This delightful forested trail in the Heintooga section of the Smokies follows Bunches and Flat Creeks up Overlook Ridge to a perch high above Cataloochee Valley and Cherokee, NC. Few short trails in the Smokies are as memorable. The pathway is carpeted with a charming wispy grass that waves in the breeze and tickles your legs as you pass by. What’s not to love? My brother Dave and I visited Flat Creek on Friday, June 3, 2016 beginning at 8:15AM and ending about 12:30PM. Our plan was to take the Flat Creek Trail up to the Heintooga Picnic Area, then return.
Hike Length: 6 miles Hike Duration: 4.25 hours Blaze: None needed
Hike Rating: Moderate to easy. Hike Configuration: Up and back
Elevation Change: 660 feet Elevation Start: 4,900 feet
Trail Condition: Very Good. Some grassy overgrowth and a couple rock hop creek crossings, otherwise a nicely maintained trail.
Starting Point: Parking area along Heintooga Ridge Road.
Trail Traffic: We saw two other hikers and a couple picnickers.
How to Get There: Take the Blue Ridge Parkway to milepost 458 and turn onto Heintooga Ridge Road, also known as Balsam Mountain Road. Travel 5 miles to the southern trailhead for Flat Creek Trail on the left. There is enough parking room for about 4-5 vehicles.
Since you reach Flat Creek Trail from the Blue Ridge Parkway, we enjoyed a delightful start to the day by driving about 15 miles of America’s favorite scenic highway. The valley fog was luscious on this morning, as were the views of Yellow Face and from Waterrock Knob. I never get tired of the high country.
There are two trailheads for Flat Creek Trail, the lower or southern, and the upper. We chose to start at the lower end because we prefer to climb first, then return downhill. Your preference may be the opposite. However, starting at the lower trailhead the first quarter mile is indeed downhill to Bunches Creek. Keep that in mind when you are coming back, that you will have a short climb back to your car.
When you reach Bunches Creek there are a couple of crossings, the first via footlog and the 2nd a rock hop. That latter one could be a touch dicey after a heavy rain, so you may want to consider carrying water shoes if the recent weather has been wet. It was not a problem the day we were there. After this 2nd crossing the hike begins a steady uphill climb of more than 600 feet.
Flat Creek appears on your left
— not much to it really
— no more than five feet wide. There are also a couple crossings of it, both both are easily navigable. I thought when I first heard about this trail that it might be another of those really nice creek side treks with plenty of large boulders to sit on and cascades to dangle your feet in. Not so. Flat Creek is really more of a stream, and most of the time the trail is a good 50 feet or more higher on the hillside. Darn!
What is of great interest, though, is the enchanting foot-high bright green grass that grows on the forest floor. Few large trees now stand on the ridge because it was heavily logged in the early 20th century. The deforestation was especially pronounced in the 1920s, continuing almost right up to the day that the property was turned over to the national park. Grass usually did not grow in the shade of the virgin Appalachian forests. However, once the trees were gone the grass took hold. Now it is the understory for the second growth forest.
Dave and I found the grassy trail fascinating. Elegantly green, it is wispy, waving in the cool mountain breeze. The seed tops hang across the trail brushing and caressing your legs as you pass by. Combined with the leaves of birch, cherry and maple, it is a verdant delight. Flat Creek is also known as a haven for birds because the newer growth trees have burst forth in thickets, providing welcome shelter and comfort for our avian friends.
As you approach the crest of the ridge after about two and a half miles, Flat Creek Trail joins a Nature Trail that surrounds what they call Heintooga and the Balsam Mountain campground. There is an old, retired relic restroom built by the Civilian Conservation Corps still standing quietly in the woods, and a couple of benches that offer a nice respite for weary hikers.
While sitting on the benches you have a magnificent view through an opening in the forest of the Great Smoky Mountains, including the sixer Mt. Guyot. On a little knoll just a bit farther along the trail is the Heintooga picnic ground. A table there called our name as we paused for lunch and a rest. There were blue bead lilies and Canada may flowers growing there.
This area of the Smokies is only open from late May through October. The Balsam Mountain campground has the highest tent camping in the national park. Some day that you’re up for adventure you can drive beyond Heintooga on the gravel Round Bottom Road, a twisty one way forest road that winds for miles before emerging at the Qualla Cherokee Indian Reservation far below.
There are trailheads along the way, including Palmer Creek Trail that heads down into lovely Cataloochee Valley, or the Hyatt Ridge Trail combined with Beech Gap Trail making a rewarding high-country loop. You can also reach Hemphill Bald via the western end of the Cataloochee Divide from Polls Gap on Heintooga Road.
While munching our lunch, a couple other car picnickers came up from the parking area to enjoy the same tranquility that we were. I suppose this Heintooga picnic ground is really jumping on July weekends, but on this day it was peaceful and quiet. We were serenaded by the vee-ur, vee-ur of the veery thrush.
As we put our packs on and headed back down the ridge, I noticed the forest was different than it was near Flat and Bunches Creeks. Up here at 5,300 feet it is more of an elfin forest that includes beech, red spruce and some eastern hemlock, in addition to the various maples that were also found below. Think of this trail as one you may want to do when the leaves are changing in October.
Our hike back to the car was uneventful, stopping for more pictures, and to breathe the clean mountain air. The sun was now higher above us, creating a dappled lighting effect among the trees and grass. Once we crossed back over Bunches Creek it was time for that quarter mile climb that left us both nice and sweaty when we returned to the car.
In summary, Flat Creek Trail is one the entire family could enjoy. It’s good exercise with a 600 foot climb, but not so difficult that your little ones couldn’t tag along. It is definitely seasonal, simply because this area of the park isn’t even open in winter and early spring. If you love forest hikes, this one is for you. It is really, really green.