Spence Field and Russell Field are two popular hiking destinations in the western section of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Both areas also have backcountry shelters along the Appalachian Trail, making them useful locations for thru-hikers on the AT. The 13.2 mile loop hike from Cades Cove's picnic area is most often completed in the late spring and early summer, but we did it in early November.
What's In A Field?
When discussing some of the best views in the Smoky Mountains, you'll often hear about Andrews Bald or Charlies Bunion - two outstanding locations - but occasionally you'll hear Spence Field and Russell Field mentioned. These two spots are separated by 2.9 miles on the Appalachian Trail, and in the spring and summer they are gorgeous, grassy and flower-filled spots that make for lovely picnic locations. If you search for pictures you'll find some beautiful views of the surrounding mountains.
Spence Field Today
A hundred years ago Spence Field was a 24 mile grassy pasture stretching all the way to Silers Bald. After the national park was established the NPS continued to maintain the fairly treeless grassy areas atop of Andrews Bald and Gregory Bald, but decided to allow these fields to return back to their natural state. As a result, wooded plants have started to reclaim much of Spence Field and Russell Field. There is still a lot to appreciate here, but the prettiest of it all definitely happens during the spring and summer. Early November was bare and brown.
Anthony Creek Trail (3.5)
Starting at the Cades Cove picnic area, you'll travel 3.5 miles on Anthony Creek Trail until you reach Bote Mountain Trail. This is a horse trail and you'll pass the Anthony Creek Horse Camp very early into the hike. The hike is moderate and follows Anthony Creek for 2 miles with several stream crossings and footbridges. The final mile and a half is fairly more strenuous and steep.Anthony Creek Trail
Fun Fact: Among the many tall birches and maple trees in this area, autumn coral root covers the forest floor around the trail. The wildflower can be seen in September and October (and early November) because it is a saprophytic orchid - it lacks chlorophyll and retains its nutrients from the roots that grow around it.
Bote Mountain Trail (1.7)
The entirety of Bote Mountain Trail is 6.6 miles long, but this portion is only 1.7 miles away from the Appalachian Trail, where you'll find Spence Field. Upon first glance the fairly wide and level trail doesn't look like much, but you'll feel the strain of the steady incline as you gain around 1500 feet in elevation in less than two miles. Rhododendron thickets line much of this trail, making it a beautiful site during the greener months.Bote Mountain Trail
Fun Fact: Bote Mountain Trail was used by James Spence (for whom Spence Field is named) in the 19th century to reach the field where he lived and farmed for 6 months out of every year. According to local legend, the trail got its name from the Cherokee laborers who built it. They voted for this location in favor of one to the east; but the Cherokees had trouble with the V sound, so they "boted" for it.
Spence Field Shelter
Upon reaching the AT it's just a quick walk to the right before you see the trailhead pointing you toward Spence Field shelter and Eagle Creek Trail heading south. Take a walk through the grassy Spence Field before reaching the shelter several yards ahead. In older photos there seems to be some sort of an overlook around this area that reveals a bunch of stunning mountain views, but we couldn't find an obvious spot. Still it was a nice location to rest and have a little snack.
Appalachian Trail (2.9)
The 2.9 miles on the Appalachian Trail toward Russell Field Shelter were my favorite part of this hike. Because most of the autumn leaves had fallen from the trees, you can see incredibly hazy blue mountains on both your right and left as you walk along this ridge. We stepped on lots of crunchy leaves and saw plenty of lovely green moss and foresty surroundings.Appalachian Trail
This part of the Appalachian Trail was also enjoyable because it was our first real taste of level ground. Until we reached the Bote Mountain intersection with the AT, we'd been trucking it uphill the whole way. See the elevation profile for the entire hike below.
Russell Field Shelter
I promised everyone we'd get some views at this field after the first one didn't turn out to be quite what we expected - but I was wrong yet again. Russell Field is more overgrown than Spence Field at this point. You can see the mountains in the distance through the trees, but overall the area around the shelter is mostly covered in trees and brush. Again in the warmer months I'm sure this whole location is a lot greener and prettier. The shelter was a nice place to sit down and eat lunch
Fun Fact: Russell Field is named after the 19th century farmer Russell Gregory, for which Gregory Bald is also named. He grew potatoes and grazed cattle in this area before he was killed in 1863 during a Confederate ambush.
Russell Field Trail (3.5)
The 3.5 miles back down Russell Field Trail are beautiful and steep. I had to work very hard to go easy on my knees. Much of this trail is lined with rhododendron plants (like Bote Mountain) creating large tunnels hikers walk right through. The fallen leaves made it a little tougher as well; they hid many rocks and roots that would be very easy to trip over. I think we all lost our footing at some point - but nobody got hurt!Russell Field Trail
The takeaway from this hike? Perhaps the "fields" were a little disappointing, but each of these trails that make up the loop had something to offer. I'd like to try it again in the early summer when everything looks nice and green. But for the rest of the year I suppose I'll be sticking to some top rated winter hikes.
Caroline's GSM Hike Log
Click here to read about more of Caroline's hikes