Friday, December 23, 2016

Deep Creek to Clingman's Dome

Deep Creek Trailhead
12/18 - 12/20/16
2016 bag nights: 28

One last trip for 2016 and one last moment of peace and quiet before the holiday madness begins. This was sort of a spur of the moment trip. I had been looking at the calendar and realized that I could probably squeeze in a couple nights backpacking, so I looked at the Smokies map and thought of all the places I wanted to check out when there were less people around. Mt Leconte sounded good except for the shelter part, but I figured that if the weather was nasty, a shelter might be more comfortable than a hammock and tarp. I decided that I would do a loop past Rainbow falls to Leconte and then continue towards the AT for a second night and then back to Leconte for a third night. And then the Chimney Tops fire spread and all the lower trails got closed off. I was still going to do the trip but a little differently, but as it got closer, the weather forecast improved and I could see the shelters filling up with reservations. The night before I was going to leave, there were 8 reservations for the Leconte shelter, no way I am sleeping with that many people, so I had to find somewhere else.

I had a vague idea of starting at Deep Creek and hiking up to the AT. My impression is the Deep Creek area is swimming with people in the summer time, so winter seemed like a good time to check out the area. None of the campsites in the area had any reservations, so I could stay basically where I wanted. I got reservations for 3 nights and figured that I would see how I felt each day and let that determine where I camped.

I got to the trailhead around 3 on Sunday and there were a couple cars in the lot. I passed a couple dayhikers within the first 10 minutes and then no one else on actual trails for the rest of the trip.

My first stop was a short detour to Juney Whank Falls and then down the Deep Creek Trail.

Across Deep Creek is Tom Branch Falls.

The first 1.5 miles are an old road bed, very easy walking

And then it transitions to a more "normal" trail. It is easy to see the weather in the next two pictures. The rain had stopped about 2 o'clock, but the clouds were very low and dark and everything was soaked.

I think this is a coyote print.

I got to site 59 about 5 and decided that would be a good place for the night, it was already getting dark with the sun behind the thick clouds and below the ridgeline. It was cold and damp, so I quickly set up camp and had dinner and was reading in the hammock by 7.

Woke up the next day and it was foggy and damp, like being in a cloud. The forecast for Leconte was sunny and 40's so I hoped the clouds would break with enough time in the sun. Since I was heading up to the ridge and the AT, I spent some time looking at the map and trying to figure out where I would be able to get water. I ended up filling up with about 5 liters (enough to get me through breakfast the next day since I was planning on a dry campsite). It turns out the Pole Road Creek trail has a lot of water crossings so I could have saved myself a little bit of work by filling up later.

More hiking in the clouds.

This tree had more burls than I had ever seen on one tree.

A "Cherokee" tree?

Not long after turning onto the Noland Divide trail, I broke out above the clouds. It was nice seeing sunshine and the temperature rose from mid-30s to mid-40s. A great day to be hiking.

I hit the road to Clingman's Dome after a couple hours of hiking and headed up hill towards the mountain peak. The road is supposed to close on December 1st, but I had seen mention that the park was keeping it open a little longer. I assumed it was closed by now, but I saw a total of 4 cars coming down the road. I was feeling a little annoyed since the whole reason for a trip like this was to avoid tourists in cars. I was having a vision of a full parking lot, but once I got to the top, no one was there.

It is easy to see all the clouds I hiked through.

The view from the parking lot is pretty amazing.

But the view from the UFO/observation tower on top of Clingman's Dome is even better. You can just make out the shadow from the tower in the middle of the photo. At this point, I had climbed about 4000 feet and covered about 9 miles with about 10 pounds of water. I was feeling a little tired at this point. I ended up running into two groups of guys that had hiked up the AT and were going to hike back down the road. Never saw anyone else for the rest of the trip.

I then headed towards Andrews Bald to check out the sunset. It turns out that the Forney Ridge Trail has plenty of water and I could have carried 2 liters and been fine. I'm not sure how much of the water was because of the recent rains.

You can just make out Venus in the upper left of this photo, not bad for a cell phone.

The sunrise was pretty cool as well.

One last view and then down the trail.

I have always liked the ice crystals that grow out of the ground, but I can never get a good photo.

I headed back down the road to the Fork Ridge Trail enjoying the occasional view through the trees.

No photos of the Fork Ridge Trail, but I really liked hiking it. It would probably suck going up hill though. After about 5 miles, the Fork Ridge Trail intersects with the Deep Creek Trail. The Nat Geo map shows a bridge there. Unfortunately, there was no bridge. It is far enough up hill that Deep Creek is fordable, but the water was deep enough to come up to mid-thigh. I did not get a picture of that crossing, but there are a couple more smaller creeks that kept my feet/shoes cold and wet. It was about this point that I started thinking of doing a really long day and getting off the trail vs one more night. I knew I would never get my shoes dry and they would be frozen solid in the morning. My knee was bothering me and so was the other ankle. I was pretty sure I would not be doing the extra hiking like I had planned for the last day. So, I decided to head to the car. It was 2 o'clock and I had about 10 more miles to go.

Parts of the Deep Creek Trail are right next to the water. The trail is basically a narrow ledge above the creek. It was a neat trail to hike, but I'll bet it is a muddy wet mess in the spring.

One last look up the creek before I made my decision to definitely hike to my car.

I ended up getting to my car a little before 6 as it was getting dark. Ended up doing about 21 miles and about 5000 feet down. I changed and then got a burger in Bryson City and then the 4.5 hour drive home. By the time I got to Knoxville (about 9) I was already regretting my decision to hike out. In retrospect, I was not thinking clearly and the creek crossings mentally tired me out and led to bad decision making. The weather was perfect and I should have stayed one more night even if I had just hiked straight out the next morning. Ultimately, I need to do a better job sitting still and relaxing, but that is something I wrestle with on every solo backpacking trip.