By Lisa Duff
When Great Smoky Mountains Association volunteer hike guide Lloyd Shiver suggested we knock out two trails with significant creek crossings this summer, I thought, “Can’t ask for a better time to cool off in the Smokies than late June and July.” Add to that the fact boat rides would be required to cross Fontana Lake at the conclusion of each, I jumped at the chance to join in.
June 29: The full length of Hazel Creek from Clingmans Dome. Considering the mileage involved – somewhere just north of 21 miles – I knew this trip would be the tougher of the two. Accessing Hazel Creek from the top required us to hike three other trails first: Clingmans Dome Bypass, a section of the Appalachian Trail and a small stretch of Welch Ridge Trail. Before taking our first step on Hazel Creek, we hiked just over six miles, enjoying views from some of the park’s highest elevations. Only 14.7 more miles to go!
After reading Daniel Pierce’s Hazel Creek: The Life and Death of an Iconic Mountain Community when it first came out, I’ve been primed for this adventure for a long time. As a description of his book tell us: “It is amazing to read about all the things that happened on Hazel Creek. A famous writer mysteriously arrived and settled into a remote log cabin. A mine opened and showed great promise until things turned very sour. One of the biggest lumber companies in the country set up shop and brought opportunity and prosperity for all. TVA decided to build a very large dam to help America win World War II and a once-bustling town found itself inconveniently within the boundaries of our nation's most popular national park.”
While no water cross is 100% safe, Hazel’s creek crossings at this time of year are relatively tame. I was tempted to swap out my trail runners for water shoes early on, but I knew the clock was ticking. We needed to meet the Fontana Marina water taxi no later than 6 p.m. that evening unless we wanted to sleep under the stars. Considering the number of miles and water crossings in front of us, we opted to walk through this stream and hope for the best as far as blisters were concerned. Just about the time my shoes had mostly dried out, here came another chance to get wet. It turned out each icy plunge felt better than the last.
After a quick tour of the Calhoun House near the trail’s conclusion (or start if you opt to hike it from south to north), we reached the lake’s shore about an hour ahead of the shuttle, which provided plenty of time for a swim. Thankfully, the water snake that lives in this general area wasn’t spotted until we’d had our fill of splashing around, or that critter encounter would have caused us to think twice about full submersion.
July 4: Eagle Creek by way of Lead Cove, for a total of nearly 13.5 miles. Turns out I was wrong about which of these two North Carolina creek trails would be most challenging. Anyone who has ever hoofed it to the Appalachian Trail up Bote Mountain knows what I’m talking about. I thought Low Gap over in Cosby was tough. Silly me! Worn out after only a few days rest post-Hazel Creek, Bote kicked my tired tail. Then it got worse. The upper section of Eagle Creek below Spence Field provided some of the most challenging hiking I’ve ever encountered. This rocky, steep descent is not intended for the faint of heart, I’m here to tell you.
With each of Hazel’s creek crossings, I told myself I was practicing for Eagle’s crossings, some of which Hiking Trails of the Smokies describes as “extremely dangerous” in high-water conditions. Having just hiked Hazel Creek, however, we had no trouble getting across any of the 15 to 18 (we lost count) stream crossings Eagle Creek offered up.
With a similar time constraint pushing us toward the lake’s edge, Lloyd and I hustled onward to backcountry campsite #90 at the terminus of Eagle Creek, where I’d spent a night three years back while completing Lakeshore Trail in four days. Once again, we beat the shuttle to our meeting spot, this time by more than two hours. The water’s edge didn’t look as inviting, so after cleaning a blackberry vine of its fresh, sun-warmed fruit, I fashioned my daypack into a pillow and stretched out in the grass. Beautifully colored dragon and damselflies kept me entertained until the shuttle arrived.
The crippling critters encountered on Eagle Creek did not include the rattlesnake disguised as a small tree limb or the docile deer that stopped us in our tracks as we both considered alternate routes to avoid each other. Oh, no! It was the hundreds of unseen chiggers that snuggled up to me as I lay in the grass and sank their hideous mouthparts into my warm skin that nearly did me in. Within two days I was convinced only a full epidermis transplant would save my sanity. Unbearable itching in sensitive places continues as of this writing, nearly four weeks later.
Both Hazel Creek and Eagle Creek trails are full of history, most of which is available to read in various books from GSMA. They are places to enjoy the park’s remote waterways, whether you want to wade in a stream, hook a trout or jump in a lake. They’ll both challenge you and put you at ease. When you go, remember to put a sturdy, solid barrier between you and the chiggers, like maybe a hazmat suit.