Yay! Back in the mountains again and tackling trails in North Carolina. I’m staying in Deep Creek Campground for five nights. Mary is joining me for the first two. I drive through the park on Friday in a dark rain, stopping briefly at Sugarlands to pick up my 500-mile “Hiking the Smokies” pin. Mary has chosen a good campsite, and I arrive late afternoon just as the rain is tapering off. My tent goes up, our day packs are prepared for tomorrow, and dinner is served. Since it is the weekend, the campground, though not full, is quite busy, particularly the stretch of tent sites along the river. The excitement bubbles over in squealing children, laughing adults, and barking dogs, a buzz of summer sounds echoing among the trees along with cicadas and katydids.
Today we are hiking Deep Creek Trail 14.2 miles from its start on Hwy. 441 to the campground’s parking lot. We rise at daylight, eat breakfast, and are on our way before anyone else is stirring. The early morning drive is quite pleasant. Not too far past Oconoluftee Visitors Center, grassy areas open on either side of the road. A huge Elk bull with a magnificent set of antlers is grazing on the left and slowly works his way across the highway and into the woods on the right. A few of these reintroduced animals have made their way here from Cataloochee. At this hour, his presence creates no frenzied traffic jam. However, a few lucky travelers, including Mary and me, enjoy his majesty for several serene moments.
Deep Creek’s trailhead is little more than a sign and a small pull-off for two cars about 1.7 miles down from Newfound Gap. Rather than leave a car in this vulnerable spot, we drive back down 441 a few hundred feet to a larger, protected parking area. It is refreshingly cool with a mix of sun and clouds as we begin at 8:20.
Quickly absorbed in a moist, shaded forest, the trail descends steadily at the start. The dark, silent atmosphere amid Hemlock and Red Spruce helps me shake off two months of bright, noisy city life and breathe free again. All my old friends are there to welcome me — Partridgeberry, Pipsissewa, Rosebay Rhododendron (a few still in flower), Indian Cucumber Root, Red Oak, and Southern Lady Fern. Midsummer flowers of an early Goldenrod, Whorled Aster, Sweet Joe Pye-weed, Tall Bellflower, and Rugel’s Ragwort offer greetings. We cross several rain-charged rills engulfed in a flowery profusion of Cutleaf Coneflower, Bee Balm, and Spotted Jewelweed, all reaching out for a handshake.
These rills flow into a feeder branch of Deep Creek that slices through a narrow slot between two steep ridges. We can hear the happy splash and dance of the water tumbling its way down the mountain, but it is shielded from view by the dense, colorful veil of flowering plants. It is cool and humid in this sheltered cove. The trail traces a thin path along the ridge’s flank. Grassy clumps and some roots make footing uneven on occasion, and a few long wands of brambles present feeble blockades, but it is not difficult walking. In fact, it has been very enjoyable thus far. A rock hop puts the stream to our right where it remains hidden behind a thick screen of Rhododendron and Doghobble.
Filmy Angelica or Mountain Angelica (Angelica triquinata) is unfolding its large clusters of tiny white flowers held aloft on thick, smooth, red-striped stems. Large papery sheaths protect emerging compound foliage and flowers. These sheaths virtually replace upper leaves. Flowers are gathered in small umbels that are similarly gathered in a big umbel.
We stop briefly for a break and snack. About 11:00, we arrive at the Fork Ridge Trail junction and Campsite #53, the first of eight sites along Deep Creek. A young camper is cooking his midday meal over the fire. Just before mile five, we come to the first of four unbridged stream crossings. The water flow is too high to rock hop safely and stay dry, so we change into our water shoes and hike the next 4.5 miles sans socks and boots.
At this point, the trail’s character and good graces shift toward a more confrontational stance. Plants growing across the path push back with greater resistance. Some sections are narrow and difficult to negotiate. Several times the trail merges with the bouldered edge of Deep Creek and disappears so completely into a lengthy stretch of big, jumbled rocks (often wet and mossy), it is hard to see where the actual beaten footpath resumes. This slows us down considerably, and we are grateful for the relatively smooth and level sections that allow us to make up some time.
Species of puffball mushrooms are everywhere. Some are fresh and have not yet split open to spill spores. Others show their age and contents, sending a poof of smoky spores sailing up in the air when tapped. Other species of fungi are fruiting too, most unknown. Their photos are taken, but identification later is very much a hit or miss thing. One hit is the ultra-cool Jelly Tooth, Jelly Hedgehog, or Jelly Tongue, (Pseudohydnum gelatinosum), the latter common name by far the more accurately descriptive. Jelly Tongue has jellylike whitish, grayish, tannish, translucent flesh and is the only such gelatinous fungi with tiny, pendulous spines on the underside. It occurs on rotting conifer wood. Another fairly certain hit is Strangulated Amanita (Amanita ceciliae), a neutral-toned, patched mushroom that failed to inspire a decent common name.
Near the creek, a Mountain Sweet Pepperbush’s flowers are nearly spent. Mary sees a bird’s nest decorated with mosses wedged just overhead in the limbs of a Rhododendron. We find several patches of Fraser’s Sedge and an extensive section of Walking Fern lining the trail for several yards. A small gray snake slithers off the trail before I can snap its picture. It might be an Eastern Smooth Earthsnake. Aphids are attracted to a fresh Cranefly Orchid.
Campsite #55, our planned lunch stop, is occupied by a large party of campers with horses. Their tents are big enough to house a small circus. We continue past the Pole Creek Road trail junction to empty Campsite #56 and have lunch on a convenient bench at the fire ring before heading to our final stream crossing near the junction with Martin’s Gap Trail. Campsite #57 is at this junction, and somewhere here is a millstone placed by a local Boy Scout troop in 1931 to commemorate this location as the last permanent camp of Horace Kephart. Mary and I scour the campsite and find nothing. I learn later that it is just past the trail junction, hidden off trail in overgrowth. Winter would be a better time to locate it.
With no further stream crossings indicated on the Little Brown Book’s profile, Mary and I put on our socks and boots for the final six miles, so naturally, we come to a stream that normally would be a simple rock hop but today is rushing furiously with turbid runoff. There is no sure dry way across, and we remove boots and plunge in barefoot. It begins to rain; we pause to put on pack covers. My enjoyment of Deep Creek Trail is fading fast.
Perception is an odd thing. It can work for us or against us. If something is much easier than perceived, I’m strong and life’s good. If it winds up being harder, the unpleasant jolt of reality often proves a tough mental adjustment. My perception of Deep Creek Trail before the hike focuses solely on the gentle descent, dismissing the two short, slight upticks three miles from the campground. The reality makes these two short climbs seem ridiculously steep and interminable. Add the rain, toes smarting from too much walking in water shoes, and a knee that is loudly protesting its sudden thrust into mountainous terrain for 12 miles with two more to go, and I’m one unhappy hiker.
We finally hit the roadbed followed by the Loop Trail junction. When we reach the Indian Creek Trail junction, our reentry into the more ‘public’ section of the park is immediate and quite jarring. Here we are, two fully outfitted hikers, working our way through a disturbing variety of half-naked people plodding up trail with enormous, candy-colored inner tubes propped on their heads like oversized sombreros. We are two small goldfish attempting to swim upstream through oncoming waves of Largemouth Bass. Welcome to a summer Saturday on Deep Creek.
In their defense, it does look like these folks are having a blast once they start down river, butts wedged in the tube, arms and legs splayed over the edges. For the remainder of my stay, I will have daily opportunities to contemplate this phenomenon. Do they ever venture beyond this packed, 0.7-mile roadbed to the tubing launch? Do they notice anything along this trail section beyond the fluorescent ring of inflated rubber crowning their heads? Might the wild ride downstream help the children love the wild river and want to protect it and the park land that gives it birth? I can only hope so.
The end of the trail is wedged between two short, but steep hillsides. A quarter mile from the end is Tom Branch Falls, a crooked, cascade twisting its way into Deep Creek on the opposite side. An angler tries his luck in the middle of the creek. The other side of the trail is a wall of sheer rock sprigged with plants and festooned with fancy tapestries woven by Lampshade Spiders (Hypochilus sp.). These conical webs are fastened beneath shallow rock overhangs.
Mary and I limp into camp late afternoon, tired and hungry, facing the long drive up & down Hwy. 441 to retrieve her car. We are both ready for bed when the sun sets, but weekend campers are still wired and rocking. Things don’t settle completely until 11 p.m.