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 (https://travelswithbibi.com/):

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!

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