It’s amazing what a good night’s sleep can do. Yesterday’s exhaustion from Jenkins Ridge has become today’s anticipation. Everything will be easier. Hazel Creek Trail’s lower half and Bone Valley are relatively level, both following old roads. Since the morning will involve hiking above Campsite 84, I’ll have to walk right by this spot on my way down to Hazel Creek’s trailhead and Campsite 86. I hang my non-essential hiking gear in a bag on the bear cables and carry only the necessities — water, snacks, rain gear, first aid, etc.
I’m hiking a rather lop-sided “Y” route this morning, twice, totaling 7.8 miles. Eight-tenths of a mile from Campsite 84, Hazel Creek Trail runs straight into the base of Locust Ridge. I’ll first turn right on HCT for 1.3 miles to the Cold Spring Gap Trail junction and return. At the ridge base once again, Bone Valley Trail heads left 1.8 miles terminating at the Hall Cabin. From there, I’ll hike back to #84 and eat lunch.
Hazel Creek carves a long valley through a maze of ridges large and small, trending the general southwest/northeast direction of Welch Ridge which lies south/southeast of the creek and trail. The trail gains a gradual 1300 feet in elevation during the first 10 miles of its 14.7-mile length. My morning 2.1-mile stretch works its way along the base of two ridge noses — Forrester and Locust ridges, each rising steeply in succession on my left with the creek on my right.
The lower half of Hazel Creek boasts a booming pre-park settlement history centered around the town of Proctor at the trailhead. Here at Campsite 84, there had been the small town of Medlin. Horace Kephart lived nearby. The area was extensively logged, and copper mines operated. There is little to indicate such history today, unless you take unnamed side trails into the woods marked only by a post with a ‘no horses’ symbol. These paths lead to small family cemeteries. One path tackles a steep dirt bank off Hazel Creek, and the park service set a wooden ladder in the ground to assist access.
Every year the park ferries relatives of those interred across the lake for Decoration Day, when they spruce the grave sites and place colorful new plastic flowers on each. The people bring a picnic lunch and musical instruments for a celebration of their ancestry and mountain heritage. This is why lines of picnic tables are often found in these now remote locations.
Just before Bone Valley Creek and the trail junction, history and Decoration Day festivities merge. Hazel Creek Trail passes an open grassy knoll that was the location of Bone Valley Baptist Church. Across from the church site, a quarter-mile side trail leads to the Bone Valley Cemetery, perhaps one of the larger backcountry cemeteries (82 graves) in the park. The Smokies hiking guide mentions a “massive white oak” at the church site. There are large trees present but none merit the adjective “massive.” Downslope from the knoll, Campsite 83 hides on the backside of the knoll, behind a double phalanx of picnic tables on the flat floodplain of Bone Valley Creek.
Hazel Creek Trail takes a sharp right turn immediately after the Bone Valley Creek bridge and continues an additional 1.3 miles to its junction with Cold Spring Gap Trail. I will hike Welch Ridge, Cold Spring Gap and upper Hazel Creek trails in 2017.
Opposite the junction, a gravel drive climbs Locust Ridge 30 yards to a bunkhouse used by park service staff. I walk up to snap a photo and notice a sign on the door asking people to respect the privacy of park employees and refrain from disturbing them. From what I can tell, the place appears unoccupied at present.
Returning to Bone Valley Creek, I follow an old road branching off Hazel Creek Trail that leads back to the Hall Cabin and site of the Kress mansion. Bone Valley Trail slips between Forrester Ridge and Locust Ridge, rising a scant 200 feet in its 1.8 miles to reach a wide flat plain farmed quite successfully by Jesse Crayton Hall in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
Settlers in the mountains drove their cattle to the grassy balds each spring to forage when winter’s hold on the high elevations eased. Sometime in the 1870s a late blizzard caught farmers by surprise. Without protection, herds already in the high pastures froze to death. Over the next several years, their bones washed down, scattering through the valley.
Despite the sad tale of its name, Bone Valley is one of the more lovely sections of the park. The trail fords its own creek four times and Mill Branch tributary once. Prolonged or heavy rains could complicate these crossings, but under normal conditions, they are simple, pleasant creek fords. Today, the water grazes mid-calf with a gentle flow producing the perfect the degree of ‘burble’ in this beautiful little stream, a fitting soundtrack to a hike quite unlike the trail trials yesterday.
Tributaries run through rich sheltered coves into Bone Valley. As with so many places in these mountains, Bone Valley was logged. A rail line ran through, and splash dams were built to float the logs down stream to the Little Tennessee River. It is so peaceful and pleasant now, I can’t help but wonder how marvelous it must have been before our thirst for industry altered thousands of years of natural forest existence.
The Hall Cabin sits in a grassy opening, perched high on mortared stone pilings. Originally built around 1880 to accommodate ‘Crate’ Hall’s growing family, it’s designed in a single pen style with a front porch and two rooms — an upstairs loft spanning the entire cabin and a single large room downstairs. The paneled front door is centered, as is the staircase to the loft. In fact, the door will smack into the stairs if fully pushed open. There are several multi-paned windows including two double-hung on the porch wall. Moth balls are sprinkled throughout the cabin and on the ground underneath. They must be fresh, the odor is strong.
Remains of the Kress family hunting lodge can be seen in the woods on the far side of the cabin. Dubbed a “mansion” and “grand lodge,” it was used by wealthy friends of the department store’s founder as a fishing retreat. The large chimney that was once graced with marble mantels still stands over the crumbling, moss-covered foundation.
During a relaxing snack on the front porch, I am entertained by three Spring Azures intent to sip the salts of my sweat on the camera bag and trekking poles. Clouds are building as I begin the walk back to Campsite 84. Shod in water shoes for the creek crossings, I only need my umbrella to fend off a 30-minute rain shower. All is dry when I arrive for lunch and pack to continue down Hazel Creek.
The 4.5-mile walk to Lakeshore is uneventful, even boring, though there are lots of downed trees across the trail from a recent storm. Summer foliage masks most indications of the bustling enterprises present here a hundred years ago. Wooden structures were burned, leaving only a three made of concrete and brick. The large dry kiln sits far off the trail and requires a sharp eye to spot in July. Those sited on the trail are much easier to spot, though one small concrete building, a valve house, is quickly losing out to nature. The most interesting structure is a cylindrical river gauging station. It looks like a turret stuck between the road and creek.
Unless you consult a decently scaled map, it is difficult to decipher the end of Hazel Creek Trail. The trailhead is positioned at Proctor Bridge. The Calhoun House, which appears to be a dead end straight ahead, actually sits on Lakeshore Trail, which runs past the house toward Fontana and across the bridge toward Bryson City.
To reach Campsite 86, I must cross the bridge and turn right. About 0.2 mile down this lake access trail, a series of little paths run into the woods on the right and lead to a warren of sites large and small. It is Saturday, and I won’t be camping solo tonight. #86 looks like party central. The large group next door offers me some of their pinto beans, but I’m stuffed from my own dinner and tired. My morning was wonderful, but the walk down Hazel Creek with a full pack reignited my back and feet woes from yesterday.
Tomorrow, I begin a two-day effort to complete Lakeshore Trail, hiking to Chesquaw Branch and back before continuing to Campsite 88 for the night and the trailhead on Monday. Once again, I will leave most of my gear hanging in camp for the Chesquaw trek.