By Valerie Polk
Guided by the Scavenger Hike Adventures book, my family and I set out for Big Creek eager for the challenge. Arriving at the parking area, we immediately recognized the old logging mill foundation and tried to imagine what it might have been like back in the day when the Big Creek basin was abuzz with lumber operations. Other scavenger hike items within the parking area were easy enough to find, teaching us about the importance of using bear-proof garbage cans and introducing us to the flora of the area.
Next, we headed for Big Creek Trail to continue our adventure. This trail, an old CCC roadway, is a pleasant and gradually ascending pathway through second-growth forest that is reclaiming the mountainsides from the days of logging. Along the way, our scavenger hunt highlighted the dramatic geology of the area—huge boulders, some as big as a small bus, and large groups of boulders geologists call ‘block fields.’ On this particular day, we were fortunate enough to find the trail decked out in colorful spring wildflowers. Yellow and white trilliums, star chickweed, stonecrop, white and purple phacelias, squirrel corn and wild geranium were abundant. As I recited the names, my daughter, Emily, was eager to photograph each flower with the exuberance possessed only by a seven-year-old.
The churning sounds of Big Creek were another complement to our ramble as the trail never strayed far from the gurgling whitewater. Soon we found the short path down the bank to Midnight Hole, a deep pool fed by chutes of water squeezed between large boulders. The scene was like a vision from a storybook, and it made a wonderful place to take a seat on one of the large rocks and admire the view. The water striders dancing across the surface of the pool fulfilled another of our scavenger items, and after a sufficient rest, we climbed back up to Big Creek Trail and continued on our way.
After several more picturesque views of Big Creek and a few more items off our scavenger list, we finally arrived at Mouse Creek Falls, a beautiful 50-foot waterfall. Our Scavenger Hikes book described how railroad tracks used for logging were once right where the water first hits a conspicuously flat area beneath the falls. Again we tried to imagine the logging era, when the chugging sound of the engine could be heard through these mountains, but the tumbling waters of Mouse Creek Falls and Big Creek enveloped our senses.
Having completed our scavenger hike, we trekked two miles back to the parking area and explored a bit more. We found the footbridge spanning Big Creek near the picnic area and crossed it. Unable to resist the natural urge, I snapped a photo upstream from the center of the bridge. Later I would find its near duplicate—a black and white photo taken decades ago that is preserved as part of Great Smoky Mountains National Park’s photo archive. Finding this photo, I am reminded of how grateful I am that, decades from now, my own daughter may have the opportunity to return to this place, preserved by the National Park Service, and perhaps find it unchanged by human hands, flourishing with the rhythms of nature and accompanied by the music of Big Creek's waters.
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