Friday, October 8, 2021

Finishing off the Deep Creek area! Deep Creek - Martins Gap - Sunkota Ridge - Thomas Divide - Deeplow Gap - Indian Motor Creek - Thomas Divide - Stonepile Gap - Indian Creek - Deep Creek loop

New Miles Hiked: 13.9
Total Miles Hiked: 24.9
1-2 Oct. 2021

Day 1 in red, camped at Newton Bald (#52 in blue), Day 2 in green.

Needed a few more trails to wrap up all of the trails in the Deep Creek area. Day 1 was a nice meander along Deep Creek, then UP Martins Gap, and UP Sunkota Ridge to Newton Bald trail and backcountry campsite #52 for the night. Then day 2 was down Thomas Divide to Deeplow Gap, then UP Indian Creek Motor trail, then down Thomas Divide, and emptying out via Stone Pile Gap, Indian Creek & Deep Creek trails.

Trailhead selfie at Deep Creek campground

Parked at Deep Creek campground. I really like Bryson City and the Deep Creek area. Seems like lots of locals come here to picnic, enjoy short hikes or trail run. The small hiker parking lot was already full when I arrived around noon, so I circled back and parked in the nearby picnic area. Got everything out and ready to hit the trail.

Fly fisherman enjoying Deep Creek

Deep Creek is an idyllic waterway. Wide and rocky with smooth flowy areas, and small cascades and rapids. During the summer it teems with tubers. The fly fishermen have to compete for space with other recreational users. It's just a beautiful Smoky mountain creek.

Deep Creek trail

The Deep Creek trail closely parallels Deep Creek for the first couple of miles, and the path is wide and sandy/rocky. Fall flowers were on full display.

Fall flowers

After passing the Indian Creek trail at about 0.7 miles, the Deep Creek Horse trail at about 0.8 miles, and then the Loop trail at about 1.8 miles, the Deep Creek trail begins to rise above the creek itself. There's about 500' of elevation gain from the trailhead to backcountry campsite #57 and Martins Gap trail. 

Confusing trail junction: Deep Creek trail heads right and uphill.

At one point the trail seems to split into three separate trails: two of which continue to parallel the creek (fisherman trails, or bike trails maybe?), and the third, furthest to the right with the trail sign, starts to climb up to the ridge above the creek. There's a lot of good trail work in this section: boardwalks, water bars, some nice rock work at creek crossings. Kudos to the trail maintainers who keep these trails in good shape!

Small cascade & creek that cross Deep Creek trail: nice stonework to provide a walk-way and a path for the creek

Fall foliage

There are several relatively closely-spaced campsites on this section of Deep Creek: #60 (Bumgardner Branch), #59 (McCracken Branch), #58 (Nicks Nest Branch), and #57 (Bryson Place). There are even more as you continue up Deep Creek trail.

Backcountry campsite #60 trail marker

Backcountry campsite #60

I first passed #60, and it was well-occupied. Several tents, tarps, and hammocks set up and folks enjoying the day. I didn't want to intrude so I didn't stop to investigate too much, but it looked to be a nice, wide-open campsite with plenty of flat spots for tents, and the creek nearby for water.

Deep Creek trail

The trail continued to rise in elevation along this section, with some steps and water bars and pleasant forest trail.

Deep Creek trail is lined with New York fern in places

Bridge Creek cascades into Deep Creek

The long view of Deep Creek

Backcountry campsite #59 trail marker

I stopped in to campsite #59 to take a break, and found some other folks there who were also taking a trail break. They included a couple of 900-hundred-milers, and their companion who is working on it. We enjoyed swapping info and resting together for a bit before I continued to head north and up. Campsite #59 seemed pretty small, although the capacity is listed as 10, but had good flat tent spots and good creek access.

Backcountry campsite #58

Just a little further up the trail I also briefly stopped in at campsite #58. The capacity for this site is listed as 6, and it also seemed small, but with some good flat tent spots and good access to water.

Martins Gap - Deep Creek trail junction

Backcountry campsite #57

At campsite #57 the Deep Creek trail reaches its junction with the Martins Gap trail. This is where I would turn right (east) and UP, and to new trail miles. Campsite #57 (Bryson Place) is famous for being Horace Kephart's last permanent camp in the Smokies. Kephart was a great advocate for the national park and author of "Our Southern Highlanders" - an exceptional description of the area of the GSMNP before it was a park. Highly recommended to read!

My route was up Martins Gap trail to Martins Gap where I would pick up the Sunkota Ridge trail heading north (and more up). This section of Martins Gap trail (from Deep Creek to Martins Gap) is pretty straight up. You gain about 1000' of elevation over 1.5 miles. The trail climbs through and along the edge of the ridges up to the Sunkota Ridge at Martins Gap, so not a lot of views but a good climb through the forest. There were several big blow-downs along my whole route this time, including this big one on Martins Gap trail. It was passable for sure, but required some scrambling over and under the brush.

Big blow-down on Martins Gap trail

up, Up, UP on Martins Gap trail

More fall botanicals

Martins Gap - Sunkota Ridge trail junction at Martins Gap

I stopped here at Martins Gap for a break, and remembered my previous efforts in the Deep Creek area when I couldn't make the ups and downs... It felt good to be back in the area and making good progress! From here my route turned north on the Sunkota Ridge trail, up toward the Thomas Divide trail and Newton Bald. I was admittedly nervous. This section of Sunkota Ridge is almost 5 miles long, and I was afraid it was going to be straight up for 5 miles... Luckily, that was not the case.

Sunkota Ridge trail

Fall beginning to show in the Sourwood and Blueberry leaves!

I was really pleasantly surprised with this section of the Sunkota Ridge trail. While it gains about 1400' in elevation from Martins Gap to the Thomas Divide trail, it (mostly) does so gently. The first few miles were really pleasant, walking through the woods with ferns and grasses along the trail, with some ups and then some flat sections, and so on. You could see fall beginning in the colors of the leaves of the Sourwoods, the Blueberries, the Chestnuts, and the Sassafras!

The last mile or so before you reach Thomas Divide trail definitely gets steeper, but I was so relieved that the whole thing wasn't steep that I didn't even really notice.

up, Up, UP the last bit of Sunkota Ridge!

Phew... the Sunkota Ridge - Thomas Divide trail junction, just north of Newton Bald

The junction with Thomas Divide trail took me back a couple of years. In 2019 I did Kanati Fork and the upper chunk of Thomas Divide. I had stopped at this trail junction, and looking at the map, tried to imagine when I would be back. And here I was. One of my favorite parts about the journey - all of the connections.

Thomas Divide trail from Sunkota Ridge to Newton Bald

Trail junction: Thomas Divide and Newton Bald trails

I hiked the 0.4 miles from the Thomas Divide-Sunkota Ridge trail junction down to the Newton Bald trail, and then turned left (east) on Newton Bald trail for just 0.2 miles to backcountry campsite #52 (Newton Bald). This was my destination for the night. Last time I was here was January, 2021 and the snow was deep enough that I couldn't find the fire ring! Campsite #52 is nice with tent areas down in the gap (near the bear cables and the trail to the water source) and an upper area on a little knoll above the rest of the campsite. Set up the tent, had dinner, did a little reading, and then headed off to bed around 9:30 pm. I was beat! Also, the water source for campsite #52 is good, but it's a fair bit DOWN and the back UP from the campsite itself. Not a trip you want to make multiple times if you don't have to...  Met some other really nice folks camping there.

Good night!


Got up and ate breakfast and packed up Saturday morning to get ready to head back down. I am still experimenting with a variety of trail foods, and must say the breakfast meal I had this morning was less than satisfying... Good thing I had some pop-tarts bites to go along with it!

The campsite and trail were socked in with early morning fog which was beautiful!!!

Fog encasing CS#52 in the early morning

Morning selfie - getting ready for new miles on Thomas Divide

Walking through the early morning fog on Thomas Divide

More new trail miles today. 0.2 miles back to the trail junction between Newton Bald and Thomas Divide trails and then down Thomas Divide for 3.1 miles. The trail drops about 1300' in elevation from here to Deeplow Gap. It's a pleasant, mostly ridge-top / ridge-side trail through open woods, with some flattish sections near to the top, and then a pretty continuous descent down into the gap for the last couple of miles. 

Thomas Divide - Deeplow Gap trail junction

Here at Deeplow Gap I turned right (west) onto Deeplow Gap Trail which drops down the ridge into the valley formed by Georges Branch, a creek that the trail follows for much of the lower section. It drops another 1300' in elevation from Deeplow Gap to its end at the Indian Creek trail junction.

Down Deeplow Gap trail

More fall wildflowers

Deeplow Gap trail

Backcountry campsite #51 Georges Branch

Backcountry campsite #51 Georges Branch

Not far above the junction of Deeplow Gap and Indian Creek Motor trail lies backcountry campsite #51 (Georges Branch), which must be sort of new. It is not shown on my 2010 Nat Geo map, but it is on the 2011 version of the GSMNP $1 map (same goes for campsite #46 Estes Branch which is not far away on Indian Creek trail). This campsite is pretty open, doesn't look to have very many really flat spots for tents, but does have a campfire ring and set of bear cables.
I hung my pack here so I could make the hike down 0.4 miles to the end of Deeplow Gap trail and then back up without having to carry my pack the whole way.

Deeplow Gap - Indian Creek Motor Trail junction

Just a tenth of a mile below CS#51 you reach the trail junction with Indian Creek Motor trail which is where I would be heading next, but had to make the quick run down to Indian Creek trail and back first. This section (between Indian Creek Motor Trail and Indian Creek Trail) is clearly part of an old road system - wide and rocky, and with a nice bridge over Georges Branch.

Bottom section of Deeplow Gap trail

Deeplow Gap - Indian Creek trail junction

I reached the end of Deeplow Gap trail at Indian Creek trail, and then turned back up to retrieve my pack back at CS#51 and then turn down south on Indian Creek Motor trail. As its name implies, Indian Creek Motor trail is an old road. From the Deeplow Gap trail to Thomas Divide trail is 1.8 miles and gains about 900' of elevation. The ascent was pretty steady - what you might expect for a road, and not especially scenic. The trail hugs the contour of the ridge, rising steadily.

Indian Creek Motor Trail rising from the Deeplow Gap trail.

Up, up, up - steady ascent on Indian Creek Motor Trail.

Thomas Divide - Indian Creek Motor Trail junction

Finally (quite happily!) reached the Thomas Divide trail again at the top of Indian Creek Motor trail. This ends my new miles for this trip. From here I continued back down Thomas Divide to Stone Pile Gap trail, then to Indian Creek trail (with a stop at Indian Creek Falls), then back to Deep Creek trail and back to my car.

Really nice to get this section of trails wrapped up, with beautiful fall weather, and really nice terrain to walk. I love this section of the park. Deep Creek is a nice campground and the trails in the area are lovely. Also really like Bryson City - it's a quaint small town with some fun shops and restaurants and a very outdoorsy vibe.

Slowly chipping away at the last few trails to complete. Maybe I'll get to squeeze in another trip this fall. 

Til next time, happy hiking!

Tuesday, September 28, 2021

Flat Creek, Spruce Mountain, Hyatt Ridge (in part): camping & hiking in North Carolina

 New miles hiked: 5.7
Total Miles Hiked: 11.4
25-26 Sept. 2021

Sarah and I took the weekend to camp at Balsam Mountain Campground in the Smokies, and do a few hikes in the area near Balsam Mountain, the Heintooga Round Bottom Road, and Straight Fork Road. It *REALLY* felt like autumn this weekend, especially at higher elevation. It was really very nice and relaxing, and we loved Balsam Mountain Campground - this was our first time staying there!

Balsam Mountain entrance GSMNP

Balsam Mountain entrance GSMNP

We drove from Knoxville over to Balsam Mountain via I-40 and the Blue Ridge Parkway. About a 2 1/2 hour drive from home. When we arrived we drove straight up to the Heintooga picnic area and overlook, where the trailhead for the Flat Creek trail is.

* Note: I'm not sure what to call the road that the Flat Creek trail is on. Google Maps shows it as BOTH Heintooga Ridge Road AND Balsam Mountain Road. So I may use either one in my text below.

Heintooga picnic area with stone slab picnic tables

Starting the Flat Creek trail from the Heintooga Picnic Area

View from the Heintooga Overlook

We parked at the Heintooga Picnic Area / Overlook parking area and walked up to the picnic area. I had read about, but never seen the stone slab picnic tables - super cool! From the picnic area we wandered around a bit until we finally stumbled on to the beginning of the Flat Creek trail near the Heintooga Overlook.

Flat Creek trail basically follows the course of Flat Creek south from the Heintooga Overlook / Picnic Area down to Heintooga Road. It's only 2.6 miles long, and doesn't have a ton of elevation change so it's a nice easy trail. It does have some elevation change near each end, so you basically drop down from the trailhead, meander along through the middle, and then climb back up at the end, no matter which way you hike it.

The trail is very pretty - the undergrowth is very grassy & ferny and there's not a lot of underbrush so you can see down into the forest. It follows Flat Creek off and on, and especially in the upper parts closer to Heintooga Overlook, you see LOTS of game trails leading down to the creek, or up into the forest. We saw what we figured were Elk hoof prints along the trail - way too large to be deer, and there are definitely elk in the area.

Part way through the trail we came to a directional sign: 0.7 miles from Heintooga Road and 1.9 miles from Heintooga Picnic Area. It's unusual to have signage in the middle of the trail, so I figured this had to be an old trail junction. Looking at some of the old Smokies maps there were a few trails that used to branch off of Flat Creek trail leading over to some of the ridges to the west, and down into the Qualla Boundary.

Section of Flat Creek trail

Elk hoof prints along Flat Creek trail

Trail sign in the middle of the trail...?

Looking like fall with leaves covering the trail

Flat Creek trailhead on Balsam Mountain Road

After completing the trail at Heintooga Ridge Road, we stopped for a snack and a drink, then turned around and headed back north. While the Flat Creek trail is a very pleasant trail, I was a little disappointed that there weren't more views. I was hoping, being at such high elevation, that there would be some good overlooks through the trees to the neighboring ridges. But no such luck, at least not in summer when the leaves are all still on the trees. Otherwise, it's a very nice trail and highly recommended!

After completing our hike we drove the short bit back down to Balsam Mountain Campground for the night. This was our first time camping here and it was very nice. It's a pretty small campground compared to Elkmont or Cades Cove. There's one road coming in, and then a small loop at the end. A couple of restrooms, and a dish-washing station. There were a few RVs, but it was mostly tent camping. Because it's a small campground on a ridge, the sites are sort of squished together. Our tent pad was probably 15 feet from the next closest tent pad. We set up and had a nice fire, chili for dinner, and watched the stars come out. The campground is up around 5000 feet in elevation, so it was chilly after the sun went down!

Our campsite under big Red Spruce trees at Balsam Mountain Campground

The next morning we got up, had some coffee, bacon & eggs for breakfast, and broke camp. The goal for the day was to drive north and then west on Heintooga Round Bottom Road to do Spruce Mountain trail, and a chunk of the Hyatt Ridge trail.

Heintooga Round Bottom Road is a one-way gravel road that skirts the side of the ridge. It's pretty well maintained, but it's still a gravel road and there are potholes and ruts to be sure. The suggested speed limit is 15 mph, and I rare got above 20 mph. So it's not a quick drive!

I forgot to take a picture of the sign at the beginning of the Heintooga Round Bottom Road where it starts at the picnic area, so here's one I borrowed from another site (

Heintooga Round Bottom Road entrance

The drive along Heintooga Round Bottom Road was neat. It reminded me of Rich Mountain Road that climbs out of Cades Cove to the ridge above Townsend. Some glimpses of nice views out to the surrounding ridges, but no amazing overlooks. We saw one other vehicle while we were on it, and a pair of hikers. So not an especially well-traveled road!

Our first stop was the trailhead for Spruce Mountain trail. This is a short 1.2 mile trail that climbs from the road up to the summit of Spruce Mountain, and then down a bit to backcountry campsite #42. 

While Spruce Mountain trail is only 1.2 miles long, it does gain about 700 feet of elevation, and the uphill is constant until you reach the top of the ridge at about 1.0 miles.

Spruce Mountain trailhead on Heintooga Round Bottom Road

Spruce Mountain trailhead

Spruce Mountain trail is kind of in two parts, both UPhill, but of different character. The first part, from the road climbs along the edge of the ridge. Lots of rock walls to the right, and steep drop offs to the left. Rhododendrons line much of the trail. Then you hit a hard switchback to the right and start climbing up to the summit. The Red Spruce trees become dominant and the trail is rocky. It's pretty majestic climbing through the columns of spruce.

Beginning of Spruce Mountain trail

Crazily precariously perched tree along Spruce Mountain trail

Climbing through the Red Spruce trees

The trail tops out at about a mile above the trailhead. From here it continues along the ridge and down a bit toward campsite #42. The Polls Gap trail used to continue from here south toward the Balsam Mountain road, but Polls Gap trail was closed many years ago because it was deeply eroded and had many blow-downs. While the signs say "temporarily closed" it appears that the closure is permanent. (I was sorely tempted to get out my sharpie and put quotation marks around temporarily on the sign, but I resisted...)

Top of the ridge. 0.2 miles to Campsite #42

Spruce Mountain trail along the top of the ridge

Trail sign warning that Polls Gap trail is "temporarily" closed

Campsite #42 (Spruce Mountain) is in a nice area near the top of the ridge and surrounded by giant spruce trees, but the campsite itself didn't seem all that inviting. It has a small listed capacity of just 4 campers. There are few flat areas for tents, and a small, muddy fire pit & sitting area. The bear cables are directly behind the fire pit (took a little looking to find them). 

New campsite #42 trail marker

Old campsite #42 marker, now leaning agains a tree in the middle of the campsite

Fire pit / sitting area

From here we retraced our steps back to the car, and continued on down Heintooga Round Bottom Road toward Cherokee NC. You pass several trailheads as you drive this route. Palmer Creek trail comes in from the right from Cataloochee, then you pass Balsam Mountain trailhead about 0.6 miles later at Pin Oak Gap. A little further on you hit the two trailheads for Beech Gap trail. The second trailhead is where the one-way Heintooga Round Bottom Road switches to the two-way Straight Fork Road. This part of the drive is much straighter and less steep than the Heintooga Round Bottom Road. You pass the Round Bottom horse camp, and then get to a small parking area for the Hyatt Ridge trailhead.

I am planning a big, long loop backpacking trip for next year in this area and I wanted to get the bottom section of Hyatt Ridge trail done so I wouldn't have to do it as an out-and-back during my backpacking trip. Sarah stayed in the car and did some class prep while I did this trail. The section from Straight Fork road up to the junction with Enloe Creek trail is just 1.9 miles (the map says 1.8, but the signs say 1.9), and gains 1500 feet in elevation. Phewww... It was STEEP!

Hyatt Ridge trailhead selfie

The trail climbs northwest along side Hyatt Creek for most of this section, although you are usually high up above the actual creek, rather than climbing right beside it. The trail climbs from the road up through the valley of Hyatt Creek for probably about the first mile. It then crosses the creek and its small feeder creeks a couple of times before veering left (west-ish) as it approaches the top of Hyatt Ridge. The trail skirts edge of the ridge, still climbing steeply to the junction with Enloe Creek trail.

Not a lot to recommend about this section of the Hyatt Ridge trail. It's steep, you don't get much in the way of views, either of the creek or anything else. Oh - and did I mention that it's steep? From here I turned around and made my way back down to the car.  

Heading up Hyatt Ridge trail

Big blow-down (2 trees side-by-side)

Up, up, up!

Trail junction for Hyatt Ridge & Enloe Creek trails

From here we continued on to Cherokee via Straight Fork road, and then out of the park on to Big Cove road. In Cherokee we jumped on to US 441 - Newfound Gap road and headed home, still a couple of hours away.

Nice weekend, beautiful fall weather, great night at the Balsam Mountain Campground, and some good hikes. Fall is THE best time to be in the Smokies. I've got one more trip planned down in Deep Creek coming up soon to finish off the trails in that area. Hopefully we'll get some more hikes in during October.

Til next time, happy hiking!