Wednesday, June 3, 2020

Fork Ridge - Big Creek - Pole Road Creek - Noland Divide - AT

New Miles Completed: 12.1
Total Miles Hiked: 17.7
1-2 June 2020

For this trip I drove up to Clingmans Dome Road and parked at the Fork Ridge trailhead. My route took me down Fork Ridge trail to Deep Creek trail to backcountry campsite #55 for the night. The next day I went up Pole Road Creek trail to Noland Divide trail back to Clingmans Dome Road. After a short road walk I hopped on to the AT to make my way back to the Fork Ridge trailhead. I've done Deep Creek trail before, but Fork Ridge, Pole Road Creek, and Noland Divide were all new trails for me.

Trailhead selfie

The trails that drop down off of Clingmans Dome Road are some of my favorite in the park. I did Forney Ridge & Forney Creek last year and loved them (even if they kicked my butt...). Fork Ridge & Noland Divide are in the same category. As you step away from the trailhead for Fork Ridge you step into the Spruce forest and everything smells like Christmas. You're walking on the bones of the mountain - rocks and tree roots. I don't know anything about the logging history in this part of the park, but there were some BIG trees in this section! I can't tell you how many times I stopped just to touch the trunk of a big tree, and stare up into its canopy.

Upper section of Fork Ridge trail

Beautiful blue skies and mountain views
 Fork Ridge trail is 5.1 miles long and goes from Clingmans Dome road down to a junction with Deep Creek trail. Along the way it drops about 2800 feet in elevation from 5900 feet at Clingmans Dome Road to 3100 feet at the Deep Creek junction. So it's pretty much steadily down, down, down. The upper part of the trail is through spruce forest, cool and dark. As the trail drops is gets drier and sunnier and the mountain laurels, rhododendrons and pines become dominant. The trail takes on the "long green tunnel" feel in some places. There are occasional views off to either side of the trail of the surrounding ridges.

"long green tunnel"
Some flowers from Fork Ridge trail

As you approach the bottom of the trail you can start to hear the roar of Deep Creek. Fork Ridge trail ends at a ford of Deep Creek - on the other side of the creek you pick up Deep Creek trail. In my 2001 edition of the Little Brown Book it says that there should be a bridge here, but I see no evidence of any bridge, and it's a knee-deep ford of cold and fast-flowing water.

Deep Creek ford at the end of Fork Ridge trail

Fork Ridge - Deep Creek trail junction

After fording the creek, the Deep Creek trail junction sign is just on the other side. The trail leads left (north) up to Newfound Gap Road / US 441 and right (south) toward Bryson City, NC. I turned right to descend toward Pole Road Creek trail. Backcountry campsite #53 is in a clearing near the trail junction. The trail goes right through the middle of the campsite and it's not terribly large to begin with - room for 3 or 4 tents maybe - but nicely located near the creek and open and sunny.

Backcountry campsite #53
Deep Creek trail follows its namesake all the way from Newfound Gap Road to Deep Creek campground. Sometimes the trail is on the ridge beside / above the creek and you can hear, but not see the creek. Sometimes the trail is RIGHT AT the edge of the creek and you are rock-hopping from boulder to boulder. It's a beautiful mountain stream and the sound of the roaring water is one of my favorite sounds in the world. Couple that with the mountain laurel being in flower and it was idyllic.

Mountain Laurel in flower along Deep Creek

Even though it's only June, the trail is starting to get overgrown in places. Along the creek the dog hobble can get really thick and grow out into the trail making it feel more like you are wading through vegetation than hiking!

Dog Hobble encroaching on Deep Creek trail
In about the middle of this section of Deep Creek trail there is one spot where the trail detours away from the creek - you go UP the side of the ridge, walk a little way along the ridge, and then drop back DOWN to the creek.

About 2.7 miles from the Fork Ridge trail junction you reach backcountry campsite #54. This was where I had originally intended to stay. But right before my trip I read some campsite reviews that weren't great, and I saw that the campsite reservations were at capacity for the site. Whereas campsite #55 which was just 0.8 miles further down the trail only had 1 other person reserved, so I opted to change my reservation to #55. I'm really glad I did - campsite #54 looked FULL when I walked by and also looked small and closed in on all sides. It does sit very near the creek which is nice and I can imagine it would be a pleasant site if you were there with a small group.

Campsite #54 trail marker

Backcountry campsite #54 view from the trail - the rest of the site is behind the vegetation to the right
Right before arriving at campsite #55 for the night the trail reaches a tricky spot where another large creek flows into Deep Creek. The trail kind of disappears at the edge of the creek and then reappears on the bank maybe 50 feet downstream on the left. The problem is, there is a ginormous pile of logs & brush in the middle of the creek that obscures your view, so I had no idea where the trail had gone... I ended up walking along the log-jam, then fording the knee-deep creek the right bank, and then re-fording the creek back to the left bank where I finally saw the trail pick up. By the time I got done with this I was ready to be done for the day, and my campsite was just down the trail.

Campsite #55 is HUGE. It's a horse camp, so there is an open field with horse racks. There are two sets of bear cables. There's a big open area near the fire pit with a really cool rustic picnic table. And I had it completely to myself. Even though the reservation system listed 1 other person + horse, nobody else showed up. I love this campsite! The only downside is that it was a big buggy, but not bad at all.

Campsite #55: fire ring + picnic table. Bear cables are to the right of the fire ring.

Campsite #55 trail marker

Campsite #55: 2nd set of bear cables & horse rack
I set up my hammock, explored the campsite, ate dinner, read for a bit, watched the fireflies and moon come out, and then settled in to bed around 10 pm.

Just beyond campsite #55 is the junction with Pole Road Creek trail, where there is a classic tree-trunk bridge over Deep Creek. I love these old bridges and the views of the creeks they afford.

Deep Creek selfie from the bridge.
Next morning I was up early, had breakfast and packed up. I knew that today was going to be ALL uphill. Pole Road Creek trail gains about 1700 feet and then Noland Divide gains another 1500 feet.

I am curious about the name - Pole Road Creek... Anyway, the trail is a 3.3. mile connector between two big ridges: Fork Ridge on the east, and Noland Divide on the west.

Deep Creek - Pole Road Creek trail junction

Bridge over Deep Creek
Pole Road Creek trail follows Pole Road Creek for about the first 2 miles from its junction with Deep Creek. It's a beautiful mountain streams with lots of character - many small pools and waterfalls, boulder and log jams. The trail follows beside or above the creek, and crosses it (without bridges) several times. Most of these crossings are about ankle deep or so, and many can be (mostly) rock-hopped. We've had a lot of rain this year, so I suspect the water is higher than normal. 

Pole Road Creek trail
The trail leads ever upwards - sometimes steeply, sometimes it levels out for a bit, but always up. After about 2 miles you cross Pole Road Creek for the last time and the trail takes a hard left turn up a ridge. You're now hiking up the side of the ridge and are overlooking the Pole Road Creek valley that you just ascended. The woods here are open and sunny and it's a pleasant ridge-side trail. Getting steeper toward the end you ultimately come out at Upper Sassafras Gap where Pole Road Creek trail meets Noland Divide and Noland Creek trails. I stopped here for a snack and a breather before tackling Noland Divide. Met a few guys here - 2 dads + their 3 sons who had driven down from Chicago to hike in the Smokies.

Noland Divide - Noland Creek trail junction sign at Upper Sassafras Gap

Noland Divide - Pole Road Creek trail junctions sign at Upper Sassafras Gap

Noland Divide trail
From this junction up to Clingmans Dome Road, Noland Divide trail is a 3.7 mile stretch that's kind of like doing Fork Ridge trail in reverse. It starts out open and sunny with pines, rhododendrons and mountain laurels and rises steadily along the ridge. You get glimpses of the surrounding ridges through the trees. As you get higher and higher the trail moves into the spruce forest again, and occasionally becomes deeply rutted.

Noland Divide trail entering the spruce zone

Deep ruts on Noland Divide trail
Near the top of the trail I was surprised to look up and see a metal tower on the trail above me. The sign on the fence says this is an Acid Deposition Study site where scientists from Oak Ridge are tracking the deposition of airborne pollutants. Not sure if the study is ongoing - the equipment looked to be in pretty poor condition, and I'm not even sure the wires from the tower were actually connected to anything. Looks like this is part of the park's overall air quality monitoring research.

Scientific research tower

Upper section of Noland Divide trail.
After this I wasn't far from the top - but by now I was worn out and moving slowly even though it wasn't even noon yet. I was happy to come out to Clingmans Dome Road! I was surprised that there was not any kind of trail sign for Noland Divide trail here at the road. There's a gate and an empty post, but no traditional brown sign.

Now all I needed to do was to get back to my car which was back at the Fork Ridge trailhead, 2 road miles away. I considered trying to hitch, but given the current Covid19 pandemic I decided that would be a poor choice. So I thought I'd be clever, and instead of road-walking all the back to my car I would hop on to the Appalachian Trail which parallels Clingmans Dome Road and take that back to the Fork Ridge trailhead. What I didn't realize / remember was that this little section of the AT actually goes UP and over Mt. Collins, well above Clingmans Dome Road... So I gave myself another 600 foot elevation gain up and over Mt. Collins over those 2 miles just to put a nice end to the trip. But I love the AT, and always take the opportunity to hike on it when I can.

Appalachian Trail: trail jct with Sugarland Mtn trail near Mt. Collins, Fork Ridge trail, and roadside sign

A few flowers from the AT section including Spring Beauty which finished flowering over a month ago at low elevation.
Phew... Made it back to my car and headed home. Another great overnighter in the Park. Tough trails with lots of elevation loss and gain, but such beautiful sections. These high elevation sections really make me smile.

Planning to go spend some time in Bryson City and knock out a bunch of trails in that section later on this summer. I am hopeful that by the end of next summer I will be able to finish this quest! Got some big backpacking trips in my future.

Til next time, happy hiking!

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