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Posts Tagged ‘Deep Creek’

Fork Ridge trailhead on Clingmans Dome Road

Reservations are made for the antepenultimate trip that will bring my quest to hike all the trails in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park to a close and place me among other Smokies aficionados in the 900 Mile Club. Thanks to a rather oxymoronic combination of laziness and crazy busyness, I still have a few trails from 2016 to post on this blog. In late September last year, Susan Stahl and I stayed at Deep Creek Campground for a series of three day hikes. First up was Fork Ridge Trail.

Fork Ridge Trail

Susan and I drive separately up Hwy. 441, leave a car at the Deep Creek trailhead and continue together to the pull out at Fork Ridge Trail, approximately halfway up Clingmans Dome Road. The morning is cool and foggy at high elevation, perfect to get the juices flowing. Quickly tying into the actual ridge, the trail follows the ridge line and slips to one side or the other of higher knobs along the way, descending 2,800 feet in 5.1 miles. This steady but untaxing drop does include a few short, near-level passages. At the bottom, Fork Ridge Trail crosses Deep Creek and ends at that trail next to Campsite #53. Fork Ridge is part of the 1,175-mile Mountains-to-Sea Trail from Clingmans Dome to North Carolina’s Outer Banks.

The ridge separates Deep Creek’s headwater feeder streams to the northeast from Left Fork Deep Creek and its feeders on the opposite side. Beginning in the dark and damp Spruce-Fir forest, the path is a tad tricky for the first mile or so. Ample moisture at this elevation (5,900 ft) makes the mossy rocks and roots somewhat slippery, but for the most part, the trail is in good shape and easy to negotiate. Given the early fall timing, there is some herbaceous overgrowth of fine branches and leaning stems, yet nothing obscures the trail or impedes progress.

Mountain Bellwort fruit capsule

Speaking of autumn, some Witch Hobbles are feeling the seasonal spirit, decked in rich purplish reds. Mountain Ash drops vibrant orange red fruits. Whorled Aster lifts white daisies above a flat plane of foliage. Mountain Cranberry’s black teardrop fruits dangle on long pedicels. Mountain Bellwort splays its pale tri-lobed capsule over shiny green leaves. Curtis’ Goldenrod appears as wands of yellow flame beside the trail. Red Squirrels chatter among the bounty of Red Spruce cones. Pigskin Puffballs dot the woods like beige golf balls.

The walk down Fork Ridge is easy and uneventful, allowing full enjoyment of the day and surroundings. Most of the way, the trail takes a southeasterly course, but near the bottom, it passes through a wide gap in the ridge called Deep Creek Gap and turns north for the last quarter mile or so.

Deep Creek crossing at the end of Fork Ridge Trail

Maps and the Smokies hiking book note a footbridge (“if it has not been washed away in a flood”) over Deep Creek. I guess there was a flood, as no bridge nor hint of one is visible. The Spring Wildflower Pilgrimage usually features a hike of Fork Ridge Trail, and I’ve heard tales of surging water thigh deep. Ah, the joys of drier autumn. Susan and I do put on water shoes, but the cool stream barely burbles above our ankles. A tad lower and we could have rock-hopped with ease.

On the opposite bank, the trail climbs through dense rhododendron a few yards to its junction with Deep Creek Trail. The trek down took three hours. Susan and I eat lunch at Campsite #53 before tackling the upper 3.9 miles of Deep Creek. Without pushing ourselves, we cover this uphill stretch in just over two hours for a satisfying 9-mile day and a great warmup for this trip.

Showy Gentian

Two days later, our last hike is quite a bit longer, but the trails are no more taxing. Sunkota Ridge Trail angles off Thomas Divide and turns south, picking up near where Fork Ridge peters out. Sited between Thomas Divide and Noland Divide, all three ridges converge on Deep Creek Campground. The upper half of Sunkota between Martins Gap and Thomas Divide serves both Mountains-to-Sea and Benton MacKaye distance trails.

Sunkota requires 2.0 miles along three different trails on the south end or 4.6 miles of Thomas Divide Trail from the north to reach its trailheads. The 8.6-mile length adheres to the ridge with few deviations, occasionally dipping to one side or the other. All along the trail, however, are brief scenic views of the neighboring divides.

Calico Aster

We start on the Thomas Divide end. From there Sunkota strikes an easy 1,300-foot descent for 4.8 miles to Martins Gap. The upper ridge provides a pleasing walk through recovered forests with a few large trees. This day is simply gorgeous with that deep blue sky that heralds October and soft breezes. Fall flowers are loving it. With a beauty to match the day, Showy Gentian (Gentiana decora) is in its prime and tempts passing butterflies. Three blue asters — Blue Wood Aster, Wavyleaf Aster, and another that has defied all identification attempts — and one white, Calico Aster (Symphyotrichum lateriflorum), do their best to lure insects too. Southern Harebell is nearly finished. A few areas on the east side of the ridge have something of a cove hardwood aspect with Cucumber Magnolia, Maple-leaf Viburnum, and a wider array of wildflowers such as Richweed and Nodding Mandarin.

Pipevine Swallowtail on Showy Gentian

We arrive at Martins Gap around 1:30. From here, Sunkota climbs 400 feet over 0.8 mile to a peak along the ridge before descending another 1,300 feet in the final 3.0 miles. This section is drier and more eroded with exposed roots and a slanting trail surface, especially the final 2.0 miles. Aside from the last part, the trail has been in fine shape and enjoyable to hike. The remainder of our 15.2-mile day takes us down the east slope of the ridge on Loop Trail to Indian Creek Trail and finally Deep Creek Trail to the campground.

 

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The only sign of Noland Creek Trail on Lakeview Drive

The only sign of Noland Creek Trail on Lakeview Drive

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.

Lakeview Drive bridge overhead

Lakeview Drive bridge overhead

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.

Noland Creek Trail

Noland Creek Trail

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.

Maidenhair Fern and Poison Ivy

Maidenhair Fern and Poison Ivy

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.

Poison Ivy flowers

Poison Ivy flowers

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.

Fabulous new footbridge design

Fabulous new footbridge design

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.

The first big ford on Noland Creek

The first big ford on Noland Creek

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)

Pole Road Creek Trail at Noland Divide

Pole Road Creek Trail at Noland Divide

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.

Common Cinquefoil

Common Cinquefoil

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.

Fraser's Sedge fruit

Fraser’s Sedge fruit

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)

Martins Gap Trail at Deep Creek

Martins Gap Trail at Deep Creek

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.

Eastern Garter Snake

Eastern Garter Snake

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.

Rattlesnake Hawkweed

Rattlesnake Hawkweed

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.

Wooden Bridge on Martins Gap Trail

Wooden Bridge on Martins Gap Trail

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.

Excessive erosion on Martins Gap

Excessive erosion on Martins Gap

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.

Horse Poop Feather, Noland Creek Trail, GSMNP, May 23, 2016My day began with a pile of horse poop sporting a turkey feather near Noland Creek trailhead. It made me laugh. The day draws to a close in a precipitous two-foot trench of muck. I’m not laughing.

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!’

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Thomas Divide traverses more than six miles of northern hardwoods forest.

Thomas Divide traverses more than six miles of northern hardwoods forest.

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.

Canada Mayflower

Canada Mayflower

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.

Wood Anemone

Wood Anemone

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.

budding Chicken of the Woods

Budding Chicken of the Woods

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.

Large Whorled Pogonia

Large Whorled Pogonia

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.

Cow Wheat

Cow Wheat

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.

Huge patch of Smooth Lungwort

Huge patch of Smooth Lungwort

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.

Smooth Lungwort

Smooth Lungwort

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.

The last three miles of Thomas Divide follow an old road.

The last three miles of Thomas Divide follow an old road.

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.

Large Yellow Wood-sorrel

Large Yellow Wood-sorrel

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.

Lower trailhead of Thomas Divide on Tom Branch Road

Lower trailhead of Thomas Divide on Tom Branch Road

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.

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Deep Creek Quiet Walkway

Deep Creek Quiet Walkway

There are five Quiet Walkways along Highway 441 on the North Carolina side of the park. The first four past Newfound Gap are located at pull-outs along the highway. The final QW, Collins Creek, begins at the back side of the Collins Creek Picnic Area located midway between Kanati Fork Trail and Smokemont Campground. On a gloriously sunny, cool, and breezy morning of the pilgrimage, I set out early to visit as many as I can before my afternoon program through the AT beech gap and manage to complete all but Collins Creek.

View from DCQW

View from DCQW

Deep Creek Quiet Walkway: Just 1.2 miles past Clingman’s Dome Road, Deep Creek QW is an unassuming and easy to miss wide spot in the road that could accommodate a few cars but in no way resembles an official pull-out that might tempt visitors to leave their cars. Not until you spot the equally unassuming Quiet Walkway marker at the edge of the forest is it apparent that there might be something to do here.

Emerging Hayscented Fern Frond

Emerging Hayscented Fern Frond

Deep Creek QW descends rather steeply for a quiet walkway. At just 0.3 mile, it angles down slope to join Deep Creek Trail 0.4 mile from its Hwy. 441 trailhead. From all indications, some people must stop at DCQW because the first part of the walkway is clear and appears well used. This condition peters out before long, however, as herbaceous and small woody vegetation invades the path and downed trees and limbs present impediments. Nothing is significant enough to prevent following the intended route to Deep Creek Trail, particularly at this time of year, but very few people do.

Junction with Deep Creek Trail

Junction with Deep Creek Trail

By the time the walkway reaches the real trail, it has become so well camouflaged as to be nearly indecipherable from the forested hillside. Only the sharpest eyes looking carefully for the QW at this end could tease out the faint wrinkle and recognize it. I bet most people who begin the walkway descent from the road realize quickly that all this trekking downhill means quite an uphill haul whenever they turn around and in short order determine to do so. Thus the clear upper third and nearly obscure lower two-thirds.

Erect Trillium

Erect Trillium

The sharp elevation drop has one advantage: the road and its noise are immediately left behind in a thicket of Rosebay Rhododendron and Red Spruce. A leafless view through the trees into the valley of Deep Creek imparts a total sense of wilderness. In late April, Spring Beauty, Fringed Phacelia, Halberd-leaved Violet, Erect Trillium, Dwarf Ginseng, Star Chickweed, Trout Lily, and Common Blue Violet are in flower. Early foliage of Bee Balm and Cutleaf Coneflower in the path portend color and impenetrability in summer. Juncos are flitting about, and a reasonably fresh pile of bear scat has me scanning the landscape.

For good exercise and an instant into-the-backwoods experience, stroll down Deep Creek Quiet Walkway on a mild day in winter or early spring.

View of Cherry Creek from Swinging Bridge parking area

View of Cherry Creek from Swinging Bridge parking area

Swinging Bridge Quiet Walkway: Travel 0.8 mile down 441 from Deep Creek QW to a major parking area and overlook. Marked with an interpretive sign “Spared the Saw,” the Swinging Bridge QW starts to the right and climbs onto a ridge. Shot Beech Ridge extends nearly two miles due south from the highway before dropping sharply to Deep Creek. One side of the ridge drains into Deep Creek, the other into Cherry Creek. Looking at a topo map, the ridge gently undulates for most of its length with one 375-foot decline in the middle. The final 0.5 mile drop to Deep Creek Trail, however, falls a precipitous 1,000 feet.

Shot Beech Ridge

Shot Beech Ridge

This QW is listed as a half mile, yet that straight shot along the ridge line continues well beyond this point to beckon and lure the more adventurous in spirit. Small piles of deadfall provide most people sufficient incentive to turn around. Those that keep going must negotiate the increasing presence of briars and other understory growth.

Painted Trillium

Painted Trillium

I have no clue on the origin of this QW’s name. There is no bridge, ‘swinging’ or otherwise, and Place Names of the Smokies does not mention it. The walkway is relatively level with good footing. At this time of year, I find a few Thyme-leaved Bluets and violet species in flower plus an occasional Painted Trillium.

Large oak

Large oak

The parking lot view spans Cherry Creek’s watershed. The interpretive sign informs visitors that only a small percentage of the park’s forest is “old-growth.” Most trees were logged for timber or cleared for agriculture in the early twentieth century. The majority of the forest today is relatively young second growth. There are some old trees nearby, and the sign notes that a few on the ridges though small in diameter could still be hundreds of years old. Large diameter oaks dot the QW.

Beech Flats Quiet Walkway

Beech Flats Quiet Walkway

Beech Flats Quiet Walkway: Continue down Highway 441 another 2.7 miles and look left for a paved pull-out parallel to the road and a wide grassy area funneling toward an orange and white gate. The QW sign stands alone in the middle of the flat lawn to draw people from their cars. That colorful gate prevents vehicular access to an old road winding toward Newfound Gap, and Beech Flats QW travels that road.

Ravine stream

Ravine stream

Grab a topo map of the park and follow Hwy. 441 down the North Carolina side from Newfound Gap. At Thomas Divide Trail, the road makes a wide switchback leaving a ridge to descend into the broad valley carved by Beech Flats Prong. About 0.3 mile before the second, much sharper switchback is Beech Flats QW snuggled at the base of a steep ravine. The QW strikes a northwesterly course across the mountainside running parallel to and well downslope from Hwy. 441. The old road rises steadily along the mountain’s flank, above the prong and below the new road. At Luftee Gap, it makes a sharp curve right to run alongside 441 and hit Newfound Gap at the back end of the parking lot. People can hike down the old road from NFG.

Moss-covered asphalt on Beech Flats QW

Moss-covered asphalt on Beech Flats QW

Could someone hike all the way from Beech Flats QW to NFG? I haven’t done it and cannot say for certain; however, I walked much further than the 0.6 mile listed for the QW with no trouble at all and found it to be quite pleasant. Might be fun to start a friend with her car at BFQW and another at NFG to meet in the middle and exchange car keys. I roughly put the distance estimate at a minimum of two miles, probably more, but certainly less than three. Climbing a road grade is heaven compared to some trails in the park, and walking down would be delightful. Patches of old asphalt are clearly visible and often felted with a green layer of moss. Hydrangea shrubs, tree saplings, and loops of grape vines dangling from young trees encroach. Nature is doing her best to reclaim what she can, but the road remains wide and inviting for foot traffic.

Confederate Violet

Confederate Violet

Today’s sunshine reflects in the bright blossoms of Fringed Phacelia, Creeping Phlox, and Squirrel Corn. This is only place I recall seeing the Confederate Violet (Viola sororia forma priceana) though it is likely to be in other disturbed areas. Dandelion is here too.

Eroded pit with Waterleaf

Eroded pit with Waterleaf

At the walkway’s start a small stream cascades down the steep ravine and works it way into something of an eroded pit that flows under the old road and emerges far below on the other side. Walking up the road, the right side falls away steeply toward Beech Flats Prong and the left side rises equally steep often featuring large moss-covered boulders and more small streams that have begun to cut through the roadbed. This side of the mountain faces northeast and remains cooler and more moist.

Short-winged Blister Beetle

Short-winged Blister Beetle

I find one of those bright blue oil beetles, the Short-winged Blister Beetle, and stoop to take its picture. It seeks refuge in an unfavorable camera angle. Hoping to get it back on track, I offer one little poke of my finger, at which it instantly flops on its side, curls up, and starts oozing orange liquid from its leg joints. Nothing I do now will get that possum-playing insect to cooperate, so I photograph its faux demise and leave it in peace to ‘revive’ and get on with its day. (See Smokies Manways, March 2012, for more on the oil beetle.)

Steps at Kanati Fork QW

Steps at Kanati Fork QW

Kanati Fork Quiet Walkway: Drive 3.6 miles further into North Carolina to the Kanati Fork Trailhead parking area. On the left side is the QW marker, and several stone steps lead down to a path crossing a wooden bridge. Here the path splits; turn left for a short meander through the woods to a dead end or turn right to reach Beech Flats Prong. This part of the prong is just above its confluences with Kanati Fork and Kephart Prong, after which Beech Flats Prong becomes the Oconaluftee River.

Little bridge

Little bridge

Kanati Fork QW is just 0.2 mile. Perfect for visitors who aren’t prepared for or interested in the 2.9 mile Kanati Fork Trail and its 2,000-foot elevation gain located across the road. The QW provides easy access to the prong for a little toe-dipping and a taste of Smokies flora.

Water Strider's shadow

Water Strider’s shadow

Water Striders ski against Beech Flats’ flow in the shallows, casting shadows on the sandy bottom. Canada Mayflowers are in bud as the Painted Trilliums fade. They are joined by Trout Lily, Sweet White Violet, Indian Cucumber Root, Lady Fern, New York Fern, Hearts-a-bustin’, Witch Hobble, Witch Hazel, Striped Maple, Yellow Birch, and a large colony of Buffalo Nut among others.

Beech Flats Prong

Beech Flats Prong

I don’t have time to hike Collins Creek today, but an upcoming Smokies trip will include a few nights stay at Smokemont to hopefully complete all remaining trails in this vicinity except ill-fated Sweat Heifer. My co-leaders Paul Durr and Larry Pounds have promised a raincheck for the 2016 Pilgrimage.

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