A Labor Day weekend Fern Foray at Purchase Knob means we’ve got Sunday for another outing. The weather, however, is not cooperating. Hurricane Lee has drenched Louisiana and is heading straight for the Smokies. Periods of light rain are forecast for today, and Monday is predicted to be a washout. With this in mind, Flat Creek Trail on Balsam Mountain seems the best choice. It is short, not too far away, and on my to-do list. Mary, Clark, Clarence, and I are joined by Frondlers Annette and Rebecca.
The 2.6 mile trail begins at the Heintooga Picnic Area and travels along ridge lines and through creek valleys to its terminus at Heintooga Ridge Road. The Civilian Conservation Corp built this trail. An old stone water fountain that could easily date from that era sits just below the picnic grounds and across from a what would be an impressive vista of the Smokies on a clear day. The sunshine of early morning is already fading as Lee’s moisture moves in, and the view of Mount Guyot is mostly obscured in water vapor.
Flat Creek is a very pleasant stroll through northern hardwoods, rising just above and dipping just below 5,000 feet. Large stands of American Beech plus Yellow Birch, Red Spruce, Striped Maple, Eastern Hemlock, and Witch Hobble value the cooler temperatures at this elevation. We see Cinnamon Fern, Fly Poison in colorful orange fruit, High Meadow Sedge, Beech Drops, Lovage, Golden Saxifrage, and Bee Balm with a few flowers still hanging on. Lining the trail are darker green grasses and sedges mixed with lighter yellow-green New York Ferns.
A solitary, pollinated Indian Pipe has turned its flower upward in preparation for setting seed. Clumps of bluish-gray feathers scattered on the ground imply disaster for a poor Junco. Near the creek is the large mud hill of a crayfish.
The park is a virtual laboratory for scientific research. We spot several large traps hanging high in the trees and debate their purpose without conclusion. Somewhere on Flat Creek is a spur trail to a waterfall, and we debate whether a small path we find to the right could be it. The decision is no, and we continue down the trail. The reality is yes, and we miss the waterfall. Perhaps it is best. The guidebook warns the spur trail is steep and rocky and the view of the waterfall is limited. If the view was limited when the guidebook was written, it is likely to be totally obscured by now.
Most of the way the trail gently follows Flat Creek downstream. The greatest amount of elevation change comes in the trail’s final three-quarters of a mile. It descends into the valley cut by Bunches Creek, and the climb out is terraced with steps. Cloud cover has been thickening all morning, and a few drops of rain greet us at Heintooga Ridge Road.