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 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. The “unofficial” trailhead is well beaten down with foot traffic; you won’t have any problem finding and following it. You can reach the trailhead for Schoolhouse Gap Trail 3.7 miles west from the Townsend Y junction on the right, and the trail to White Oak Sinks is about 1.1 miles from the parking lot.
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. White Oak Sinks is home to everything from old homesteads to stone walls and is known for its beautiful display of wildflowers in the spring and summer.
- 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.
You’ll see 4 caves in the White Oak Sinks area, but the Blowhole Cave is one of the most impressive. You’ll feel a cold blast of air when you stand next to it, which is where it got its name. Although you can’t enter the cave, it’s still worth the hike to see it! 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
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.
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.
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.