If you venture over to the North Carolina side of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, you might find that it’s slightly less congested than the Tennessee side. That’s because there are fewer roads going into the designated park areas, and the ones that exist often dead-end at a trailhead.
If you’re looking for a quieter hiking experience, just head east and cross the state line into the Tar Heel State for the day.
The Mingus Creek Trail and its vicinity will have everything that you’re looking for in a great trek in the Smokies: a doable roundtrip length (5.8 miles, which you can extend to 11.4 miles), primitive sites, dramatic climbs, and great views. It’s also part of the 1,150-mile Mountains-to-Sea Trail, starting at Clingman’s Dome and ending at the Outer Banks.
Step into the past
Drive to the Oconaluftee Visitor Center near Cherokee, where you’ll want to stop at the Mountain Farm Museum. Nineteenth-century log buildings from other areas of the park populate the grounds and include a farmhouse, springhouse, barn, apple house, and still-operational blacksmith shop. You can observe how pioneers lived in this challenging country, as staff tend to livestock and farming.
The trailhead begins at the upper end of the parking lot at the Mingus Mill, which is just a half-mile north of the visitor center. You also may want to stop here and see how early settler John Jacob Mingus developed the most technologically advanced mill in the area for its time, with a water-generated cast-iron turbine. The mill still grinds out cornmeal during the warmer months.
On the trail
Start on the hike, and you will soon notice two points of interest. Just a few dozen yards past the gate is an old slave cemetery, and a sluice made from oak diverts creek water toward the mill around one-tenth of a mile. You’ll cross the creek several more times, on an old road bed, before coming to a large open space with some building foundations at around the first mile. This was once a camp for the Civilian Conservation Corps.
The route continues over flat and easy terrain along a wide road for another mile. During the spring and summer months, wildflowers like rhododendrons, white trillium, Virginia bluebells, and more dominate the scene.
Once you cross another bridge, the trail narrows and climbs and passes remnants of farms. Around three-quarters of a mile, you’ll come to an intersection. Go to the right for about three-quarters of a mile and you’ll come to a family cemetery. But you’ll likely want to take the left fork and keep going on the Mingus Creek following Madcap Branch.
The creek crossings and hike’s end (with a longer option)
On this portion, the trail crosses the creek several times, with the first going over on a log. Obviously, be careful of your footing here, and use hiking sticks or even a study branch if necessary. This is the trickiest of the crossings, and the others should be easier to ford.
The last three-quarters of the hike climb up some steep switchbacks. When you reach a small gap, you’ll come to the Deeplow Gap trail. This is about 2.9 miles from the trailhead and the turnaround point for this description.
The views here are fine, but if you want to go to the top, keep heading up further. Turn right at the fork and head up to the ridgeline of Newton Bald, where you’ll take a few more switchbacks before ending at the Newton Bald Trail, 2.8 miles more and 1,460 feet higher up.
Hike the Mingus Creek Trail and let us know what you think about it.