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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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Access to the Quiet Walkway

Access to the Quiet Walkway

The last Quiet Walkway along North Carolina’s stretch of Highway 441 is tucked in the back of Collins Creek Picnic Area. Left of the quite new pavilion is a gated gravel road with a simple brown “Quiet Walkway” sign.  About 30 yards down the road the typical QW marker stands at the beginning of a dirt path winding through a small grassy opening. Don’t be fooled by this rather inauspicious beginning. The Collins Creek QW is among the best.

QW trailhead

QW trailhead

Once it enters the woods, the path follows Collins Creek curving along the base of a steep, unnamed mountain peak (4,564 ft) to the right. The National Geographic map shows a 0.5 mile trail terminating at a bend in the creek.

Two things about this QW set it apart from the others. First, I get a strong sense of walking an established park trail far removed from traffic and people. Part of this could be timing. It’s early evening, not long before the picnic area closes, and no one else is here. There’s something more, though. The quality of the surrounding forest has a maturity to it, less disturbed and weedy, under a shady canopy.

Footlog

Footlog

Second, the richness of this QW in early May is nothing short of remarkable. This too is a matter of timing. Most any trail in the Smokies will have wildflowers now, yet the diversity here is quite high and concentrated. Another plus is the easy accessibility.

The trail is ample in width with smooth footing and a grade so slight, it isn’t worth mentioning. A low wooden bridge and short footlog facilitate crossing two narrow rills feeding into Collins Creek.

A wonderful trail

A wonderful trail

At least seven different fern species, three trilliums including Large White Trillium and Painted Trillium, Fraser’s Sedge, Alternate-leaved Dogwood, Showy Orchis, Bloodroot, Virginia Strawberry, and Hearts-a-bustin’ are tucked among the usual slate of herbaceous and woody plants present in a rich cove. The foliage of a clematis, most likely Virgin’s Bower as it occurs frequently in the park, vies with grasses at the start. Young birches shelter a glade of ferns and Wild Geranium. The geranium flowers vibrate with that deep, luscious shade of reddish purple so often found in the Smokies. Near the end, Intermediate Ferns and Solomon’s Plume are especially robust.

Collins Creek

Collins Creek

The QW concludes at a dry cobble of mossy rocks and rhododendron thicket. This is a little trail to savor in spring. Its welcoming terrain and secret garden feel are free gifts all Collins Creek picnickers and anyone driving 441 with a little extra time should claim.

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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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Quiet Walkway sign

Quiet Walkway sign

Last October, I hiked two of the Quiet Walkways on US Highway 441 and recently posted an account. Last week, I hiked the other two QWs and discovered some of what I had written was in error. The account from a few weeks ago has been substantially revised and is reposted here to correct those inaccuracies.

A small wooden bridge sits a the base of 0.2 mile Bullhead View Quiet Walkway loop.

A small wooden bridge sits a the base of 0.2 mile Bullhead View Quiet Walkway loop.

There are four Quiet Walkways on US Highway 441 in Tennessee between Sugarlands Visitor Center and the Chimneys Picnic Area, each on the left side of the road overlooking the Little Pigeon River’s West Prong. The first three, Bullhead View Quiet Walkway, Riverview Quiet Walkway, and Jim Carr Place Quiet Walkway, are connected to each other and to the Carlos C. Campbell Overlook, forming a pleasant, roughly 1.5-mile walk (with occasional obstructions) along the river. Balsam Point Quiet Walkway, the last one before Chimneys Picnic, stands apart, despite the National Geographic map indicating it is connected to the others.

Complementary cairns flanking Little Pigeon West Prong

Complementary cairns flanking Little Pigeon West Prong

Bullhead View is a mile from Sugarlands Visitor Center and features a small parking lot. The trail is to the left and steps down rather steeply from the road to a wooden bridge over a tiny creek. Splitting here, the trail forms a very short loop of less than 0.2 mile, leading back to the river and the main walkway. The trail at this point is nearly level with the river. A small rock cairn where the river walk begins its trek upstream mirrors a counterpart across the Little Pigeon, marking (I assume) a short path to Old Sugarlands Trail, which runs along the opposite bank before turning east between Twomile Lead and Bullhead.

Riverview Walkway is often wide, smooth, and level.

Riverview Walkway is often wide, smooth, and level.

The river walkway often follows a wide, level roadbed built well above the water. A short distance into the hike a concrete bridge support can be seen across the river. This open, easy valley was heavily settled before the park’s creation. The area is now a young, scrubby forest with birch, beech, sycamore, red oak, and sweetgum.

At 0.6 mile, a narrow path strikes off the main trail to the right. This is a rough trail (complete with downed trees) that climbs 0.3 mile to the parking area for QW #2 Riverview, the one across from Huskey Gap Trail with ample parking. The main river walkway continues another 0.2 mile to a log bench facing the river on the left and another path, this one wider and much smoother, to the right.

Log bench overlooking the river on Riverview Quiet Walkway

Log bench overlooking the river on Riverview Quiet Walkway

This 0.4 mile path is essentially level as it winds back to a small opening (to the left) and a copse of Pawpaw trees (on the right) before turning up the smooth, gentle grade of an old road past more benches to the same QW #2 parking area. Most people hike this wide, smooth section down and back. There are lovely and varied flowering plants in spring. We’ve found Crested Iris, Dutchman’s Pipe, Silverbell, Doll’s Eyes, Toothwort, Wild Geranium, Creeping Phlox, Bloodroot, Yellow Trillium, Foamflower, Alternate-leaved Dogwood, and many others.

Old roadbed from Riverview QW parking lot

Old roadbed from Riverview QW parking lot

To make a 0.9 mile loop at QW #2, stitch together the 0.4 mile old roadbed path down to the bench, turn left for 0.2 mile along the river walk, and find the narrow 0.3 mile path that will return you to the parking lot. This path may be hard to spot. Look for a tight cluster of four Tulip Poplars and one maple to the right of the river walk. The 0.3 mile trail cuts left just before the trees.

During the Pilgrimage, folks who don’t mind the more difficult footing and steeper elevation on the narrow 0.3 mile section will hike the loop. This section features old stone walls, an Umbrella Leaf Magnolia, and if my identification is correct, a Scentless Mock Orange (Philadelphus inodorus).

The last 1.1 miles of the River Walk are less traveled.

The last 1.1 miles of the River Walk are less traveled.

Returning to the main river walk (at the intersection of the log bench and smooth, roadbed section from QW #2), the trail looks much rougher and overgrown heading up river. There are downed trees and limbs right at the start. However, the trail is still easy to follow if you don’t mind occasional hurdles.

At the time of my October hike, I am blissfully unaware there are two more QWs up Hwy. 441, I just don’t recall noting them on my many drives up and down that road. Therefore, the less-travelled air surrounding this section seems fitting, and I assume the ‘trail’ won’t go very far. To my surprise, it continues for what seems like another mile, snaking between the river below and the highway above.

Massive rock slab in river

Massive rock slab in river

There is a good reason to not recall the two upper QWs. There are no little brown “Quiet Walkway” signs along Hwy. 441 to announce their presence from either direction. The only cues are paved parking and the little square interpretive sign at the trailhead, this latter marker very easy to miss while driving.

Massive rocks along the trail

Massive rocks along the trail

As I noted last fall, the river trail from Riverview QW continues to follow Little Pigeon’s West Prong, moving away from the road and becoming steeper. Maybe a half mile past Riverview, a massive flat slab of rock sits with a slight tilt in the river below and looks big enough to serve as an impromptu dance floor, albeit on a slant. Twenty-five yards further, the trail becomes a wet, rocky gully for a short climb, but quickly resumes a smoother surface. The path is always evident weaving past large boulders and rock hopping one stream. Near the end it makes a high banked curve to the right as though headed toward the road again, but just past this point, the trail simply vanishes. Along the way, I only spotted one likely trail upslope and did not follow it. After the fact, I assumed it was the Jim Car Place QW, but my spring explorations disprove that assumption.

Jim Carr Place QW Trailhead

Jim Carr Place QW Trailhead

April 19, I stop at the Jim Carr Place QW (a paved pull-off with room for four or five cars parking parallel to the road) to see where it ties into the river walk. This QW is 0.6 mile up the road from Riverview QW and just past the Carlos C. Campbell Overlook. The trail for JCPQW is remarkably smooth and clear. With last year’s leaves well trampled, it almost looks mulched.

Nodding or Yellow Mandarin

Nodding or Yellow Mandarin

Spring is the season to visit these QWs. Sections along the river walk, particularly around the upper three trails, are characteristic of mixed-mesophytic cove forests with Yellow Buckeye and Silverbell trees, each area quite rich with seasonal wildflowers. Bloodroot, Cutleaf Toothwort, Squirrel Corn, and Sharp-lobed Liverleaf are already fruiting. Fringed Phacelia, Purple Phacelia, Wild Ginger, Yellow Trillium, Solomon’s Seal, Nodding Mandarin, Creeping Phlox, Sweet Cicely, Star Chickweed, Rue Anemone, Early Meadow Rue, Blue Cohosh, Erect Trillium, and several different violet species are flowering in mid April. Meadow Parsnip, Solomon’s Plume, and Mayapple will soon follow suit with Black Cohosh, a species of waterleaf, Turk’s Cap Lily, Jumpseed, and Smooth Hydrangea waiting their turns.

Jim Carr Place QW Trail

Jim Carr Place QW Trail

The trail starts gently down to the right then switches back to the left, following the general contour of the road. At the lowest point, there is a T intersection, a right turn descends to the river walk and straight ahead rises to the Carlos C. Campbell Overlook. From the overlook, not many people would be tempted to follow the narrow slit of dirt flanked by grasses that curves sharply below the road and disappears into the forest. Those that do will find the trail quickly widens and becomes as smooth and inviting as the rest of the QW. The distances are probably about 0.15 or 0.2 from the JCPQW trailhead to the intersection and maybe 0.15 further to the overlook. From the intersection to the river walk is maybe another 0.2 mile.

Wild Ginger

Wild Ginger

This part of the QW is a little steeper, wending to a nearly rotted log bench about halfway down and reaching the river walk at the exact spot where that large ‘dance floor’ slab of rock sits in the Little Pigeon. Mere feet from the river walk, the trail appears to split offering two routes down. The left fork is a steep, rocky wash emerging between a large sycamore and a mossy buckeye straddling a boulder. The right fork is smooth and hits the river walk about 20 feet past the sycamore.

Flat area at the end of the river walk

Flat area at the end of the river walk

Following the river walk upstream, the wet, rocky gully I found last fall is no more than 30 yards beyond the JCPQW junction, followed by the large boulders, stream rock hop, and high-banked curve. The area just above this curve is expansive and relatively flat. On the way I’ve passed those ubiquitous signs of habitation — daffodil and daylily foliage, which were gone or hidden last fall. People lived here, and apparently one resident was Jim Carr.

The ‘trail’ past the curve that petered out on me in October seems a bit easier to follow in the clear understory of early spring, and I am able to go much further this time. However, it soon becomes more a product of the imagination than any truly evident path, and I turn around.

Balsam Point QW trailhead and parking

Balsam Point QW trailhead and parking

Between the JCPQW trailhead and the T intersection, I notice a small path resembling a game trail. On the way back to my car, I decide to follow it and can recommend that others skip it. It is steeper with downed trees and emerges on the river walk at the wet, rocky gully. It is far better to follow the true QW trail.

Balsam Point's graveled path

Balsam Point’s graveled path

One more to go. The Balsam Point Quiet Walkway is one mile beyond Jim Carr. The parking area is larger with many lined spaces. This QW is a short loop as well, maybe 0.3 mile total, and the path is lightly graveled in places. About halfway, it splits, and the right path strikes a level course across slope, paralleling a rock wall. The left fork descends quite steeply to a visible log bench in a clearing.

Balsam Point Log Bench

Balsam Point Log Bench

The loop trail rounds to the right of the bench at an easier grade up slope to the rock wall. Visitors have created a path through an opening in the wall. To the left is a flat area with a narrow stream amid a carpet of Fringed Phacelia and large patches of daffodil foliage. Step back through the wall and follow the QW’s level path to complete the loop.

Balsam Point flat area at end of rock wall

Balsam Point flat area at end of rock wall

A trail to the left of the log bench leads to a good view of the river both upstream and down. I wander a bit to see if there is some way to keep going and maybe find that elusive connection to the river walk, but no amount of imagination can conjure a trail worth following.

Little Pigeon's West Prong at Balsam Point

Little Pigeon’s West Prong at Balsam Point

Reader Michael Ray said he’d found another QW between Balsam Point and Chimneys Picnic with several parking spaces. From the picnic area, I drive down 441 watching carefully. From what I could tell, Balsam Point is the first QW on the highway from Chimneys Picnic and the first parking area with numerous spaces.

Now, there is a large gravel pull-off between Balsam and Jim Carr. There is no QW interpretive marker here, but a very steep, narrow, and rough trail does work its way down slope. I did not find that it joined the river walk, but I did not explore it very long either, preferring to stick with the established QWs.

Bloodroot foliage and fruit

Bloodroot foliage and fruit

These Quiet Walkways are far more interesting and rewarding than I’d imagined. Never underestimate the Smokies!

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