Thursday, January 14, 2021

Mingus Creek - Newton Bald - Tow String loop

New miles hiked: 13.4
Total Miles hiked: 16.8
13-14 January, 2021

Got one last trip in before the new semester begins. I enjoy winter backpacking. Different scenery, different challenges, WAY fewer people.

This trip took me up the Mingus Creek trail to Newton Bald to spend the night at backcountry campsite #52 (Newton Bald campsite). Then down Newton Bald trail to Smokemont Campground so I could take the stable trail north to meet the Tow String trail. Then south on the Tow String trail to the Tow String horse area, and then a road walk back to my car at Mingus Mill. On the trail for almost 24 hours exactly: 1:30 pm on 1/13 to 1:45 on 1/14.

Day 1 in blue, day 2 in green.

Trailhead selfie

Mingus Creek trail starts at the Mingus Mill, on the NC side of the park between the Oconaluftee Visitor Center and Smokemont Campground. There is an old grist mill there that I visited on my return. The trail starts at the end of the parking lot and is also a road for the first part. There are several wide and sturdy bridges, and the the trail is wide and even.

Mingus Creek from a bridge on the Mingus Creek trail

Mingus Creek trail is wide and even near the beginning

NPS firing range about 1/2 mile up Mingus Creek trail

There are several rock-hop creek crossings as you ascend Mingus Creek trail. They were all easy to traverse without getting wet feet. There are also several sections of the trail that are creek-like where water is running down the trail. 

Creek crossing on Mingus Creek trail

Creek / trail...

While it was sunny and in the 50s when I left the parking lot, it got cooler and snowier as I ascended. The Mingus Mill is at about 2000' elevation, and Newton Bald is at about 5000'. I started to encounter snow at about 3000' feet, and it became a constant companion as I hiked up.

Snow along Mingus Creek trail

About 1/2 way up the Mingus Creek trail you reach Deeplow Gap and a junction with Deeplow Gap trail. The Mingus Creek trail turns sharp right (north) here and starts to ascend the ridge toward Newton Bald.

Mingus Creek - Deeplow Gap trail junction

Mingus Creek trail ascends from Deeplow Gap

From here the Mingus Creek trail follows the ridgeline, sometimes dropping off to one side or the other, but always rising. I didn't find this section to be quite as steep as the lower 1/2 of Mingus Creek. Lots of Rhododendron and Mountain Laurel under a canopy of oaks. Because it's winter there were good views down into the valley on either side of the ridge. At this point the trail was completely snow-covered.

Looking southwest from Mingus Creek trail

Snow-covered Mingus Creek trail

The Mingus Creek trail tops out at a little over 5000' elevation at its junction with the Newton Bald trail. I turned left (west) here toward campsite #52, just 1/2 mile away.

Mingus Creek - Newton Bald trail junction

Campsite #52 was my destination for the night. I arrived around 4:30 and I knew I didn't have much daylight left. It was weird arriving in the snow and not being able to see the layout of the campsite, since everything was buried under a few inches of snow. The bear cables and trail to water were at the low point of the gap, but I didn't see any obvious tent sites or fire rings in that area. So I trudged up to the top of the knob nearby and found a good flat tentsite (under a tree so no snow!) and a fire ring.

Trail sign for Campsite #52 - Newton Bald campsite

Bear cables at campsite #52

Side trail down the hill to the spring for water

I quickly got unpacked and got my tent set up, food and cooking gear out, and gathered some firewood. It would be dark and get much colder pretty soon... I used my new alcohol stove (super light! Toaks Titanium) to boil water for my Mountain House Beef Stew. I love the lightness and ease of the alcohol stove. Still have to fine-tune how much alcohol to carry and how much it takes to boil how much water. Made enough water for some hot chocolate too. 

Boiling water on my new alcohol stove

Made a small fire - mostly for the cheer of the flames

Found a snow-free site under a big hemlock tree

Sunset from campsite #52

With dinner done, hot chocolate consumed, the sun set, and my fire burning down I lingered a bit, but by 7 pm it was cold enough to drive me to my tent. I have a Sea-to-Summit sleeping pad with a good R-value, and a 0-degree down bag from Sierra Design, so I knew I'd be cozy warm for the night. But getting in to bed and changing out of the day's hiking clothes into long johns is a cold business. Brrr... Good night!

I managed to convince myself to get out of bed around 7 am the next morning, luckily just as the sun was rising over the ridge. To get myself warmed up I hiked the last 0.2 miles from campsite #52 out to the junction with the Thomas Divide Trail and back. Caught a great sunrise and got my blood moving. Temperature was about 25 degrees F.

Sunrise from campsite #52

Newton Bald - Thomas Divide trail junction

As the sun was rising above the ridge I made my Mountain House Biscuits & Gravy breakfast + a cup of Starbucks coffee. While the water was boiling I got my gear packed up and ready to go so I could hit the road right after breakfast. From the campsite it was 0.5 miles back to the Mingus Creek - Newton Bald trail junction. The sun was in my face and it was a beautiful morning!

Heading out on Newton Bald trail

Newton Bald trail follows straight down the ridge for the first mile or so, and then starts following the side of the ridgeline as it descends toward Smokemont. The walking was good - snowy up top and in the shaded valleys, but clearing out lower down and in sunny areas. There are nice views to the valleys on either side of the ridge here as well.

Upper parts of Newton Bald were all snow-covered

View into the Oconaluftee River Valley from Newton Bald trail

Lower down the snow cleared off

There's nothing really remarkable about the Newton Bald trail, but it was a pleasure to hike. Up on the ridge, and then down lower along the side of the ridge, it's an easy trail (coming down) with good views (in winter).  Occasionally the trail was very narrow and the slope down very steep so I had to watch my step, especially in the snow. But all in all, a very nice morning's hike.

Newton Bald trailhead at US 441 / Newfound Gap Rd.

Having reached Newfound Gap Road, my next challenge was to navigate the trails around Smokemont Campground to reach the beginning of the Tow String trail. I crossed Newfound Gap Road and the Oconaluftee River on the road into Smokemont. Just across the bridge there is a parking lot near the old church and a trail that leads left (north) 1 mile to the end of the Bradley Fork trail / beginning of the Tow String trail.

Oconaluftee River

Beginning of the trail near the church (apparently the Smokemont Stable trail)
What the heck...? Strangest "trail" ever

The Smokemont Stable trail or whatever it's called is weird. It's graveled for much of the way, and is clearly used by 4-wheelers. There was fresh gravel on much of it, and a couple of guys with shovels smoothing it out at one point. The trail follows the ridge above Smokemont Campground, so you can see down into the campground occasionally. You also pass an old amphitheater that must be part of the campground, but is very overgrown and most of the seats are missing... Weird.

Regardless, ultimately the trail meets the end of the Bradley Fork trail at the north end of Smokemont Campground. A little bit up the hill and you finally run in to the Tow String trail, which turns back south.

Tow String trail - Smokemont Stables trail junction

Tow String trail - Smokemont Stables trail junction

I don't have much to say about the Tow String trail except:
1. I expected it to be flat and it absolutely was NOT (clearly did not check my map closely).
2. Why the heck would you build a trail that goes WAY up the ridge only to come back WAY down the ridge, when there is already a perfectly good trail that follows the bottom of the ridge?
3. Glad I am not a horse being forced to carry a rider over this ridiculous trail.
Not a fan. 

End of the Tow String trail at the Tow String Horse Area

Tow String trail empties out at the Tow String horse area - a camping spot for equestrians along Newfound Gap road. I stopped here and lounged at one of the picnic tables with my shoes and socks off to have a snack and a rest. 

The remainder of my trip was a 1.7 mile (according to Google Maps) road walk back down to Mingus Mill and my car. Easy peasy - took me 30 minutes. Some nice views of the Oconaluftee River along the way.

Once I got back and changed out of my hiking clothes I took a few minutes to see the Mingus Mill. The mill itself is closed this time of year, but you can see and admire the incredible woodwork to build the flume to bring water to the mill. 

Mingus Mill

Happy to hop back in my car and head home, but what a beautiful trip! I really enjoyed this little loop (except for Tow String...).

Til next time, happy hiking!