I awake this morning to find a young couple in a campsite across from me, having arrived last night. Everything else looks abandoned, wet, and forlorn under gray clouds. I’ve planned an easy seven-mile day and don’t bother fixing lunch. Snacks will suffice. Evidenced by my stroll through the campground to reach the Juney Whank Falls trailhead, Monday is not a big camping day even in summer. Many tent sites along the river are empty too. Crossing the Deep Creek bridge, I am struck by the image of two children staring over the railing at the swift but shallow water. This sight is a welcome relief from the tubing fixation on display all weekend.
Today I’m piecing together three small trails near the campground. The Juney Whank Falls Trail is just 0.3 of a mile, beginning at the campground’s parking lot and joining Deep Creek Horse Trail after 0.1 mile. Overall the elevation gain is about 150 feet before the trail shoots down in steps to the falls. As waterfalls go, Juney Whank sounds impressive on paper (125 foot run, 80-foot cascading drop), but in reality it’s a bit weak compared to others in the park. Nonetheless, it is still an attractive natural feature, and its location and ease of access are major pluses. The park has built a sturdy wooden bridge across Juney Whank Branch affording a safe and close view.
An approach from Deep Creek Trail is also 0.3 mile to create a loop. Cut into a rhododendron-encased slope, it climbs steeply for 0.2 mile on an elevated, packed gravel path between earthen walls that often rise well above head level. The path is positioned to one side allowing drainage down a wide channel. This end of the falls loop also joins the Horse Trail for a few yards before making a 0.1 mile descent to the opposite side of the falls and bridge. I make sure to hike it all, even though the loop section is not noted on maps or in the trails book.
Deep Creek Horse Trail is two miles long, beginning at Noland Divide Trail just a tenth mile from the horse trailer parking area and ending 0.8 mile into Deep Creek Trail. Hikers and horses can use the horse trail and Juney Whank to avoid the tube-toting tourists on this lower end of Deep Creek. The Horse Trail parallels Deep Creek Trail to the west with a low ridge in between. This ridge effectively shuts out the noise of both creek and tourists to provide a peaceful and near private amble, at least on a weekday. A tiny stream trickles through the valley offering a soft, zen-like sound of water to compliment the quiet forest atmosphere.
The first half of the trail climbs 0.8 mile to the Juney Whank junction, becoming a joint trail for another 0.2 mile to the falls’ stepped descent. The Horse Trail continues for another mile, circling above the falls to cross Juney Whank Branch. Curving sharply through this cove, the trail scales the hillside. A bypass spur just before the branch crossing provides hikers a way to avoid fording the stream and catch the trail further up slope. I loop around to cover both options and find the branch easy to cross safely despite last night’s rain.
On the horse parking end, the trail is infested with exotic invasive plant species including many scattered sprouts of Chinese Privet and patches of Japanese Stiltgrass. Some cool natives are here too. Past the falls I find bright blossoms of Rose Pink (Sabatia angularis) and yellow X-shaped flowers of Reclining St. Andrews Cross (Hypericum hypericoides ssp. multicaule). An Ambush Bug (Phymata sp.), looking like a tiny armored tank, fixes its red eye on me from its perch on Thin-leaf Mountain Mint.
At some point on this trail, an obvious path strikes off into the woods. The only signage is a small “No Horses” notice on a post, and I wonder what this might lead to — an old homesite or a cemetery. Since there is no written account of this trail in the Little Brown Book, I have no clue.
The Horse Trail crosses a connecting ridge and descends toward Deep Creek Trail. On my way down, I meet a personable couple, two of the handful of people I see all day, Richard and Barbara Bryson (no relation to the city), and we chat a bit. They live in the area during the summer months and hike here frequently. Richard has visited my hometown, Nashville.
I join Deep Creek Trail and hike nearly a mile further to the Loop Trail. Along the way are sunny stands of Flowering Spurge (Euphorbia corollata). One cluster is hosting a shiny black Thread-waisted Wasp (Eremnophila aureonotata). A clump of Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta) provides the setting for some highly entertaining insect drama. There is what I believe to be a species of Running Crab Spider elegantly splayed on the rays of one flower. Just as I am about to photograph it, a fly buzzes it, and it dives beneath the petals. With my trekking pole, I manage to prod it back to the top, but it is skittish. On a nearby flower, I spy another Ambush Bug and on closer examination discover it to be two Ambush Bugs in an amorous embrace. I take their picture.
Returning to the spider, it has resumed that characteristic pose with each pair of front legs pulled together. So I take its picture. Small flies keep buzzing this spider, bumping into its back legs. It just shrugs them off like irritants, apparently not at all interested in having one for lunch. Not so with the Ambush Bugs. Back at their flower a fly is crawling around behind them. This couple has not so much as twitched the entire time I’ve been observing them. The hapless fly moves up beside them and crosses in front of the female. In a split second, she’s got that fly in her oversized front legs and begins to feast. The male still has not budged. In identifying the Ambush Bug, I had to laugh at all the photos of mating pairs on BugGuide.net.
There is a wooden bridge just before the junction with Loop Trail. To the left is a small path leading into the woods with a “No Horses” sign on a post. I bet this is the same path I saw on the Horse Trail, serving as a manway for folks coming off the Loop Trail to return to the campground and bypass Deep Creek altogether. I don’t have time to confirm this supposition, but I plan to next time I’m here.
In elevational profile, Loop Trail makes a wide inverted V, rising and descending 500 feet in 1.2 miles. It crests on Sunkota Ridge at a junction with the southern end of Sunkota Ridge Trail. Bear’s Foot or Yellow Leafcup (Smallanthus uvedalius) is in flower with small but showy composite blossoms on rather large plants with coarsely lobed and toothed leaves. Starry Campion (Silene stellata) is flowering too. A few tiny springs crossing the trail do little to combat the overall drier nature of this western aspect. White Pine, Red Maple, Hophornbeam, and Mountain Laurel appear as the trail ascends.
After cresting Sunkota Ridge, the forest’s personality changes completely on this east-facing slope. Mountain Laurel disappears immediately, and the flora is much richer and more diverse all the way down. There can be no appreciable difference in the amount of rainfall each side receives. The change in slope aspect is the main variable. It is eye-opening to see the community implications so clearly demonstrated.
I consciously decided to forego packing lunch, but I unconsciously forgot to pack my snack bag too. Overcast skies gave up long ago, and the midday is sunny and warm with big white clouds slowly building. I’ve had a blast hiking leisurely, stopping for long periods to watch insects, photograph, and note the flora without worrying about the patience of companions. It’s hunger that drives me on now. I’m ready to eat and return to the campsite for lunch.
After eating and freshening up, I pull out a camp chair to relax, read, and write in my journal. I’ve barely settled in before the darkening skies, blustery winds, and echoing thunder alter my plans. Darn it. Gear goes in the car, and I go in the tent at 3:15 to ride out the storm. I give up trying to read and take a short nap instead. Leaves from sheltering trees paste themselves to the rainfly like ornamental decals. It rains again lightly after dinner. An older couple arrive and park their camper next to the younger couple. All is quiet except for the night-crooning insects.