Editor's note: With more than 800 miles of trails, Great Smoky Mountains National Park has more than a few options for both day hikers and long-distance warriors. Contributing writer Danny Bernstein, who is fortunate enough to have the park as her backyard, is quick to point out the fall beauty of the Deep Creek/Martins Gap/Indian Creek loop hike in the park.
This low-altitude hike in the Deep Creek section of Great Smoky Mountains National Park can be done any time of the year, but it shines in the fall when trees change color along the creek. The loop is also popular in winter once snow and ice close sections of the park that are much higher.
It might be difficult to convince hikers who haven't hiked in the Smokies that although the loop is more than 13 miles, it's not a difficult hike because the trails are so good. The hike follows creeks much of the way, goes past old homesites and several good backcountry campsites, which can be used for an introduction to backpacking.
The hike starts on Deep Creek Trail and follows the creek on a mostly gentle grade for six miles to meet Martins Gap Trail. The only sustained climbing on this hike is up to the gap. Then the loop becomes a pleasant walk downhill on the continuation of Martins Gap Trail and then Indian Creek Trail.
From the Deep Creek Trailhead, at 1,800 feet, follow a wide road paralleling Deep Creek. Mountain laurel border the creek as the trail goes up gently. At 0.3 mile, Tom Branch Falls located on the other side of the creek, tumbles down 60 feet. The trail climbs above the creek but always comes back to it. Doghobble, rhododendrons, poison ivy, and nettle dot the trail.
After crossing the fourth bridge, the trail narrows and you have left most of the tourists. Hemlock, tuliptrees, and yellow buckeye trees line the trail. You'll reach Campsite #60 at 2.5 miles, an attractive site by the creek. In another couple of miles, a tall hemlock has been saved in the center of the trail, creating a two-lane trail. You'll soon pass Campsite #59, and after a minor climb, Campsite #58.
At 6.0 miles, reach Campsite #57, a horse camp with two high picnic tables, at the right height for cleaning fish. Campsite #57, the last campsite on this hike, is also the site of Horace Kephart’s last camp. Horace Kephart is well-known in the Southern Appalachians for writing Our Southern Highlanders, a first-person account of his years with mountain people. You will have passed a monument, a millstone with an inscription to Kephart, but it's much easier to find it once you've reached Campsite #57.
To find the millstone, go back on the trail about 0.1 mile and look to your right for a flat area - this is not an official campsite. Go down the short social trail, turn left and keep walking a few feet across the level section. The millstone, surrounding by rocks and moss, was erected by the Horace Kephart Boy Scout Troop from Bryson City on May 30, 1931. Given that Kephart died on April 2, 1931, that was quick work. If the inscription looks modern, that’s because the millstone was recently refurbished.
After you've visited the millstone and want to get on with your hike, go back to Campsite #57 and make a right on Martins Gap Trail, which is also part of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail and Benton MacKaye Trail. Deep Creek Trail continues around the campsite and up to Newfound Gap Road (U.S. 441).
Martins Gap Trail starts out steeply, but switchbacks in a gentle manner that Smokies trails seem able to do. Reach Martins Gap at 7.5 miles (3,400 feet altitude) at a four-way intersection. Cross the Sunkota Trail; both the MST and Benton McKaye go left and up. Continue straight on the Martins Gap Trail. The rest of the hike is downhill from here.
Martins Gap Trail switchbacks downhill and soon parallels Indian Creek on the right. You’ll follow the creek the whole trip back, crossing several bridges. Martins Gap Trail seems to flow into Indian Creek Trail, an old road.
The beginning of Indian Creek Trail starts at a wide spot on the trail. The trail is smooth, wide and you feel you’re going into an inhabited area with flat homesites. A log bench at the intersection is very welcome because the flat sides of the trail make it difficult to find a comfortable place to sit.
Keep an eye out for a side trail on the right to Indian Creek Falls, a sliding cascade coming down in three streams. Casual walkers have come back on the trail. When the weather is good, on this last stretch you will see people tubing or walking and struggling with tubes. On a hot day, there’s no better way to end the day than by renting tubes just outside the Park and floating down the creek.
For a short day (4.4 miles), take Deep Creek Trail up to Sunkota Ridge Trail and down to Indian Creek Trail. On this loop, you'll see the two waterfalls, Tom Branch Falls and Indian Creek Falls.
Who was Horace Kephart?
Horace Kephart came to the Southern Appalachians from St. Louis in 1904 when he was 42. He had been a university librarian, a husband, and a father of six children. In the last few years before he left his old life, he became much more interested in the outdoors - and in alcohol. In 1906, he published Camping and Woodcraft, a how-to book on camping and backpacking and in 1913, Our Southern Highlanders, stories of the mountain culture he found on Hazel Creek, much in the local vernacular. Both books have been in print since their original publication date.
Kephart became one of the most vocal advocates of the establishment of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Some have called him the John Muir of the East. Several places in the park bear his name. He died in 1931 in a car accident on his way to a bootlegger and is buried in Bryson City.
Trail: Deep Creek, Martin Gap, Indian Creek
Trailhead: Deep Creek
Length: 13.4 miles
Elevation Gain: 1,900 feet.
Campground: Deep Creek Campground opposite the trailhead
Payoff: Creeks, waterfalls and history
Hiking the Carolina Mountains by Danny Bernstein, published by Milestone Press
National Geographic Trails Illustrated map 229, Great Smoky Mountains National
Hiking Trails of the Smokies (4th edition), published by the Great Smoky Mountains Association