Astride and near the NC/TN border, is a big chunk of well-trailed Appalachia, including Great Smoky Mountains National Park (GSMNP), Linville Gorge Wilderness, and Joyce Killmer Wilderness.
Could there be some wilderness-type paddling? Something besides all the wonderful Asheville-based drive-in creekin and rivers? Something with a hike in, a wilderness feel, a fun paddle, and a hike out. Classic packrafting with a backpack con camping gear, that isn’t Class V Linville Gorge? Maybe Hazel Creek in SW GSMNP?
I decided to spend Memorial Day Weekend there and find out. What I found was the most surprisingly fun and satisfying run I’ve made in the last year of boating. Better than the big heat of Australia’s Kimberley or Kakadu; better than the Headhunter Trail in Borneo; more fun than NZ’s Karamea; more technical than Cataract Canyon; longer than Bird Creek; less anxiety-filled than Canyon Creek; more exciting than the Western Arctic or Central Alaska; better trails than Teton Wilderness.
Yea, it all comes back to Ship Creek, though. It’s almost as good as Ship Creek – and if I wasn’t such an Alaska-phile, I’d have to say it’s even more fun than Ship Creek, as it takes all three of Ship’s sections and mixes them up. It’s about the same size (150 cfs at Cold Spring Creek put-in, and 300 cfs at take-out, style (big drops to bank scout, lots of smaller drops to boat scout) , & length (100+ feet/mile for 7 miles and about so many hours for three bad wood portages and scouting four or five falls) as the Ship Creek run from the upper forks. And honestly, when the upper section of Ship is fun, the middle and lower Canyons are pretty hair-ball, so it’s hard to do all of Ship at its finest/
But unlike Ship Creek it’s ungauged, warm water and 15 miles from the nearest roads at the put in and takeout (23 miles if you hike back to your car closest to the put in). Great trail alongside and lots of hikers. Smokies are beautiful in May with Laurel in Bloom and temps in the 70s-80’s. Boating the creek have to duck under rhododendron, and slide over mossy rocks, twisting and turning down a misty creek with a full green canopy overhead. There’re bears and rattlesnakes, hogs and whitetails, turkeys and kingfishers. And warm water. I only had a rain jacket and my $5 pile jacket but I stayed warm.
Maps showed that South and East of the Crest followed by the Appalachian Trail and above Fontana Lake is the most remote-from-drivable road backcountry in GSMNP. The Park Hiking Map listed several parallel watersheds there as having troublesome creek crossings in the rain. There are about four creeks that looked good to me (Eagle, Hazel, Forney, and Noland) and one that didn’t Deep Creek (this one gets lots of tubing activity). Of the four good ones, Hazel’s the longest watershed – about 15 miles and had the least steep gradient (just a bit over 100 feet per mile).
I hiked in from near Bryson City, from the end of Lakeshore Drive, up Forney Creek (looked good but really quite steep – not too much wood), and to the top of Welches Ridge by way of Jones Creek Trail, then down into Hazel Creek. This was a good hike but about 5 miles longer than you need to go to get to the good boating. Better to take Lakeside trail to Forney Creek Trail, Forney Creek Trail to Bear Creek Trail, then down Cold Spring Creek Trail. The run takes the better part of the day. I walked back to my car on the Lakeshore Trail (23 miles).
In all I spent two nights out and had a hoot. As soon as I get that ole’ Deliverance Dueling Banjos tune I’ll post some video dropping the biggest falls.
You need a helmet and the ability to run PR V to do it all, but everything is portageable and there’s lots of good stuff, if you can avoid the wood on the edges. It’s slides and drops, no big wave trains. My new, failed spray deck (blown out cod piece, useless velcro) can’t keep even a bucket’s worth of water out of my boat, but for low volume water like this, an open boat – while needing more frequent dumping – would be just fine.
Now, I’m not advocating flying from Sydney, Melbourne, or even Anchorage to do this, but if you are ever in the SE, and it’s a good wet year (too high, forget it) come do this.