Of the various construction projects going on around the park, one I had been eagerly awaiting completion was that along Balsam Mountain Road. My last visit to that area was only as far as the auto-gate just past the Hemphill Bald trailhead. That was back in July while construction was still being done along the roadway and Balsam Mountain campground. Since I was about to drive a ways, I checked the morning I left to ensure that the road was indeed open, and not just the paved section, but the gravel one-way portion that wraps back around to Cherokee as well. According to the park hotline and website, the roads were open, so I got an early start and hit the highway. To say the weather conditions were stellar would be an understatement. The skies were crystal clear for the first time in a long time, enabling one to see to the horizon and beyond. There wasn't a cloud in the sky and the temperature was comfortable. The excitement was building because I knew my entire hike would see me navigating the upper elevations along the lengthy ridge that is Balsam Mountain. I couldn't wait to arrive at the trailhead, but the action started well before I got there. If you're someone whose driven across the park from Gatlinburg to Cherokee, you know that prior to reaching the Oconaluftee Visitor Center, there are a number of flat open fields on either side of the road. Well in passing through these fields, there was traffic congestion and people getting out of vehicles with cameras. I found it unusual for I had never experienced any car-jams in this area. I had also never seen in the Smokies what I was just about to see. A HERD OF ELK!!! To my left were a number of cows and calves, but the one that stood out among the crowd was the massive bull. To finally see one in the park was incredible. I slowed down, making sure not run over some unattentive tourist, and to allow myself a brief moment to enjoy the animals. The bull, majestic and statuesque with its impressive spread of antlers, was actually the closest to the highway. The timing was all but a few seconds but it lingered for an eternity. I was smiling in such disbelief for much of my remaining drive. The trip along the Blue Ridge Parkway was exhilarating as always with its numerous overlooks. Another surprise came about shortly after leaving the parkway while on Heintooga Ridge Road. Beside the road on the driver's side were yet more elk! This time it was a mother and her spotted calf grazing. The cow seemed unaffected while the calf trotted closer to the woods and away from my daunting vehicle. Since this time the setting was much more intimate and I didn't have to contend with other gaukers or traffic, I was able to say hello and snap a few pictures. The day just kept getting better, and here I hadn't even started hiking yet.
In continuing my drive north, I made it past the parking lot at Polls Gap and through the gate shortly after, now open to traffic. The construction vehicles that were here a few months prior had moved on. The road was newly paved making for a pleasant drive. The campground, which had also seen improvements, was open as well with large campers filing in and out. Just after that the paved road makes a wide turnaround for vehicles looking to remain on the two-way portion. There was also a vast collection of construction vehicles, which kind of had me worried. Sure enough when I started to make my way onto the gravel one-way Balsam Mountain Road, everything changed. The gate was closed to all vehicular traffic. Talk about a slap in the face, punch to the stomach, whatever you want to call it. I was so frustrated and dumbfounded at this. I stepped outside and approached the gate with wishful thinking that maybe it was loose and just swung closed accidentally. That clearly was not the case as I came to find a piece of paper taped to the middle. It stated that the one-way road was temporarily closed for renovations...starting date...today! I was livid to say the least. And this was after I had checked both the park hotline and website in regards to road conditions before I left, neither of which mentioned this closure. And one would think that even though it neither said it was currently closed, there would have been some statement alerting visitors about an upcoming road closure. That way people could have been notified and planned accordingly, before driving an hour and a half across the park in order to find out. I was furious! And with gas prices as ridiculous as they are, I wanted to storm into park headquarters and demand $20 back or something for this debacle. Yes, I understand that the timing was as close as it could be, but the fact that neither resource for road conditions provided any warning for visitors in advance of the closure. That was what frustrated me the most. And here it was, just an amazingly beautiful day for a hike, literally stripped away from me.
I stomped around creating potholes with each step, burning holes in things with glaring eyes, steam coming out of my ears, and some choice words spilling out of my lips. I wanted to scream at the top of lungs because it was going to be such an incredible day. I eventually collected myself, pulled out my map and began to look for alternatives. I began looking for something close by because I didn't want to feel like I had wasted an entire day just to drive out here and turn back. The closest and most viable option was the Flat Creek Trail, for it began at the paved road turnaround. I went back and forth in my mind as to whether I should do it or save it, eventually choosing to just go ahead and get it done. It was going to be much less than what I was anticipating to do today in terms of miles...about 15 miles less. So I grabbed my pack and my camera, tightened up the boots, took a deep breath, and got started.
Right where I parked my car there were heart leaved asters, filmy angelica, and white snakeroot in abundance. Not but a few yards beyond the trailhead was a grand overlook with benches beside the trail. I had to admit, in all that just transpired, this view took off some of the edge. There in front of me, as far as the eye could see, endless rides of deep greens and blues, in great definition due to the clear air. In addition to the clear blue sky, it made for an impressive sight for summer, with views much clearer than one would see in June and July. The expanse of mountains went as far west as Clingmans Dome and as far east as Mt. Guyot. I could pick out ever notable point along the Smokies main crest and the Appalachian Trail. I took several pictures, panoramics, and even a video.
Now it was time to burn off some steam. Past the overlook, the trail continues downhill along the broad western slope of Balsam Mountain. It eventually cuts inward along the mountain top, but since it's so large, it seems like you're walking through an open meadow down in a valley. The terrain is very flat, there are numerous stream crossings via rock hop and foot bridges, and the woods are very open and grassy. Evidence of the mountain's logging history. The scene reminded me of one my favorite destinations in Spence Field. At one footbridge, there was a large collection of pink turtleheads in full bloom. This was exciting because I hadn't seen many of them in bloom away from Mt. LeConte and its six trails. What was also interesting was the variety of color. Some blooms were a dark pink, a light pink as pictured below, and a few in solid white.
Shortly thereafter, I came to a place where a trail sign was off to my right in overgrown brush. It provided distances to the trailheads in either direction, but nothing else. Surely a sign situated in the middle of the woods would mark something of importance, like at an intersection with another trail, or a spur to an overlook or waterfall. I figured I would check it out on my return trip. Continuing on I came to a fun rock hop. What made it so neat were the leaves floating down the stream and sitting on the rocks. Here it was the last day of August, still in the throws of summer, and there were already leaves falling and changing color. A number of the leaves that were sitting in the shallow parts of Flat Creek had a shiny, metallic appearance.
In several places there were large stands of yellow and orange jewelweed in bloom. I remembered seeing them in droves beside the roadway as well. After the last footbridge, the trail swings up hill, and steeply in places, as it makes its climb back to the paved road. If you aren't looking for this end of the trail when you drive by, you'll surely miss it as I did. But it's located somewhere between Poll's and Black Camp Gaps. When I reached the road, I looked around, took some pics, watched a car pass, then turned right around to head back. Again, the rock hops and pleasant meadow walking was a treat. When I made it back to the peculiar sign, I did some more exploring. Sure enough, the overgrowth had obstructed the path leading away from the main trail and downhill toward a ravine. I elected to follow for a few tenths, curious to see where I would end up. Sure enough, I could hear the sounds of rushing water grow louder as I got closer. Then the path took several forks, one down to the right and another straight and then way down. I took the first, and after climbing over some roots and branches, I came out at the top of a long cascade. I read later that this was indeed the Flat Creek Falls. To be honest it was more like a shute, since the water was moving so fast through a narrow space between the rocks. It was also very steep for I could see all the way down to the bottom. I went back up to the path and took the other way to the base of the falls. I probably could've done without this, because the trail disappeared and there wasn't a whole lot to see where I ended up. Making my way down entailed clinging on to trees, roots, exposed rock, and if I couldn't find any, it meant having to slide down smooth rock faces on my rear end. There further down I went, the more I dreaded the trip I would have to make back up. When I came to a flat spot beside the falls, there just wasn't anyway to get a picture of the entire falls. It was too overgrown with rhododendron and the ravine was so narrow. So with careful foot placement and patience, I made my way back up to the path and the main trail. When I finished out the trail and arrived at my vehicle it was still morning, and I wanted to do some more hiking, especially since I had originally planned to put on over 20 miles today. So I looked at my map and saw that the Balsam Mountain Nature Trail was nearby. Yes it was very short, but it was something, so I gave it a go. In no time I took the path which comes out at the campground, looked around, turned back, passed a couple of people enjoying an easy hike, and I was done. I tried to make the most of what I could while I was there, but I was still livid over the one-way road being closed. So I made my way back to Gatlinburg, taking my time to at least stop at the various overlooks along the Blue Ridge Parkway and Newfound Gap Road. I was still in awe at how spectacular the views were, and so clear at that. One of my favorites would be the Mile High Overlook in which you can look out over the Balsam Mountain expanse as well as the main ridge of the Smokies.
I still had tomorrow left to get in a good hike, and I still had my heart set on hiking the Balsam Mountain Trail to Tricorner Knob. Of course, with the road closure it would mean finding an alternative starting point. And I would have given anything to have another crystal clear day like this one. Whatever was going to happen, all I could do was sleep on it and hope for the best in the morning.