An 11.3-mile hike is planned today, and I rise early with help from my alarm clock. Each morning at 6:00 a.m. a Screech Owl has played rooster and roused me from sleep with its high, thin, descending whinny. It’s off in the distance, but at this time of morning, there are few competing sounds, and it serves as an effective wake-up call.
My site’s tent pad is nestled in a copse of trees — three or four Tulip Poplars, a Hemlock, three Red Maples, an American Holly, and a phalanx of small hornbeams lining the path to the nearby restroom. It’s a lovely and convenient spot. The only drawback has been the daily rain showers. I forgot the poles for my tarp, so the picnic table has been wet the majority of my stay. A large trash bag serves as a table cloth to keep cooking gear and other items dry.
Yesterday, I organized everything for an efficient start this morning and head out for the day at 7:16 a.m. A few old men are sitting around one tent site below and a roaring fire is chasing the damp from another, but everyone else is still snoozing. The hike will take me all the way up Indian Creek Trail to its terminus with Martin’s Gap, return to the Deeplow Gap junction to access Indian Creek Motor Trail, then follow Thomas Divide to Stone Pile Gap Trail and hook back into the lower half mile of Indian Creek and my final walk out Deep Creek. At the start, a single jogger, two women walking and chatting, and a park service employee are the only humans in my line of sight, and I see no one else until I’m finishing on Indian Creek Trail this afternoon. Perfection!
Indian Creek Trail is a wide, smoothly graveled, gently graded road for the majority of its 3.6 mile length, trending up about 800 feet in elevation beside its namesake water course. The road crisscrosses the creek on well-constructed wooden bridges suitable for vehicles. Because of its width, it is very easy to get caught up in your stride and forget there are other things to see. Hikers can get as close to or far from roadside plants as desired, and many of these plants are more weeds than wildflowers, with little of interest to attract notice anyway.
For these reasons, I find trails like Indian Creek rather tedious. They are more walking than hiking trails. They are great, however, when you just want to get from one spot to another as quickly and simply as possible. You can make fantastic time on a trail like Indian Creek. I cover 5 miles in an hour and 55 minutes.
A few summer flowering plants are displaying color. Great Blue Lobelia, Cardinal Flower, Jumpseed, Indian Tobacco, Flowering Spurge, and Naked-flower Tick-trefoil attempt to brighten the gray morning with blues, reds, whites, and pinks. The yellow rays of Purple-disk Sunflower (Helianthus atrorubens) are just days away from joining the party.
At the Deeplow Gap junction, there is a turnaround and park service vehicles can go no further. The driver of a NPS truck parked here shoulders a backpack the rest of the way. I follow behind, but he soon outdistances me. The trail narrows and becomes somewhat rougher and rockier. In particular, the bridges are too narrow to accommodate wheeled traffic. Near the end, prior to Campsite #46, the trail gets a bit steeper. Past the campsite, Indian Creek Trail changes names and becomes Martins Gap Trail, climbing over Sunkota Ridge to Deep Creek Trail. I return to the Deeplow Gap junction.
Four-tenths of a mile up Deeplow Gap is the start of Indian Creek Motor Trail. This, too, is an old roadbed, a planned but abandoned scenic road for cars. It’s not as generously wide as Indian Creek and is definitely steeper — 900 feet in 1.8 miles (2,600 to 3,500 feet). A few places are rocky or miry, but these spots are short and easily navigable.
IC Motor Trail snakes up Thomas Ridge weaving into moist, narrow coves then out around drier finger ridges. This section of Thomas Ridge drains into Indian Creek, and several small springs cross the Motor Trail. One tiny spring slips water down a short run of mossy rock to pool in a small basin before trickling across the trail and heading toward its destiny. Umbrella Leaf, Brook Meadow Rue, Wood Nettle, and Foamflower are happy here as is Japanese Stiltgrass. Incensed at the invasion of this noxious weed, I start pulling tufts of it. It is soon clear that to finish the job would take all day, so I content myself with the population dent made and move on. Elsewhere, Southern Harebell is in flower, and Running Clubmoss sends long arms trailing over the ground.
At one point, I am certain I’ve reached the top when the trail levels some and sky is visible all along the approaching ridge line. It is a ‘false’ ridge though, and the trail continues upward for nearly a half mile more. Immediately before the junction is a long stretch of Running Ground Cedar carpeting both sides of the trail.
Indian Creek Motor Trail simply merges into the Thomas Divide Trail which continues from this juncture as the old scenic roadway. Thomas Divide has been following the ridge and T’s into this junction making a 90 degree turn left onto the road. A couple of steps up Thomas Divide is a small log perched on two others for an ideal lunch spot. It is 10:25, and I am ready to eat.
Clouds have ruled the morning, fending off the sun’s attempts to drive them back. Low clouds filter through the trees on a faint breeze. Any more wind and I’d be chilled due to sweat. While eating I notice a curious contraption, a stick sculpture, in the ground a few feet away.
A thin stick about 15 to 18 inches tall appears to be stuck in the ground. It forks a few inches from the top, and these stubs are frayed and bent toward each other creating a loop. Threaded through the loop is a thicker stick about 15 inches long, whittled to a point on one end. It dangles downward. The looping stubs are rigid and grasp the larger stick firmly. I don’t poke at it too much for fear of knocking it over (though it sure seems sturdy enough), and I have no idea what it signifies (if anything) and why someone would put it here.
At 10:54, I resume hiking and head down the roadway on Thomas Divide for two miles. Again, the road is relatively smooth walking. A few spots are deeply rutted from erosion, but the trail is wide enough to work around them with ease. In 40 minutes I’m turning onto Stone Pile Gap. This little trail is 0.9 mile long and descends 500 feet. It is the steepest trail I’ve faced, and I’m glad to be going down. It would get hearts and sweat glands pumping in the opposite direction.
All the other trails today have been wide old roads capable of accommodating at least two people walking abreast. Stone Pile Gap is a true, single-file hiking trail. Roots demand a watchful eye, and some sections drop off steeply to one side. Other than this, it is a lovely little trail meandering between rich, wildflower-filled coves and drier ridges. The trail mingles with a small stream for a short stretch and near the bottom features a ‘bridge’ of round log steps to cross a low wet area. I haven’t seen many fungi today, but Stone Pile Gap has a clump of White Coral on the ground and White Marasmius (Marasmiellus albuscorticis), snow white and finely crinkled, growing on a small limb. A light rain begins to fall and persists enough to warrant use of the pack cover and umbrella.
Back on Indian Creek Trail, I see two men walking — the first since early this morning. It is 0.5 mile to the Deep Creek junction. I find a specimen of Purple-disk Sunflower demonstrating inspirational determination. Its stem was nearly severed by some grievous injury leaving about a quarter of the tissue intact. The weight of the upper portion was so great, it hung nearly straight down. Its nature, however, is to grow upright, and the lengthening tip turned skyward developing more foliage and at least 18 flower buds ready to open and do what Purple-disk Sunflowers are programmed to do — attract pollinators, set seed, and perpetuate the species. I am awed.
At the final bridge crossing on Indian Creek, the water’s noise level rises significantly indicating a rapidly dropping stream. Steps of rock presage Indian Creek Falls, a wide, fast, and voluminous water slide running 45 feet in length. I wonder if anyone has broken the rules to tube down this cascade? If so, it is likely a few other things were broken in the process.
The tubing action on Deep Creek is a bit higher than yesterday. Two large groups of teenagers are having fun without being obnoxious. How refreshing. One group floats the creek together, arms crossed holding the handles of each other’s tubes. Sometimes they curl into a cluster, other times they stretch into a twisting strand. Right now they are beached against some rocks, laughing at their ineffectual attempts to dislodge.
I’m back in camp at 1:15, completing 11.3 miles in six hours. I’ll take it. Tonight is my last night at Deep Creek. I bathe, air my tent, organize my gear, and prepare my big backpack for the second part of this trip — a four-day, three-night hike on Lakeshore Trail. I have to work fast. Dark clouds signal another storm, and at 3:15 I’m hunkered in my tent, tasks complete. Today’s rain isn’t as hard and doesn’t last as long.
I am now all alone on my stretch of the campground. The young couple was gone when I got up this morning. They apparently left after dark last night perhaps weary of the rain. The older couple has moved on too. It will definitely be quiet tonight.