Great Smoky Mountains Deep Creek Backpack – Deep Creek Trail/Pole Road Creek Trail/Noland Divide Trail – 10/23 & 10/24/16 – 18 Miles
A special trip, purposefully planned: when I hiked this route in 2009 I was joined by Lenny Bernstein as we both pursued our Smokies 900 goals. At that time we hiked the entire loop clockwise in one long day beginning and ending at the Deep Creek horse parking area. Lenny was a congenial hiking companion, easy to talk with but happy to enjoy the quiet, a very experienced outdoorsman who had completed the Appalachian Trail (with wife Danny) and served as an AT trail maintainer and Appalachian Trail Conservancy board member. His resume, both professionally and philanthropically, is extensive, although you might not learn that in a conversation with him. Lenny passed away a few weeks prior to this 2016 overnight trip. Sadly, I had not seen him in more than a year. Although I’ve hiked other Smokies trails with Lenny, that day I spent with him was my favorite sticks in my head, so I hiked the route again (counterclockwise this time) in his memory.
On a Sunday afternoon, I registered for my campsite using wifi at the Swain County Visitor Center in Bryson City. The wonderful staff printed out my permit copy. A Great Smoky Mountains Associations gift shop is part of the setup, a must-see stop for any GSMNP visitor.
At midafternoon I parked at Deep Creek picnic area, took my time getting my backpack ready, ate a little something – well, let’s get on with it. Hiking up Deep Creek Trail, I nodded to lots of Sunday afternoon visitors. Near the junction with Deep Creek Horse Trail, at a bridge crossing at Hammer Branch, I detoured on a side trail to what I think is the Hammer Branch cemetery.
Back at the main trail, I met a guy hiking out with a loaded backpack and asked how his night was. He said he and others spent a busy night at Campsite 59: a bear came into camp about 10:30, the campers chased him away, but the bear came back half an hour later, repeat. Not good bear behavior to return to the camp a second time, meaning that human interaction was not a deterrent to the possibility of food.
After hearing that story, I asked every person with a backpack where they stayed and if they had any animal encounters, but no one else had. I’m guessing I’ll be alone in the backcountry since this is a Sunday. I’d recently decided to carry bear spray (really in response to concern about individuals when I’m alone) and as I hiked up the trail I thought in depth about what I should do if a bear comes at night and I have to use the spray. Would I hike out in the dark? How long would it take me to get into clothes and boots? Do I sleep fully clothed? Leave everything else behind…
I passed Campsite 59 (any bears here? nope, not yet) and reached my destination, Campsite 58 (pretty darned close to 59), at 4:30 p.m. Should I continue on? There are a couple more sites before my route leaves Deep Creek. But bears are everywhere in the Smokies and, although it was a known fact that one was present at Campsite 59, the same fellow might roam around all the backcountry sites in the area – or he might take the night off. I was registered at 58, that’s where the world would begin to search for me if I go missing, so that’s where I decided to stay.
Site 58’s fire ring and bear cables are right beside the creek, so I set up my tent as far away as possible from that space, on the other side of the trail. Camp chores completed, I got comfortable leaning against a big log beside the water and read my book – The Hundred Story Home – very peaceful. No cooking supper, just a peanut butter sandwich. Nobody passed by. It’s me and the backcountry alone tonight.
Quiet night, pitch black under the trees, no animals, no owls, nothing but the faint rushing of the creek.
I packed up without ceremony and hit the trail, eating my breakfast Clif bar as I walked. At Campsite 57 I took a couple of minutes to locate the Horace Kephart memorial millstone placed by a Boy Scout troop in 1931. (Danny showed me its location in October 2009 on the first day of our Mountains-To-Sea Trail adventure. Now it’s easy to find – if you know where to look.)
Pole Road Creek Trail intersects Deep Creek Trail with a long log bridge across the creek. I remember Lenny crossing this ahead of me on our hike together. Today I picked up a small stone beside the bridge’s first step and put it in my pocket.
When Lenny and I passed this way, we encountered two “opportunities” to wade through deep water crossings. Today, though, the trail was dry with insignificant rock hops.
After a left turn onto Noland Divide Trail, I enjoyed several miles of easy ridge walking, the fall colors popping everywhere.
At Lonesome Pine Overlook I took over the view from a young couple who was just leaving. As captivated as I was the first time I stood there on the back end of winter, the beauty of autumn surpassed all expectations. Splendor unraveled as I walked along narrow Beauregard Ridge, catching glimpses of Bryson City sitting in the bowl formed by mountains.
I have not been able to identify Kelly Bennett Peak in these photos and would be very grateful for someone to help me out. It’s named for “Doc” Bennett, a pharmacist and 14-year mayor of Bryson City, an outdoorsman, a photographer known as the "Apostle of the Smokies," a proponent of the creation of the national park. Mr. Bennett is buried in Bryson City Cemetery, along with Horace Kephart.
Noland Divide Trail dipped back into the trees as it dropped steeply down the mountainside; I was glad not to be climbing it at the end of the day. Horses crossing a little creek told me that trail's end was just around the bend.
At the trailhead sign I left Lenny’s stone, a metaphor for hiking with him one more time. Taking pictures, writing memories, has given me immense pleasure looking back. Although I feel sadness that Lenny is no longer here, reading the story of our hike takes me back and I feel joy in the experience all over again.
Lenny Bernstein at Abrams Creek
February 13, 2009
February 13, 2009
“What we have once enjoyed we can never lose; all that we love deeply becomes a part of us.” ~Helen Keller