Thomas Divide is one of those ridge hikes that splits the heart of the Great Smoky Mountains Range. It is also one of the longer trails in the national park at near 14 miles, but you can do as much or as little as you wish for a day hike. The trail passes through a rich forest of Eastern hemlock, beech, birch and multiple varieties of maple. The crest also enjoys the presence of spruce and fir. When the leaves are down you can see Clingmans Dome on the west side of the ridge and the massive shoulders of Richland Mountain to the east. Ken and I were greeted by an unexpected 3-4 inches of snow throughout the hike, shortening our goal to Nettle Creek Bald. We trekked Thomas Divide on Friday, February 19, 2016 from 10:00AM to 1:00PM. The plan was to take Thomas Divide Trail to Newton Bald, but we didn’t make it that far because of the snow slowing our progress.
Hike Length: 5 miles Hike Duration: 3 hours
Hike Configuration: Out and back Blaze: None needed
Hike Rating: Moderate. Lots of up, but only a modest steepness.
Elevation Change: 550 feet, gain 780 feet Elevation Start: 4,650 feet
Trail Condition: Unknown. It was covered with 3 inches of snow. Portions of the trail appeared to have a considerable cant, perhaps from erosion.
Starting Point: Thomas Divide trailhead three miles southeast of Newfound Gap on Hwy 441.
Trail Traffic: We were the only ones on the trail. Perhaps snow related.
How to Get There: From Oconaluftee Visitor Center near Cherokee, NC take Hwy 441 (Newfound Gap Road) northwest. Go 10 miles or more, past the left hand hairpin turn, then 0.4 mile past the overlook marked History Exhibit. The trailhead is on the left in a right hand hairpin turn with a long, narrow parking area.
As we were driving up Newfound Gap Road, upon reaching about 3,500 feet, there was more and more snow piled alongside. Uh-oh. I guess it did snow here a few nights ago. Suddenly the thought came to my head that our chosen trail might be snow covered. Gee. Did I bring everything I need to hike in snow? I do have ice traction, but don’t have gaiters. I do have dry socks if needed. What else? As we continued climbing higher, so did the snow.
When we arrived at Thomas Divide trailhead it was definitely covered. Looked like about three inches, maybe a little more. Ken went a hundred yards out the trail to scout conditions while I changed into my boots. Upon returning he reported that it looked about the same further into the trail. Now it was decision time. Did we want to hike in snow today? We probably won’t be able to go as far. Or, do we drive back down lower and try a different trail?
In the end we decided to go for it. After all, we are Meanderthals and what’s a little snow anyway? Our original plan was to go to Newton Bald, about 5.5 miles away. That would be really tough trudging through snow. So we backed off our goal. We said lets go to the Kanati Fork junction and see how we’re doing. That is 1.8 miles away. So with that as a goal, off we plunged on the Thomas Divide.
Thomas Divide Trail was built by the Civilian Conservation Corps stationed at the Deep Creek Campground as a means of connecting Deep Creek with the heart of the Smokies. Both the ridge and the trail were named for William Holland Thomas, an intriguing friend of the Qualla Cherokee who did not leave on the ill-fated “Trail of Tears” forced relocation to Oklahoma. Although a white man, Thomas was adopted by Chief Yonaguska and became chief himself after Yonaguska’s death in 1839. His concerted efforts enabled this Eastern Band of Cherokee to remain in North Carolina.
At the curve in the trail it switched to the north side of Thomas Ridge, meaning the snow was even deeper now… at least four inches, sometimes as much as six. After about a mile from the trailhead we reached the crest and an outstanding view across the valley at Clingmans Dome Road, and then at the tower-topped Dome itself. There aren’t any unobstructed overlooks per se, so this view would not be available during green season when the trees are full.
Speaking a trees, this is a delightful forest. It is filled with mountain, red, and sugar maple. So imagine the magnificent color in October. You will also find yellow birch, beech, and Eastern hemlock. Somehow the adelgid blight hasn’t found all these hemlocks yet. Acorns left on the trail were also an indication of the presence of oaks… some quite large. As we proceeded along Thomas Ridge we also encountered rhododendron thickets, spruce and fir.
Perhaps the most interesting though are the trees that are no longer standing. There are quite a number of massive chestnut stumps and logs lying on the ground alongside the trail. The tannic acid in their bark makes the American chestnut hardier and more weather resistant, even after death. Because of this durability, the chestnut was usually the log of choice for those settlers locating in the Smokies in the 19th century.
The snow was fatiguing. Combine the climb with post-holing and each step was more strenuous than normal. The trail was also canted, partly for drainage, but I think there’s some erosion going on. The trail seems to be slipping down the hillside. This put a strain on my right hip. I know. Whine. Whine. Whine. We definitely weren’t doing 10 miles round trip on this day.
Seasonal trail reports indicate Thomas Divide is a nice place for spring wildflowers including spring beauties, bergamot, fire pink, and the aforementioned rhododendron. Doddler is noticeable in summer and the delightful Turk’s cap lily blooms later toward autumn.
1.8 miles up the trail you reach the junction with Kanati Fork Trail, a very steep descent to Newfound Gap Road. It’s out in the middle of the forest, no landmarks highlight your arrival there. The only notice is the trail sign. Stay right here to remain on the Thomas Divide Trail. Ken and I pulled out the map for another decision. Did we want to continue, or turn back? It looked to only be another three-quarters mile to the summit of Nettle Creek Bald. That became our new goal, and a place to stop for lunch.
As we continued above Kanati Fork, the forest changed somewhat. There were more oaks and maple, even some juneberry. What was most noticeable was the size. These were mostly saplings. Nettle Creek Bald, as well as Newton Bald farther ahead, had once been cleared by settlers. Unlike the natural balds found in other regions of the Smokies, these were maintained by farmers. Once the land became national park in the 1930s, the summits were allowed to regrow forest. The original names still remain however.
Look too for a different variety of wildflowers along this stretch of trail. You are likely to see blooms with odd names like wood betony, Indian cucumber, trailing arbutus, spiderwort, and one of my favorites
— flame azalea.
About two-and-a-half miles from the trailhead we reached to summit of Nettle Creek Bald. This is the highest point on the trail. We stopped for lunch and turned around here, but if you continue, the next couple miles descends about 500 feet. We scrambled just off the trail about 50 feet to the razor edge of the ridge and found a snow-less spot to sit.
The north side here is almost straight down. Not a cliff, but extremely steep terrain where it would not be a good idea to fall. The trees struggle to stay upright. Oconaluftee River and Newfound Gap Road are in the valley below, and Richland Mountain is across the way. The breeze was freshening from the south as we munched our sandwiches, blowing in warmer air.
The warmer air began the melting. As we put everything away and headed back, the snow was already softer… not as crusty. As we descended lower some of it was completely gone already. There were even bare, snowless areas on the trail, unlike a mere hour before. The return trip seemingly took only about half as long.
OK, let’s summarize this Thomas Divide hike. We planned to go a lot farther, but unexpected snow made that difficult. Still, we thoroughly enjoyed ourselves and the snow obviously enhanced the scenes. I would like to do this one again, especially in spring when the wildflowers rock the trail, and in fall when the oaks and maples display their brilliant hues. This is a forest hike. There really is no destination, other than connections with other trails. This is one to simply enjoy the wonderful Smokies woods.