2017 Recommended Hikes
by Marti Smith, Smoky Mountain 900 Miler
& GSMA's Membership Associate
Hike Hazel Creek from Proctor to Campsite 85
I like this hike for its rich, abundant history, and the fairly level roadbed is pretty great, too. This trail -- complimented by the serene and beautiful Hazel Creek for the entirety of the six-mile round trip -- is considered a “walk in the woods” by most nature lovers and history buffs.
Your historical adventure begins after disembarking the pontoon shuttle at the Proctor area of the Smokies near backcountry site 86. Fontana Marina, a concession of the National Park, operates a boat shuttle to expedite access to some of the more remote North Carolina areas of the park via Fontana Lake. Arrangements can be made by contacting them at 828-498-2211, Ext. 277. The boat ride itself is a scenic lake excursion surrounded by the Appalachian Mountains and well worth the experience. This is the most popular way to arrive and explore in the Hazel Creek area.
You'll start by walking about a half mile into Proctor, where you'll come upon backcountry site 86, which at one time served as a ballfield for the schoolchildren in the town of Proctor. Proctor itself was once a bustling community with more than 1,000 residents who enjoyed access to a movie theater, an ice cream parlor, a church, and many fine Victorian homes. It was, at the time, the largest town along the Little Tennessee River and it grew and prospered due to lumber and mining companies.
Continue your "walk in the woods" past the backcountry site and you'll come upon a wide, sturdy bridge across Hazel Creek. Notice a white frame house to your left; this is the “Calhoun House” built by Granville Calhoun, the “Squire of Hazel Creek.” Walk a short distance past the house to access to the
Proctor Cemetery on the right. It is one of the larger cemeteries in the Park; it contains the graves of Moses Proctor and Patience Smith Proctor, the first white settlers in this area.
I recommend turning around after your cemetery stroll and continuing up Hazel Creek Trail past the bridge you crossed earlier. Continue about a half mile up Hazel Creek and look to the right and left sides of the trail. With careful observation you'll notice concrete foundation blocks on both sides remaining from Proctor Baptist Church. You are actually walking through what was once the town’s church. Upon closer inspection past the blocks on the left, notice a wide flat area that resembles a roadbed. This is not a road for automobiles, but was the train track area for the Ritter Train. It was constructed by the W. M. Ritter Lumber Company of Columbus, Ohio, in order to provide access to the timber in the area.
Around the bend in another half mile on your left, notice the ominous remains of the drying kiln for the lumber company. It was built with concrete and bricks and is like no other I have ever seen while hiking in the Smokies due to its large size. Continuing around the corner and notice on the same side small concrete valve houses that were utilized by the lumber company to control water levels. Eventually on your right near the creek is a cylindrical concrete river gauging station.
The trail from there on to backcountry site #85 is pretty much of a straight roadway lined by second growth forest. A few pockets of virgin forests may be seen due to the folks that refused to sell their land to the company. After crossing two more bridges, your destination has been reached. I hope you brought your lunch, as it is a nice area to have a picnic.
When making arrangements with the marina shuttle service, please allow enough time to return for your pick-up time. It is better to be early and wait for the boat than to make them wait for you. On one particular occasion while waiting for our return pick-up, I was able to witness an otter swimming and playing just where Hazel Creek empties into Fontana Lake, creating a most enjoyable memory.
If you really enjoy history and want to learn more about the Hazel Creek area, pick up one of Great Smoky Mountain Association's latest publications authored by Daniel S. Pierce called Hazel Creek - The Life and Death of an Iconic Mountain Community.
UPDATE: According to park VIP Tom Harrington, the Park Service has removed the water tower Marti mentions below.
Metcalf Bottoms Trail to Little Brier Gap Trail and the Walker Sisters Family home site
When it comes to hikes of historical significance in the Smokies, it is hard to find any with as much value as these two trails, in such a short distance.
I prefer to include the Metcalf Bottoms Trail of .06 mile as a connector to the Little Brier Gap Trail because it increases your understanding of the sense of community in the area. It combines the walk to the Little Greenbrier Schoolhouse and cemetery with the Walker Sisters’ family homestead.
As you start on Metcalf Bottoms Trail near the Metcalf Bottoms picnic area, you soon see a water tower on the right. Before you arrive at the top of the hill, on your left you'll find a stone wall. Take a look over the stone wall and you will notice some yucca plants and a stone pile, both of which are evidence of a home site. Imagine that the family who lived here went to the church and school just ahead. It is also known that some children who attended church services and school came from as far away as the Meigs Mountain Community, which is four miles away. This exemplifies the strong constitution and endurance mountain folk had for their way of life.
If you are fortunate enough to do this hike on Tuesdays from April to October, you just might think you’ve gone back in time to late the 1800s and early 1900s. Retired teacher Robin Goddard, one of this park’s most beloved VIPs (Volunteers in Park), recreates what it was like to attend school during this time period with programs at 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. They last for about one hour and fifteen minutes and there is even an old-fashioned spelling bee. Get there early, as these programs are extremely popular.
Upon leaving the schoolhouse, continue your walk up the hill past the cemetery and turn right on the gravel roadbed. This is the Little Brier Gap Trail. After hiking on a gradual incline for 1.1 miles, you will notice a grassy rutted roadbed on your right; this is the access road to the Walker Sisters’ home site. It is well worth the .2-mile walk to see the buildings, which are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Three buildings remain, a springhouse, a corncrib, and the family cabin.
Five spinster sisters lived in the cabin their father, John Walker, built in 1870. The sisters were: Margaret Jane, Mary Elizabeth, Martha Ann, Louisa Susan, and Hettie Rebecca. They remained on the property after the park was established due to a “lifetime lease” granted by the Department of the Interior. Then-Superintendent Ross Eakin pleaded their case, saying these women were “rooted to the soil.” In 1940 they accepted a $4,750 payment for their land. Then, in 1946, the “Saturday Evening Post” published an article on the sisters that led to ever increasing visits by tourists. By 1953 only two sisters remained alive, and they asked the current superintendent to discourage visitors from coming because they were getting too old to accommodate them. Louisa Susan was the last to reside in the house; she passed away in 1964.
The Walker Sisters’ buildings remain, not only for historic preservation purposes but also as a testament to a hard-working family who so enjoyed the simple life and living off the land they so dearly loved.
Mingus Creek Trail
Mingus Creek Trail and surrounding area has everything you’re looking for in a great hike in the Smokies, including fine views, historical sites and challenging climbs. What’s more, it’s on the doorstep of another famous North Carolina trail.
Start your adventure at Mingus Mill, a working gristmill ahead of its time due to its water-generated cast iron turbine. Dr. John Mingus asked Sion Early to build the mill in 1886 for $600; he did so within three months.
The trailhead you’re looking for begins at the upper end of the parking lot of Mingus Mill. Almost immediately you’ll find two points of interest. On your left is a sluice made from oak that diverts the creek water toward the mill. Just a few dozen yards on your right past the gate is a dirt road path to a slave cemetery. The gravesites, minus any headstones, are easily recognizable as long, raised mounds of earth.
The gravel road you’re hiking is actually a road built by the Civilian Conservation Corp in the 1930s. Plan to cross the creek several more times before coming to a large open space. This is the site of Company #4484. Upon further inspection you’ll see the foundations of an officers’ quarters, corpsmen barracks, a mess hall, workshops, and educational and recreational buildings. Company #4484 was in existence from 1933 to 1935.
About three-quarters of a mile up the trail, an intersection marked by a primitive sign to another cemetery comes into view. The Mingus Creek (Watson Family) graveyard holds 26 graves, but only one has a name that can be read, that of Polly Mathis 1888-1934.
A series of steep switchbacks on the last section of the trail makes up the approach to the Deep Low Gap intersection. Here you’ll find a challenging climb with a payoff of nice views at the gap. During spring and summer you’ll find rhododendron, white trillium, and even Virginia bluebells on your walk. At the gap you will have traveled just short of 3 miles from your journey’s starting point.
Mingus Creek Trail is part of the North Carolina Mountains-to-Sea Trail in the Smokies. MTS begins at Clingmans Dome and stretches across North Carolina to the Outer Banks, for a total of 1,000 miles. MTS exits the Smokies at Mingus Creek in the Oconaluftee area. Imagine how impressed your friends will be when you tell of the time you hiked two trails at once!
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