Mary and I get another early start today, driving past zipped tents and locked cars with not a single person in sight. On our drive yesterday, I noticed the Cooper Creek Road sign on Highway 19, so we know exactly where to go, and it isn’t far — just past a small gray church with stained glass windows that sits right on the highway. The road is narrow, winding past neat homes through quiet woods and terminates at the gated entrance to Cooper Creek Trout Pond.
The gate is closed and a sign says the farm will open at 9 a.m., more than an hour from now. Expecting “driveways” as noted in the Hiking Trails of the Smokies book, I am rather confused by this large, lone establishment at the end of the road and get out to look for the trail sign. I see nothing. Mary notices a young man well past the gate carrying a fishing pole. I wave and run toward him. His large, white dog, who has quite a bit of German Shepard in the woodpile, is running toward me.
The man immediately knows why we are there. The start of Cooper Creek Trail is on the back side of the farm, a large and lovely piece of property nestled against the park boundary. He opens the gate, asks if we would please sign a logbook in case someone comes looking for us, points us in the right direction, and tells us to park just past the red brick barn being torn down. I guess he wasn’t aware all the red bricks have been removed, so I continue past a gray block foundation looking for those red bricks, driving up a steep, deeply rutted, rocky road for which my Camry is poorly suited. Around a curve is the trail sign. We’ve been driving on the trail! There is enough room to turn around (backing down that road would be quite interesting) and return to the gray foundation of what I now know to have been the red brick barn.
For most of its 0.6 mile, Cooper Creek Trail follows that old roadbed with Cooper Creek slipping by on the right and sometimes spilling onto and washing a thin sheet of water over the entire road. Other sections are sloppy with mud. The opposite side of the creek is private property. The trail rises gently about 150 feet in elevation from 2550 feet. The cloudy morning imparts a dark gloom in this young forest of Tulip Poplars and Yellow Birch. Few things are in flower, but the moist, protected understory is fairly rich. Spring could be quite lively on Cooper Creek. The trail leaves the road, which turns away to the right, and soon crosses Little Creek on a footlog hidden to the left. Past the crossing, Cooper Creek joins Deeplow Gap Trail in a wide junction.
From this point, Deeplow Gap turns right 2.4 miles up to Mingus Creek Trail and left 3.7 miles over Thomas Ridge to Indian Creek Trail. To cover the trail, we must hike at least one of these sections twice and opt to turn right for the more moderate 900-foot climb, tracing a path along Cooper Creek for most of the journey. Like short Cooper Creek Trail, this part of Deeplow Gap Trail can’t decide if it wants to be a walking path or a stream course, so it does both. Water often runs down the trail. Right from the start the atmosphere is dark and moist, a closed-in feeling among old mossy logs.
In my voice recorder I say, “Might be some cool fungi on this trail.” If only I could make as accurate predictions with a stock portfolio! Holy moly! Mushrooms are everywhere — all sizes, shapes, colors, conditions, types — a smorgasbord of fungi. There’s even a mushroom covered in the white strands of another fungus! My camera and my knees get a workout from one end of Deeplow Gap to the other.
Four particularly interesting species are American Caesar’s Mushroom, Indigo Milky, Destroying Angel, and Hot Lips. I want to start with Hot Lips!! Ever since I learned of this incredible mushroom, I have longed to see one in person and get my own photograph. Hot Lips (Calostoma cinnabarina) is a stalked puffball with an amazing physical makeup. When it emerges from the ground, the spherical fruiting body is covered in a thick, transparent gelatinous coating. Beneath this is a thin wrap of red, cartilaginous tissue. Upon maturity, these two layers break up and peel away littering the ground with globules around the mushroom. This distinctive characteristic is noted in another common name, Puffball-in-aspic. The puffball’s spore case starts out quite red from residue of the inner covering, but this coloration soon fades to buff or yellow except for the thickened, bright red “lips” surrounding the suture-like opening on top. The stalk, netted and spongy, may or may not rise above the ground and has a gelatinous coating, too. You don’t have to know squat about fungi to recognize Hot Lips!
You better know quite a bit more than squat about fungi if you like to eat wild mushrooms. The icy white coolness of Destroying Angel or Death Angel (Amanita virosa or A. bisporigera) hides dangerous toxins that account for most fatal mushroom poisonings. A skirt-like ring of tissue on the stalk and bulbous base in a sac are signs to give this frigid beauty wide berth. It is mycorrhizal, growing in a mutually beneficial relationship with tree roots.
Indigo Milky (Lactarius indigo) is just pretty. This gilled mushroom produces a deep indigo latex sap when cut. The cap, usually depressed in the center, is colored a rich blue often zoned light and dark. It seems partial to oak/pine woods.
Another brilliant and easily recognized fungi is American Caesar’s (Amanita jacksonii). The bright red cap with a small bump in the center fades in color near the edge but makes up for it with distinct striations radiating outward. The stalk is blotchy orange with a skirt. American Caesar’s Mushroom is mycorrhizal too.
Older accounts of this trail warn of unbridged crossings of Cooper Creek. Mary and I bring our water shoes in preparation, but they are not needed. All of these crossings now have sturdy footlogs for easy passage. The bright white berries of Doll’s Eyes are eye-catching on fiery red stems. As we climb higher, the forest lightens and opens up. There are a few trees blown down that we must work around or waddle under. The trail deviates from Cooper Creek on occasion, but it is never far away until the final half mile or so. At this point, the trail makes a sharp switchback to the right and climbs the ridge to Mingus Creek Trail. The noise of the creek fades completely leaving only the sounds of my breathing, the swishing of pants legs, and the tapping of my little compass and whistle on my backpack strap.
This part of the trail is drier. Mountain Laurel lines both sides with Trailing Arbutus on the mossy bank. There is a Chestnut sprout, and Pignut Hickory fruits dot the ground. We pull into the Mingus Creek junction at 10:00 and eat a snack before heading back down. Walking back through the wet, mucky areas, I make the observation that Golden Saxifrage would be happy in this environment and look down to find a carpet of it underfoot.
At 11:30, we are back at the Cooper Creek junction and ready to climb 1.5 miles to the Thomas Divide Trail on Thomas Ridge at Deeplow Gap. Now we are walking beside Little Creek which cuts a deep notch in wrinkled terrain on the east side of Thomas Ridge. This cove is rich with herbaceous plants highlighted by curving sprays of Maidenhair Fern. Twisted lengths of mature Dutchman’s Pipevine spill into the trail, apparently fallen from a tree.
The dazzling white locks of a very fuzzy caterpillar catch my eye. It is sitting perfectly still on a small stick near the ground. I can find no exact match in David Wagner’s Caterpillars of Eastern North America, but it may be an early instar of the exceptionally woolly Black-waved Flannel caterpillar (Megalopyge crispata), a Flannel Moth. I have two reservations about this ID. First, most photos of these instars show a wildly spreading, somewhat sparse hairdo, and my guy is fairly well coifed with a thick mane. Second, my guy appears to have three, straight, stiff tufts of hair not characteristic of these instars. Maybe he went a little heavy on the styling gel this morning.
Little Creek Falls, a hidden gem, suddenly appears. The cascade of water splinters over a steeply sloped face of Thunderhead Sandstone spreading broadly at the base. The trail’s footbridge spans the creek just feet from the cascade, affording an up-close and personal view. A switchback just past the falls takes hikers up the cascade’s right side providing glimpses of the stepped upper reaches of sandstone ledges for its entire 95-foot run.
Mary and I eat lunch on Thomas Ridge where the Thomas Divide Trail dips into Deep Gap, also known as Low Gap. Rather than choose between them, the competing monikers were joined to name the gap and the trail crossing at this juncture. Mosquitos are buzzing and biting up here, so we finish quickly and head down the final 2.1 miles of Deeplow Gap Trail. The sun comes out casting harsh light and warming the afternoon.
We coast into the Indian Creek Trail junction at 2:00 p.m. and turn down the smooth, easy grade of that trail with 3.6 miles to go. I scare up swirling blue clouds of Spring Azure butterflies feasting on horse poop. Sneaking up on one pile, I observe them probing for salts in the fresh manure. A blue flower is splayed across the middle, mired in the damp doo. Then I notice the flower is moving.
Somehow, one of the butterflies got itself stuck on its back, the topsides of all four wings plastered on the poop, its body struggling mightily to pull away. I carefully pry its delicate wings loose, and the little guy pops right up, none the worse, and begins to sip those salts. Thinking myself due a small thank you, I gently pick it up for a closer examination, confirming its identity and getting a fierce stare from its keen black eye in the process.
Merging onto Deep Creek Trail for the 0.7-mile, tube-a-thon stretch, we crest wave after wave of colorful inner tubes undulating up the trail like low-flying Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade balloons. It’s quite surreal.
We hit the campsite at 3:30, and I help Mary take down her tent and load her car. She must go to work tomorrow. On her way home, she drops me at my car at the trout farm. Looking around the campground, many people must have work tomorrow. All that were here Friday and Saturday are gone. I freshen up, prepare dinner, and get my gear stowed, finishing just before a storm hits at 6:30. Zipped dry in my tent, I read, write in my journal, and firm my solo hiking plans for the next two days. It rains hard for a good hour or more and continues to rain until nearly 10 p.m.