Campers, hikers, historians, fishermen, and nature enthusiasts all love to make that 10-mile trek over into the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. A goodly portion of that 10 miles is unpaved, narrow, and twisting. But, that’s part of the adventure in accessing Cataloochee Valley, one of the most remote portions of the park.
As noted, folks come to fish, hike, view the historic buildings, and generally commune with nature; however, there is an attraction in the valley that is generally missed even though they are in plain view – the cemeteries. There are 3 cemeteries in this valley, which is correctly called Big Cataloochee plus 1 other at Little Cataloochee Church about 3 miles away in Little Cataloochee. Of the 3 in Big Cataloochee, 2 are family cemeteries and 1 is a church cemetery. By locating the historic structures themselves, you’ll be able to find these burial grounds.
The smallest is the Caldwell Family Cemetery. It is located across the pasture about 100 yards before you get to the Caldwell barn. There is a sign and the pasture is kept cut to create a path over to the wood line. You are then faced with a steep, almost straight up trail climb of 50 to 75 yards where you will then be presented with 7 graves, only 2 of which are adults. The remaining 5 are children under the age of 4. You’ll also note a characteristic of all of the Cataloochee cemeteries, they mark both the head and foot of the grave with stones.
On the far side, you’ll notice a tombstone with a lamb on top along with “foot stones” on each side. Checking this marker, you’ll find it is 2-sided. The family lost an infant son at birth in 1912 and infant twin girls in 1913. This is a theme you’ll find played out in all the cemeteries, life was hard, the area was remote and there were many deaths among children and young adults.
When stopping at the Palmer Chapel, look directly across the road and you’ll see a sign marking the church cemetery and the start of a trail that is typical of all the cemetery accesses – 50-75 yards of steep trail. How tombstones and caskets were hauled up such a grade is a valid question. Why is probably an even better question. Possibly, the valley bottom was too valuable for farming to allocate for burial sites.
The Palmer Chapel Cemetery is the largest of the 3, and the most diverse. Here you will find most of the leading families of the valley – Palmer, Caldwell, Messer, Woody. There are 7 marked Confederate Veteran graves here. A curiosity is the various spellings of the Caldwell name. You’ll see Caldwell, Calwell, and Colwell. Apparently, various branches of the family adopted their own individual spelling of the family name.
When you visit the Palmer House and information center, walk down to the far side of the barn and you’ll see a sign marking the trail to the Palmer family cemetery. This sign and trail are hard to see from the road. Again, be prepared for a steep climb of 50-75 yards. You’ll find another 2 Confederate Veterans among the Palmer family.
Be sure and visit these places. They provide keen insight into life in Big Cataloochee.
To get there, take I-40 west from Asheville to exit 20. Loop back under the bridge on US 276 and, after about 100 yards, you'll see Cove Creek Road on your right. Follow the road for 10 miles to Cataloochee Valley. Be advised the road is narrow and partially unpaved with significant turns.