Sunday, March 19, 2023

Noland Creek and Noland Divide, plus an out and back on Springhouse Branch

New Miles Hiked: 20.0
Total Miles Hiked: 22.8
15-16 March, 2023

Took a couple of days over Spring Break to knock out a couple more trails over on the NC side of the park. This is my first hike that I've used a commercial shuttle. Kevin, from Bryson City Outdoors, was awesome. He met me at Deep Creek picnic area where I left my car and shuttled me out to the Noland Creek trailhead. Highly recommended - two thumbs up!

Day 1 (red): up Noland Creek trail to CS#64, up and back on Springhouse Branch trail, and then up to CS#63 for the night.
Day 2 (blue): up the rest of the way on Noland Creek trail, and then down Noland Divide trail.

I had already completed the 1 mile section of Noland Creek trail from the road down to the lake  and campsite #66 - I did that a couple of years ago as a short side hike after completing some hiking on the other side of the tunnel.

Day 1:
Noland Creek trailhead is on the Road to Nowhere, west of Bryson City, NC, with a parking lot for maybe 10 cars. The trail (and the creek) actually runs under the road, so you have to descend from the parking lot down a steep approach trail to get to Noland Creek trail.

Noland Creek trail parking lot

Actual Noland Creek trail selfie

Noland Creek trail follows its namesake creek for most of its 10.3 miles, abandoning the creek valley only at the top of the trail as it approaches Upper Sassafras Gap at the junction with several other trails. Lower down the trail is an old roadbed - a gentle grade, wide and flat, with sturdy bridges crossing the creek. Makes for very easy walking.

View of Noland Creek from the first bridge

Noland Creek trail - a wide old roadbed

There are several backcountry campsites along Noland Creek trail, spaced out along the trail. The first one you pass is #65 (Bearpen Branch). The campsite is 0.1 miles off of the trail, so I didn't take the time and effort to investigate.

Marker for the side trail to backcountry campsite #65 - Bearpen Branch

Noland Creek reminds of the many creeks that drain the south (NC) side of the main ridge: Hazel Creek, Eagle Creek, Forney Creek... Wide, rocky, cold and beautiful! There is something really magical about the sound of a mountain creek.

Noland Creek from a bridge

Like the other creek valleys, Noland Creek valley was also extensively settled pre-park. There are several spots with remnants of old homesteads. Large patches of daffodils were in flower as I passed through - a clear sign of settlement since they are not native plants. Yucca and Boxwood were also evident at several old homesites. I took my time as a meandered up the trail to stop at many of these sites and try to imagine the lives of the folks who lived here.

Stone steps leading up to an old home foundation

Old home foundation

A side trail leads UP to an old cemetery. The settlers in the Smokies always put their cemeteries high up, often on the top of ridges. This small cemetery had about 8 or 10 graves, including a couple of infants and one marker for someone "KNOWN BUT TO GOD". It was a beautiful site for a cemetery - the top of a narrow ridge, and with great views now in the early spring when the leaves are still off the trees.

Ridge-top cemetery

Along the path up to the cemetery is an old homesite, complete with a chimney that is still standing (cement held the rocks together, which I'm sure helps it stay standing). Scattered around this site are a lot of home artifacts - bedsprings, metal buckets, a broken ceramic sink... A beautiful spot for a home on a ridge just above Noland Creek.

Old home site with still-standing chimney

Noland Creek trail - easy walking with bridges and a wide footbed

About 4.1 miles from the trailhead you reach backcountry campsite #64 (Mill Creek) and the junction with Springhouse Branch trail.
Noland Creek - Springhouse Branch trail junction at campsite #64

Campsite #64 is HUGE - several picnic tables, fire rings and tent sites are available. It's wide open, and is also a horse camp so there is a horse rack at one edge. Looks like a really nice place to spend the night. I stopped here for lunch, then hung up my pack on the cable system so I could make the up-and-back hike on Springhouse Branch trail without carrying my whole pack.

Backcountry campsite #64 - Mill Creek

I had done the western end of Springhouse Branch trail on a previous trip, but needed to complete the section between Board Camp Gap and Noland Creek trail. This is a 2.8 mile section that gains about 1300' of elevation along the way.

Springhouse Branch trailhead selfie

Unlike the Noland Creek trail, this section of Springhouse Branch trail is typical narrow, single-track Smokies trail. It follows Springhouse Branch creek for the 1st half, but is usually up the ridge a bit from the creek so you don't get a lot of creek views. The lower section is also flanked by lots of Dog Hobble bushes, so it's kind of like wading through foliage.

Springhouse Branch trail

More signs of habitation - rock piles of old chimneys and foundations

Footbridge across the creek

About 1/2 way up the trail crosses the creek and then starts to climb away from the creek and up the side of Forney Ridge on its way to Board Camp Gap. The trail climbs through open forest, and then ultimately along the side of a steep ridge as you get close to the top. After a long climb, it nicely flattens out for the last little bit. I met a group of spring break hikers from Wyoming here, and followed them all the way to the Gap.

Upper section of Springhouse Branch trail as it climbs up the side of the ridge

I stopped at Board Camp Gap for a quick water break and to remember the last time I had been here. I always enjoy those connections to prior trips.

Trail junction at Board Camp Gap: Springhouse Branch and Forney Ridge trails

View from Board Camp Gap

From here I turned around and retraced my steps back to campsite #64. I was glad to be headed downhill this time and made the 2.8 mile return trip in just about 1 hour. Back at the campsite I got my pack back on and headed up Noland Creek trail for another 1.4 miles to my campsite.

Log footbridge over Noland Creek

Rock wall from an old building

I rolled in to campsite #63 (Jerry Flats) in the late afternoon and did camp chores. Set up my tent & got out the sleeping stuff, filtered water, gathered some firewood (it was supposed to a cold night - lows in the 20s), and made dinner (Mountain House Lasagna).

The campsite is large & open with tent sites and bear cables on either side of the trail. I chose the east side, right by the creek. It's very pleasant and I had it all to myself. After dinner I enjoyed the campfire and the sounds of the creek. I managed to stay up until about 9 pm when the cold finally drove me to my sleeping bag. I took my zero-degree bag on this trip to be sure I would be comfy, and I was. Slept warm and well.

Campsite #63 trail marker

My tent in the background and the fire-ring in the foreground.

Day 2:
I crawled out of bed around 7:30 am to a very chilly morning! Got breakfast (oatmeal & coffee) and packed up pretty quickly. I could see the sunlight over the top of the ridge, but the campsite is in the creek valley so it wasn't until I had already started hiking an hour later that the sunshine finally hit the valley floor. The route for this day was to finish going up Noland Creek trail to Upper Sassafras Gap, and then down Noland Divide trail to the Deep Creek picnic area.

Above campsite 63 the trail crosses Noland Creek on a footlog, and turns to a more typical Smokies trail, instead of the road-like trail of the lower section. Shortly after the crossing on the footlog is an unbridged crossing. The NatGeo map has a "high water caution" note for this crossing, suggesting that is can be potentially dangerous when the water is high. I put on my water shoes and rolled up my pants legs and made it across with no problem - it was probably mid-thigh high on me at its deepest point. It WAS painfully cold - my legs got numb and tingly almost immediately! But made it safely across with no issues.

Noland Creek trail

Unbridged crossing of Noland Creek

Wading through a green tunnel of Rhododendron, Mountain Laurel & Dog Hobble

Like many of the creek valley trails on this side of the Smokies, the last little bit climbs steeply. The trail passes backcountry campsite #61 (where I met some spring break hikers from Texas), and then turns away from the creek and up the side of the ridge.

Upper Sassafras Gap is the meeting point of Noland Creek, Noland Divide, and Pole Road Creek trails. I had done the upper section of Noland Divide and Pole Road Creek trails on a previous trip, so now it was time to turn south and finish off the Noland Divide trail. I stopped and rested here for a bit and looked at the map to discern any waypoints to look forward to. Unlike climbing up Noland Creek where there were lots of campsites and homesites to look forward to and to mark progress, the Noland Divide trail is marked mostly by the knobs it passes.

Trail junction at Upper Sassafras Gap

Trail junction at Upper Sassafras Gap

View from Upper Sassafras Gap

The first 3 miles of Noland Divide trail south of the Gap sort of roller-coaster up and down. It is mostly ridge-top / ridge-side hiking with some nice views across the valley to the other ridge (now - when the leaves are not yet out on the trees at least). The trail skirts the edge of many of the knobs (Sassafras Knob, Coburn Knob) as it winds its way south. 

View from Noland Divide trail

Noland Divide trail

About 4 1/2 miles south of Upper Sassafras Gap the trail reaches the Lonesome Pine Overlook. I didn't know what to expect from this overlook, but it was super cool! It's an exposed outcrop of slate (reminds me a bit of Cliff Tops at Mt. LeConte or Chimney Tops, but on a much smaller scale) that provides a great lookout over Bryson City. While I was there I had it all to myself and stopped for lunch in the sunshine.

Lonesome Pine Overlook marker

View of Bryson City from Lonesome Pine Overlook

The Lonesome Pine Overlook rock outcrop

From Lonesome Pine Overlook the trail follows the knife-edge of Beaureguard Ridge which is dry and piney and has lots of rock outcroppings. Very cool hiking. From here on down I encountered LOTS of day-hikers headed up to the overlook. Apparently it is a very popular day-hike destination!

The knife-edge trail along Beaureguard Ridge

Ultimately the trail drops off of Beaureguard Ridge and starts descending the ridge-side down toward Deep Creek. The trail is well-constructed and mostly smooth, although it is narrow. It was mostly easy walking from here.

Noland Divide trail descending the ridge-side toward Deep Creek

Back at Deep Creek

Deep Creek trailhead

I strolled into the Deep Creek picnic area about 3 pm and back to my car. Lots of folks out picnicking on a beautiful Thursday afternoon. I changed into some clothes I had waiting for me in the car, and then headed out for the 2-hour drive back home.

Really nice weather over the trip - daytime temps in the 50s/60s with lots of sunshine. Cool campsite, lots of history, neat overlooks and views. All in all a very nice trip. Happy to have these trails completed, and looking forward to my next trip - probably finishing off the section of Lakeshore trail that I have yet to complete from Hazel Creek over to the Road to Nowhere.

Hope you all get out and enjoy the spring weather. I'm looking forward to the Spring Wildflower Pilgrimage in April, and some warmer weather hikes.

Til next time, happy hiking!

Tuesday, September 20, 2022

Mt. Sterling out-and-back; Little Cataloochee & Palmer Creek out-and-back

New miles hiked: 11.1
Total miles hiked: 24.6
17-18 Sept. 2022

Day 1 in red, day 2 in blue. Spent the night at CS#39

Finished off a few more trails in the Cataloochee - Mt. Sterling area this weekend. The trailheads for the Mt. Sterling and Little Cataloochee trails are fairly close on Old NC 284 (aka Mt Sterling Rd) which made it convenient to get them all done on the same trip.

The Mt Sterling Rd is a narrow gravel road the skirts the eastern end of the park. I accessed it from the Waterville exit of I-40. The distance is not huge, but it's a SLOW road - 15-20 mph most of the way, so it took a while to get to the trailhead (and my car is covered with dust)!

Trailhead selfie

Parked at the Mt. Sterling trailhead with a bunch of other vehicles. It's apparently a popular day hike. Passed a bunch of folks on the trail, and saw some folks setting up camp at CS#38 near the summit of Mt. Sterling. The trail isn't long (just 2.7 mi) but it's steep - gaining about 2000' in elevation.

Some of the fall wildflowers and leaves starting to turn

Fall wildflowers were out in abundance. Fall asters, snakeroot, and Gentians were out. And the witch hobble leaves were starting to turn their lovely maroon-purple, leaving some cool patterns on the leaves.

Mt. Sterling - Long Bunk trail junction

The first bit of trail, up to the junction with the Long Bunk trail, isn't too steep. Once you pass that trail junction though it's all up, up, up. And the trail is rocky - the kind of rocks that are just big enough to turn your ankle on if you're not paying attention.

Mt. Sterling trail: rocks, rocks, and more rocks!

Mt. Sterling - Mt. Sterling Ridge trail junction

About 2.3 miles from the trailhead you reach the junction with the Mt. Sterling Ridge trail which comes in from the left (southwest). The Mt. Sterling trail continues to the right, following the ridge up to the summit, CS#38, and the fire tower.

Horse racks near the Mt. Sterling fire tower

Just before you reach the campsite and firetower is a horse rack, with a sign indicating that horses are not allow to go any further up.

View from the Mt. Sterling fire tower

Mt. Sterling fire tower stairs

Mt. Sterling USGS marker

Mt. Sterling fire tower

The fire tower itself dominates the summit. There is now a weather station (or some kind of monitoring system) at the top of the tower and a solar array to power it.

I'm a little sketchy with heights, but thought I'd surely be ok going up the tower. I had gone up others, like Shuckstack with no problem. But as I climbed, and saw the platforms with no rails or bars, my knees started to wobble and I decided that going up two flights was enough. I took a couple of pictures from the 2nd platform and turned back down.

View from the top of Mt. Sterling

Mt. Sterling - Baxter Creek trail junction

Just a few feet beyond the base of the fire tower is the end of the Mt. Sterling trail where it reaches its junction with the Baxter Creek trail, which follows the ridge down to Big Creek. Nice view off of the side of the ridge from here.

I had more driving and more hiking to do today, so I turned back down to hike back to my car pretty quickly. Tough hike up, but cool to see the fire tower and the views!

Drove a few miles down the road and parked at the trailhead for Little Cataloochee trail. I was looking forward to the historic structures and areas of this section and they didn't disappoint. I was not looking forward to the climb up & over Davidson Gap. This also did not disappoint. 😳

Trailhead selfie

Little Cataloochee valley is a narrow and steep valley just north of Cataloochee Valley. It was settled later than Cataloochee, but apparently pretty heavily. Lots of farms, apple orchards, and communities along the road through the valley.

Lobelias in flower EVERYWHERE!

Little Cataloochee trail is a gravel road for the first couple of miles

The first couple of miles of the Little Cataloochee trail is a gravel road, and presumably used by the park service to maintain the historic structures in the area. There are some steep ups and downs at the beginning, but they're mostly pretty short.

Little Cataloochee - Long Bunk trail junction

About a mile in you reach the junction with the Long Bunk trail which comes down from the north where it begins along the Mt. Sterling trail. There is a large cemetery (Hannah Cemetery) just north of this junction, along the Long Bunk trail.

Hannah Cabin

Hannah Cabin

The first historic structure you reach is the Hannah Cabin, just up the hill from the trail. One big room below, and a loft above with a front and back porch. If you notice the chimney in the picture you'll see that it's brick which is fairly unusual. Most chimneys in the park were made with stacked stone.

More fall wildflowers and berries

More beautiful fall wildflowers along the trail. Thistles, and Jewelweed, Yellow Crownbeard, and Doll's Eyes in fruit (poisonous berries).


Along the way I saw a lot of other evidence of prior habitation. Old paths that led up to home sites, sometimes even with posts flanking the path. Yucca plants (a favorite ornamental of pioneers, but not native to the area, so they always stick out). Even saw one constructed rock springhouse, right at the entrance to a home site and along the main road.

Little Cataloochee church.

Next you pass the Little Cataloochee church. This frame-built church looks like it's still in fantastic shape. Bright white and shining, both inside and out. There's a cool bell-tower (complete with a bell), and a larger cemetery next door. I could just envision how this place must have been the community center for this valley.

Dan Cook Cabin

The final historic structure you pass is the Dan Cook Cabin, a one-room cabin with a loft and a wrap-around front porch set in a wide yard with a split rail fence! This is also the end of the road, and from here on the trail reverts to typical smokies single-track type trail.

Trail becomes single track beyond Dan Cook Cabin

This is also where the trail starts to climb up toward Davidson Gap, the high point of the trail at about 3800' elevation. The climb from Dan Cook Cabin up to Davidson Gap happens over about 3/4 of a mile and gains about 600 feet. It's a bit steep, and I was quite happy to reach the gap!

Climbing UP toward Davidson Gap

From Davidson Gap down toward Pretty Hollow Gap trail is equally (if not more) steep, rocky and very wet. So I was happy to reach the Pretty Hollow Gap trail where I turned right (north) for about 1 more mile to reach backcountry campsite #39 (Pretty Hollow), which would be my home for the night.

Little Cataloochee - Pretty Hollow Gap trail junction

Pretty Hollow Gap is ROCKY!

Backcountry CS#39

I reached the campsite around 6 pm, and settled in to do camp chores. Filtered water (the creek runs right along the bottom edge of the campsite), set up my tent, cooked dinner (Mountain House beef stew), and got a little campfire going. Campsite #39 is large, but much of it is on the side of the hill, so finding a flat tent spot can be challenging. There are several official fire rings and at least a couple of sets of bear cables. I chose a site near the top of the hill. I managed to stay up until about 10 pm watching the fire.

Cheery little campfire

Sadly, CS#39 is heavily damaged by wild boars. Much of the trail and the campsite in this area is plowed up and highly disturbed.

Wild boar damage in CS#39

The next morning my hike included an out and back on the Palmer Creek trail, and then backtracking on the Little Cataloochee trail to the trailhead. Because I would be coming back this way, I opted to leave a bunch of my gear in the campsite on the bear cables, and just carried my pack with food, water, and my 10 essentials bag.

Beginning of the Palmer Creek trail at its junction with Pretty Hollow Gap trail

Palmer Creek trail runs 3.3 miles from Pretty Hollow Gap up toward Balsam Mountain Road. It follows the creek most of the way, although mostly high up on the ridge above the creek. So you can almost always hear the creek, even if you can't see it. There are 3 creek crossings - and while the little brown book says there are bridges on all 3, only the first two still actually have bridges. The Beech Creek crossing is a rock hop.

Log bridge over the creek

The first creek crossing is right at the trail beginning, and then the trail starts up the valley. For about the first mile and half, it's super-cruisy. While the trail is narrow, it's flat-ish and nicely packed dirt without lots of rocks and roots. It was early morning when I was there and the sun was shining up the valley making awesome patterns through the trees.

Palmer Creek trail is narrow and high on the ridge above the creek

Unbridged crossing of Beech Creek

The final creek crossing is at Beech Creek - I thought I had a good rock-hop path over it, but my foot slipped on a wet rock, so I had a wet left foot for the rest of the day.

Moss-lined trail near the top

From Beech Creek on up the trail leaves the creekside and starts up the ridge in earnest. It's steeper here, although the trail is still easy walking. There are places where it's deeply rutted, though. Also several sections of Rhododendron tunnels.

End of Palmer Creek trail at Balsam Mountain Road

Palmer Creek trail tops out at Balsam Mountain Road, and I stopped here for a quick snack and drink. Saw one of the few sets of other hikers I saw all day here. They were coming down Balsam Mountain Road, presumably from Pin Oak Gap which is just about 0.7 miles up the road.

More wildflowers: Cucumber Root, American Spikenard, and White Turtleheads

View of a small cascade on Palmer Creek 

From Balsam Mountain Road I turned back around and headed down. Easy-peasy trip back to the campsite. I stopped at the campsite for another snack, and then packed up the rest of my gear getting ready to head back to the car.

Little Cataloochee trail / creek

The trip back was uneventful. The climb up Davidson Gap from this side was even steeper and tougher than the climb from the other side. Also, much of the trail on this side of Davidson Gap is very rocky and often the trail and the creek are intermingled, making the hiking tough and sloppy.

First signs of Autumn - red maples are turning!

It was a good late summer / early Autumn trip! Happy to check a few more trails off the list, and neat to see the fire tower and the cabins & church in Little Cataloochee valley. The days were warm (80s) and the night cool (50s), and the beginning signs of Autumn were evident. Fall is my favorite time in the mountains!

Til next time, happy hiking!