Starting on Friday, August 12th, my friend Elise and I did a three-day backpack in the Smokies covering some major ground making a 42-mile weekend.
We had my husband drop us off at Clingman’s Dome. It was actually clear Friday morning, so we all went up to the dome for some photos. It’s the first time any of us had been able to really see anything from up there. You could even see pockets of Fontana Lake with the fog over them. It was truly beautiful. We walked back down to the AT and started off at close to 10 a.m. The first 4.25 miles or so of this hike were on the AT and the views in every direction were spectacular. The sky was so clear and bright, everything was green and the trail was in amazing shape. We saw several trail maintainers from the Smoky Mountains Hiking Club up there as well. We also ate some blackberries from the trail along the way to Welch Ridge. We passed some boy scouts around mile 2.5 and they had stayed at Silers Bald the night before. We cruised along the AT quickly, close to 3 miles per hour, and reached Welch Ridge Trail pretty quickly. Here is where we ran into the last people we’d see for the day. Three guys had hiked down Forney Creek and up Welch Ridge.
We were only on Welch Ridge for a short amount of time and didn’t loose to much elevation from there. The trail was in wonderful shape and gave us great views down into the valley, a glimpse of what was to come later in our day. The trail leveled out a bit again and we reached the Hazel Creek trailhead about 12:15. The sign post looked like it had been chewed on a bit, the sign resting on the ground. After double checking our map and Elise’s memory, we made sure it was pointing the correct way, ha ha!
We took a short lunch break and started down the Hazel Creek Trail about 12:30. The descent began immediately with a few switchbacks thrown in for good measure. The trail was steep, but never tough. Close to 2 miles down the trail we had a fairly large blowdown to navigate, which actually meant us taking off our packs and climbing under and then over a tree, handing each other our gear and really slowing us down. After navigating the blowdown, we came to a switch back with an illegal campsite right on Hazel Creek. This also marked our first creek crossing on Hazel Creek, the first of 16. The crossing was a good, quick rockhop and I made it through with dry feet. Elise, however, wasn’t so lucky. She tossed her boots across after putting on her Chacos for the wet part of the trail. Unfortunately, her boots didn’t make it across the creek and landed IN the creek. It was funny and we both laughed pretty hard, but sometimes stuff like that happens in the woods. You just pick up your stuff and head out :) After our first crossing, we had a short stretch of trail that was pretty dry. We also saw our first wildlife - an adult male black bear. Elise was a bit in front of me at this point and he was walking right towards us. By the time I saw him, he had completely stopped with his ears up. He was about 400 feet from us and I’d estimate close to 170 pounds. He saw us standing there and decided he wanted nothing to do with us, so he left rather quickly in the opposite direction. We continued on for about 3.5 uneventful miles. The stream crossings were numerous, but never hard.
Finally, we get to where Walker Creek and Hazel Creek meet. The trail at this point had become a road and had visible and fresh tire tracks from a park service vehicle. When you get to this point, if going down hill, you’ll see a foot trail off to the right of the trail. We didn’t take this, but I wish we would have. These two creek crossings are pretty deep, knee deep in lower water. I finally got my feet wet and I was pretty bummed. I had made it so far with dry feet too! From these last two crossings it was close to 1 mile to campsite #82. We were beginning to see artifact and homesite remains at this point. We made the quick walk down to 82 and it was close to 3 p.m. at this point. Campsite #82 was a bear’s heaven. Up by the bear lines was the horse camp and the backpackers camp is down by the river. The horse camp area was strewn with so much litter it was unreal. I’d estimate at least 5 pounds of trash EVERYWHERE up here. So much and so large we couldn’t pick it up and carry it for three days. Pop bottles, so many torn up Mountain House bags I couldn’t even count them all. Everyone wonders why I hate horse campers and the reason was right in front of me. Elise and I took a break and cleaned up our feet and dried them off. We still had quite a few more miles down to camp for the night. The good news was that we were staying at 83 and had a short distance to go!
We passed Cold Spring Gap and the ranger bunkhouse soon after hitting the trail again. We had another short creek crossing here, but nothing too major. We end up seeing the junction for Bone Valley Trail at close to 4:30, which meant two things, we were at camp and there was a bridge over the creek - NO MORE WET FEET! We took a short break at camp, changed into some good creek shoes, and went ahead and headed up Bone Valley Trail, leaving our backpacks and gear other than some water at the campsite.
Bone Valley Trail is one I’ve always wanted to do. It’s fairly short, only 1.8 long to the terminus, but there’s a beautifully preserved cabin at the end. I’ve loved looking at the photos and always wanted to see it. The creek crossings on this trail are pretty wet, close to knee deep for 4 of the 5, so I seriously recommend a good pair of shoes you don’t mind getting wet if you come out this far. The trail was flat and walking went quickly. We reached the Hall/Kress cabin at 6:15. I was truly amazed at the beauty of something so simple. There were still glass panes in the windows, none of them broken. There was also a lock on the front door with a hole for a skeleton key. I found this a bit amusing because I never really thought of people in the mountains to ever lock their doors. We also decided to head up to the family cemetery about 0.5 miles up from the house. This trail actually went uphill and we were pretty spent.
We made it back to camp that night about 7:30 and settled in quickly. By dark about an hour later, we were both ready for a good night’s sleep and the beauty of a full moon. If you’re planning a trip to Hazel Creek, I highly recommend campsite 83. It was very large and spread out. We were the only ones there Friday night, but it’s right on the creek and very serene! With the extra mile to the cemetery we’d done, we hit right at 20 miles for our first day.