Up early this morning, I strike camp and move from Smokemont to Deep Creek campground. Cherokee Cab Company meets me at the camp check-in station at 8:30 a.m. and drives me to the Thomas Divide trailhead on Highway 441. From there, I’ll hike the full length of TDT (13.6 miles) to Tom Branch Road plus an additional road mile to the campground.
Beginning at 9:15 a.m. and an elevation of 4700 feet, it is breezy and cool enough to warrant gloves. I’m looking forward to the first climb a quarter mile in. Thomas Divide easily undulates between 4600 and 5200 feet for the first 6.5 miles, with a single descent of 1.25 miles between that peak and trough. At this elevation, it feels like TDT transports me to Pennsylvania, walking in a northern hardwoods forest with American Beech, Yellow Birch, Sugar Maple, Red Oak, Mountain Maple, and Serviceberry. Fine sedges and small grasses wave along the trail. Tiny Northern White Violet (Viola macloskeyi), found at these higher elevations, is in flower.
It also feels like I’ve stepped back in time. Plant species flowering at the base of the mountains a month ago during the Spring Wildflower Pilgrimage are colorful and fresh-faced or still in bud up here: Toothwort, Solomon’s Plume, Wood Anemone, Foamflower, Thyme-leaved Bluets, Nodding Mandarin, Canada Mayflower, Star Chickweed, Indian Cucumber-root, Meadow Parsnip, Wood Betony, Mountain Bellwort, Doll’s Eyes, Wild Geranium, Mayapple, Vasey’s Trillium, Rue Anemone, Bear Corn, and Solomon’s Seal. Silverbells are dropping pristine blossoms on the trail. Painted Trillium and Bloodroot are in the minority setting fruit.
On a map, TDT plots a curving line from the highway, trending first southeast, then south, and finally southwest as it closely follows ridge lines, including Thomas Ridge, for its entire length. Three trails join TDT during its high elevation stretch, two climbing from Highway 441 near Smokemont (Kanati Fork, Newton Bald) and one from Deep Creek (Sunkota Ridge). Thomas Divide climbs to 5000 feet in the first 0.8 mile hitting Beetree Ridge and leveling for one mile to the Kanati Fork junction. There are signs of minor hog rooting on the flat ridge.
Past Kanati, TDT rises another 200 feet then descends to Tuskee Gap, the lowest elevation within the first six miles (4600). The flora is rich in moist draws on the steep slope of Nettle Creek Bald. A downed log is lined with a clumpy bright orange fungi that looks as though it could develop into a large batch of Chicken of the Woods. As the trail continues toward the gap, a more acid-soil community takes shape with Bracken Fern, Mountain Laurel, Galax, Blueberry, and Cow Wheat (Melampyrum lineare). Several Large Whorled Pogonias (Isotria verticillata) are just beginning to open. Seed capsules from last year still stand in their midst. Nearby and in several spots further down trail, small clusters of Pink Ladies Slippers are in their prime.
The trail climbs again (4950) and drops slightly (4750) to the junction with Sunkota Ridge Trail. Another four-tenths mile climb (5000) reaches the Newton Bald Trail junction. Cinnamon Fern is plentiful as is Wild Hydrangea, and I find Alternate-leaf Dogwood too. A foliose lichen, likely Smooth Lungwort (Lobaria querzicans) has grown to massive proportions on hardwood trees, forming patches well over a foot wide. In the mile past Newton Bald, the trail dips (4700) and rises (4950) one final time before leaving these high elevations behind.
TDT’s two-mile descent to Deeplow Gap veers from the ridge line for a short stretch and passes through a lush, narrow draw with the early trickle of an incipient stream. Wild Geranium in flower thickly lines the trail interspersed with Lady Fern, Cinnamon Fern, and Intermediate Fern. Fat clumps of Umbrella Leaf hopscotch down the developing creek.
I reach the gap at 1:14 p.m., 8.1 miles in four hours, and break for lunch. Deeplow Gap Trail crosses here, and two more trails originating in Deep Creek (Indian Creek Motor, Stone Pile Gap) will join Thomas Divide in the 5.5 miles remaining. Thus far, Thomas Divide has been a delightful trail. Its easy surface makes for a pleasant journey. A few areas are slightly overgrown with mostly herbaceous plants and some small trees or shrubs. There are few brambles.
After Deeplow Gap, TDT makes a steady 550-foot climb in 0.9 mile. A small stream crossing the trail spills down it, and thanks to horse traffic, turns a short patch into wet black muck. Cresting at 4300 feet at mile nine, TDT is all downhill from here. One and a half miles later, I reach the Indian Creek Motor Trail junction. From here the trail follows an old road, and the grade and surface make for smooth sailing. An occasional eroded gully poses no impediment.
Cruise control at the end of a long day always brings the risk of missing neat stuff on trail. Plants and animals darn near have to jump out in front of me, yet a few things do penetrate my consciousness. Great Yellow Wood-sorrel (Oxalis grandis) still has a few bedraggled flowers. Running Ground Cedar completely covers a steep bank doing what it does best…running. Befitting the intrusive road, Poison Ivy is prominent, and Multiflora Rose makes an entrance.
I buzz past the Stone Pile Gap junction with 1.1 miles to go. One-tenth mile from the trailhead, the Wiggins cemetery is visible on a small knoll to the right. Several different families rest here.
The gated trailhead features a large circular gravel parking area to accommodate horse trailers. Tom Branch Road (sometimes referred to as Galbraith Road) continues the downhill trajectory roughly following Tom Branch, which terminates as a lovely waterfall at Deep Creek. One mile from TDT, Deep Creek Campground comes into view on the left. A grassy road bed blocked by big boulders divides the lower tent sites from the upper and provides easy foot access to these upper campsites. The hike takes seven hours, a two-mile-per-hour pace. I can live with that.