Smokemont Weekend – 6/24/16 – Thomas Divide/Kanati Fork Trails (Plus A Bonus Trail) – 13.9 Miles
I had a very special date for a Saturday hike in Great Smoky Mountains National Park and decided to make a weekend of it and crank up the excitement by trying something new. I pulled into Smokemont Campground on Friday morning, quickly popped up my tent on one of the last available sites, and drove with a churning stomach to the Kanati Fork trailhead. All week I had been talking myself into a hike plan that involved… hitchhiking.
Okay, that’s not a big deal to some, and I’ve asked for rides at trailheads a couple of times with other hikers, but I had not done it alone. I wanted to hike part of the Thomas Divide Trail from Newfound Gap to Sunkota Ridge, then retrace back up Thomas Divide to the Kanati Fork intersection, then follow Kanati Fork out to Newfound Gap for a total of about 10 miles. It was just a short distance along Newfound Gap Road from my beginning point to my exit point, but hiring a shuttle driver was impractical (and expensive) in the middle of the GSMNP. So…hitchhiking.
At the big Kanati Fork trailhead I parked, put on my boots and my daypack, brandished my hiking poles, and stood by the road with my thumb extended, smiling enthusiastically. Many slowed down (what is that by the road, Marge?) but no one stopped. I was willing to give it 15 minutes or 50 cars, whichever came first, and both limits were reached at about the same time. I began walking backwards to my car, still smiling, but already rethinking my plan.
Hold on – is that car’s turn signal on? Yes, a kind soul is going to give me a ride! In fact, it’s two kind souls, and they are driving an official park ranger SUV. Hmmm…
Two newbie rangers, one two months on the job, the other on his first day. They were very friendly to this “mature” female hiker, but also very official, asked for my driver’s license (oops, that’s my library card) radioed in to check me for outstanding warrants (really) and asked me if I was carrying any weapons (no). I did not remark that firearms are legal in national parks. Then they gave me a ride to my trailhead at Thomas Divide. All in all, the best case scenario for me, because I was able to start my hike at the desired entry point and the rangers knew who I was for safety purposes.
My steps were lighthearted and I felt very strong as I skipped along Thomas Divide. In total, it is one of the longest trails in the GSMNP at 13.6 miles. The end I started from is a delight, gently undulating along a ridge. (Later it drops steeply to Deeplow Gap and drops again ultimately to Gailbraith Creek Road).
I walked a mile and stopped for a lunch break, noticing what I heard – the wind, the birds – and what I didn’t hear – cars/planes/people. (Okay, it’s hard to get away from the motorcycle noise on Newfound Gap Road.)
Also noticing what I saw – green leaves, moss, leaf litter, ferns, bark, shadows – and what I didn’t see – power lines, pavement, billboards.
The breeze made the late June flowers dance and elusive to photograph:
Four leaved milkweed
White bee balm
Columbine, a rare treat. It blooms profusely but for a very brief period
Red bee balm
Squaw-root or squawcorn - a parasitic plant that grows on oak roots, no chlorophyll
As I passed the Kanati Fork intersection I met a group of out-and-back hikers. I don’t think they noticed the old wild boar trap about a hundred feet off the trail.
The next 2.8 miles of Thomas Divide Trail has a different feel than the first portion, narrower, a path less traveled. It drops down to Tuskee Gap and then wakes you back up with a brisk uphill to reach the intersection with Sunkota Ridge Trail (another ridgeline that is beautiful to hike). I turned around there and retraced my steps to the junction with Kanati Fork.
Kanati Fork Trail descends steadily 2,100 feet over 2.9 miles, with nary an upward step, through a cove forest with a couple of small seeps and more wildflowers. It seems that the trail is rarely used despite its prominent location, perhaps because of its steepness – a lot of effort with no featured destination such as a view or a waterfall or even a sizable creek – or maybe because of its proximity to the popular Kephart Prong Trail with its gentle elevation gain, stream crossings and CCC artifacts.
But Kanati Fork Trail does have an awesome feature that I think is worth the effort: stunning Dutchman’s pipe vines located at a sharp switchback about a mile from the lower trailhead.
Deeply furrowed bark – black walnut?
In some places the trail was obscured by the lush vegetation
My hike was over sooner than expected. With hours of daylight left, I looked over my trail map and saw a little out-and-back trail that I could easily tackle, so I drove out Straight Fork Road to Hyatt Ridge Trail. Just 1.8 miles up and 1.8 miles back down, no big deal.
Well, Hyatt Ridge was a steady climb up that kicked my butt. Maybe I was tired after a long drive, a 10-mile hike and the heat of the day. I’m sorry to say that this was just to check off a box. I tapped the sign at the intersection, turned around and marched unceremoniously back to the car.
Tried to get a good night’s sleep before the big day tomorrow!
"A wildflower blooms for its own joy." ~Oscar Wilde