Story and image by Don McGowan
According to most recent accounts there are 848 miles of maintained trails in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, including 71 miles on the Appalachian Trail. These miles are scattered wonderfully across GSMNP from edge to edge and from high to low.
In the extreme northeastern corner of the park, just inside North Carolina, a beautiful tributary of the Pigeon River, known simply as Big Creek, flows from its thickly forested watershed cradled between Mount Sterling Ridge and the great Crest Ridge of the Smokies. Here, the Crestmont Lumber Company, anchored by its mill town, Crestmont, sawed away at the Southern Appalachians during the first quarter of the twentieth century.
After the loggers had departed and the forest began to return, what had once been a railroad grade tracing the creek 5.1 miles upstream to Walnut Bottoms eventually became a small, but very appealing, segment of those 848 miles known as Big Creek Trail. The views of the energetic creek itself are worth the walk; but add, in season, wildflowers and forest crown, and Big Creek Trail is a formula for year-round beauty, with a larger-than-life portion of intriguing human history thrown in.
As the trail ascends its way to Walnut Bottoms, it passes through clusters of beech and poplar, hickory and buckeye, maple and oak, offering respite from a summer sun, in a canopy dense enough to nearly let someone forget the damage done by the saws.
“Because we have lost reverence of approach, we should not be too surprised at the lack of quality and beauty in our experience. At the heart of things is a secret law of balance and when our approach is respectful, sensitive and worthy, gifts of healing, challenge, and creativity open to us. A gracious approach is the key that unlocks the treasure of encounter.”
~John O’Donohue, Divine Beauty: The Invisible Embrace
Don McGowan owns and operates EarthSong Photography. For five years he was the staff photographer for Friends of the Smokies. He offers workshops and photography instruction in beautiful locations around the country, including the Smokies.