If you want a truly remote backcountry experience, places like Hazel Creek or Eagle Creek would be your choice. But if you’re looking for a variety of directly accessible outdoor experiences like tubing, fly fishing, horseback riding, and hiking — as well as sites of historical interest — and a campground that’s one of the best in the Smokies, Deep Creek is the place to be.
Archaeological surveys have determined that the watershed has been the site of human occupation for nearly 8,000 years. Small Cherokee villages were established there within the last 1,000 years as outlying settlements from the old mothertown of Katuah, which was located several miles to the southeast on the north side of the Tuckasegee River between Bryson City and Cherokee. A friendship wall on the ridge between Katuah and the Deep Creek watershed existed into the middle of this century.
When the Cherokees were being removed from Western North Carolina in 1838, many of them sought refuge in the higher reaches of the Smokies where the Left Fork of Deep Creek drains the southeastern side of Clingmans Dome. The rock shelter many old-time Bryson City residents believe was the Cherokee martyr Tsali’s last hideout is located up on the Left Fork.
White settlers were established all along the watershed by the middle of the 19th century. When Deep Creek was logged just after the turn of the century, splash dams were built near the logging operations as a way of getting the timber down to the sawmill and rail line at Bryson City. Once the ponds created by the dams were full of logs, they would be opened (sometimes with dynamite) to provide enough water to float the logs downstream. Many of the mountaineers-turned-loggers were agile enough to ride the logs down the narrow, rocky watercourse. The sites of the splash dams can still be spotted if you know just where to look.
Bryson City author Horace Kephart — whose Our Southern Highlanders (1913) and Camping and Woodcraft (1906) remain in print as classics in their respective subject areas — lived for a short while with the Bob Barnett family in one of the last houses up Deep Creek in 1910. And until his death in an automobile accident in 1931, he used the old Bryson Place near where the Left Fork enters the main portion of Deep Creek as his summertime camping spot. A permanent marker there commemorates his use of the site. Last summer the marker and general area were refurbished by a Boy Scout Troop from Franklin.
All but the lowermost three miles of Deep Creek became a part of the national park in the 1930s. Through the years, the Deep Creek Campground, situated just inside the park boundary, has gained a reputation as the campground-of-choice for those seeking a quiet getaway that’s readily accessible.
According to Hiking Trails of the Smokies (Gatlinburg Tenn.: Great Smoky Mountains Natural History Association, 1994), “The center of the Deep Creek Campground was the site of Deep Creek Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) Camp from 1933 to 1936. First, Company 1216 lodged here; then Company 4488 moved in from Mingus Creek Camp to construct several trails in the area, including Deep Creek, Noland Divide, and Thomas Divide trails.”
Unlike many of the larger campgrounds on both sides of the park, the one at Deep Creek has something for everyone. Younger people can entertain themselves for days tubing along the creek, and a variety of trails — easy, moderate, and strenuous — lead away from the campground along the watershed or up the ridges to Thomas Divide and Clingmans Dome.
The lower terminus of the main Deep Creek trailhead is at the campground. It’s 14.3 miles to the upper trailhead on the south side of the Newfound Gap Road (U.S. 441), 1.7 miles south of Newfound Gap. Road access at each end of the trail provides an excellent opportunity for those wanting to make a one-way hike by leaving a vehicle at one end or the other. Most choose to hike from U.S. 441 (4,810 feet) down to the campground (1,990 feet), a gradual descent of 2,820 feet.
The average hiking time — allowing for a lunch break — is perhaps seven to eight hours. Many choose to leave out early and make the excursion a leisurely all-day outing. One of the best things about the Deep Creek Trail is that it has no crossings of the main creek except in the very highest elevations, where it can be hopped over. Other trails in the region, like those along Forney and Hazel creeks, have numerous places in the higher elevations where fording a sometimes raging torrent numerous times is part of the deal.
Designated backcountry campsites along Deep Creek provide scenic spots to settle down for a night or two and really enjoy the solitude and opportunities for fishing or simply exploring along the main stream or its tributaries. (Overnight hikers must obtain a backcountry use permit, which is available from backcountry permit stations located at all ranger stations and the Oconaluftee Visitor Center near Cherokee.)
If you do choose to hike the entire trail downstream from the Newfound Gap Road, you’ll come upon Campsite No. 60 at approximately 11.3 miles (3 miles upstream from the campground). At this point, Bumgardner Branch enters Deep Creek, where Cindy Bumgardner once lived. According to The Hiking Trails of the Smokies, W.J. Wiggins located his farm, consisting of a house, barn, and corn crib, a mile or so up the branch. Arvil Greene was one of the folks who built barns up on Bumgardner Branch and other spots along Deep Creek. He remembered that most of the barns had four stalls: one for the horses, one for the mules, one for the cows, and one for gear (harnesses, wagons, sleds, etc.) as well as fodder. These structures were entirely functional. Green noted that “When I was growing up, people laughed at somebody that put paint on a barn, saying he was trying to show off.”
It was the rippling water and the hazy mountains that provided the aesthetic touches to daily life. Paint was superfluous. And it’s still like that way back up on Deep Creek.
Editor’s note: This article first appeared in an August 2001 edition of The Smoky Mountain News.