Day Seven: Palmer Creek Trailhead on Balsam Mountain Road (3.6 mi)
Our last day in the backcountry and it’s bittersweet. As much as we want to take a shower, put on clean clothes, eat a hardy meal and drink a cold Coke, we know what is waiting for us once we get back to the van and begin making our way out of the park. Neither of us is looking forward to what’s coming. For the time being, we focus on the short hike ahead of us, knowing that it will be over all too soon.
Setting off, we continue on the Pretty Hollow Gap Trail for 0.3 mi to the junction with the Palmer Creek Trail. From this point, the Palmer Creek Trail rises 1,500 ft over the course of 3.3 miles, terminating at Balsam Mountain Road. This was another trail that neither of us had done before and the Little Brown Book indicates that it receives a fair amount of horse traffic. It turned out to be in fairly good shape. Leaving the junction, we immediately cross a foot log over Pretty Hollow Creek.
We get frequent views of Palmers Creek early on in the hike. Four people on horseback catch up to us just before Lost Bottom Creek. We yield to them, watch as they ford the creek and make our way over the foot log.
We pass two ladies going the opposite direction and cross Beech creek shortly thereafter. The grade steepens a bit after the creek. Not extreme but after a week of restless nights, Loonie is ready to get the climbing over and get off her feet. She pushes on and as we close in on the finish it eases up. We reach the van and just like that, our week in the backcountry is over.
It’s not long and here comes the steady stream of cars, trucks and jeeps. Leaf peepers out for the day. It’s sensory overload! Mind you, it’s nothing remotely as bad as Gatlinburg, Pigeon Forge, Newfound Gap, Laurel Creek Road or Cades Cove. Not even in the same universe. Been there, done that and I hope I never do it again. Still, I’m surprised at how quickly it becomes nerve wracking. I’ve hiked many miles now and am always a bit shell-shocked upon my return to “The Real World”. This time it’s particularly unnerving though. Maybe it’s due to the fact that we encountered far fewer people on the trail than expected. We did, after all, have a lot of time to ourselves. Lots of quiet time. Throw in the beautiful weather and scenery, who in their right mind would want to go back to the madness of civilization! What was coming in a few hours would be infinitely worse.
We changed clothes, hopped in the van and began making our way to Round Bottom. At that point, one-way Balsam Mountain Road ends and two-way Straight Fork Road begins. Still gravel for another 5 miles and still technically only wide enough for one vehicle but there are plenty of pull-offs to let others pass. The road now rides above Straight Fork and it’s a very scenic drive. We stop several times to get some pics of the stream and beautiful colors of Fall.
We exit the park and hit the pavement at Big Cove Road. From this point we’re a short distance from the Cherokee KOA where we’ll camp this night and next. We arrive and the insanity truly begins. There’s a Halloween festival taking place. The place is packed and the music is blasting. I feel as though I’ll drop to the ground at any moment, curl up in a ball, close my eyes and start screaming “SERENITY NOW”!!! Its absolutely overwhelming. The only things going for the place, at least as far as I was concerned, were the shower house and the food they were serving. The food alone saved us a trip into Cherokee. Loonie, on the other hand, thought it would be a great place to bring the grandkids someday. Ughhh.
The feast wasn’t starting for another half hour so we got ourselves situated at our site. We didn’t even bother with the showers just yet. Grilled burgers and Italian sausage were calling. Once our bellies were full, we took those much needed showers and retreated to our campsite to enjoy the campfire. The music and festivities continued until 9 PM. Crazy! You come to one of our treasured National Parks to do this? Maybe that’s not such a bad thing, though. Maybe that’s why Loonie and I got to enjoy so much time alone while we were on the trail. Fine with me. We’ll just have to forego the commercial campgrounds next time.
We headed back into the park the next morning, going in at the Oconaluftee entrance. Loonie wanted to stop at the gift shop to pick up some stuff for the grandkids. We got to see two bull elk going toe to toe out in the field nearby. Too foggy to get any good pics but it was cool to watch.
From there, we moved on to Smokemont Campground and took short walks on the Bradley Fork and Chasteen Creek trails. Chasteen Creek Cascades was flowing nicely. There were a number of people day hiking but again, not nearly as many as we expected. From there, we moved back to Mingus Mill and did a short walk on the Mingus Creek Trail. During our final walk we crossed paths with just one person. Sweet!
The sun was getting low by this point so we head back to the KOA. We pull up to our campsite and find that all of our stuff is gone! Tent and everything in it: gone. Water jug and bucket: gone. Even a large Ikea bag full of firewood…gone. The only thing that remains is a bottle of water sitting on the picnic table. What the heck??? We head back to the office and tell them. There seems to be some confusion about whether or not they thought we abandoned the stuff and they removed it. They check and say they have nothing. We call the police, an officer shows up shortly thereafter and we file a report. He requests a list of everything that was taken and leaves. The staff put us up in a small cabin and I stay up until 2 AM trying to determine what was taken and what the replacement value of everything would be.
We go to check out the next morning and inquire about whether or not they had discovered anything. The woman informs us that a gentleman just called and was all upset. His daughter asked him to stop by her campsite, pick up her stuff and take it back home for her. He mistook our campsite for hers and was frantic about getting the stuff back to its rightful owners. We arranged to meet and reported the mishap to the police. The gentleman and his wife couldn’t have been nicer and he apologized repeatedly for the mistake. We were just thankful to have our stuff back. After some time exchanging travel stories, we said our goodbyes and parted ways.
No sooner than we hit the interstate to head for home, a gentle rain began to fall. Go figure. Rain on the drive to the park, rain on the drive home yet dry blue skies for the entire time we were on trail. Deep Woods always jokes, saying “You’re a genius!” We always seem to hit a nice pocket of weather for each hike. Loonie and I have had the same great fortune. I know for a fact that I’m no genius. I’m the biggest doofus you’ll ever meet. Maybe it has more to do with the fact that the Big Guy upstairs has kept watch over us and for whatever reason continues to answer our prayers.
Some final thoughts on this trip and tentative plans for next Spring’s AT hike coming soon.
More to come…