The day after Christmas four of us set out for a 17.7-mile loop hike in Oconoluftee including Mingus Creek Trail, Newton Bald Trail, Thomas Divide Trail, Deep Low Gap Trail, and Cooper Creek Trail. The sun was only out for a little while, but the skies were clear and the views were fantastic. There was even a bonus waterfall!
We started our hike around 8:40 in the morning and immediately began a slow ascent up Mingus Creek Trail. Due to recent rains, the water was running high and the trail was wet and rocky, causing for icy conditions in the 28-degree weather. After about 2 miles, the trail began a steeper ascent for about one mile running via several switchbacks up to Deep Low Gap. JD and I reached the gap in about an hour and took cheesy photos while waiting on our other companions. From here, we’d have another three miles to the top at Newton Bald, but the ascent wasn’t as steep as our last mile. There were several switchbacks up the trail, but the climb was never difficult. The trail was now dry and soft with laurel and rhododendron. On this trail, we’d see live chestnut trees, some still with fruit on them. These trees were all but extinct due to a blight in the early 20th century, so seeing a live one was exciting. We reached Newton Bald at 11 a.m. and took a short snack break before pushing on.
From Newton Bald, we’d be losing quite a bit of elevation with only a few short uphill pushes. Thomas Divide nearly stays on a ridgeline for pleasant walking. Shortly after getting on this trail, we had views of the tower at Clingman’s Dome. JD and I began doing a little trail jogging down to Deep Low Gap and it was truly leisurely and pleasant. The woods were so quiet that the only noise heard was the leaves underfoot as we jogged. We stopped for lunch at Deep Low Gap before descending down even further on Deep Low Gap Trail. About 0.6 miles down the trail, we started following a loud creek and suddenly came upon Little Creek Falls, which looked like stair steps down the mountain. We took lots of photos and continued downward to the Cooper Creek Trail junction.
Being that one of us had hiked the trail before, we were warned that Cooper Creek was mostly creek rather than trail. Due to not wanting wet shoes, I decided to just go barefoot for the 0.3 miles of wet trail. Mary had brought water shoes and Elise and JD were in good boots, so we made great time out and back on the trail. It definitely made for great photo opportunities by being barefoot in a creek in December. After coming back up to Deep Low Gap Trail, we’d now have an ascent back up to the Mingus Creek Trailhead. We passed an old homesite with two chimneys and walked across Cooper Creek multiple times before finally coming to a switchback that moved away from the creek at a cascade. As we turned from the creek and climbed the hill, the mountains ahead of us appeared blue and smoky, giving the reason for the Cherokee word Shaconage - the place of the blue smoke. We made our way up to the gap and were there by 3 p.m.
From the gap, it was an hour back to the cars via a steep descent and a side trip to a cemetery. When we crossed down the hill and decided to visit the cemetery, we were greeted by a freshly killed buck laying nearly directly under the foot log. After going a short way up the road, we decided the cemetery was too far away (turns out it was 0.8 miles one way, so we were glad to turn back!) and we decided just to leave a note for Mary and Elise that we’d gone back to the cars.
We reached the car shortly before 4 p.m. and took a pizza break before our long 2-hour drive back home. The skies were clear, but overcast, all day. The company was fantastic and the trail was challenging. Today had all the makings of a wonderful hike.