Keeping the Faith: Hiking Hazel Creek & Bone Valley Trails
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Keeping the Faith: Hiking Hazel Creek & Bone Valley Trails

We’d long anticipated hiking the Bone Valley Trail and on the fourth of July 2009, my dream came true. Al and I backpacked 31.1 miles July 2 through July 4, 2009 via the following route: Clingman’s Dome-Bypass Trail-Appalachian Trail (AT)-Double Springs Gap Shelter (overnight)-Welch Ridge-Hazel Creek, overnighting at Bone Valley campsite (#83)-Bone Valley and then onward via Hazel Creek trail for a Fontana Marina shuttle pick up just beyond Proctor campsite (#86).

Al and I staged one of our cars at the Fontana Marina (50 miles from home), then drove another 68 miles to Clingman’s Dome where we began our three-day backpacking adventure. Clingman's Dome Parking Area The dome parking lot was nearly filled to capacity but we managed to find one suitable space to deposit our car. We were amazed to see a wild turkey standing alongside a stopped vehicle-- apparently begging for food!

The casual hikers disappeared at the point where the bypass trail meets the AT (0.5 mile from Clingman’s Dome). Excepting a few hiking shelter guests, we mostly had the park trails to ourselves until we arrived at the Fontana Marina three days later. You’d think that for the start of a beautiful 4th of July weekend, the trails would have been busier.  Apparently not since after leaving the AT we saw only four more groups of people over the next two days:

  • A couple from Knoxville backpacking up Hazel Creek (they’d started at Cades Cove and were on day 3 when we met),
  • Three men (young, older & much older) from NC with horses and mules were huddled beneath a square mile of smoke-shrouded tarp at #82,
  • Another couple from Charleston, SC who’d paddled their canoe from the Fontana Marina and were enroute to the Calhoun campsite (#82)--perhaps hiking to Clingman’s Dome and back during their outing and, last,
  • Two gentlemen (N. Alabama & W. Tennessee) setting-up camp at Sawdust campsite (#85).

Whoops, I’m getting ahead of my story so lets go back to Day 1.

Day 1, Appalachian Trail

We’d elected to take the Bypass trail from Clingman’s Dome to the AT as our initial route toward Double Springs Gap shelter. Usually this is the more peaceful way to go but on this day we encountered maybe 20 or 30 people who were part of a Smoky Mountain Institute (Tremont) family outing. We left them behind at the Forney Ridge trail junction and soon the crowds were just a faint memory as we trekked toward Double Springs Gap shelter. We elected to extend our short hike to include a 3.4 mile out ‘n back visit to Siler’s Bald shelter where we found five backpackers in various stages of settling-in for Thursday evening. Judging from the mice scurrying around inside the shelter, they were going to have plenty of overnight excitement. The water source at Siler’s was being discussed as to its quality. It was an easy decision to return to Double Springs Gap for our overnight stay. White-tailed Deer By the time we’d hung our packs at the vacant Double Springs Gap Shelter it was nearing sunset; we’d already eaten and had stretched-out on the sleeping platform when two hikers from Ohio arrived to keep us--and the resident white-tailed doe--company for the next couple of hours as they debated the merits of staying inside or outside of the shelter.  Eventually they settled-down in their tents just outside of the shelter. 

Day 2, Hazel Creek Trail

Following an enjoyable "instant" breakfast of oatmeal and coffee at the Double Springs Gap shelter, we again made the trek along the AT to the upper Welch Ridge trail which we followed some 1.7 miles to reach the Hazel Creek Trail. The Welch Ridge Trail, built by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) in 1934, provides access to a secluded area of the park and in places was overgrown by (mostly) thornless blackberry vines.

I’d previously hiked a couple of segments of the Hazel Creek Trail, but on this excursion, I was able to check that trail off my "49 miles to go" list of having hiked all 900 miles of trails in the Smokies. The 19 unbridged creek crossings we encountered on this day were not overly difficult–certainly no more so than the long stretches of muddy trail that was the result of the many trips with jeeps and trucks made by the park service in support of the cemetery decoration day activities they’d hosted here just a few days earlier.

Bone Valley campsite (#83) was a very pleasant area. The campsite isn’t located in Bone Valley at all but instead is along Hazel Creek trail at its junction with the Bone Valley trail. The camping areas are well spread out in the level area at the confluence of the two creeks. Hiking guides frequently note that this campsite’s proximity to both Hazel and Bone Valley creeks and its distance from the more heavily-fished lower section of Hazel Creek make it an excellent choice as a base camp for a trout fishing expedition.

Day 3, Bone Valley

Bone Valley received its name after a late spring blizzard in the 1870s. A gentleman who had most likely miscalculated the end of winter had his cows there when the snow hit. The cattle had no shelter and froze to death. Their bleached bones littered the valley floor for many years it’s told.

While the Bone Valley Trail is only 1.8 miles in length, it does present the challenge of five unbridged creek crossings going and of course, wading back through them on the return trip.

The water at the first ford, like the four other fords, was calf to knee deep this day. We each had two strong hiking poles and securely placed them in the sediment before taking our necessary steps. The swift current in one of the fords caused me to pay extra close attention to my method of crossing. Fording Bone Valley Creek You’ll notice in the photos we had left our backpacks hanging at our campsite and at the first ford had donned our water shoes while toting our hiking boots in a Wal-Mart bag.

Shortly after fording the creek for the fifth time we arrived at the Hall Cabin. "Crate" Hall and his wife, Mary Talitiga Dills, and their four small children arrived in Bone Valley about 1877. They built this second house in 1892 after their family grew to 13 children! The cabin has since been restored and moved about 200 yards from its original location. Missing are a chimney and fireplace which were apparently not included as part of the move & restoration.

Just to the south of the cabin can be found the ruins of an old hunting lodge. The Kress family of New York (Kress Department Stores) built a wonderful mansion furnished in the style of a grand lodge complete with marble mantle pieces. The foundation and chimney are still visible. The Kress house became a base camp for wealthy sportsmen who plied the waters of Bone Valley and Hazel creeks for rainbow trout.

Exploring the Hall cabin, we took note of the front door hardwareSkeleton Key Door Lock Growing up, each of my sisters and brothers possessed a "skeleton key" which opened both the front and back doors of our house. If we lost our key, we’d just purchase another one down the road at our neighborhood hardware store. The key was a universal "master" key for locks of that era.











Clearly the highlight for both Al and me was the Hall Cemetery located approximately one-half mile on a trail just north of the cabin. "Crate" Hall and 17 other people are buried there. The graves had been recently decorated.

Just across Hazel Creek trail from the Bone Valley campsite (#83), a one-quarter mile long trail leads up the hill to the Bone Valley cemetery which holds 82 graves. Many of the headstones there are those of children and infants, evidence of the 1919 influenza epidemic, perhaps. Decoration day had recently occurred at Bone Valley cemetery too.

The wildflower display on our trek was quite pleasing. The Turk’s-cap Lilies were in bud plus we saw Purple Fringed Orchids at Clingman’s Dome, Pipsissewa, Clingman’s Hedge Nettle, St. John’s Wort, Tassel Rue, Cliff Meadow Rue, White Avens, False Hellebore (a.k.a. Indian Poke), Ramp in bloom, Coreopsis, Pale Jewelweed, and Orange Touch-Me-Nots.

Another highlight for us was seeing a double Crimson Bee-BalmDouble Stack Crimson Bee-balm at Double Spring Gap shelter and finding a patch of Green Adder’s Mouth Orchids shortly after we departed Bone Valley campsite.

Stay tuned for yet another trek to Hazel Creek to complete the Welch Ridge and Cold Spring Gap trails with a side-trip to High Rocks.

I’m looking forward to a final twenty-mile trek on the Appalachian Trail which will mark the completion of my goal to hike all the maintained trails in the Smokies. My first hike in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park was to Mt. Le Conte in 1979.  Posted 7/9/2009.

Click here to open the photo gallery for this hike in a new window.  There are 70 images.

Fontana Village Marina  Hikers may arrange for boat shuttle to/from Smokies trails along Fontana Lake park boundary (Eagle Creek, Hazel Creek, Forney Creek and Lakeshore trail campsites in between).  800-849-2258, ask for the Marina.  Alternate:  828-498-2211.  Fees for this handy service are generally $25 per person per trip and pick ups can be scheduled as late as 6:30 p.m. evenings along the lakeside trails.

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Do you want to download the free Smokies trail map that was published summer 2009?   Access it here.

Copyright 2011 by Janice Henderson. All rights reserved.