Saturday, June 20, 2015

Backcountry Camping at Great Smoky Mountains National Park

As we drove to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, news images of the injured face and head of the 16 year only boy pulled from his hammock by a bear in the Great Smoky Mountains National park June 6, 2015 replayed themselves in my head like an unshakable song. If they boy's father hadn't jumped the bear, hadn't given it a few good punches, the 16 year old might not be alive today. Typically I sleep well on backpacking trips. I wondered if I would get any sleep on this trip, or if night noises and passing shadows would magically transform into bears.

Turned out I slept great thanks to the cool night air. Once we started hiking, I forgot about the reports of recent bear encounters and had a fantastic time. My husband and I went in at the Deep Creek trail head near the Deep Creek Campground, first exploring the Juney Whank and Indian Creek falls.

Indian Creek Falls.

Juney Whank Falls.

As the day heated up, we headed North on Indian Creek Trail. We hiked 6 miles before arriving at back country site 46. Glad to get into camp as the sun blazed over head, we set up our camp chairs and relaxed in the shade, wondering what the temperature was relative to the forecast 91°F(33°C).

Spring water cold enough to numb feet and chill the surrounding air. Ahhh.

Site 46 is a spacious site and relatively nice. I like that it is set back from the trail, providing a feeling of relative privacy. Near the trail head, we saw a number of hikers and a group riding horses. We saw no one once near camp.

Site 46.

Like all the back country sites we stopped at, yellow jackets made pests of themselves. However, the site proved large enough that we were able to move away from their preferred hangouts. This site, although relatively nice, offers little in the way of flat tent spots as it's situated on a hillside. My husband erected the tent on the flattest spot he found, and it worked out okay. Notables on this site include abundant Spotted Wintergreen and Rhododendron.


Spotted Wintergreen.

To beat the heat, we carried our Helinox camp chairs down to the creek to cool off. The water felt so cold it numbed our feet, and made for fabulous drinking. Although these chairs do add some weight to the pack, we really didn't hike all that far, relatively speaking. Sitting around camp relaxing in chairs felt fully worth carrying the extra weight. If you camp here in the summer, I recommend spending time in or near the creeks. The air temperature near the creeks seems to be ten degrees lower, and the wasps do not hang out near the creeks.

Day 1. Water fall tour and north on the Indian Creek Trail.

Day 2 we hiked west across Martins Gap Trail, then north on Deep Creek Trail to site 54. We saw no one on our hike and looked forward to relaxing time alone on site 54. The site is relatively small, and although we did have the requisite permit for the site, when we arrived a couple of fishermen were already camped on the larger portion of the site, relegating us to a tiny clearing with a fire ring.

Bridge on Martin Gap Trail.

Buck at the top of Martins Gap.

Mountain view on the way down Martins Gap Trail.

I would not recommend site 54. Relative to the others we saw, this site is small and the trail cuts through the "larger" part of the site, which wouldn't be so bad if it weren't so small. In addition to the feeling of no privacy, the site is surrounded by thick undergrowth making it difficult to find good spots to make a proper bathroom. Within the thick undergrowth I felt as if I were running into snakes at every turn which added to my displeasure over the site. The guys on the "good" part of the site expressed dislike for the site as well.

The problem with having a small tent pad as your campsite, is that there is not much space to move around to escape the wasps. There is little breeze. It also makes it hard to move one's chair around the site seeking shade as the sun moves. There is just no place run.

Although the afternoon heat had us sweating, once my husband got stung by a wasp, we decided to start hunting firewood to try to smoke the wasps away. Being so close to the thick undergrowth without much space around the tent, I shouldn't have been surprised to have a rattle snake crawl out from under the brush as I stooped to pick up a stick. What a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach to have reached out and nearly touched a rattler. Could have ended badly.

Rattle snake near our tent on site 54.

On a positive note, the proximity of the campsite to the creek offered us a chance to cool down and relax away from the wasps. However, there would be no bathing with the creek in seeing distance of our shared campsite.

Day 2. Over Martins Gap and north on the Deep Creek Trail.

On day 3 we headed south on Deep Creek Trail at dawn's first light. We stopped a couple miles down the trail at site 57 to eat breakfast. This is a much more spacious and comfortable campsite than 54. It's a pretty nice site, but if you are looking for privacy, this site is at the crossroads between the Deep Creek and Martins Gap Trails, and is relatively wide open.

Lush ferns along the Deep Creek Trail near site 55.

Cooking breakfast on site 57.

An easy 3 mile hike brought us to backcountry site 59. This site proved a perfect site for a day spent mostly in camp. We had "private" access to Deep Creek behind our campsite which could not be seen from the trail. Made for the perfect bathing opportunity on a hot afternoon. What a fantastic day to relax and enjoy being together doing not too much of anything.

Doing as little as possible on site 59.

Deep Creek.

The campsite had an enchanted feel. Numerous butterflies and moths flitted about the site. The creek behind the site provided a cool haven and filled the site with the relaxing sounds of rushing water. A doe wandered on and off our site as if munching its way through paradise. A really special site. I gathered firewood for a fire we never built. The next backpackers will enjoy.

Day 3. South on the Deep Creek Trail.

On Day 4 we hiked out on Deep Creek Trail. As we neared the entry point and the waterfalls, we encountered quite a few people. Now smelly hikers ourselves, our noses really tuned into how perfumed most people smell. After a 5 mile (8 km) hike out we stopped at Tom Branch Falls. Then we headed out.

My husband did a pretty fantastic job planning this trip on his own. The meal planning and preparation comprised my only contributions. I enjoyed the hike, and felt sad for it to end so quickly. But, of course, I left looking forward to fresh fruits and vegetables, hot showers, and reuniting with our daughter.

Last day selfie on the Deep reek Trail.

Tom Branch Falls.

Day 4. Back to the trail head on the Deep Creek Trail.

Trail Conditions - Well maintained road-like trails within a couple miles of the Deep Creek Trailhead and Campground. More narrow, muddy trails sometimes resembling creek beds and sometimes overgrown further into the back country. No blazes, signs only. Trails are shared with horses, and the expected horse damage/erosion is present. Areas near the trailhead have bridges for water crossings; further into the back country, some creek crossings involve stepping stones or walking through shallow water.

Weather Conditions - Warm, muggy June days with highs just above 90°F (32°C) and cooler nights.

Distance Covered -  19.1 miles (30.7 km).

Difficulty - Varied, Martins Gap trail is moderate to difficult, the other trails moderate.

Location - Great Smoky Mountains National Park near Bryson City, North Carolina.

Highlights - Wildflowers, trails so shady sunscreen was unnecessary, relaxing creek sounds, rhododendrons and wildflowers in bloom, abundant butterflies and moths.

Concerns - If you are allergic to wasps, be aware all back country sites we stopped at were filled with yellow jackets. In larger campsites it is easy to move away from the areas they tend to congregate. In a relatively tight space such as the space we occupied on site 54, they seem more aggressive as there is no space to move away from them, and my husband did get stung.

Also, in some areas we noticed previous campers did not keep a clean camp as evidenced by food waste/containers in fire pits, litter, and even a potato left behind. Thus, it is possible there are habituated bears. Although we personally had no bear encounters, we did have deer that didn't want to leave us alone. My husband literally had to chase one down the trail to get it to stop coming back.

Some of these sites are well used. While digging cat-holes, I found the latrines of previous campers who buried shallow, an inch or less of topsoil. One of these shallow burials included a pair of buried Fruit of the Looms.

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