Friday, June 28, 2013

Great Smoky Mountains NP: Flat Creek Trail (Blog Hike #399)

Trail: Flat Creek Trail
Hike Location: Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Geographic Location: northeast of Cherokee, NC
Length: 2.6 miles ONE-WAY
Difficulty: 5/10 (Moderate)
Last Hiked: October 2012
Overview: A high-elevation out-and-back with only moderate difficulty.

Directions to the trailhead: From Cherokee, take US 441 north to the Blue Ridge Parkway and turn right to enter the Blue Ridge Parkway.  Drive the Parkway 8 miles to Heintooga Ridge Road.  Turn left on Heintooga Ridge Rd.  Take Heintooga Ridge Rd. 9 miles to the picnic area, where the pavement ends and the road becomes one-way.  Park at the cul-de-sac for the picnic area.

The hike: For my overview of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, see the Abrams Falls Hike.  Hiking does not get much better than October in the Smokies.  The air is cool, the probability of rain is at its annual low, and the crowds have thinned relative to the busy summer season.  Autumn takes its time rolling into the Smokies.  Leaves first change color in the high elevations during early October.  The brilliant colors work their way slowly down the mountains until the last leaves drop off in Cherokee and Gatlinburg in late October to early November.
            I live only 3 hours from the Smokies, so I consider it a shame on myself that I have only been to this hiking mecca twice.  My first trip lasted an entire week in late May 2007.  At that time of year, the trees at high elevations had just turned green, and the summer crowds were just starting to build.  I spent most of my time in and around Gatlinburg, and upon leaving I vowed to return to tour the North Carolina side of the park, preferably in the fall.  In the second week of October 2012, I arrived on my brief two-day return trip.  I enjoyed the Smokies in the spring, but October was even better.
            Due to the crystal clear skies, I chose to spend my first day exploring the higher elevations.  The time for peak leaf-peeping had come in the high elevations, while the leaves at the lower elevations were just starting to turn.  I chose to hike the Flat Creek Trail described here to get some significant time in the high elevation without taking on too much difficulty.  My choice turned out to be a good one: the weather was perfect, and the scenery was fantastic.
            About the only downside to hiking the Flat Creek Trail is that it does not form a loop.  Thus, to hike this trail you will need to either 1) hike it as an out-and-back, 2) arrange a car shuttle, or 3) hike paved Heintooga Ridge Road 3.6 miles back uphill to the picnic area.  Although a 2.6 mile trail hike and a 3.6 mile road hike does not sound like a good combination, the road hike is not that bad: the road is lightly traveled, and a wide grassy shoulder allows you to get out of harm’s way easily should you need to.           
Trailhead: Flat Creek Trail
            The trail starts to the right of the picnic area at a brown wooden sign that reads, “Flat Creek Trail; Heintooga Ridge Road 2.6.”  When I hiked this trail in mid-October, the picnic area and its restrooms had already closed for the winter, but several cars were parked at this trailhead as numerous people wanted to enjoy a meal at the picnic tables and/or hike this trail.  The wide trail heads into the forest, which is dominated by balsam fir and birch trees.
            In less than 5 minutes you reach Heintooga Overlook and its pair of benches.  This westward-facing overlook provides a fine view of some lower mountains in the foreground and the stateline divide in the background.  During fall leaf peeping season this overlook provides the best opportunity on this hike for viewing entire mountains of fall colors, so take some time here to enjoy the view.
View west from Heintooga Overlook
            Past the overlook, at 0.1 miles the wide trail around the picnic area angles uphill to the left while the narrower Flat Creek Trail exits downhill to the right.  Turn softly right to continue the Flat Creek Trail.  The trail descends on a moderate grade, levels out briefly, then descends some more.  At 0.9 miles and at the bottom of the descent, the trail crosses a small stream on a footlog.  Footlogs are logs placed length-wise across a stream with the up-facing side filed down to create a flat walking surface.  Footlogs form the most common type of trail bridge in the Smokies, and they have saved many hikers from the trial of wet feet.
Footlog across small creek
            For the next mile the Flat Creek Trail maintains a near-constant elevation with its namesake creek downhill to the right.  Dense mountain laurel surrounds the creek itself, but the trail alternates between streamside mountain laurel thickets and grassy higher areas that receive plenty of sunlight.  Twice the trail crosses Flat Creek via easy rock hops.
            At 1.9 miles, you pass a wooden mileage sign on the right.  A primitive path behind this sign leads steeply downhill toward Flat Creek and Flat Creek Falls.  Unfortunately, although the falls can be heard from points very near the main trail, the path quickly becomes steep and overgrown, and no clear view of the waterfall emerges.
            After a brief moderate climb, the trail begins its final downhill leg.  On this segment of sidehill trail some partially obstructed views of Flat Creek’s now deep ravine open up to the right.  2.4 miles into the hike, the trail crosses Bunches Creek, the widest creek and lowest elevation on the hike.  Some rocks in the creek may allow a rock-hop, but on my visit a couple of the rocks were submerged in a few inches of water.  I had managed to keep my feet dry up to this point, but I could not avoid the cold water on this creek crossing.
Ford of Bunches Creek
            On the opposite bank, the trail begins its final segment, a steep climb to Heintooga Ridge Road.  One additional footlog is crossed and a switchback is negotiated to arrive at a pullout on the shoulder of Heintooga Ridge Road.  Some rocks placed on the road make for good places to sit and have a trail snack while you contemplate which of the three options presented in the introduction you wish to utilize to return to the Heintooga Picnic Area and complete the hike.

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