I was originally going to do the hike out of Smokemont up Bradley Fork the last time I was down, but since I didn't know if the work was completed at the campground, I chose to swap it with the Deep Creek hike and shorten the drive.  Whether that was a good decision or not is yet to play out.  Depends on if and when the park decides to clean up the Deep Creek Trail and what I end up seeing along today's hike.  Regardless, any day in the park is a good day.
          The morning drive across Newfound Gap and into North Carolina saw views that were cloudy and quite hazy.  The forecast called for a chance of showers and thunderstorms this week, but I couldn't let that hold me back.  Oddly enough, when I passed by the upper trailhead for Deep Creek, the park trail maintenance crew had just arrived.  Wow, how convenient.  Only a week late, or I was just a week early.  I would still be hiking ahead of them anyways in what would probably be even more overgrown trail conditions, so I say I hit it at the better time.  Rolling into the Smokemont campground, one could tell normalcy had returned, for the entire place was full of campers, trailers, tents, and people all enjoying their summer in the mountains.  I was just glad the thing was open again so that I could access the trailheads.
          The climb up Bradley Fork was enjoyable the whole way.  Early on I was greeted by a clearing dotted with various wildflowers that included wild bergamot, the pink variation of bee balm, spiderwort, Queen Anne's lace, blackberries, asters, and evening primrose.  The trail itself follows an old roadbed, so it's wide and well graded.  It is also quite pleasant as it runs parallel to the waters of the Bradley Fork, sometimes at the same level, so you're afforded nice shots of the stream.  Later on I passed some of the yellow fringed orchids like the ones I saw a week prior on Pole Road Creek.  Toward the latter half of Bradley Fork Trail, you come to several stream crossings over wide bridges, obviously meant for horses or vehicles.  The last bridge is the most interesting, it being an enclosed metal and wooden one with gravel at your feet.  Quite fancy compared to most in the park.  And the view overlooking the river on either side of the bridge was nice as well.
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          At this point I have left the Bradley Fork Trail and turned uphill on the much narrower path of Cabin Flats.  This section of trail is brief, leading to a vast streamside campsite in a mile and serving as a buffer between the Bradley Fork and Dry Sluice Gap Trails.  Before reaching the campsite I stumbled some tall bellflower, a new one to add to the list.  When I reached trail's end at the site, I didn't stay long since the annoying bugs that buzz around one's face were out in full force, so the only solution was to keep moving.
          When I returned to the junction with Dry Sluice Gap it was time to head uphill, but no longer the smooth ascent I had up til that point.  Now I would climb 2,200 feet in 2.8 miles.  Compare that to the popular Alum Cave Trail to Mt. LeConte which gains about 2,500 feet in 5.0 miles.  So as you can see the hardest part of the day was still in front of me.  The heat only added to the adversiy.  The trail conditions weren't all the bad, only a few parts being overgrown or rocky.  Near the end of the climb, the trail ventured through a wet and shaded ravine blanketed in coneflower, crimson red bee balm, love vine, and sweet joe pye-weed.  I did all I could to not disturb the buzzing bees and fluttering butterflies as I pushed through the overgrown path.
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          The higher I got in elevation I could see the ridges of the AT and upper Richland Mountain, but much of the sky was clouded over and gray.  I was also getting the occasional breeze up from the valley which felt wonderful on such a hot day.  I finally pulled into the junction with the Grassy Branch Trail which comes up from the western side of Richland Mountain, and a way I ventured up back in mid May in a loop hike past Charlies Bunion.  Of course this time, I had no intention of going even further to reach the AT, so this intersection would be my turnaround.  Thankfully it would be all downhill from this point on.  I moved at a blistering pace, rarely stopping for pictures so that I could make it back to Gatlinburg to spend as much time as I could with friends and family that were visiting for the week.  That also meant some quality time relaxing in the pool where we were all staying, and on such a hot afternoon after a good hike, one can't think of anything much better.



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