Stellar Overnight Hikes in the Smokies
On this trip, you'll head up the famed fishing waters of Deep Creek, the source of many a Smoky Mountain hunting and fishing tale, to camp at a streamside site on a carpet of pine needles beneath a grove of white pines. Then leave the Deep Creek watershed, via the steep Martins Gap Trail, to intersect Sunkota Ridge Trail for some nice ridge walking to a little-used backcountry camp 5,000 feet high on Thomas Ridge. Finally, head south on the ridge, running Thomas Divide Trail back to Deep Creek to complete the loop.
Begin the hike on the Deep Creek Trail, which starts out as a gravel road, passing the Indian Creek Trail junction at mile 0.7. Cross Indian Creek on a bridge and continue up Deep Creek Trail to a road turnaround at mile 2.2, crossing three bridges and passing the Loop Trail junction along the way.
Leave the road to follow a graded trail that traverses Bumgardner Branch, and arrive at the Bumgardner Branch backcountry campsite 60, at mile 2.9. Stay on the east bank of Deep Creek, which rises far above the creek.
Drop down to the McCracken Branch backcountry campsite, #59, at mile 4.2. Repeat the pattern of rise and fall to enter Nicks Nest Branch backcountry campsite, #58, at mile 5.7. Trace the right bank of Deep Creek, coming to the historic Bryson Place and a trail junction at mile 6.0. Once the site of a backwoods cabin and a hunting lodge, this was a favorite haunt of famed outdoor writer and national park proponent Horace Kephart.
Leave Bryson Place on the Deep Creek Trail and walk to the Burnt Spruce backcountry campsite, #56 (elevation 2,405 feet), at mile 6.3. Spend your first night here, under the big white pines, with Deep Creek rushing nearby. This campsite lies nestled between two others that receive heavier usage, Bryson Place and Pole Road, and remains a fine creekside camp.
Day Two: Sleeping in a Saddle
Day two begins by returning to Bryson Place, 0.3 mile back down the Deep Creek Trail. Turn left up the Martins Gap Trail, climbing steeply 1.5 miles to Martins Gap at mile 8.1 of your loop hike. Turn left on the infrequently trodden Sunkota Ridge Trail, gently ascending out of Martins Gap around the east side of a knob.
Continue ascending, passing a spring at mile 9.5. It seems that the trail will top out, yet it keeps gaining elevation in moderate spurts between level areas to intersect the Thomas Divide Trail at mile 12.9 (elevation 4,780 feet).
Turn right on the Thomas Divide Trail and walk 0.4 mile to arrive at the Newton Bald Trail junction. Turn left on the Newton Bald Trail and follow it for 1 mile until you arrive at the Newton Bald backcountry campsite, #52, your second-night's destination. This 5,000-foot-high campsite, located in a saddle on Thomas Divide near what was once an open meadow, is a favorable place to escape the summer heat and crowds.
In the winter, Newton Bald is susceptible to strong winds. Chestnut trees still grow on this former bald, but they don't get very big; after a few year's growth, they succumb to the same chestnut blight that wiped out the Smokies' most prolific food-bearing tree in the 1920s.
Day Three: Ridge-Line Ramble
Start day three by backtracking 1 mile to the Thomas Divide Trail. Turn left and begin a southwesterly course toward Deep Creek Ranger Station. Walk among wooded knolls around the 5,000-foot elevation for nearly 2 miles, then begin a prolonged descent, passing the Deeplow Gap Trail at mile 16.5 of your loop hike. Climb out of Deeplow Gap and begin an undulating course on the ridge.
At mile 18.9, intersect what was once the Indian Creek Motor Nature Trail, begun in the 1960s but halted due to public outcry. The roadbed, running parallel to the park boundary, makes for easy walking as you continually lose elevation.
Still on the Thomas Divide Trail, come to a trail junction at mile 21. Turn right on the Stone Pile Gap Trail and continue your descent, zigzagging over the small creek that often muddies the trail.
Intersect the Indian Creek Trail at mile 22.0 and turn left. Pass by Indian Creek Falls on your right, then come to another trail junction at mile 22.4. Turn left on the Deep Creek Trail and follow it 0.7 mile to complete your 23.1-mile loop.
From the Oconaluftee Visitor Center, take US 441 south to Cherokee, North Carolina. Turn right on US 19 and drive 10 miles to Bryson City, North Carolina. Turn right at the Swain County Courthouse onto Everett Street and carefully follow the signs through town to the Deep Creek campground. The Deep Creek Trail is at the back of the campground.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication