Leading a group through Hazel Creek

The Smokies are my home park. I seem to be in one part of Great Smoky Mountains National Park or another every week. But some areas of the park are much more popular and accessible than others.

About six months ago, Lisa Duff, marketing director of Great Smoky Mountains Association, asked if I would lead a hike to Bone Valley from Hazel Creek. I hadn’t been on that trail since 2008, when I did a three-day backpack with Sharon, Smoky Scout, the bang-on start to her Smokies 900M challenge. The Hazel Creek trail starts in the deserted town of Proctor. The fastest way to get there is a 30-minute boat shuttle across Fontana Lake.

But here, we weren’t going to backpack.

“Sure, “I told Lisa, “I’d love to. But this is not a day hike.” The drive to Fontana Village is over two hours from Asheville. “We need to stay at Fontana Village the night before. And I won’t be able to scout the hike. I’m sure I can find my way.” Lisa and Marti, also in Marketing, put the overnight trip together. They screened the hikers before they signed up. Marti is a Smokies 900M as well and a strong hiker.

On Monday, I drove out to Fontana Village, a historic resort in the southwest corner of the Smokies. I had volunteered to lead a half-day hike as well. It seemed worthwhile to get as much in as possible since I never know when I’ll get the opportunity again.  Only two other hikers took me up on the half-day hike.

We drove to Fontana Dam, the tallest dam in the Eastern US but the access road across the dam was closed for maintenance. So we walked the road and walked another 0.5 mile to the trailhead.

We took Lakeshore Trail, a flattish trail, to the old cars. Where did these cars come from? You can read an article that I wrote for National Parks Traveler.

Here’s a quickie summary. The area north of the lake was not part of the original park. During World War II, TVA flooded NC 288 to create Fontana Dam and Fontana Lake. The residents had to move out, quite quickly. Some left their cars in place. Remember that during the war, there was tire and gas rationing. And who knows how well these cars were working.

But Hazel Creek predates that history. The Ritter Lumber Company came in the area in 1902 to log the area. By the 1920s, Proctor was a modern town with electricity, schools, and even a movie theater. When Ritter decided that they had brought down every tree worth logging, they left the area, taking everything with them. Many logging families went with them to the Pacific Northwest. The ones left were back to subsistence farming.

On Tuesday, 20 hikers took the Fontana ferry to Proctor. We crossed Hazel Creek on a substantial bridge and started walking. The trail is maintained as an administrative road because park SUVs travel up to maintain the Hall Cabin, our destination. It climbs ever so gently that I thought we’d be able to keep the group together.

But alas, by mid-morning, some had shot ahead of me and others stayed with Marti, who was acting as sweep,
We turned on Bone Valley Trail, a short minor trail that would take us to the Hall cabin. There were five water crossings, about calf-deep on me.

Each person took the crossing a different way. A few just got into the water without hesitation. I was part of that group. My boots and socks got wet but my feet were protected from rocks, roots and anything else that I couldn’t see at the bottom of the flowing stream.

Others changed into water shoes, which offered less protection but kept their boots dry. A couple of hikers used flip-flops, which seemed dangerous on the ankles. And a few others walked barefoot. A woman slipped and fell in. I’m not sure which group she belonged to. By the time she righted herself, it didn’t matter how wet her feet were.

By now, we were in two major groups: slow and fast. We all had lunch at the Hall Cabin, a large cabin built in 1892. The Halls took in tourists that wanted to fish in the Smokies before it became a park. I took a few hikers to the Bone Valley cemetery. When it was time to recross the five creeks on Bone Valley Trail, some took it slowly and carefully.

Turning back on Hazel Creek, a few of us climbed the Jenkins Ridge Cemetery. Cemeteries are often put at the top of a hill, saving the best bottomland for farming. I’m not sure if “Jenkins Ridge” is the official name of the cemetery but it was located close to the junction of Hazel Creek and Jenkins Ridge Trail. It was obvious that Decoration Day had occurred recently. The graves were all mounted neatly, a Southern Appalachian tradition and new plastic flowers had been stuck in the ground.

We walked at our own pace. We had asked for the boat to come back for us at 5:45 pm and it was obvious that we were going to be quite early. We gathered at the Calhoun House, a frame house that is falling apart. This house, built in 1928, was quite modern. It had electricity, a hot water heater, running water and even an indoor bathroom.

I gave at least three tours inside the house. Some hikers were afraid to go into the house by themselves. “No, there are no ghosts,” I told a woman, “but there are a couple of bats hanging from the ceiling.

After the park acquired the Calhoun house along with the rest of the North Shore land from TVA, they used the house as a ranger station. But now they’re built a modern structure behind the house and the historic house is feeling the neglect.

Ken, our friendly captain, showed up on time. He had a huge cooler full of alcoholic drinks as well as sodas and water. What a lovely surprise. I would have killed for a hot cup of tea but that was not to be until I got to a Chinese buffet in Asheville.
With the side trips to the cemeteries, we walked 16 miles and still smiled. All in all, a great success.


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