Don and I set out before 6:30 a.m. to place cars for our ambitious hike today. Driving along Newfound Gap Road in the utter pitch dark, we spotlighted a coyote crossing the road. After placing my car at the Thomas Divide Trailhead, we parked Don’s car at the Deep Creek trailhead and got ready to walk into the abyss. It was no longer utter pitch dark, just dark, and as we stepped onto the trail at 7:15 a.m. we decided to skip the head lamps and see (ha ha) what happened. The sky was turning pink and our eyes adjusted and before you know it, we were skipping down the mountain. So much enthusiasm and excitement at the beginning of every hike! I had done the first 3.9-mile section of Deep Creek back in September, although that time I was hauling my butt UP this section. And I must confess, today’s hike was my worst case scenario – a long downhill and a long, slow climb back up. Having Don as a hiking buddy was my incentive, someone new to talk to and not embarrass myself in front of.
“Hiking Trails of the Smokies” tells me that “Deep Creek Trail was one of the first trails constructed after the Park took possession of the land and Engineer R.P. White considered this trail the loveliest of all those he designed.” I have to agree, as we found Deep Creek to be in fine form thundering down the mountain, and we had a grand hike.
At first the trail switchbacks down through coves of oak and yellow birch, and we were accompanied by foggy clouds so not much of a view. Once the trail began to parallel Deep Creek, the vegetation changed drastically and the trail was closed in with lush green everywhere, dog-hobble and rhodo- dendron, nearly obscuring the path and giving the impression of any season but the dead of winter. There were numerous blow-downs to negotiate. This one beside the creek has rhododendrons sprouting out of it. Deep Creek seemed filled to nearly overflowing and the trail was often just a couple of feet from the edge.
The “brown book” advised that we would be rock hopping several small feeder streams – well, today we performed miraculous stunts of daring, hanging onto tree branches and swinging across raging waters, hopping where there were no rocks to hop, shouting above the roar of the thunderous cascades. In this photo, Deep Creek is at the top of the frame, flowing to the left, and the usually small side stream is in the foreground, flowing to the left to meet it.
In the summertime we probably wouldn't have noticed this side creek at all. Here is Don taking a leap of faith over another side stream feeding into Deep Creek. At this point we were looking to step on rocks that were “only” a few inches submerged. It was exhilarating to get across all the water challenges!
After mile 6.5 on Deep Creek Trail there is a series of four backcountry campsites each spaced about a half-mile apart until the intersection with Martin’s Gap and Pole Road Creek Trail. At this intersection is Campsite #57, Bryson Place, the location of Horace Kephart’s last permanent camp. Don and I looked for the commemorative millstone placed here by the Kephart Boy Scout Troop in 1931 but we couldn’t find it. We will be back here in early March with some more hikers so I hope we find it then.
Here we turned away from Deep Creek and headed up Martin’s Gap Trail. Our fun downhill jaunt was over and the hard work began. The conversation ground to a halt as we climbed 1,000 feet in 1.5 miles and then turned left onto Sunkota Ridge Trail and – yep, more uphill, not quite as steep, but steady nonetheless for another 4.9 miles. By the time we reached Thomas Divide Trail, the clouds were thinning out and we began to see the adjacent ridges emerging. Don took a short break while I backtracked .4 miles on Thomas Divide Trail to tag up with Newton Bald Trail (.8 miles total). Remember, if you’re hiking the entire Smokies map, those little loose ends are important! Then we began our final segment along Thomas Divide Trail. Our legs that had been getting heavier with every step now regained some strength as the end was within reach.
As the clouds continued to dissipate, the spine of the Smokies appeared and we were able to distinguish Clingmans Dome (the rounded hump in the ridge line in the middle of the photo) and even the tower on top – quite a surprise. Two weeks ago today I was looking at the tower from the opposite side of the Park on Roundtop Trail. How awesome is that?? Some people express skepticism at my goal of hiking all the trails in one year, claiming that I am going too fast to truly appreciate the beauty, but I’m here to tell you, seeing Clingmans from opposite sides in a short period of time, the enormity of this grand place is not lost on me and I am loving every minute of it.
Oh, yeah, and we could see Mt. LeConte, too!
We reached the end of the trail at 4:00 p.m., energized by the last couple of miles and seeing the big peaks. For me this was a personal record – 20 miles! Do I look like I’m ready to drive 4 hours home??
All in all, this was one of my favorite hikes, the challenges of Deep Creek, the Kephart campsite, the varied and entertaining conversation with Don and the big finish of seeing Clingmans and LeConte, although I would pay for it the next day when I was not worth a plug nickel. I drove home once again thanking God for making this adventure possible at this stage of my life.
If you pick 'em up, O Lord, I'll put 'em down. ~Author Unknown, "Prayer of the Tired Walker"