From the Thomas Divide scenic overlook on the Blue Ridge Parkway, my task had looked slightly intimidating. Newton and Nettle Creek Balds were the highest points on my trek and represented a 3000-foot climb and descent. At a bit over 5,000 feet each, the peaks looked almost unattainable, yet I couldn’t wait to set foot on the trail.
Years ago, a winter hike took me to Newton Bald and back. This time I wanted to see more, particularly of the Thomas Divide Trail. Since I usually avoid backtracking, I devised a plan to cache my bicycle near the Kanati Fork trailhead and drive back to the Newton Bald trailhead. I could hike three miles of the Thomas Divide Trail and exit via Kanati Fork for an 11-mile hike. Four miles of downhill peddling on U.S. 441 would return me to my truck.
Newton Bald Trail contours in and out of numerous hardwood coves on its way to the ridgetop, passing springs and a noisy little branch that I could hear but not see. The Great Smokies are known for wildflowers and what I found on this spring day was justification for that distinction. Clintonia umbellata, the speckled wood lily, was blooming in abundance. Low patches of windflower, varieties of violets, spikes of foamflower, and whorled leaves of Indian cucumber root lined the pathway.
Yellowish cobs of squawroot poked through the leaf litter. This flowering plant is parasitic to oak trees and a favorite food of black bears. I discovered one-flowered cancer root, another chlorophyll-lacking relative of squawroot. Nearly hidden in leaf litter were the upturned brown fruiting bodies of a cup fungi, like tiny coffee mugs waiting to be filled.
Elevation change means vegetation change. Near 4,000 feet, young leaves of False Hellebore shone in the sun with the texture of newly woven silk. Green rugs of False Lily of the Valley stood out against the brown layer of last year’s leaves. It is too bad these beautiful plants are named “false” anything.
The trail finally mounted the ridgetop a mile or so from Newton Bald. After a short downhill run, it ascended another half-mile, curved sharply and leveled out just below the top of the Bald. My prize for making it this far was a patch of pink moccasin flower, or Lady’s Slipper. Seed germination and growth of these native orchids is entirely dependant upon the presence of certain fungi in the soil. Their exquisite beauty is unsurpassed in the Appalachians.
Newton Bald and Thomas Divide Trails do triple duty as portions of the Benton MacKaye (BMT) and Mountains-to-Sea Trails. MacKaye (1879-1975) was an American forester and conservationist and cofounder of the Wilderness Society, though he is best known as the originator of the Appalachian Trail (AT.) Paradoxically, the BMT does not follow the AT at all, but roughly parallels it on a network of trails through the eastern Smokies.
After lunching on a knoll above Campsite 52, I connected with the Thomas Divide Trail. Thomas Ridge, or Divide, is a major side ridge stemming from the Smokies crest. Running primarily north to south, it divides the Deep Creek and Oconaluftee River watersheds in a sixteen mile-long arc from near Newfound Gap to Bryson City.
Thomas Divide is named for William Holland Thomas (1805-1893,) who gained so much favor with the Cherokees that he became the only white man ever appointed Chief. This self-educated lawyer lived with the Indians, learned their language and ways, and defended their rights in Washington. He helped purchase much of the land known as the Qualla Boundary. He was a Confederate Colonel and the bravery of his Thomas Legion of Cherokee Indians and Highlanders is legendary.
One account of the tough Thomas Legion is a cold and rough wintertime crossing at Indian Gap, near the junction of Thomas Divide and the main crest of the Smokies. The Legion is known for the “Last Shot of the Civil War” in an engagement with Union troops near Waynesville. Will Thomas was born near Waynesville and is buried in Green Hill Cemetery. Ironically, at 88, he died penniless in a mental institution. It has been written that there would likely be no Eastern Band of the Cherokee Nation but for his efforts.
Along this rounded ridgetop, wood betony bloomed and fiddleheads unfurled among the native grasses. Red spruce, hemlock, beech and yellow birch mixed in the open woods. I identified painted trilliums, three white petals accented with burgundy brush strokes. Even with the wind moving in the trees, there was a certain stillness here, the kind of quiet found only in wilderness.
Apart from calls of vireos and warblers, evidence of wildlife was rare. I did find one big splat of bear scat in the middle of the trail. The trail rambles along, up and down, from one side of the ridge to the other. Views to the east included Collins Creek below me and, in the distance, the upper reaches of Kephart Prong, namesake of Horace Kephart, author of Our Southern Highlanders, who was at the forefront of a movement to establish the Smokies as a national park.
Kanati Fork Trail leaves the east side of the Thomas Divide just north of Nettle Creek Bald. Kanati was a legendary Cherokee hunter, mythical by some accounts, a real individual by others. The Kanati Fork drainage is much steeper than the Deep Creek side. The trail loses nearly 1,000 feet in the first mile as it drops through a rich cove.
There is quite a contrast between the lush cove flora and ridgetop plant life. On a shaded slope was a colony of the white-petalled version of wake robin, Trillium erectum. Saturated soil around springs harbored an abundance of Saxifraga, or branch lettuce, a favored edible of mountain folks. Branch lettuce goes well with cornbread and a mess of ramps. American Umbrellaleaf, with its foot-wide parasol leaves, mixed with stinging nettle. Mandarin flowers nodded at the ends of zigzag stems. Feathery flowers of False Solomon’s Seal glowed in the subdued light of the cove.
Beneath Carolina Silverbell trees, fallen blossoms decorated the trail like white gumdrops. This numerous understory tree averages only 40 to 50 feet tall and a foot or less in diameter, but the largest known specimen resides in the Tennessee section of the Smokies at thirteen feet around and 86 feet tall. Their bell-shaped blossoms are a sure sign of spring.
The trail doglegged through a tightly folded cove with many towering trees, mostly hemlock and yellow poplar. I estimated that most were at least one hundred feet tall. Their boles were very slender compared with their height, a growth pattern consistent with competition for sunlight in the dark ravine. Sadly, all of the hemlocks I saw on the hike were infected with the adelgid.
The hissing of Kanati Fork grew louder, the path widened. I began to hear intermittent passing cars above the creek sounds. At trail’s end, my bike waited, stashed in a rhododendron thicket. Thankfully, there was little traffic as I coasted down the asphalt back to my truck. Driving home, my blistered heels smoldered in my socks, but all the sights, sounds and discoveries of a blissful day in the Smokies buzzed in my brain.