Many plans were formulated and dissolved before settling on a hike with Judy to include the Gunter Fork Trail. You have to hike a few miles to get to Gunter Fork and the USGS map shows five major stream crossings along the way. With the days getting shorter and the water getting colder, I wanted to get this hike done. In the spring some of the crossings are too dangerous to attempt. (The route we took is #7A in the Balsam Mountain section of “Day Hiker’s Guide.”)
We left Judy’s home in Asheville at 6:00 a.m. to put one car at the Big Creek picnic area and travel to the Mt. Sterling trailhead on Big Cove Road. Big Cove is a gravel one-and-a-half-lane public road that first passes modest homes with killer mountain views and then continues down the eastern side of the park to the Cataloochee area. We met a couple of pickup trucks with hunting dogs salivating in the truck beds (wonder what season it was anyway?) and were glad to cross over the park boundary…until the ride got even bumpier and we had to slow down even more. It took about 20 minutes to go the 6.5 miles, but we finally got on the trail at about 8:00 a.m.
Judy was fortified with her breakfast of champions. The only serious elevation gain of the day was the first couple of miles on Mt. Sterling Trail. The weather was awesome, mid-40’s, blue skies. (Every time I get mentally prepared for cold, I am blessed with a day like this. I guess it will catch up with me eventually, but I’m loving it right now.) We resisted the temptation to go up to the Mt. Sterling fire tower for fear of losing daylight – we had 19 miles to go today.
We turned left onto Mt. Sterling Ridge Trail and began a delightful ridge walk with big views toward Cataloochee in the east and cottony clouds down in the valley. The dry leaves were ankle deep as we passed through beech, oak and yellow birch trees. There were also Fraser magnolia trees, whose brown leaves on the ground look like tobacco leaves. We passed one huge red spruce tree (I think) that looked like it had been twisted apart about 20 feet off the ground and other trees caught it in mid-air above the trail. What could have caused that? The tree wasn’t dead, had plenty of green needles. Maybe it was rotting from the inside out?
We also passed many places where wild pigs had been rooting around and mud wrestling. I’ve seen this in every area of the park that I’ve been through.
At the intersection with Balsam Mountain Trail we took a short break, ate a snack and marveled at the intense blue sky against the bare tree branches. As I was using the “facilities” a yellow jacket popped up through the leaves about two feet from me. I was not in a position to leave, but I don’t think it saw me (ha!) Who knew those things were still active??
We quickly walked the .9 miles on Balsam Mountain Trail to the intersection with Gunter Fork, where the trail changed considerably. This was obviously not a horse trail and the level of maintenance was uneven, meaning some places were okay and in some places the trail was sliding off the mountain. The deep leaf cover made it even harder to discern the trail at times. Judy aptly named it “the trail less traveled.” The good news was that with the leaves off the trees we could continually see the ridge line of the Appalachian Trail and of Mt. Sterling Ridge as we made our way down. The 150-foot cascade of Gunter Fork was a disappointment, though, barely a trickle across the right side of the leaf-covered rock. I guess if you wish for low water for creek crossings, you also get no waterfalls…In fact, all the crossings were simple rock hops except for the last one across Big Creek where we did wade in our Crocs (can you scream “refreshing”?) I’m not good at estimating distances, but I’m guessing the creek bed there was 25 yards across, so I can imagine how dangerous it is after rain.
From Gunter Fork Trail we turned right onto Camel Gap Trail and then quickly right again onto Big Creek Trail. (The maps and mileages are a little fuzzy here.) Then we began our five-mile stroll through the lower elevation to the Big Creek picnic area. The trail was covered with a frequently changing leaf carpet: a section of yellow, a section of red, then a multicolored stretch of orange-red-gold-yellow-brown. There were still many leaves in the trees in many beautiful shades. This was one of the most stunning leaf days I had seen (and that’s saying something!)
I had read about but promptly forgotten Mouse Creek Falls along this trail until Judy spotted it, a lovely cascade that is an easy walk from the picnic area. I read about every trail before I walk it and then forget almost everything. Then I read it again after I hike and it is all crystal clear…guess that means I am a visual person?
We picked up the first car at the picnic area, retrieved the second car from the Mt. Sterling trailhead, and began winding our way back down the mountain trying to beat the daylight. We had a few nail-biting moments when we met a full sized yellow school bus on a curve on the one-and-a-half-lane gravel road, which we finally got past after we all did a cooperative little dance of I’ll-back-up-three-inches-if-you’ll-move-forward-three-inches again and again and again. Yikes!
Judy headed home and I drove to Gatlinburg, stopping at a little pizza place on the way for a meal and a to-go box. Then I locked myself inside my cozy little hotel room at Smoky Pines Resort and watched Survivor, said a prayer of thanks for another perfect day outside, and slept like a baby until the next morning when I will be hiking solo.
(Couldn't resist adding this one: leaves floating on the water)