I was originally planning to hike up from Smokemont along Bradley Fork and finish out what I left to do on Dry Sluice Gap Trail, but since I forgot to check the status of the construction projects at the Smokemont campground, I had a change of heart. I decided to postpone that hike and switch it with one I had planned for the end of this month, a long venture down Deep Creek. It also meant less driving in the crazy summer tourist traffic. I was adamant about getting an early start this time, and the drive up and over Newfound Gap was a treat. I had gone above the clouds that now filled in the lower valleys and the bright morning sunshine lit up the green and blue slopes of North Carolina. One thing I've noticed in all my trips to this side of the park is that the lighting for pictures from the various overlooks is best in the morning. The opposite is true for the Tennessee side, especially at places like Campbell Overlook and below Chimney Tops, were late afternoon light is preferrable. One of my favorite lookouts is just past the trailhead for Deep Creek Trail where one gets a vast panoramic view of the Thomas Divide and Deep Creek Valley.
Today's hike would entail much less elevation change and the further down one goes, the easier the trail grade becomes. That was about the only bright spot of the day's hike. As the trail started down the mountian, there were numerous switchbacks. I thought I was back in the Grand Canyon again. Occasionally there would be nice patches of coneflower and crimson red bee balm, a tad weather beaten from yesterday's late afternoon showers. The first portion of the hike up to the junction with Fork Ridge Trail wasn't all that exciting. There were a few overgrown areas and one downed tree that required some time, but not much else going on.
It was after this trail junction when the adventure began. It became instantly clear that this section of trail sees little use or has poor standing with trail maintenance, despite the many campgrounds in the vicinity. The bushwacking was frequent and arduous, having to push through nettles, raspberries, rhododendron, and many others. And since it had rained recently, the leaves on everything were still holding water. It didn't take long for me to become soaking wet. And since the trail is low lying and parallels the creek much of the way, it covers muddy terrain. Having to navigate the numerous mud pits was a real treat. Sometimes you think you'd be stepping on a rock or log, only to find your boot sinking down into the squishy brown goo. The many rock hops and stream crossings only added to the madness. At times the trail would swing so close to the river...well, in fact you were in the river, having to guess at which boulders made up the actual trail. In some instances you had a rock wall or thick brush on one side, and rushing water on the other, with only a narrow and eroding trail to follow. Any pace I was setting had disappeared because this stretch took an eternity.
Eventually I started passing up the many campsites, almost all of them a half mile apart. I also came to the point where I made my turnaround yesterday with Pole Road Creek. Now I was on the other side of the washed out bridge looking across. It gave me a different look at the creek, but it still made me feel good about my decision not to cross the first time.
I could have stopped here, but it was only 0.8 miles more til the next junction, so I chose to press on. Surprisingly, the trail conditions improved!!! The trail was wider, there was less brush, less mud, and several boardwalks had been installed. Not to mention the grade was relatively flat here on out. I arrived at the last campsite near the junction, had a bite to eat, and dreaded having to go back through that mess of a trail, but I had no choice. So I packed away the camera and decided that I would just churn the legs and bulldoze through what ever stood in my way. Sure it meant some more scrapes and getting re-soaked, but at least it would end faster. I roared on like a man possessed, sometimes averaging more than a 4 mph pace. Luckily the sun was shining and the skies were clear, so I was able to dry out faster once I got by the Fork Ridge junction. Not the most pleasant of hikes, but it certainly was an adventure and I'm glad for the experience. I'm just not in any hurry to do it again any time soon!