The Deep Creek area in the Smokies, just north of Bryson City, NC, is a water wonderland. Creeks and branches descend through every nook down the surrounding mountains. The documentarian Ken Burns describes Deep Creek as one of his favorite places to visit in the national park. Three picturesque waterfalls are in close proximity to the campground, and hiking trails abound. The area is also home to Lakeview Drive, aka the infamous “Road to Nowhere,” and the numerous trails that start there. You can circle Fontana Lake, or follow the drainages that feed it. We enjoyed Deep Creek Trail on Wednesday, September 10, 2014 beginning at 10:30AM and ending about 12:00PM. Our plan was to find and photograph the three waterfalls in the area, then explore the Road to Nowhere, scouting out future hiking opportunities.
Hike Length: 3 miles Hike Duration: 1.5 hours
Hike Configuration: Out and back. Blaze: None needed.
Hike Rating: Quite easy. Deep Creek is very family-friendly.
Elevation Gain: 425 feet Elevation Start: 1,820 feet
Trail Condition: Very good. Gravel road shared with equestrians.
Starting Point: Deep Creek Campground on Deep Creek Road, north of Bryson City.
Trail Traffic: There were dozens of other hikers, mostly from the campground.
How to Get There: From the intersection of Hwy 441 and Route 19 in Cherokee, drive 10 miles south on Route 19 to Everett Street in Bryson City. Turn right onto Everett and drive 0.2 miles, and then turn right onto Depot Street. After a short distance, take a left onto Ramseur Street and then an immediate right onto Deep Creek Road. Drive 2.3 miles to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park entrance, and then another half-mile to the parking area for the Deep Creek Loop hike.
The Deep Creek Campground is about three miles north of Bryson City, NC on Deep Creek Road. Hiker parking is at the north end of the campground on the left. The Juney Whank trailhead and the Deep Creek trailhead are right there at the parking lot. Convenient. We chose to tackle Juney Whank Falls first simply to get the short climb out of the way while it was still cool. The trailhead is on the left at the north end of the parking.
It’s 0.8 mile roundtrip to Juney Whank Falls and about 180 feet of climbing. The falls is an 80 foot cascade with a footbridge crossing about half way up. From the bridge you look up for the top half of the falls and down for the bottom. It seems a little whanky, shall we say, to put the bridge right in the middle rather than at the bottom. Oh well, that’s my photographer’s brain working. The good news is the bridge puts you close enough to touch the water.
You can either return the way you came, back to the parking for the Deep Creek trailhead, or you can continue on the Juney Whank Trail. It eventually comes out on the Deep Creek Trail just north of the trailhead. Deep Creek Trail itself is an old forest road, so it is plenty wide and is shared with horses.
The first highlight along Deep Creek Trail about a quarter mile in is Tom Branch Falls. Also an 80-footer this one is on the hillside across Deep Creek, at the point where Tom Branch plunges into the creek. The waterfall is broken into several separate shelves, creating a wealth of splashy cascades. Interestingly, when the water flow is low like it was on this day, it switches from side to side as it crosses the ledges. The Park Service has placed several benches for anyone to just sit and enjoy the view. Tom Branch Falls is especially lovely when the surrounding forest is alive with color in Autumn.
As you continue along Deep Creek Trail you’ll cross on scenic foot bridges enabling the opportunity to peer up and down stream. During late summer, early fall this trail is lined with hearts-a-poppin’-with-love wildflowers, sometimes known as strawberry bush. It’s about a half mile of easy, level strolling alongside the creek to the junction with Indian Creek Trail. Be sure to take a look here at the narrow slot that Indian Creek shoots through on its way to join Deep Creek.
Just a couple hundred feet up Indian Creek Trail is Indian Creek Falls, a 45-foot split waterfall that slides into a wide pool. There is a spur trail off the left of the main trail. I thought this one was the most picturesque of the three major falls in the area. There are two good viewing points and photo spots, one on the way down the spur, and the other at the bottom, alongside Indian Creek.
If you’re here for hiking, the Indian Creek Trail continues onward in a loop until it eventually comes back to Deep Creek after a couple miles. There is about a 350 foot climb over Sunkota Ridge through a rhododendron and laurel forest that is alive with color in late spring. On the Deep Creek side of the ridge the trail is a festive wildflower display throughout spring, including such beauties as trillium, violets and dogwood.
But we were on a different mission today and skipped the loop hike. Primarily interested in the waterfalls, we turned around after having seen each of the three. Now we wanted to go check out the infamous “Road to Nowhere” and scout out the trails found there for future adventures. Look for Lakeview Drive on your way back toward Bryson City.
In the 1930s and 1940s, Swain County gave up the majority of its private land to the Federal government for the creation of Fontana Lake and Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Hundreds of people were forced to leave the small Smoky Mountain communities that had been their homes for generations. With the creation of the Park, their homes were gone, and so was the road to those communities. Old Highway 288 was buried beneath the deep waters of Fontana Lake.
The Federal government promised to replace Highway 288 with a new road. Lakeview Drive was to have stretched along the north shore of Fontana Lake, from Bryson City to Fontana, 30 miles to the west. And, of special importance to those displaced residents, it was to have provided access to the old family cemeteries where generations of ancestors remained behind.
But Lakeview Drive fell victim to an environmental issue and construction was stopped, with the road ending at a tunnel about six miles into the Park. The environmental issue was eventually resolved, but the roadwork was never resumed, and Swain County’s citizens gave the unfinished Lakeview Drive its popular, albeit unofficial name “The Road To Nowhere.”
There are several pullouts along Lakeview Drive with wide vistas of the fingers of Fontana Lake and the Great Smoky Mountains that surround the region. Several creeks and streams plummet through the dense forest to the lake, and there are hiking trails that follow these drainages.
At the end of Lakeview Drive, as promised, is the tunnel. It’s probably 200 yards long, a straight shot, and we happened to arrive just as a half dozen horses were clip-clopping through. The echoes in the tunnel confused some horses who became a touch skittish. Once they popped back out into the light at the other end, all was well. We sat on the guardrail beside the road, enjoying a sandwich, and watched the parade as it passed by.
There are several hiking and equestrian trails on the far side of the tunnel, including the Goldmine Loop Trail, and the Lakeshore Trail that is a multi-day excursion.
On our way back on Lakeview Drive, we stopped at the Noland Creek trailhead for the mile hike to Fontana Lake. At first, the trail dropped about a hundred feet to the creek level, then criss-crossed the stream at least a half dozen times on sturdy wooden foot bridges. Noland Creek is quite scenic, surrounded by rhododendron and mixed hardwoods that hang out above the stream.
My companion for the day told me that if you head the opposite direction, away from Fontana Lake, it is an excellent hike that follows Noland Creek for miles. It passes through Solala Valley, past several backcountry campsites, and eventually ends up at Upper Sassafrass Gap where it meets the Noland Divide Trail. Noland Creek Trail is also part of the acclaimed Benton MacKaye Trail that traverses the breadth of the Smokies. This one will definitely be a plan for another day.
When we reached the end of Noland Creek where it feeds Fontana Lake we found both beauty and ugliness. There is a splendid cascade there, dropping 5-6 feet off a shelf of rock. However, looking toward the lake I was taken aback by all the backwash. The banks of the creek are littered with driftwood and logs, and yes, rubbish. It looks like a trash dump; quite appalling actually, especially for a national park. I’m told the boaters on Fontana Lake simply dump their trash overboard, and it ends up in these backwash channels. So sad.
We finished the day at a local Bryson City Mexican eatery, then drove the two hours back home.
To summarize, this was my first trip to the Bryson City region of the Smokies park. As with most places you go in late summer, it was not the best time. I enjoyed the Deep Creek waterfalls, but I was able to envision the scenery as being considerably more attractive in both spring and fall. Even in winter, with a slight snow cover, the waterfalls would be quite lovely. Horace Kephart’s granddaughter tells me he used Deep Creek as the setting for his novel “Smoky Mountain Magic.” Deep Creek was one of Kephart’s favorite places in the Smokies. Our exploration of Lakeview Drive was useful, as I learned of more trails to enjoy in the future. Noland Creek, in particular, is now on my radar.
Deep Creek is not entirely different in winter, just no leaves on the trees. There is still water everywhere. The trails are just as popular as ever. And on a 70
° day in late February it seemed like spring. See for yourself.