We tend to think of fall as the time of the hunter, but the season is also a grand time for hiking. Autumn's appeal ranges widely -- from the brilliance of turning leaves early in the fall to the bracing air and scenic vistas common as the world eases towards winter. This is especially true in the nearby North Carolina high country, where ecological diversity, high mountains, and remoteness of place combine into a hiker's dream.
With that in mind, what follows is a detailed look at two challenging but wonderfully intriguing hiking destinations in the southwestern mountains, which can take you back to a time of history and mystery in the 19th century. One focuses on the sad saga of the Trail of Tears and the removal of the Cherokees from their homeland, while the other leads to the beloved homeland sought by the hero of Charles Frazier's bestseller of a few years back, "Cold Mountain."
When harsh, shameful federal edicts from the administration of President Andrew Jackson directed the removal of the Cherokee tribe from their traditional homeland, most obediently took the westward route to Oklahoma known to history as the Trail of Tears. A rebellious remnant, led by a young brave named Tsali, chose to stay behind. His story is a well-known one, thanks to the long-running outdoor drama, "Unto These Hills," which is performed through the summer months each year in Cherokee. Even though the historical realities have been painted with a broad brush of romance, it remains a fascinating tale.
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Pursued by federal soldiers, Tsali and a few companions sought refuge in the remote, rocky fastnesses of Deep Creek (which now is in the heart of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park). No one knows exactly where Tsali hid out, although most authorities agree it was somewhere in cliffs high up on Deep Creek's Left Fork. Locals often refer to a particular outcrop of stone near Keg Drive Branch (a feeder of Left Fork) as Charley's (i. e., Tsali's) Rock. Wherever his precise hiding place may have been, Tsali eventually surrendered with the understanding that his life would be forfeit in return for the remaining Cherokees being allowed to stay in their traditional homeland. He was subsequently shot, as were his two sons and brother, on the banks of the Tuckaseigee River near Bryson City.
Hiking into the region where Tsali hid prior to surrender is no simple matter, but the rewards in terms of beauty and solitude are considerable. The logical beginning point is with a good trail guide. Kenneth Wise's "Hiking Trails of the Great Smoky Mountains" offers a detailed description (on pages 325-50) to the region. Other useful guides are Allen de Hart's "North Carolina Hiking Trails" (pages 236-40) and Randy Johnson's "Hiking N orth Carolina."
One of the intriguing things about the Left Fork of Deep Creek is that it is not accessed by any maintained trail, although you can get close by two different routes. One is to take the Deep Creek Trail beginning at a pull off on Highway 44l 1.8 miles below Newfound Gap. Follow the trail for just under four miles to the Poke Patch backcountry campsite. There cross a foot log over the Right Fork leading up to the Fork Ridge Trail. When the trail reaches the main ridge dividing the Right and Left Forks of Deep Creek, you can drop down to the Left Fork along an old logging grade or via a fisherman's footpath.
Alternatively, take the Fork Ridge Trail, which begins on the Clingmans Dome Road, and walk downhill toward Poke Patch. Along the way, looking south, you will view the area where Tsali and his small band supposedly hid in caves beneath Clingmans Dome. For those who wish to do this hike in more than one day, and it is quite arduous for a single day's venture, continuing on down Deep Creek, staying overnight in a designated campsite, and continuing on to the lower trailhead is recommended. Along the way you can visit the last permanent campsite of the Dean of American Campers, Horace Kephart, at the Bryson Place. A bronze plaque set in an old millstone and located 40-50 yards off the trail marks the site.
CLIMBING COLD MOUNTAIN
Fairly early on in Charles Frazier's Cold Mountain he mentions Inman and a Cherokee friend catching speckled trout with stickbait and rockbait. That immediately gives the author's work has a ring of authenticity, for few souls outside the Smokies and Blue Ridge are likely to recognize these colloquial terms for the larval stages of two members of the caddis family of insects.
Similarly, the serious student of geography can trace the war-weary Inman's homeward progress with considerable exactitude. Getting to Cold Mountain in person, however, is a demanding task.
The peak lies in the heart of one of North Carolina's most remote regions, Pisgah National Forest's Shining Rock Wilderness area. It is a region visited mainly by serious backcountry hikers and campers along with trout fishermen and the occasional hunter. Although I have personally fished and camped in the region a number of times, making forays along trackless feeder streams of the East Fork of the Pigeon River, Cold Mountain was known to me only as an obscure place name prior to the novel's appearance.
It requires a hike of upwards of eight miles one way from the most convenient trailhead to reach Cold Mountain.
A myriad of trails lead into the Shining Rock Wilderness (see pages 124-33 of de Hart or pages 145-51 of Johnson). Most are spurs of the Art Loeb Trail, including the 1.5 mile section of trail actually named the Cold Mountain Trail. It passes a spring during its ascent before coming to a dead end atop 6,030 foot Cold Mountain. Then the hiker must retrace his footsteps, although he can enjoy different scenery on the way back to the Blue Ridge Parkway (the most commonly used means of access) after walking the initial mile and a half when returning.
Take either of these hikes -- and they are arduous -- and your reward will be wandering through history and literature in a wilderness world. Not a bad way to spend a fall day, and either destination offers an avenue into a world we have lost suitable for a weekend getaway for those living in this part of South Carolina.
It's the time of the whitetail rut, with October 20-November 5 being the traditional peak period in this part of South Carolina. This means there's no better time, particularly if you aspire to having a big buck in the crosshairs, to be afield than now. As I'm writing this there's at least some promise of rain, and that would certainly help things. Meanwhile, in many parts of the region you can actually pattern deer about as much on water sources as you can food -- an unprecedented situation.