Halloween Hike with Smokies Hiker – 10/31/08 – Noland Divide Trail/Noland Creek Trail/Springhouse Branch Trail/Noland Creek Trail – 18.5 Miles
On the night before this hike I stayed in a sketchy little motel in Bryson City, NC – was supposed to stay a second night but decided against it. New management, ladybug infestation, questionable guests, whatever, but you won’t get me back in that place again. And I like Bryson City very much, so I can’t let one bad apple spoil the whole town…
At 7:00 a.m. I met Chris from YourSmokies on the dark and lonely Lakeview Drive to leave my car at the Noland Creek trailhead. We had planned an 18.5-mile hike down from the Noland Divide trailhead on Clingmans Dome Road. I was extremely excited because this was the last of my hikes from Clingmans Dome Road before it is closed for winter on Dec 1. It was forecast to be a beautiful day.
Chris was doing me an enormous favor by accompanying me on this shuttle hike. And why was he doing it? The only thing I can figure is he is a crazy nice person, because he and I had never hiked before and he had recently finished his own project of hiking every trail and road in the Park in each season, backwards and forwards, without benefit of shuttles or key swaps or overnights. He left his home in Tennessee at 5:00 a.m. to meet me and would not get back home until after 9:00 p.m. The list of people who would do this for me is VERY short! Not only that, Chris is a wealth of information and experience and we had about 12 hours’ worth of notes to compare, so it was time well spent (for me) in many ways.
On the drive up to the trailhead we had to stop a couple of times to catch the sunrise from Newfound Gap Road. The snow from earlier in the week was still hanging around on the sides of the road, and huge icicles had formed on the rock face along Clingmans Dome Road. I was using my little Nikon, while Chris had the big guns with many lenses. Hopefully someday he will publish some of his voluminous catalog of photos.
The hike itself seemed to fly by. Noland Divide Trail began with snow and wandered gradually down the ridge until we turned right onto Noland Creek Trail. The day warmed up and we went from hats and gloves to shirt sleeves. Chris is a great talker and I strained to hear over the loud crunch of the dry leaves under our feet. Several times we rock hopped across Noland Creek, and once I stopped to put on my water shoes before wading across. (Chris is from the just-suck-it-up-and-wade-through school.) We passed through five backcountry campsites on Noland Creek Trail, cleaned a little trash out of one campfire ring. At the intersection with Springhouse Branch Trail there is a campsite, and here Chris hung his backpack on the bear cables for our out-and-back hike up Springhouse Branch. (Remember, I had hiked the other half of Springhouse Branch in September.)
Until now we were convinced that most of the leaf color was gone with the wind (sorry, couldn’t help myself) and cold temps and snow of the past few days. But then we saw Springhouse Branch…Now, when you drive through the Smokies, you can look down on the mountain slopes to see the colors. When you are driving around your town you can see the individual trees as they change colors. But when you are hiking in the Smokies, you look UP to see the colors. And with the cerulean sky on this day, the colors were spectacular. It was very hard to choose just a few photos to show here.
Now do you see why I love doing this?
The stages of leaf color changed from slope to slope and turn to turn as we walked along the trails. There would be nothing but green leaves with a hint of yellow, and then around a bend there would be a riot of color. Surprisingly, sometimes there was green on a higher slope and color on a lower slope. But eventually we had to pick up the pace if we were going to get off the trail before dark, so we turned around and headed back down Springhouse Branch.
Chris retrieved his pack and we continued on Noland Creek Trail, stopping to investigate this tree arch. Looks like it blew over on a windy day and got caught on the branches of another tree. Now its branches are growing skyward. I will have to check it out in the next ten years to see how it progresses.
We came to the end of our hike at about 4:45 p.m., making it about 8-1/2 hours for an 18.5-mile hike – not too bad. We stopped to capture the setting sun on Lakeview Drive. We had seen the sunrise, so of course we couldn’t miss the sunset, could we?
My photos are not too sharp, but that is Fontana Lake on the right.
We looked to be in good shape to make it to the Oconaluftee Visitors Center between 5:00 and 6:00 p.m. for a Halloween event with ghost stories around a fire and sorghum candy and cider BUT we did not know that Bryson City has its own Halloween celebration! The main road was closed for trick-or-treating and everyone in town was part of the fun. By the time we made it through the detour and all the way to Oconaluftee, their event was packing up. We did get some sorghum candy, though, very tasty.
In hindsight, we should have just pulled over and joined the festivities in Bryson City. It did look like fun and we were dressed as scary hikers. (Next year I’ll do that.) Seeing all the kids and families helped rebuild the image tainted by the lousy motel.
By the time I dropped Chris off at his car back up on Clingmans Dome Road it was 7:00 p.m. As I drove away, the plan was to find a “regular” hotel room in Cherokee and hike solo the next day and finish up some bits and pieces. Passing the Visitors Center again in the full dark, I slammed on brakes and narrowly missed an enormous bull elk – yikes! Cars in the opposite lane were braking, so who knows how many elk were crossing the road?
As it turned out, there was an antique car show happening in Cherokee and remaining hotel rooms were too expensive for my taste. I was tired but I decided it was a sign that I should go on home. So I drove the long, long way back to Charlotte and slept in my own bed. It was a very long, productive, fun-filled day. Thanks again, Smokies Hiker!