My final full day in the Smokies, emphasis on the word full. With a wild mix of confidence and trepidation, I take another Cherokee Cab shuttle to the Noland Creek Trail access on Lakeview Drive, the infamous “Road to Nowhere.” From here I will piece together part or all of five different trails to return to Deep Creek Campground and in the process cover 20.25 miles, a personal best that shatters my old record by nearly three miles. It’s an early start on a chilly late May morning.
A sharp eye is needed to spot the small brown sign, “Noland Creek Trail,” and its little arrow pointing down a rather obscure path that tumbles in a steep pitch off the road. The sign is set at the end of a large parking area on the left just before the high bridge spanning Noland Creek’s narrow valley. The switchbacked access trail is maybe 0.1 mile, but it connects the bright open road above to the densely shaded, almost gloomy, trailhead along the creek.
Noland Creek Trail’s 9.9 miles split in two directions from its trailhead. Turn left for a one mile streamside stroll to the not-so-lovely shore of Fontana Lake. I’ll do this tomorrow morning before returning home (report to come). Today, I turn right to follow the creek upstream nine miles to the crest of Noland Divide and its self-named trail. Noland Creek Trail is a wide, remarkably smooth gravel/dirt road with a much appreciated relaxed grade winding through the creek valley. This surface covers the first five miles, and the grade continues until the final 0.7 mile shoots straight up Noland Divide, resulting in 1,800 feet elevation gain over 9.2 miles and 700 feet in 0.7 mile. The toll is paid at the end of this road.
The trail passes under the sweeping Lakeview Drive bridge high overhead and zigzags its way up the valley, crossing over Noland Creek numerous times. From the lake shore to Springhouse Branch Trail junction at Campsite #64 (five miles), there are nine wooden bridges barely wide enough for motorized traffic. For hikers this means smooth sailing. Two hours after setting sail, I’m resting at one of the picnic tables at #64.
Hemmed by Noland Divide to the east and Forney Ridge to the west, Noland Creek is a swift and lusty mountain stream carrying waters from dozens of smaller branches. Mill Creek joins Noland at Campsite #64, and the union is a noisy one. Peace and quiet as well as all other forest sounds drown in the tumult.
Noisy water aside, Noland Creek Trail feels remote even though it is not difficult to access from either end, traverses an old road half way, and features five backcountry campsites. The narrow valley is deeply shaded by typical Smokies vegetation. The creek’s proximity favors lush growth of Rosebay Rhododendron, Doghobble, Yellowroot, and Wild Hydrangea. Beautiful cascading fronds of Maidenhair Fern mix with robust scrambles of Poison Ivy in flower. Not much else is flowering except one of the Daisy Fleabanes (Erigeron strigosus), which is now opening at the lowest elevations.
Shady green continues past Campsite #64, but the trail itself begins a slow transformation into a true dirt path, a process complete within the next 1.5 miles. Four of the five campsites allow horses and three of them are located in the upper reaches of Noland Creek Trail past the old road’s end. Rocks, roots, mud, and muck recur regularly requiring a bit of a foot dance to negotiate. Little feeder creeks with their rock hops tend to run down trail as often as run across it, and the potential for slopping through water during big rain events is all but guaranteed, a major pain unless you are perched five feet above it on a horse’s back. Recent precipitation has left its telltale mark, but I manage with little difficulty.
By Campsite #63, a quiet and pleasant place nestled in verdant vegetation, all vestiges of an old road are gone. Only the gentle grade of the valley floor remains. The trail continues to cross Noland Creek, and the first few (at least three) have footbridges. One of them looks brand new. Well constructed with two artfully designed handrails and large rock steps, it is a beauty to behold. These bridges give me hope that perhaps the unbridged crossings mentioned in the Little Brown Book might be a thing of the past. Wishful thinking.
I finally hit the first ford. No way to cross without wet feet the rest of the day, but I’m prepared. While changing into water shoes, four hikers from Clingmans Dome approach on the opposite side. They tell me there are two more wet crossings after this one, the first rocky and shallow, the second much deeper. I tell them they are now home free. The last two crossings are just past Campsite #62. During the final wade, water comes over my knees. There are more small springs and muddy patches ahead, but it is safe to put my boots back on.
After the final stream crossing, I run into several small blowdowns across the trail. Broken limbs of rhododendron or Mountain Laurel, dead hemlock branches, even a small Fraser Magnolia. At Campsite #61, I seem to have reached a dead end. I can find no path that does not circle back around to the campsite. Adding to the confusion is an old sign declaring “this trail closed” and pointing straight into the campsite as the way to Noland Divide. Ten minutes of circling lead me to the back of the campsite once more, where I notice light and space beyond a thick wall of rhododendron branches. It’s another recent blowdown that has completely obscured the trail. Beyond this are more blowdowns, including a tree so large the only way forward is a steep scramble up the bank through shrubs to vault the bole and slide down the other side.
Campsite #61 marks the end of the easy grade. It now requires a steep haul to finish Noland Creek and reach the divide. The last few steps with the top in sight are somehow always the hardest. At the top, I pause for a snack and enjoy cool breezes at 4200 feet. The day is nothing short of gorgeous. The sky is as blue and clear as I’ve seen in the Smokies.
Pole Road Creek Trail (3.3 miles)
At the Noland Creek junction, Pole Road Creek Trail starts its 3.3-mile trek down the opposite side of the divide to end at Deep Creek Trail. It too has numerous unbridged crossings of its namesake creek and one bridged crossing over Deep Creek at the terminus. It starts out pleasant enough, descending through cheerful yellow flowers of Common Cinquefoil (Potentilla simplex) and Yellow Stargrass, Vasey’s Trilliums under their shields of foliage, triangular teardrops of Great Merrybells fruit. Two juncos defending a nest nearby scold my loitering to take a picture. Grasshoppers leap before me like some kind of advance guard.
The first 1.2 miles are a breeze. Then comes the first cluster of stream crossings. Pole Road Creek, inspired by last week’s rain, is singing loud and proud. None of the crossings are deep, per se, yet all present a navigation challenge. One misstep means a boot full of water if not a complete tumble. The simple, smart choice would be to take five minutes and change into water shoes so I can stride without hesitation through the 10 crossings. Wish I’d done so. Instead I choose the ‘ornery cuss’ approach and sweat each crossing uttering words I cannot repeat here. Somehow my feet stay dry by sheer luck and definitely not because I deserve it.
The final crossing (of course) is the worst. No way to get across with dry feet, until I spy a large log spanning the creek. It’s top mossy surface has several spots worn smooth from butts sliding across. My butt buffs it too.
As a hiking experience, Pole Road Creek Trail isn’t terrible, but it isn’t good either. Stream crossings aside, the trail is fairly narrow and at this moment very overgrown. At times it feels like I’m swimming through foliage right in my face. There is large tree down, which requires crawling on hands and knees. The trail surface runs the gamut from smooth dry to wet muck with rocky sections and tripping roots. Water would run down this trail during wet weather. However, it’s the Smokies and a horse trail, so some of these conditions are inevitable. I’ve certainly hiked horse trails in much worse shape. One unexpected and nice surprise is a small grouping of Fraser’s Sedge (Cymophyllus fraserianus) in fruit.
Martin’s Gap Trail (3.0 miles)
Arriving at Deep Creek Trail, I turn right for 0.75 mile to Martins Gap Trail. Martins Gap climbs the west flank of Sunkota Ridge (1,000 feet, 1.5 miles) and descends the east flank at an equal distance and elevation change. The elevation profile looks mild on paper. The reality is somewhat different, though it is good to keep in mind that my ascent of Martins Gap comes seven hours and 13 miles into the day.
Maps show a gnarled and crooked route to Sunkota Ridge. The impression is more ‘straight up.’ I haven’t really rested today, and food consists of quick snacks — energy gels, power bars, a Snickers, beef jerky — things I can eat while moving. As a result, the trek up Martins Gap takes an agonizing amount of time. I sit down in the trail, ostensibly to photograph Indian Cucumber-root but in reality to get off my feet and rejuvenate a bit. I waste a good 45 minutes piddling during the climb to Sunkota. “Waste” may be too harsh a word. My rest will come in handy shortly.
The western leg of Martins Gap is generally drier and more acidic yet features a few small moist coves as well, providing a plant palate shifting between Partridgeberry, Galax, and Rattlesnake Hawkweed on one end with Summer Bluets, Crested Iris, and Robin’s Plantain on the other. Bear Huckleberry is setting fruit. During one of my many pauses along the way, I happen to stop right beside an Eastern Garter Snake (Thamnophis sirtalis sirtalis). He stares at me but doesn’t so much a twitch a muscle, allowing me to shoot as many photos as I like.
The eastern leg is more uniformly moist and crosses the upper reaches of Indian Creek twice. Wild Geranium and Blue-eyed Grass are flowering. The second footlog is twisted on the upslope end giving the tread a decided slant. Care must be taken with foot placement to avoid slipping off.
Horse traffic necessitates a short railed bridge across a draw that is little more than a deep slit with water cascading through it on the western side. Horse traffic is also likely responsible for the 8” tread trenching on sections heading straight uphill. The back side of Martin’s Gap features a trench that could easily contend for worst trail erosion in the Smokies. Wet muck with standing water is held in place by a large root. On the other side of that root, the trail is gone. In its place is a sheer two-foot drop into orange mire that engulfs my boots. Vegetation crowds either side of the trail, and past efforts to sidestep the trench have only worsened the erosion and widened the gulf, leaving current hikers no safe option but lowering themselves two feet into ankle deep mud.
I don’t want to go on yet another horse rant, but these things make me furious. It is a condition that surpasses mere wilderness challenge. It is a serious hazard to hikers and horses alike. Many of these trails, their construction, their soils, are just not supportive of horse use. In some instances heavy foot traffic is enough to cause problems and much more so the hooves of 1,000-pound horses. Trail soils are continually gouged and churned then washed away in the 60+ inches of annual rainfall.
Not only do walking park visitors suffer the consequences, the park itself — the resource — is harmed. The most appropriate time to act on this issue was decades ago. However, this shouldn’t prevent some positive action today. As extreme weather events become more common, this kind of damage could well escalate. National parks are already starved for funds, so repairs are unlikely, and in some instances the only remedy is to relocate the trail, an even less likely prospect. We need to advocate for protection of the park environment and the hiking experience.
Martins Gap Trail ends at Campsite #46. Indian Creek Trail seamlessly begins at this same spot. Like Noland Creek Trail, it is a smooth gravel/dirt roadbed that runs alongside a boisterous mountain stream. Indian Creek Trail merges into Deep Creek Trail at the bottom; a total of 4.3 miles lies between me and supper. I’ve already hiked these sections and am determined to make short work of them. Whether its my rest on Martins Gap or just the desire to be done, I reach the campground in 87 minutes, covering 20.25 miles for the day and topping it off with a sprint to the finish. I spend the rest of the evening nursing a serious case of ‘hiker hobble!’