of the disease. White-nose Syndrome gets its name from the white fungus that grows on the face of hibernating bats.
The disease was first detected in Albany NY in 2006 and has spread northeast and down through the Appalachian. Biologists estimate that 5.5 to 6.7 million bats have died from White-nose Syndrome. Bats are predators of beetles and moths whose larvae may damage crops. The decimated population of bats could cost agriculture 3.7 billion a year.
North Cave, Whiteoak Sink - Joe Kegley
Blowhole Cave, Whiteoak Sink - Joe Kegle
Trail Description and Map
The route from the Schoolhouse Gap Trail parking area on Laurel Creek Road to Whiteoak Sink is about 1.9 miles long. The first 1.1 miles is on the Schoolhouse Gap Trail which was originally a road so the trail is wide and easy to follow.
Whiteoak Sink Map - Whiteoak Sink pdf trail map.
Parking - There is a paved parking area located at the Schoolhouse Gap trailhead on Laurel Creek Road. The parking area is located on the right when heading to Cades Cove from Townsend, a little more than halfway. This parking lot has been known to fill up by midday during the spring, so get there early. For a place that some say is secret, with no official trail, it sure is popular.
Trailhead - The trailhead for Whiteoak sink is located on the left just past the Turkeypen Ridge Trail junction on Schoolhouse Gap Trail, approximately 1.1 miles from the parking area on Laurel Creek Road. You will know you are at the Whiteoak Sink trailhead because entrance is blocked by a gate which allows hikers to pass through but stops horse traffic.
Route Description -
The first 1.1 miles on the Schoolhouse Gap trail is a moderate climb. The trail was originally a road so it's easy to follow with lots of room.
At 1.1 miles on the Schoolhouse Gap trail, turn left through the gate just above the Turkeypen Ridge trail junction. The next 0.3 miles is an easy walk down to a flat open area. At this point the trail seems to split. Take the left across the wet boggy/creek area.
The next 0.5 miles navigates through some ridges culminating on a steep descent into the Whiteoak Sink area.
Once in the basin the trail splits. The right trail leads to the Rainbow Falls cave, the left trail leads to the Blowhole cave.
Extra pair of dry socks - in case you wet your feet crossing the boggy area.
Water and snacks
The trail can be slippery depending on the season, and is steep in a few places; it would be a good idea to let someone know where you're going and when to expect you back. Even better, take a friend with you on this hike.
Location and Points of Interest
Whiteoak Sink (Google interactive map)
left double click to zoom in
right double click to zoom out
click and drag to move
hover over markers to see descriptions
Additional Information on the Great Smoky Mountain National Park
- http://www.nps.gov/grsm/ - Great Smoky Mountains National Park from the National Park Service web site.
- http://www.friendsofthesmokies.org/ - a non-profit organization that assists the National Park Service in its mission to preserve and protect Great Smoky Mountains National Park by raising funds and public awareness, and by providing volunteers for needed projects.