I looked up the weather, phoned a friend, and planned our vehicle shuttle for a pick up at Balsam Mountain Trail. We were about to embark on 15.9 miles of backcountry hiking to complete 4.1 miles of trail that is notorious for difficult water crossings in the spring. Knowing our mileage would be long, we hit Big Creek Trail at dawn and started a fast pace along the gently ascending Big Creek Trail 6.1 miles, passed Low Gap Trail in the blink of an eye and left Camel Gap Trail in our dust.
Gunter Fork begins on a well-engineered railroad grade owned and operated back in the day by the Crestmont Railroad Company when they logged the slopes of virgin lumber in the early part of the 20thcentury. Then, after the establishment of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the Civilian Conservation Corps graded the steeper reaches of the trail in the 1930s.
My companion and I encountered several water crossings, and at mile 1.4 we reached a place where Gunter Fork cascades 10 feet into a fan-shaped pool of swirling water. Another half mile of hiking and we passed a 150-foot cascade tumbling down Thunderhead sandstone. We did our final water crossing and began experiencing the switchbacks, seeing spectacular views of ridgelines and stands of vegetation thick with rhododendron. Visit the higher elevations in the Smokies in July as we did, and you may find the rhodo still exploding with pink and white blossoms.
Once we reached the Balsam Mountain Trail intersection, we rewarded ourselves by refueling with lunch before descending to meet our ride, who thankfully took us back to our cars and creature comforts of home. It was a tough trail, but we are no worse for the wear.
Trail Overview Starting point:
Follow Big Creek trail 6.1 miles. Length: 4.1 miles.
Rating: Strenuous. Heed warnings during times of high waters.
Condition: Narrow and at times, eroded.
Highlights: Multiple creek and cascade scenes, high mountain vistas.