Judy’s Hazel Creek Backpack Trip – Day One – AT/Welch Ridge/Hazel Creek/Bone Valley - 19 Miles
We stepped onto the Clingman’s Dome Bypass Trail, quickly warming up along this half-mile uphill climb and shedding some layers. IMHO, this rutted and eroded trail is good for only two things: avoiding the crowds on the paved trail to the tower and getting the heart pumping on a cold day. But at the top is the magic spot – stepping onto the Appalachian Trail. The more I hike, the stronger the feeling of auras of past hikers on the AT flowing around me. And I discovered on this trip another layer of presence – my hiking partners of the past year as I walked these trails.
The AT descends gently down (doesn’t feel so gentle going back up!) the ridge line, alternately slipping to the left for views of NC and then to the right for glimpses of TN. Brilliant red berries of mountain ash glowed against the blue sky. Once again it was necessary to take a bazillion photographs in hopes of preserving the memory. We walked through closed-in spruce-fir woods and across grassy balds and my heart felt elated at being in the Smokies once again, here on top of the world.
We passed the Goshen Prong Trail coming in on the right and remarked at our hike last year down that trail (river) in a downpour. I resolved to return on a sunny day to every trail I had walked in the rain. As we approached Double Spring Gap Shelter I was looking forward to a bathroom break and a quick snack. Judy was ahead of me as the grassy open area came into view, and suddenly she stopped and whispered that wonderful/awful/scary/where’s-my-camera word: “Bear!”
Now, this bear was hanging out in front of the shelter like it was his vacation home. He (she?) was nosing around the fire pit in front and looked to be eating grass. We stayed behind the trees at the edge of the clearing and watched, thinking that we were undetected. Finally we made a little noise, and Mr. Bear lazily swung his big head our way, then went back to his investigation. What should we do? He was not in a hurry and the trail went right past the front of the shelter. And I had to pee. If he scares me, that will no longer be an issue. Better take a trail break right now…
After taking care of business, Mr. Bear was still at the shelter, so we stepped out to the edge of the clearing and banged our hiking sticks and shouted. He loped away for perhaps 20 feet to the far edge of the woods, then turned and took steps in our direction. My heart jumped and I was glad I had had my trail break! We retreated and decided to take a detour in a wide half-circle to the right, past the spring and behind the shelter before intersecting with the trail on the far side. We left Mr. Bear behind (we hoped) and bounced on down the AT like it was the yellow brick road.
We stopped at another good photo op spot looking eastward and I managed to fall off the mountain while maneuvering to take a photo. But I got a great shot!
At the intersection with the Welch Ridge Trail we stopped, checked for a cell phone signal, and I called the Park’s backcountry office. A mid-day encounter with a habituated bear at a shelter (i.e. the bear was not afraid of humans) is a sad and potentially dangerous situation. If the bear continues to be a nuisance then the Park service will have to do something about it. And if the bear is that brave in daylight, imagine what it may be like in the dark. I was glad not to be staying at that shelter! The park ranger was very interested and wanted a photo of the bear – well, I’ll have to send that in later.
The “brown book” (Hiking Trails of the Smokies) aptly describes Welch Ridge Trail as “a long rib off of the spine of the main range of the Smokies.” We had a short walk on Welch Ridge (1.7 miles) to reach the beginning of Hazel Creek Trail, but we got a bad taste of things to expect on our return trip up the entirety of Welch Ridge (7.3 miles) for Day 2. The trail was extremely overgrown with blackberry bushes and dying flower stalks, often shoulder height and above, damp and scratchy and slowing us down. We were very happy to turn right onto Hazel Creek Trail.
This was Judy’s first experience with upper Hazel Creek but my memory kicked in of the first hiking weekend of my Smokies 900 quest. The main theme of that day was “23 creek crossings” when Jim and I stubbornly stopped and switched to water shoes each time, eventually giving in and leaving the water shoes on. My plan for this trip with Judy was to put the Crocs on at the first crossing and keep them on until we got to camp for the night. (Turned out I walked nearly 10 miles in my Crocs, wearing a loaded backpack – and it felt great!)
The first couple of miles descending on Hazel Creek consists of steep and narrow switchbacks, and the sound of water gradually increases until the first crossing, an easy rock hop. At the second crossing we zipped off pant legs, put on the Crocs (kept on the Smartwool socks – because wool keeps you warm even when wet) and plunged in. All of the crossings were more substantial than on my previous trip, but only twice did the water reach mid-thigh. Judy and I have a healthy respect for water crossings (instilled by this same Hazel Creek) but we have become very adept at reading the water and maneuver- ing across. Sometimes one would watch the other to see where to step (or not to step) and sometimes we waded through together by different routes. On the other side I often did a little “this-water-is-cold-as-I-don’t-know-what” screaming dance to get the blood circulating again. Best remedy for cold wet legs: keep hiking!
After a couple more miles the trail became more gentle and the walking between water crossings was quite pleasant. We saw hoof prints and these curious paw prints – probably a raccoon? The crossings were frequent enough to keep us guessing what was around each bend, and at least once we crossed and immediately crossed again. I guess it made sense when the railroad track was being laid here by the logging folks. At long last a bridge appeared and the trail became a wide road bed. From this point the walking became dull and I began to check my watch to estimate our timing. We had made an ambitious plan to drop our packs at Campsite 83, hike out to Bone Valley and back, and then Judy had another .6 miles to go down Hazel Creek to the intersection with Jenkins Ridge Trail – and .6 miles back to Campsite 83.
A missed opportunity today: we hesitated at an unmarked intersection and chose to take the lesser path for a short distance to see where it led. Around the first bend we saw the “no horses” symbol, a horse silhouette inside a red circle with a red line across it, which indicates that the trail led to a cemetery. We walked a little bit farther, but then decided to abandon the trail because of the miles we had yet to go. Cemeteries can be as close as .2 miles or farther than a mile up a side trail and we had no idea about this one. Neither of us had read up on the trail description before the hike – later the “brown book” told me that this was probably the Walker cemetery, a half-mile in.
Hazel Creek Trail is steeped in history, homesteads, cemeteries and artifacts of bygone residents. Judy and I resolved to return to Hazel Creek on a multi-day trip for the sole purpose of investigating the phantom communities. I felt a little ashamed to be bypassing it all for the sake of miles. But still…
We arrived at Campsite 83 at the intersection of the Hazel Creek and Bone Valley Trails. Knowing that Bone Valley had 5 creek crossings (meaning 10 for the out-and-back), we kept the Crocs on, grabbed our water bottles (I also took my headlamp because ya nevah know), hung our backpacks on the bear cables, and practically flew up Bone Valley. The trail is quite flat and the water crossings were much more robust than I remem- bered. At the trail’s end we checked out the Hall cabin, but we skipped the cemetery that is a steep half-mile up the mountain behind the cabin.
We made it back to Campsite 83 in record time, and I gave Judy my headlamp so she could continue on to tag up with Jenkins Ridge. Starting to feel the chill of the fading day, I put on my “warm fuzzies” (thermal shirt and pants) and dry socks and my boots. By the time my tent was up and my nesting was complete, Judy was back. She set up her camp and we cooked and ate a hot supper and enjoyed our hot tea. We noticed that other campers were set up at the other end of this enormous site (Campsite 83 is a horse campsite) but no signs of life. Well, as we were heading for bed, headlamps came bobbing along. Guess they had a long day somewhere as well.
Total miles for me today: 19. Total miles for Judy: 20.6. Welcome back to the Smokies!
But indeed, it is not so much for its beautythat the forest makes a claim upon men's hearts, as for that subtle something,that quality of the air, that emanates fromthe old trees, that so wonderfully changesand renews a weary spirit. ~Robert Louis Stevenson