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Site of Bone Valley Baptist Church on Hazel Creek Trail

Site of Bone Valley Baptist Church on Hazel Creek Trail

It’s amazing what a good night’s sleep can do. Yesterday’s exhaustion from Jenkins Ridge has become today’s anticipation. Everything will be easier. Hazel Creek Trail’s lower half and Bone Valley are relatively level, both following old roads. Since the morning will involve hiking above Campsite 84, I’ll have to walk right by this spot on my way down to Hazel Creek’s trailhead and Campsite 86. I hang my non-essential hiking gear in a bag on the bear cables and carry only the necessities — water, snacks, rain gear, first aid, etc.

Side trails lead to family cemeteries

Side trails lead to family cemeteries

I’m hiking a rather lop-sided “Y” route this morning, twice, totaling 7.8 miles. Eight-tenths of a mile from Campsite 84, Hazel Creek Trail runs straight into the base of Locust Ridge. I’ll first turn right on HCT for 1.3 miles to the Cold Spring Gap Trail junction and return. At the ridge base once again, Bone Valley Trail heads left 1.8 miles terminating at the Hall Cabin. From there, I’ll hike back to #84 and eat lunch.

Hazel Creek carves a long valley through a maze of ridges large and small, trending the general southwest/northeast direction of Welch Ridge which lies south/southeast of the creek and trail. The trail gains a gradual 1300 feet in elevation during the first 10 miles of its 14.7-mile length. My morning 2.1-mile stretch works its way along the base of two ridge noses — Forrester and Locust ridges, each rising steeply in succession on my left with the creek on my right.

False Fly Agaric

False Fly Agaric

The lower half of Hazel Creek boasts a booming pre-park settlement history centered around the town of Proctor at the trailhead. Here at Campsite 84, there had been the small town of Medlin. Horace Kephart lived nearby. The area was extensively logged, and copper mines operated. There is little to indicate such history today, unless you take unnamed side trails into the woods marked only by a post with a ‘no horses’ symbol. These paths lead to small family cemeteries. One path tackles a steep dirt bank off Hazel Creek, and the park service set a wooden ladder in the ground to assist access.

Park Service bunkhouse

Park Service bunkhouse

Every year the park ferries relatives of those interred across the lake for Decoration Day, when they spruce the grave sites and place colorful new plastic flowers on each. The people bring a picnic lunch and musical instruments for a celebration of their ancestry and mountain heritage. This is why lines of picnic tables are often found in these now remote locations.

Bone Valley Creek ford

Bone Valley Creek ford

Just before Bone Valley Creek and the trail junction, history and Decoration Day festivities merge. Hazel Creek Trail passes an open grassy knoll that was the location of Bone Valley Baptist Church. Across from the church site, a quarter-mile side trail leads to the Bone Valley Cemetery, perhaps one of the larger backcountry cemeteries (82 graves) in the park. The Smokies hiking guide mentions a “massive white oak” at the church site. There are large trees present but none merit the adjective “massive.” Downslope from the knoll, Campsite 83 hides on the backside of the knoll, behind a double phalanx of picnic tables on the flat floodplain of Bone Valley Creek.

Hall Cabin, Bone Valley Trail, GSMNP, July 23, 2016Hazel Creek Trail takes a sharp right turn immediately after the Bone Valley Creek bridge and continues an additional 1.3 miles to its junction with Cold Spring Gap Trail. I will hike Welch Ridge, Cold Spring Gap and upper Hazel Creek trails in 2017.

Opposite the junction, a gravel drive climbs Locust Ridge 30 yards to a bunkhouse used by park service staff. I walk up to snap a photo and notice a sign on the door asking people to respect the privacy of park employees and refrain from disturbing them. From what I can tell, the place appears unoccupied at present.

Hall Cabin interior

Hall Cabin interior

Returning to Bone Valley Creek, I follow an old road branching off Hazel Creek Trail that leads back to the Hall Cabin and site of the Kress mansion. Bone Valley Trail slips between Forrester Ridge and Locust Ridge, rising a scant 200 feet in its 1.8 miles to reach a wide flat plain farmed quite successfully by Jesse Crayton Hall in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Kress lodge chimney

Kress lodge chimney

Settlers in the mountains drove their cattle to the grassy balds each spring to forage when winter’s hold on the high elevations eased. Sometime in the 1870s a late blizzard caught farmers by surprise. Without protection, herds already in the high pastures froze to death. Over the next several years, their bones washed down, scattering through the valley.

Despite the sad tale of its name, Bone Valley is one of the more lovely sections of the park. The trail fords its own creek four times and Mill Branch tributary once. Prolonged or heavy rains could complicate these crossings, but under normal conditions, they are simple, pleasant creek fords. Today, the water grazes mid-calf with a gentle flow producing the perfect the degree of ‘burble’ in this beautiful little stream, a fitting soundtrack to a hike quite unlike the trail trials yesterday.

Female Spring Azures looking for sweat salt

Female Spring Azures looking for sweat salt

Tributaries run through rich sheltered coves into Bone Valley. As with so many places in these mountains, Bone Valley was logged. A rail line ran through, and splash dams were built to float the logs down stream to the Little Tennessee River. It is so peaceful and pleasant now, I can’t help but wonder how marvelous it must have been before our thirst for industry altered thousands of years of natural forest existence.

Downed trees on lower Hazel Creek Trail

Downed trees on lower Hazel Creek Trail

The Hall Cabin sits in a grassy opening, perched high on mortared stone pilings. Originally built around 1880 to accommodate ‘Crate’ Hall’s growing family, it’s designed in a single pen style with a front porch and two rooms — an upstairs loft spanning the entire cabin and a single large room downstairs. The paneled front door is centered, as is the staircase to the loft.  In fact, the door will smack into the stairs if fully pushed open. There are several multi-paned windows including two double-hung on the porch wall. Moth balls are sprinkled throughout the cabin and on the ground underneath. They must be fresh, the odor is strong.

Gauging station on Hazel Creek

Gauging station on Hazel Creek

Remains of the Kress family hunting lodge can be seen in the woods on the far side of the cabin. Dubbed a “mansion” and “grand lodge,” it was used by wealthy friends of the department store’s founder as a fishing retreat. The large chimney that was once graced with marble mantels still stands over the crumbling, moss-covered foundation.

During a relaxing snack on the front porch, I am entertained by three Spring Azures intent to sip the salts of my sweat on the camera bag and trekking poles. Clouds are building as I begin the walk back to Campsite 84. Shod in water shoes for the creek crossings, I only need my umbrella to fend off a 30-minute rain shower. All is dry when I arrive for lunch and pack to continue down Hazel Creek.

Another view of the gauging station

Another view of the gauging station

The 4.5-mile walk to Lakeshore is uneventful, even boring, though there are lots of downed trees across the trail from a recent storm. Summer foliage masks most indications of the bustling enterprises present here a hundred years ago. Wooden structures were burned, leaving only a three made of concrete and brick. The large dry kiln sits far off the trail and requires a sharp eye to spot in July. Those sited on the trail are much easier to spot, though one small concrete building, a valve house, is quickly losing out to nature. The most interesting structure is a cylindrical river gauging station. It looks like a turret stuck between the road and creek.

Unless you consult a decently scaled map, it is difficult to decipher the end of Hazel Creek Trail.  The trailhead is positioned at Proctor Bridge.  The Calhoun House, which appears to be a dead end straight ahead, actually sits on Lakeshore Trail, which runs past the house toward Fontana and across the bridge toward Bryson City.

Calhoun House near the Hazel Creek trailhead

Calhoun House near the Hazel Creek trailhead

To reach Campsite 86, I must cross the bridge and turn right. About 0.2 mile down this lake access trail, a series of little paths run into the woods on the right and lead to a warren of sites large and small. It is Saturday, and I won’t be camping solo tonight. #86 looks like party central. The large group next door offers me some of their pinto beans, but I’m stuffed from my own dinner and tired. My morning was wonderful, but the walk down Hazel Creek with a full pack reignited my back and feet woes from yesterday.

Tomorrow, I begin a two-day effort to complete Lakeshore Trail, hiking to Chesquaw Branch and back before continuing to Campsite 88 for the night and the trailhead on Monday. Once again, I will leave most of my gear hanging in camp for the Chesquaw trek.

Jenkins Ridge Trail Sign AT, GSMNP, July 22, 2016This morning I climbed more than 2,500 feet in 4.3 miles to the Eagle Creek trailhead on the A.T.  The first clue that the “hard part” may not be over for the day comes 0.3 mile later at the Jenkins Ridge trailhead when I cannot find the trail. There is no dirt path visible, only a faint crease in the vegetation. Within a few yards, I disappear into foliage. From the A.T., there is now no evidence that the trail or I exist.

Other than long thorny arms of Rubus sp., I cannot recall a single plant for certain. All my time and energy is devoted to pushing through a gauntlet of herbaceous growth often well above my head. Protecting my eyes and face becomes the first priority, but an equally critical second priority is locating the actual foot path to avoid rocks or roots or branches or holes or bear poop.

The only sign of a trail off the A.T. is a strip of lower growing grasses leading into a wall of foliage.

The only sign of a trail off the A.T. is a strip of lower growing grasses leading into a wall of foliage.

There really is a narrow path under here somewhere, but it takes tremendous effort and time to push vegetation aside enough to see it. I wind up scooting my feet along in some places to avoid twisting an ankle on hidden impediments. My trekking poles rarely touch the ground. They stay arm’s length in front of me like the blade of a plow opening a furrow of space ahead. The poles catch on plants; plants catch on me. My clothes are snagged. There’s a cut on my cheek. My left arm looks like it was attacked by a vicious herd of feral cats.

For the first three miles, Jenkins Ridge clings to the steep side of the Smokies crest, circumnavigating the headwaters of several feeder streams to Eagle Creek. With the mountain rising on the left and falling away on the right, there’s not much room for error.  There’s also no room for maneuvering should I encounter wildlife. However, given the racket I make hacking my way through this stuff, bears and other animals can hear me coming a mile away. I’m not too worried. What’s scarier are the outer edges of the trail. Jenkins Ridge is also a horse trail, and hoof-sized gouges slip down the steep slope. Unexpectedly keeling off the trail sideways is a bigger threat.

This is one of the easier overgrown sections.  Photos of the worst would just show a fuzzy blob of green leaves in front of the lens.

This is one of the easier overgrown sections. Photos of the worst would just show a fuzzy blob of green leaves in front of the lens.

Vegetation density is tied to the canopy. Whenever the trail passes through sufficient forest shade, the riot of forb and shrub growth relaxes, and Jenkins Ridge opens into a respectable trail. Unfortunately, this condition is rare in the top one-third of the trail. The energy expended battling plants has been enormous thus far.

Jenkins Ridge begins at 5,000 feet. Over the next 2.8 miles, it dips a few hundred feet then returns to the starting elevation at a place called Haw Gap, a small opening through a saddle full of the same overgrown mix of head-high brambles and forbs. I plunge ahead on sheer faith that the trail is somewhere in the vicinity.

There are some monster Boletes on Jenkins Ridge.

There are some monster Boletes on Jenkins Ridge.

Back in the woods, I begin the first major descent, dropping 800 feet in one mile.  Shortly past Haw Gap, the trail hits the ridge line for which it is named and remains on or near that line for the next 3.5 miles. During this run it will surmount two small but steep knobs and make several ridiculously steep declines. After Haw Gap, I leave the claustrophobic vegetation behind but now face bare dirt, loose rocks, and exposed roots pitching straight down the eroded nose of Jenkins Ridge with nary a switchback in sight. One stumble and it’s ass over tea kettle straight into a world of hurt.

Jenkins Ridge violates nearly every rule of Trail Building 101. As bad as it is for humans, it is beyond me how anyone could possibly take a horse down this trail or up it for that matter. Yet I find horse poop, along with lots of bear poop. At one point, a big downed tree blocks the trail. Its bole is too large to climb over and too low for crawling under with a pack. I lie down on my side and slither beneath the trunk.

Michaux's Lily

Michaux’s Lily

Everything slows to a crawl, and I lose all sense of the trail. Have I passed Cherry Knob? Which steep descent is this one? Staring at the hiking book’s elevation profile, I cannot get a handle on my location, but I know where I am…in hell. The day is warm, even at this elevation, and very humid. My feet are killing me and so is my back. It’s been more than a year since I carried a full pack, and I’m feeling it.

There are nice plants, such as Michaux’s Lily (Lilium michauxii), and some monster mushrooms on Jenkins Ridge, as well as one of the largest patches of Trailing Arbutus I’ve ever seen. Today, photography takes a backseat to survival. A pair of Broadwinged Hawks let out a series of cries as I hike past.

Flying squirrels chew perfectly round holes in nut shells like this acorn.

Flying squirrels chew perfectly round holes in nut shells like this acorn.

The trail moderates at Pickens Gap, and on two occasions I think I’ve reached that holy grail only to have my spirits crushed with another lung-busting uphill or heart-stopping downhill. Part of me wants to sit down and cry while another part screams obscenities.

Finally, I see a sign post in a wide flat area below me. To get there, I have to crab walk on hands and feet down an almost sheer 8-foot slide of slippery dirt. Pickens Gap, thank god!  The sign points left for Hazel Creek in 2.4 miles. Including two breaks, it has taken me 5 hours and 15 minutes to hike 6.5 miles on Jenkins Ridge.

Another small sign to the right simply says “Unmaintained Trail.” This is the old trailhead for Pinnacle Creek Trail, abandoned by the park several years ago. Yesterday, I saw the other end on Eagle Creek Trail. Now a manway, PCT ends (or begins) with a ford of Eagle Creek.

The last 2.4 miles of Jenkins Ridge follows an old road.

The last 2.4 miles of Jenkins Ridge follows an old road.

From Pickens Gap, Jenkins Ridge Trail joins a wide road, also overgrown, following the course of Sugar Fork. The hard part really is behind me now, but I’m so exhausted I can’t take advantage of the relative ease. Plodding along for another 90 minutes, I drag into Campsite 84 at 7:00 p.m. A small site, it sits at the confluence of Sugar Fork and Hazel Creek. It’s Friday night, but no one is there, no one shows up, and no one walks by. The only people I saw today were those three men on Eagle Creek this morning. It’s getting dark by the time I finish camp chores. I pop two ‘Vitamin I’ (ibuprofen) and crash.

After my trip, I emailed a friend who works at the park and is an accomplished hiker herself. I railed against Jenkins Ridge. In her response, she said the park’s trails coordinator recently asked her which trail she considered the worst in the park. “Guess which one I told him?” She forwarded my diatribe to the coordinator, and his response was, “I agree!”  He’d prefer to close it or mark it as unmaintained.

Anyone pursuing the 900 Mile Club must tackle Jenkins Ridge. Two bits of advice: take a partner and take a machete. I never really thought I’d be one of those who, upon completing all the park trails, would start over for a second sweep. Jenkins Ridge has just insured that I won’t!

View of Fontana Lake from the picnic parking area

View of Fontana Lake from the picnic parking area

I’m back in the Smokies to tackle a section of the park I’ve been dreading for years — the network of trails on the western end of Fontana Lake. A dry weather window opened, three days of sun with a 10-20% chance of thunderstorms. It will be enough to get me past the toughest trails on this 5-day, 4-night backpack. I book the campsites and cross my fingers. The forecast holds until the day before I leave. The first day on trail is now 80%, sigh. Most of that day will be spent wading across Eagle Creek anyway.

Lost Cove trailhead on teh A.T.

Lost Cove trailhead on teh A.T.

I drive to Fontana Dam the afternoon prior with the intention of spending the night at the shelter known as “Fontana Hilton.” It’s a large A.T. shelter open through the center like a barn with a set of sleeping platforms to either side. It has a great view of the lake, a fresh water spigot, and access to bathrooms with showers nearby. Thru-hikers love the relative luxury of “Fontana Hilton.” There are several people milling around when I arrive around 6 p.m. I ask one section hiker if there is room for me. “Maybe,” she says.  “There’s a group of 14- to 17-year-olds on a camping trip staying here. They are ADHD kids,” she notes with a slightly troubled brow. That’s all I need to know.  “Yeah,” she adds, “I may be pitching a tent tonight myself.”

Brilliant red spore cases of Hot Lips fungus

Brilliant red spore cases of Hot Lips fungus

The tenting area above the shelter lines a ridge arching steeply above the lake. Concrete pads take up most of the narrow space and are not conducive to a non-freestanding tent. I’m resigned to spending the night in my car.  After dinner, I settle down with a cushy sleeping pad and pillow for a surprisingly decent night’s sleep.

Red and Yellow Bolete

Red and Yellow Bolete

Next morning, I move my car to the dam’s visitor center parking area and am on my way before 7:00 a.m.  It is cloudy and certainly looks like an 80% chance of rain. I waste no time covering the nearly one-mile walk to the trailhead. To reach Lost Cove, requires a 3.7-mile hike on the A.T. past Shuckstack fire tower. Climbing to 3,700 feet, I’m ready to begin the first of seven new trails.

Lost Cove descends eastward from the A.T. at Sassafras Gap opposite Twentymile Trail, following Lost Cove Creek’s carved path between Red Ridge to the north and Little Shuckstack’s Snakeden Ridge to the south. Over 2.7 miles, it drops 1800 feet and merges seamlessly into Lakeshore Trail continuing eastward toward Campsite #90.

Corrugated Bolete

Corrugated Bolete

Starting inauspiciously as a narrow slit through Jewelweed, Early Meadow Rue, Wood Nettle, and tree seedlings, the Lost Cove quickly opens into one of the more lovely trails in the park. No one knows where the “Lost” part of its name comes from, but the “Cove” part is obvious. The trail meanders 2.7 miles through beautiful cove forests.  All the markers of a rich and diverse flora, particularly in spring, are here — Mountain Silverbell, Cucumber Magnolia, Lady Fern, Richweed, Cinnamon Fern, Catesby’s Trillium, Blue Cohosh, Nodding Mandarin, Geranium, Great Merrybells, Bloodroot, Sharp-lobed Liverleaf, Maidenhair Fern, Crested Iris, Seersucker Sedge, and many more.

Eagle Creek becomes Fontana Lake

Eagle Creek becomes Fontana Lake

Fungi are in full reproductive mode this time of year, sprouting colorful sporocarps along the trail. Little red knobs of Hot Lips (Calostoma cinnabarina) are beginning to push through the soil, still encased in their firm, clear gelatinous covering. Fresh, velvety Red and Yellow Boletes (Boletus bicolor), wrinkled caps of Corrugated Boletes (Boletus hortonii), and everyone’s favorite summer gastronomic ‘shroom Chanterelles (Cantharellus cibarius) brighten my morning.

Iron bridge over Eagle Creek on Lakeshore

Iron bridge over Eagle Creek on Lakeshore

A half-mile down, the trail’s grade takes a nose dive for another half mile. Progress slows as smaller steps are needed to keep the descent under control. It’s a shame attention must be diverted from the beautiful surroundings to footsteps. The same is true near the end due to multiple stream crossings, some of which could be dicey in high water. My mid-summer hike downhill has the dual advantage of far less exertion and low water.

Both Lakeshore and Eagle Creek trails are blocked by the precision fall of a tree.

Both Lakeshore and Eagle Creek trails are blocked by the precision fall of a tree.

An uphill hike could work on a colorful cool fall day, and, if the water is not too high, on a colorful cool spring day. On this hot and very humid summer day, I meet two women backpackers struggling up Lost Cove. They look completely wiped, and though I hint at the steeper section to come, I don’t have the heart to undermine what energy they have left.

The upper stream crossings are completely dry. After Campsite #91, a wide level site, lower crossings also pose no problem. The junction with Lakeshore takes me a minute to figure out.  Lost Cove appears to continue straight ahead, but a trail sign indicates I’m now on a different trail. Lakeshore eastbound falls in line with Lost Cove’s trajectory along the creek. Lakeshore westbound toward the dam turns sharply upslope away from the creek.

Cinnabar Chanterelles decorate the mossy banks of Eagle Creek at many crossings.

Cinnabar Chanterelles decorate the mossy banks of Eagle Creek at many crossings.

In 0.4 mile Lakeshore makes another dramatic turn at Campsite #90, a very large and well-used site, though no one is here late on a Thursday morning. Little trails, I guess to bathroom locations, spiral out from the main camp. It takes a little wandering around to relocate Lakeshore Trail proper. Look for a footlog spanning Lost Cove Creek’s last gasp prior to joining lake-tamed Eagle Creek.

I am now walking beside a new creek companion, Eagle Creek. Its eponymous trail splits off in a half mile. Just before the junction, Lakeshore crosses the creek on a bridge trussed in a maze of iron struts, overkill if you ask me, but I’m no engineer. At the trail junction, I’m again stumped momentarily. Not because the paths are confusing, but because a large tree has fallen and strategically blocked both trails at the start. Fighting my way through limbs and foliage, I begin Eagle Creek Trail.

Pinky-beige blush of Lactarius quietus var. incanus

Pinky-beige blush of Lactarius quietus var. incanus

Within minutes, I’m at the first crossing. It’s 12:15 and a good opportunity to eat lunch before shedding my boots. While eating, I’m startled to see a man through the trees walking upstream. He’s fly fishing.  A second man appears.  Both move methodically up Eagle Creek casting their lines. Neither notice me.

With water shoes on and boots secured in my pack, I roll up my pants legs and begin the first of 16 fords across Eagle Creek. The fishermen are walking back downstream, and I can’t resist asking, “Is your name Dwight by chance?”  Dwight, the distracted fly fisherman, is a reader of this blog, and it would be quite cool to catch him in the act. “No, I’m Bill,” he says and asks me where I’m headed. He confirms that the water level is low, and I shouldn’t have much trouble. He tells me to take care; I wish him luck fishing.

Eagle Creek crossing with a logging rail

Eagle Creek crossing with a logging rail

Indeed, I’ve chosen an excellent time to hike Eagle Creek Trail. The water level is easily manageable and not very swift. It comes over my knees only a few times in one or two spots. It is still important to exercise caution, however. The flow remains powerful enough to throw off balance while walking through. Trekking poles are essential gear, providing extra stability with a second pair of ‘legs.’ On one crossing a downed log was perfectly positioned to lean against. The water feels cool and refreshing on my feet.

Thelephora vialis

Thelephora vialis

The first 4.6 miles of Eagle Creek (which is 8.9 miles total), run a serpentine course up the creek valley, crossing and recrossing the creek 16 times. The valley, seeming wide enough on the ground to question the merit of this routing, looks quite different on a topographic map. Eagle Creek is hemmed by an odd collection of steep ridges emanating from the Smokies crest. Though I still question the true need for so many crossings, on this hot summer day, I’m enjoying the regular relief. That last-minute 80% chance of rain was either a misprint or it simply evaporated. The day is as clear and sunny as originally forecast.

Yellow Blusher

Yellow Blusher

This section of Eagle Creek rises a scant 700 feet in elevation. It’s a little rocky and rooty in places, and I’ve encountered a handful of small blowdowns. Yet all in all it’s been smooth sailing. The stream crossings slow the pace somewhat.  At 1.6 miles is Campsite 89, and at 2.7 miles, the trail bisects Campsite 96 with a small site to either side. The Smokies hiking book says #96 is an ‘island’ campsite, but this is certainly not evident to me. However, it’s rather overgrown, and I didn’t stop to explore. If that area is a stream island, it’s a big one.

Ruddy Puffballs on a downed mossy birch

Ruddy Puffballs on a downed mossy birch

As with many areas of the park, Eagle Creek watershed was heavily logged in the early Twentieth Century. I come across two long strips of iron train rail, one lying in the creek. At times the valley widens enough during a straight run of the creek to lay out an avenue. I’m strolling creekside through a park in every sense.

The moist valley is a boon for evergreen Rosebay Rhododendron, Doghobble, and Partridgeberry, all prevalent along Eagle Creek. There are also impressive showings of New York Fern and Hayscented Fern. Fruiting Cateby’s Trillium and budding Yellow Fringed Orchid dot the trail. A female Diana Fritillary suns on a downed branch.

Could this be Amanita frostiana, Frost's Amanita?

Could this be Amanita frostiana, Frost’s Amanita?

Mushrooms are happy here too. Bright red sporocarps of Cinnabar Chanterelles (Cantharellus cinnabarinus) complement the dark green mossy banks of Eagle Creek at several crossings. Understated Lactarius quietus var. incanus features a soft pinkish bloom over the purple-brown caps. False coral (Thelephora vialis) sprouts fresh rosettes, shining like lights against the dark earth.

Around 4 p.m., I arrive at my destination for the night, Campsite 97.  The hiking book indicates there is a site on the far side of the sixteenth and final creek crossing. Not so. The space has been unused for some time with plants sprouting all through it, and there are no bear cables. I cross back to the real site and set up camp.

Montagne's Polypore cap

Montagne’s Polypore cap

It turned into a beautiful day in the mountains, yet there were few people in this remote area of the park. I saw four hikers on the A.T., two backpackers on Lost Cove, and two fishermen on Eagle Creek. No one else comes to Campsite 97 tonight. I sleep well lulled by the shushing sound of the creek.

The next morning I strike camp, cross the creek one last time, and prepare for the final 4.3 miles of Eagle Creek Trail. The grade begins to steepen and undulate and the valley narrows, yet the first 2.7 miles remain easy enough with one stretch perched along a raised rail bed. Wood Betony joins the plants already listed as a notable presence on trail.

The concentric gill-like pores of Montagne's Polypore

The concentric gill-like pores of Montagne’s Polypore

Mushrooms include Yellow Blusher (Amanita flavorubescens), Powdery Amanita, Ruddy Puffballs (Morganella subincarnata), False Coral Mushroom, Gem-studded Puffball, young sprigs of Hericium americanum, and possibly Frost’s Amanita (Amanita frostiana). One bolete looks like a massive pancake bigger than my hand. Montagne’s Polypore (Coltricia montagnei) is a widespread but uncommon fungi whose pores radially elongate to form gill-like concentric rings beneath the cap.

Toothed fungus Hericium americanum

Toothed fungus Hericium americanum

With 1.6 miles to go, the real fun begins on Eagle Creek as the trail makes an abrupt change in grade at 3500 feet and climbs alongside Spence Cabin Branch.  A slow and deliberate pace with pauses to catch my breath and drink water proves a good strategy. One steep section is actually a cobble corollary to the branch, and the rocks are sturdy and stable enough to make decent steps. The trail moderates as it crosses the branch just past the mid-way point.  Here the forest is lush and beautiful. Grasses and sedges that make Spence Field so lovely are here along with Bee Balm, Cutleaf Coneflower, Cardinal Flower, Heart-leaf Hedge-nettle, and White Wood Aster. Blue Cohosh is loaded with green fruits not yet ripe.

Raised rail, now trail, bed on the upper half of Eagle Creek

Raised rail, now trail, bed on the upper half of Eagle Creek

I pass three men coming down from Spence Field. They are pleased to learn the stream crossings ahead will be easy. I’m pleased to learn I’m almost at the top. One final steep push puts me at the spring for Spence Field Shelter. I stop here to filter a liter of water, then rest a bit at the shelter, eating a snack and drinking. I’ve got 0.2 mile left on Eagle Creek Trail through the sea of sedges carpeting this area to reach the A.T.  Another 0.3 mile past some tasty blueberry bushes will put me at the start of Jenkins Ridge Trail. It’s a long trail (8.9 miles), but it is mostly downhill. I feel good knowing the hard part is over.

Emotions still run high over Lakeview Drive

Emotions still run high over Lakeview Drive

I return to Noland Creek to walk south to Fontana Lake. At Bryson City’s edge just before entering Lakeview Drive proper, a small billboard perches on a steep slope bearing a brightly colored message:
WELCOME TO
THE ROAD TO NO-WHERE
A BROKEN PROMISE!
1943 – ?
NO MORE WILDERNESS

In pristine condition amid closely cropped vegetation, this sign represents the still vivid feelings some local residents have over the original intent of Lakeview Drive and the change of plans that left this intent unfulfilled. To learn the story, see my blog post “Lakeshore, Goldmine, and Tunnel Bypass Trails, Aug. 8, 2012” in the Archive for September, 2012.

Four bridges span Noland Creek in the one mile walk to Fontana Lake.

Four bridges span Noland Creek in the one mile walk to Fontana Lake.

At the Noland Creek trailhead below Lakeview Drive, turn left to follow the old gravel road until it literally peters out at the water’s edge. The road’s grade change during this one-mile course is imperceptible, yet Noland Creek flows heartily. This trail section sticks close to the creek and crosses it four times on sturdy wooden bridges. These bright bridged openings contrast with the dim forested shade in between.

Noland's Creek last gasp entering Fontana Lake

Noland’s Creek last gasp entering Fontana Lake

Nearing the lake, the road narrows, becomes grassy, and sidles next to the creek’s bank. A thin curtain of foliage separates mountain forest from impounded river. Parting that curtain, reveals different scenes at different times of year. In the fullness of summer, you would be met with lake water lapping at your feet. In winter, when the lake is in its drawdown mode, Noland Creek stretches itself a bit further downstream and the raw, muddy, rocky underbelly of a dammed river becomes exposed in glaring display on either side.

A tentacle of Fontana Lake snakes up Noland Creek's valley.

A tentacle of Fontana Lake snakes up Noland Creek’s valley.

In late May, the lake is not yet full.  A vertical slash of bedrock forms a stark linear border between the gray-brown water and lush green trees on the steep far side of Noland Creek. The trail side has something of a “beach” profile, sloping gently for several yards toward an abrupt bank climbing back into forest. This dirt beach is scoured clean annually with rising lake levels, leaving bare soil, open canopy, and little competition in winter and spring. Robust stands of a few herbaceous plants take early advantage before advancing water drowns their ambitions.

Campsite #66 overlooks a drawn down Fontana Lake

Campsite #66 overlooks a drawn down Fontana Lake

A slim footpath of dirt extends down the beach. Apparently, many people walk this way when the water level is low. Burned stubs of wood indicate an illegal campfire. Just upslope from the beach is a legitimate campsite, #66, accessible only by boat….in summer anyway. I see neither an obvious approach from the water nor a sign post, though these may be further down shore. Climbing the hillside, I find a rock fire ring and bear cables on sloping ground with a small opening through the trees to view the lake. When water levels are high, it might be a picturesque place to camp. Not so today, though someone must be here, as a full pack hangs from the cables. There are no other signs of habitation.

Canada Toadflax

Canada Toadflax

Back on the beach, there are scattered but dense stands of a plant 2-4 feet tall with alternate, narrowly lanceolate, toothed leaves. It has the gestalt of a goldenrod, but I honestly don’t know what it is. In between these stands, the ground is liberally sprinkled with a prolific annual, Canada Toadflax (Nuttallanthus canadensis). From a rosette of short leafy stems that splay on the ground, the sturdy flowering stems grow 20 inches and bear a raceme of tiny light blue flowers.

Death of a mountain stream

Death of a mountain stream

The lake level must have been lower a short time ago, as flowering stems emerge from the water, their leafy rosettes several inches below the surface, circled by tadpoles. Despite this location, Canada Toadflax is not a wetland species. I find a flowering stem protruding from a crack in the asphalt on Lakeview Drive 650 feet above the lake. It appears to be one tough, opportunistic cookie capable of tolerating a wide variety of conditions.

A trash laden pall for Noland Creek

A trash-laden pall for Noland Creek

A small cascade marks the point where Noland Creek officially enters the lake. All semblance of its bubbly personality fades quickly. Within 50 yards, no flow is apparent, the surface smooth and quiet. An unmoving raft of woody debris and trash floats like a pall marking the death of this beautiful mountain stream.

Exiting the beach area, a sign faces the lake, nearly obscured in that veil of foliage, announcing the start of Noland Creek Trail and its divide destination 10 miles away. The creek’s waters dance and sing upon passing, unaware of the ignominious fate ahead.

Lake-side trailhead

Lake-side trailhead

The National Geographic map (Clingmans Dome/Cataloochee) notes a Quiet Walkway on Lakeview Drive a little more than a mile from Noland Creek on the way back to Bryson City. I looked for it when driving to Noland Creek and am scanning the roadside as I leave. There is a pull off and overlook in the general vicinity but no trail that I can find. It is either an error or the trail has been removed. All I find is that Canada Toadflax demonstrating a determination that bodes well for its continued success in a natural world increasingly muddled by humans.

The only sign of Noland Creek Trail on Lakeview Drive

The only sign of Noland Creek Trail on Lakeview Drive

My final full day in the Smokies, emphasis on the word full.  With a wild mix of confidence and trepidation, I take another Cherokee Cab shuttle to the Noland Creek Trail access on Lakeview Drive, the infamous “Road to Nowhere.”  From here I will piece together part or all of five different trails to return to Deep Creek Campground and in the process cover 20.25 miles, a personal best that shatters my old record by nearly three miles. It’s an early start on a chilly late May morning.

A sharp eye is needed to spot the small brown sign, “Noland Creek Trail,” and its little arrow pointing down a rather obscure path that tumbles in a steep pitch off the road. The sign is set at the end of a large parking area on the left just before the high bridge spanning Noland Creek’s narrow valley. The switchbacked access trail is maybe 0.1 mile, but it connects the bright open road above to the densely shaded, almost gloomy, trailhead along the creek.

Lakeview Drive bridge overhead

Lakeview Drive bridge overhead

Noland Creek Trail’s 9.9 miles split in two directions from its trailhead. Turn left for a one mile streamside stroll to the not-so-lovely shore of Fontana Lake. I’ll do this tomorrow morning before returning home (report to come). Today, I turn right to follow the creek upstream nine miles to the crest of Noland Divide and its self-named trail. Noland Creek Trail is a wide, remarkably smooth gravel/dirt road with a much appreciated relaxed grade winding through the creek valley. This surface covers the first five miles, and the grade continues until the final 0.7 mile shoots straight up Noland Divide, resulting in 1,800 feet elevation gain over 9.2 miles and 700 feet in 0.7 mile. The toll is paid at the end of this road.

Noland Creek Trail

Noland Creek Trail

The trail passes under the sweeping Lakeview Drive bridge high overhead and zigzags its way up the valley, crossing over Noland Creek numerous times. From the lake shore to Springhouse Branch Trail junction at Campsite #64 (five miles), there are nine wooden bridges barely wide enough for motorized traffic. For hikers this means smooth sailing. Two hours after setting sail, I’m resting at one of the picnic tables at #64.

Hemmed by Noland Divide to the east and Forney Ridge to the west, Noland Creek is a swift and lusty mountain stream carrying waters from dozens of smaller branches. Mill Creek joins Noland at Campsite #64, and the union is a noisy one. Peace and quiet as well as all other forest sounds drown in the tumult.

Maidenhair Fern and Poison Ivy

Maidenhair Fern and Poison Ivy

Noisy water aside, Noland Creek Trail feels remote even though it is not difficult to access from either end, traverses an old road half way, and features five backcountry campsites. The narrow valley is deeply shaded by typical Smokies vegetation. The creek’s proximity favors lush growth of Rosebay Rhododendron, Doghobble, Yellowroot, and Wild Hydrangea. Beautiful cascading fronds of Maidenhair Fern mix with robust scrambles of Poison Ivy in flower. Not much else is flowering except one of the Daisy Fleabanes (Erigeron strigosus), which is now opening at the lowest elevations.

Poison Ivy flowers

Poison Ivy flowers

Shady green continues past Campsite #64, but the trail itself begins a slow transformation into a true dirt path, a process complete within the next 1.5 miles. Four of the five campsites allow horses and three of them are located in the upper reaches of Noland Creek Trail past the old road’s end. Rocks, roots, mud, and muck recur regularly requiring a bit of a foot dance to negotiate. Little feeder creeks with their rock hops tend to run down trail as often as run across it, and the potential for slopping through water during big rain events is all but guaranteed, a major pain unless you are perched five feet above it on a horse’s back. Recent precipitation has left its telltale mark, but I manage with little difficulty.

Fabulous new footbridge design

Fabulous new footbridge design

By Campsite #63, a quiet and pleasant place nestled in verdant vegetation, all vestiges of an old road are gone. Only the gentle grade of the valley floor remains. The trail continues to cross Noland Creek, and the first few (at least three) have footbridges.  One of them looks brand new. Well constructed with two artfully designed handrails and large rock steps, it is a beauty to behold. These bridges give me hope that perhaps the unbridged crossings mentioned in the Little Brown Book might be a thing of the past. Wishful thinking.

I finally hit the first ford. No way to cross without wet feet the rest of the day, but I’m prepared. While changing into water shoes, four hikers from Clingmans Dome approach on the opposite side. They tell me there are two more wet crossings after this one, the first rocky and shallow, the second much deeper. I tell them they are now home free. The last two crossings are just past Campsite #62. During the final wade, water comes over my knees. There are more small springs and muddy patches ahead, but it is safe to put my boots back on.

The first big ford on Noland Creek

The first big ford on Noland Creek

After the final stream crossing, I run into several small blowdowns across the trail. Broken limbs of rhododendron or Mountain Laurel, dead hemlock branches, even a small Fraser Magnolia. At Campsite #61, I seem to have reached a dead end. I can find no path that does not circle back around to the campsite. Adding to the confusion is an old sign declaring “this trail closed” and pointing straight into the campsite as the way to Noland Divide. Ten minutes of circling lead me to the back of the campsite once more, where I notice light and space beyond a thick wall of rhododendron branches. It’s another recent blowdown that has completely obscured the trail. Beyond this are more blowdowns, including a tree so large the only way forward is a steep scramble up the bank through shrubs to vault the bole and slide down the other side.

Campsite #61 marks the end of the easy grade. It now requires a steep haul to finish Noland Creek and reach the divide. The last few steps with the top in sight are somehow always the hardest. At the top, I pause for a snack and enjoy cool breezes at 4200 feet. The day is nothing short of gorgeous. The sky is as blue and clear as I’ve seen in the Smokies.

Pole Road Creek Trail (3.3 miles)

Pole Road Creek Trail at Noland Divide

Pole Road Creek Trail at Noland Divide

At the Noland Creek junction, Pole Road Creek Trail starts its 3.3-mile trek down the opposite side of the divide to end at Deep Creek Trail. It too has numerous unbridged  crossings of its namesake creek and one bridged crossing over Deep Creek at the terminus. It starts out pleasant enough, descending through cheerful yellow flowers of Common Cinquefoil (Potentilla simplex) and Yellow Stargrass, Vasey’s Trilliums under their shields of foliage, triangular teardrops of Great Merrybells fruit.  Two juncos defending a nest nearby scold my loitering to take a picture. Grasshoppers leap before me like some kind of advance guard.

Common Cinquefoil

Common Cinquefoil

The first 1.2 miles are a breeze. Then comes the first cluster of stream crossings. Pole Road Creek, inspired by last week’s rain, is singing loud and proud. None of the crossings are deep, per se, yet all present a navigation challenge. One misstep means a boot full of water if not a complete tumble. The simple, smart choice would be to take five minutes and change into water shoes so I can stride without hesitation through the 10 crossings. Wish I’d done so. Instead I choose the ‘ornery cuss’ approach and sweat each crossing uttering words I cannot repeat here. Somehow my feet stay dry by sheer luck and definitely not because I deserve it.

The final crossing (of course) is the worst.  No way to get across with dry feet, until I spy a large log spanning the creek. It’s top mossy surface has several spots worn smooth from butts sliding across. My butt buffs it too.

Fraser's Sedge fruit

Fraser’s Sedge fruit

As a hiking experience, Pole Road Creek Trail isn’t terrible, but it isn’t good either. Stream crossings aside, the trail is fairly narrow and at this moment very overgrown. At times it feels like I’m swimming through foliage right in my face. There is large tree down, which requires crawling on hands and knees. The trail surface runs the gamut from smooth dry to wet muck with rocky sections and tripping roots. Water would run down this trail during wet weather. However, it’s the Smokies and a horse trail, so some of these conditions are inevitable. I’ve certainly hiked horse trails in much worse shape.  One unexpected and nice surprise is a small grouping of Fraser’s Sedge (Cymophyllus fraserianus) in fruit.

Martin’s Gap Trail (3.0 miles)

Martins Gap Trail at Deep Creek

Martins Gap Trail at Deep Creek

Arriving at Deep Creek Trail, I turn right for 0.75 mile to Martins Gap Trail. Martins Gap climbs the west flank of Sunkota Ridge (1,000 feet, 1.5 miles) and descends the east flank at an equal distance and elevation change. The elevation profile looks mild on paper. The reality is somewhat different, though it is good to keep in mind that my ascent of Martins Gap comes seven hours and 13 miles into the day.

Eastern Garter Snake

Eastern Garter Snake

Maps show a gnarled and crooked route to Sunkota Ridge. The impression is more ‘straight up.’ I haven’t really rested today, and food consists of quick snacks — energy gels, power bars, a Snickers, beef jerky — things I can eat while moving. As a result, the trek up Martins Gap takes an agonizing amount of time. I sit down in the trail, ostensibly to photograph Indian Cucumber-root but in reality to get off my feet and rejuvenate a bit. I waste a good 45 minutes piddling during the climb to Sunkota. “Waste” may be too harsh a word. My rest will come in handy shortly.

Rattlesnake Hawkweed

Rattlesnake Hawkweed

The western leg of Martins Gap is generally drier and more acidic yet features a few small moist coves as well, providing a plant palate shifting between Partridgeberry, Galax, and Rattlesnake Hawkweed on one end with Summer Bluets, Crested Iris, and Robin’s Plantain on the other. Bear Huckleberry is setting fruit. During one of my many pauses along the way, I happen to stop right beside an Eastern Garter Snake (Thamnophis sirtalis sirtalis). He stares at me but doesn’t so much a twitch a muscle, allowing me to shoot as many photos as I like.

The eastern leg is more uniformly moist and crosses the upper reaches of Indian Creek twice. Wild Geranium and Blue-eyed Grass are flowering. The second footlog is twisted on the upslope end giving the tread a decided slant. Care must be taken with foot placement to avoid slipping off.

Wooden Bridge on Martins Gap Trail

Wooden Bridge on Martins Gap Trail

Horse traffic necessitates a short railed bridge across a draw that is little more than a deep slit with water cascading through it on the western side. Horse traffic is also likely responsible for the 8” tread trenching on sections heading straight uphill. The back side of Martin’s Gap features a trench that could easily contend for worst trail erosion in the Smokies. Wet muck with standing water is held in place by a large root. On the other side of that root, the trail is gone. In its place is a sheer two-foot drop into orange mire that engulfs my boots. Vegetation crowds either side of the trail, and past efforts to sidestep the trench have only worsened the erosion and widened the gulf, leaving current hikers no safe option but lowering themselves two feet into ankle deep mud.

Excessive erosion on Martins Gap

Excessive erosion on Martins Gap

I don’t want to go on yet another horse rant, but these things make me furious. It is a condition that surpasses mere wilderness challenge. It is a serious hazard to hikers and horses alike.  Many of these trails, their construction, their soils, are just not supportive of horse use. In some instances heavy foot traffic is enough to cause problems and much more so the hooves of 1,000-pound horses. Trail soils are continually gouged and churned then washed away in the 60+ inches of annual rainfall.

Not only do walking park visitors suffer the consequences, the park itself — the resource — is harmed. The most appropriate time to act on this issue was decades ago. However, this shouldn’t prevent some positive action today.  As extreme weather events become more common, this kind of damage could well escalate. National parks are already starved for funds, so repairs are unlikely, and in some instances the only remedy is to relocate the trail, an even less likely prospect. We need to advocate for protection of the park environment and the hiking experience.

Horse Poop Feather, Noland Creek Trail, GSMNP, May 23, 2016My day began with a pile of horse poop sporting a turkey feather near Noland Creek trailhead. It made me laugh. The day draws to a close in a precipitous two-foot trench of muck. I’m not laughing.

Martins Gap Trail ends at Campsite #46. Indian Creek Trail seamlessly begins at this same spot. Like Noland Creek Trail, it is a smooth gravel/dirt roadbed that runs alongside a boisterous mountain stream. Indian Creek Trail merges into Deep Creek Trail at the bottom; a total of 4.3 miles lies between me and supper. I’ve already hiked these sections and am determined to make short work of them.  Whether its my rest on Martins Gap or just the desire to be done, I reach the campground in 87 minutes, covering 20.25 miles for the day and topping it off with a sprint to the finish. I spend the rest of the evening nursing a serious case of ‘hiker hobble!’

Thomas Divide traverses more than six miles of northern hardwoods forest.

Thomas Divide traverses more than six miles of northern hardwoods forest.

Up early this morning, I strike camp and move from Smokemont to Deep Creek campground. Cherokee Cab Company meets me at the camp check-in station at 8:30 a.m. and drives me to the Thomas Divide trailhead on Highway 441. From there, I’ll hike the full length of TDT (13.6 miles) to Tom Branch Road plus an additional road mile to the campground.

Canada Mayflower

Canada Mayflower

Beginning at 9:15 a.m. and an elevation of 4700 feet, it is breezy and cool enough to warrant gloves. I’m looking forward to the first climb a quarter mile in. Thomas Divide easily undulates between 4600 and 5200 feet for the first 6.5 miles, with a single descent of 1.25 miles between that peak and trough. At this elevation, it feels like TDT transports me to Pennsylvania, walking in a northern hardwoods forest with American Beech, Yellow Birch, Sugar Maple, Red Oak, Mountain Maple, and Serviceberry. Fine sedges and small grasses wave along the trail. Tiny Northern White Violet (Viola macloskeyi), found at these higher elevations, is in flower.

Wood Anemone

Wood Anemone

It also feels like I’ve stepped back in time. Plant species flowering at the base of the mountains a month ago during the Spring Wildflower Pilgrimage are colorful and fresh-faced or still in bud up here: Toothwort, Solomon’s Plume, Wood Anemone, Foamflower, Thyme-leaved Bluets, Nodding Mandarin, Canada Mayflower, Star Chickweed, Indian Cucumber-root, Meadow Parsnip, Wood Betony, Mountain Bellwort, Doll’s Eyes, Wild Geranium, Mayapple, Vasey’s Trillium, Rue Anemone, Bear Corn, and Solomon’s Seal. Silverbells are dropping pristine blossoms on the trail. Painted Trillium and Bloodroot are in the minority setting fruit.

budding Chicken of the Woods

Budding Chicken of the Woods

On a map, TDT plots a curving line from the highway, trending first southeast, then south, and finally southwest as it closely follows ridge lines, including Thomas Ridge, for its entire length. Three trails join TDT during its high elevation stretch, two climbing from Highway 441 near Smokemont (Kanati Fork, Newton Bald) and one from Deep Creek (Sunkota Ridge). Thomas Divide climbs to 5000 feet in the first 0.8 mile hitting Beetree Ridge and leveling for one mile to the Kanati Fork junction. There are signs of minor hog rooting on the flat ridge.

Large Whorled Pogonia

Large Whorled Pogonia

Past Kanati, TDT rises another 200 feet then descends to Tuskee Gap, the lowest elevation within the first six miles (4600). The flora is rich in moist draws on the steep slope of Nettle Creek Bald. A downed log is lined with a clumpy bright orange fungi that looks as though it could develop into a large batch of Chicken of the Woods. As the trail continues toward the gap, a more acid-soil community takes shape with Bracken Fern, Mountain Laurel, Galax, Blueberry, and Cow Wheat (Melampyrum lineare). Several Large Whorled Pogonias (Isotria verticillata) are just beginning to open. Seed capsules from last year still stand in their midst. Nearby and in several spots further down trail, small clusters of Pink Ladies Slippers are in their prime.

Cow Wheat

Cow Wheat

The trail climbs again (4950) and drops slightly (4750) to the junction with Sunkota Ridge Trail. Another four-tenths mile climb (5000) reaches the Newton Bald Trail junction. Cinnamon Fern is plentiful as is Wild Hydrangea, and I find Alternate-leaf Dogwood too. A foliose lichen, likely Smooth Lungwort (Lobaria querzicans) has grown to massive proportions on hardwood trees, forming patches well over a foot wide. In the mile past Newton Bald, the trail dips (4700) and rises (4950) one final time before leaving these high elevations behind.

Huge patch of Smooth Lungwort

Huge patch of Smooth Lungwort

TDT’s two-mile descent to Deeplow Gap veers from the ridge line for a short stretch and passes through a lush, narrow draw with the early trickle of an incipient stream. Wild Geranium in flower thickly lines the trail interspersed with Lady Fern, Cinnamon Fern, and Intermediate Fern. Fat clumps of Umbrella Leaf hopscotch down the developing creek.

Smooth Lungwort

Smooth Lungwort

I reach the gap at 1:14 p.m., 8.1 miles in four hours, and break for lunch. Deeplow Gap Trail crosses here, and two more trails originating in Deep Creek (Indian Creek Motor, Stone Pile Gap) will join Thomas Divide in the 5.5 miles remaining. Thus far, Thomas Divide has been a delightful trail. Its easy surface makes for a pleasant journey. A few areas are slightly overgrown with mostly herbaceous plants and some small trees or shrubs. There are few brambles.

The last three miles of Thomas Divide follow an old road.

The last three miles of Thomas Divide follow an old road.

After Deeplow Gap, TDT makes a steady 550-foot climb in 0.9 mile. A small stream crossing the trail spills down it, and thanks to horse traffic, turns a short patch into wet black muck. Cresting at 4300 feet at mile nine, TDT is all downhill from here. One and a half miles later, I reach the Indian Creek Motor Trail junction. From here the trail follows an old road, and the grade and surface make for smooth sailing. An occasional eroded gully poses no impediment.

Large Yellow Wood-sorrel

Large Yellow Wood-sorrel

Cruise control at the end of a long day always brings the risk of missing neat stuff on trail. Plants and animals darn near have to jump out in front of me, yet a few things do penetrate my consciousness. Great Yellow Wood-sorrel (Oxalis grandis) still has a few bedraggled flowers. Running Ground Cedar completely covers a steep bank doing what it does best…running. Befitting the intrusive road, Poison Ivy is prominent, and Multiflora Rose makes an entrance.

I buzz past the Stone Pile Gap junction with 1.1 miles to go. One-tenth mile from the trailhead, the Wiggins cemetery is visible on a small knoll to the right. Several different families rest here.

Lower trailhead of Thomas Divide on Tom Branch Road

Lower trailhead of Thomas Divide on Tom Branch Road

The gated trailhead features a large circular gravel parking area to accommodate horse trailers. Tom Branch Road (sometimes referred to as Galbraith Road) continues the downhill trajectory roughly following Tom Branch, which terminates as a lovely waterfall at Deep Creek. One mile from TDT, Deep Creek Campground comes into view on the left. A grassy road bed blocked by big boulders divides the lower tent sites from the upper and provides easy foot access to these upper campsites. The hike takes seven hours, a two-mile-per-hour pace. I can live with that.

Mountain Farm Museum at the start of the Oconaluftee River Trail. Historic structures were brought here in the 1950s from various locales in the park. The house belonged to the John Davis family in Deep Creek.

Mountain Farm Museum at the start of the Oconaluftee River Trail. Historic structures were brought here in the 1950s from various locales in the park. The house belonged to the John Davis family in Deep Creek.

I’m back in the Smokies for a quick visit. The impetus for this trip, a Saturday bushwhack into Raven Fork watershed with Ken McFarland, had to be cancelled at the last minute, but I elect to come anyway and hike the trails I’d planned for Sunday and Monday. The weather forecast for those days is simply too perfect to pass up. Rain Friday and Saturday morning is moving out, leaving clear blue skies and cool breezes. I will stay at Smokemont campground Saturday evening and arrive late afternoon with the intent to check 1.5-mile Oconaluftee River Trail off my list.

Oconaluftee River Trail's smooth surface

Oconaluftee River Trail’s smooth surface

The trailhead is located behind Oconaluftee Visitor Center at the Mountain Farm Museum, and the sign clearly directs trail hikers to the right and farm visitors to the left. In my haste, I ignore this and walk to the farm entrance. From there, several root-filled dirt paths braid along the river, and though surprised to find such a rough, confusing surface, I gamely strike out thinking I’m on trail. However, it doesn’t make sense, and being a somewhat intelligent person, it doesn’t take long for me to realize the error and join the real path farther up the bank. From the true beginning, the trail loops around the outer fence of the farm museum then turns southeast beside the river on a wide, silky smooth, packed gravel route to the park boundary and town limits of Cherokee, NC.

Hornbeam fruits

Hornbeam fruits

The river is never far away, though not always in sight, and neither are roads. Sandwiched between Highway 441 and Big Cove Road (NC 1410), the trail dips under the Blue Ridge Parkway and crosses Saunooke Bridge Road near Cherokee.  Road noise is inescapable, but absent after-market motorcycles, it isn’t intrusive either. The path is perfect for families or people of limited mobility, as the surface easily accommodates wheels of chairs, walkers, or strollers, and there are benches.

Just as the farm museum exemplifies the lifestyle of European settlers in the Appalachians, interpretive signs on the trail relate Cherokee legends of Rattlesnake Mountain, rivers, the origin of the mountains, trees, and water to illustrate the spiritual relationship the Eastern Band of Cherokee have with this land. Signs are written in both English and Cherokee languages. The word Oconaluftee is an English corruption of the Cherokee Egwanulti, “By-the-river Towns,” applied to the native villages that were once found along the river.

Hairy Woodmint

Hairy Woodmint

After the Oconaluftee River passes Smokemont, its floodplain widens, and at the confluence with Raven Fork becomes an open valley near the visitor center and Mountain Farm Museum. The river trail meanders that floodplain and features plants quite at home in these moist lowlands. Sycamores line the river, their white upper trunks glowing through late May’s flush of green. Hornbeams (Carpinus caroliniana) dangle racemes of winged fruit resembling little Chinese pagodas.

Hearts-a-bustin' flowers

Hearts-a-bustin’ flowers

Sprays of tiny fruit clusters hide beneath thick tufts of compound foliage on knee-high patches of Yellowroot (Xanthorhiza simplicissima). Elderberry, Wild Hydrangea, and Hearts-a-bustin’ shrubs are in flower or preparing to.  Herbaceous lovelies Cream Violet, Spiderwort, Woodland Bluets, and Hairy Woodmint join them, while Cutleaf Coneflower, Bee Balm, and Jewelweed bide their time until summer. Robust populations of Sensitive Fern (Onoclea sensibilis), a scarce species in the park, are found on the river trail. Only sterile fronds are present. Leaflets of the fertile fronds roll into tiny tight balls enclosing spore-producing structures. These fronds look like linear clusters of beads, accounting for its other common name, Bead Fern.

Sensitive Fern

Sensitive Fern

Disturbed areas in the park are often havens for a native plant no one likes, Poison Ivy. Rhus toxicodendron loves the river trail, growing lush and large up trees and on the ground. Unfortunately, no disturbed area is complete without a few invasive species. Multiflora Rose, Vinca, Japanese Stiltgrass, Japanese Honeysuckle Vine fit that bill, though native Jewelweed and violets are putting up a good fight.

A crow flailing in the water’s edge catches my attention. It’s dragging what appears to be a dead fish onto the rocky shore for an evening meal. On my way back, it has attracted a few friends looking to score a dinner invitation. Oconoluftee River Trail is one of only two official trails in the park that allow dogs. One owner has taken the trouble to bag his pet’s waste then left it sitting trailside. Unintentional? Deliberate? What a sad commentary that it could be the latter.

Cherokee, NC, town limits

Cherokee, NC, town limits

Just past the Saunooke Bridge Road crossing, the trail ends at the park boundary as shady forest gives way to sunny landscaping and asphalt in Cherokee, NC.

 

The open valley at Oconoluftee with Rattlesnake Mountain in the background

The open valley at Oconoluftee with Rattlesnake Mountain in the background

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