Flat Creek Trail is an amazingly beautiful 5.2 mile round trip hike located just off The Blue Ridge Parkway, in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The trail follows alongside two different creeks, and is full of lush moss, grass and trees making for an absolutely gorgeous and beautiful hike that ends at the Heintooga Picnic area for some amazing views.
To say Flat Creek Trail is a beautiful hike, just isn’t doing it justice. There aren’t any gorgeous high elevation views for the majority of the trail, and even though you’re hiking creekside, the creek is only about 5 foot wide in most places. But what makes this trail beautiful is all of the lush vegetation, trees, grass, and crystal clear water. Walking on this trail is like hiking through one of those magical forests you see in movies like The Hobbit.
The trailhead for Flat Creek Trail begins at the parking lot, and descends into the forest at a pretty steep grade. The Park was kind enough to put some wood logs in the trail here to form dirt steps. One thing to remember about this trail is that it’s generally north facing, and due to the close proximity of the creek, and the dense woods, everything here is wet and slick. This includes those logs, so avoid stepping directly on them, and be careful of the rocks too.
You can see the logs and the first crossing of Bunches Creek in the photo below.
This first crossing has a single log bridge across it (remember, it’s slick). From this point on, the trail gradually climbs upward, but you’ll find yourself climbing up and down often as you slowly rise in elevation.
After your first creek crossing, you’ll soon reach another crossing for Bunches creek, this one is larger and you’ll need to rock hop to cross. This crossing can get a bit interesting after or during a heavy rain, as we would find out on the way back.
Spend some time here, as this area is absolutely gorgeous. A little further up the trail, past the creek crossing is what remains of an old and hollowed out tree. A great photo opportunity. Many of the photos in our Photo Gallery at the bottom of this article were taken in this area.
After this last crossing of Bunches creek, you’ll begin a more steep climb, and you’ll soon see Flat Creek to your left. It’s not huge, only about 5 foot wide, but the sounds make for beautiful background sound as you hike, and the water is crystal clear and ice cold.
At around a mile into the hike, there is supposed to be a short trail that leads to a small waterfall on Flat Creek. We were not able to find the trail or Falls on this trip, but plan to look a little harder next time. There is a side trail behind a trail sign(shown to the right). We followed this for a short period, but didn’t think it was the right trail. Thinking back, it might have been the right trail, and we just didn’t follow it far enough. We’ll update this article if and when we find it on future hikes.
As you continue to climb the winding trail, you’ll begin to see grass growing alongside you. As you climb, the grass becomes more heavy, until you reach areas of the forest literally covered in this tall, thin grass that literally blows back and forth as the wind blows. The grass is a really unique feature of the trail. As a general rule, you don’t see grass like this in the park, especially in a heavily forested area like this.
The lead photo of this article shows the trail wandering through the grass.
The grass took hold in this area due to the heavy logging that occurred in this area prior to it becoming the National Park Service. Many of the trees in this area were completely cleared. In fact, if you stop and look around, you’ll notice there are only a few larger trees, and most of the forest is covered in new growth and very young trees. The grass now continues to grow and thrive below the recovering forest canopy making for a unique scene that you won’t see often at all.
As you approach the peak of the trail, and the crest of the ridge you’ve been hiking, you’ll join a nature trail that surrounds the Heintooga picnic area and the Balsam Mountain campground. Both of these are also accessible by continuing on down Heintooga Ridge Road past the trailhead where you parked earlier. Flat Creek trail basically goes from the trailhead to the end of the road.
Unfortunately this is as far as we made it on the trail. We had to stop just prior to reaching the nature trail due to very heavy rain that moved in, but I’ll touch on that in a minute.
The Heintooga picnic area is a beautiful and historic area, that offers not only some benches to rest on, but beautiful views of the Great Smoky Mountains. Hiking up just a little further you’ll find the picnic area with picnic tables. A great place to pause, rest, get some water and eat.
When you’re ready, it’s time to head back along the same path you travelled up on. Fortunately most of it is downhill.
As I mentioned, just before arriving at the nature trail to the picnic area on the way up, we heard thunder, followed very shortly by heavy rain. We found shelter in some Rhododendrons that kept us mostly dry. The rain soon let off, but the sky was dark, and we knew it would rain again and probably soon.
We made the difficult choice to turn around and head back, as we feared some of the creek crossings might be high, and we had our younger daughter with us. The trail on the way up was already a bit muddy and soft, and we knew the rain would just make it worse. Little did we know…
Just a few minutes after starting back down the trail to our car, the skies opened up. It started absolutely pouring, the trail we were on quickly became a creek, and in many place had 2-4″ of water running down it. Fortunately on both sides of the trail,it’s mostly grass and moss, and we kept our footing there.
Here’s a video of us traveling along the trail as it was pouring. My wife took the video. I was behind her, and our kids in front.
As we expected, when we reached the “rock hop” across Bunches Creek, it was over the normal rocks you use to cross it and was flowing heavily. We crossed using the taller rocks, and had to get our feet wet a little. In situations like this, and coming down the trail, this is where a good pair of waterproof and anti-slip hiking boots become worth their weight in gold. I won’t ever complain how about much they cost again.
We also had on “stay dry” water wicking clothing, which didn’t really help us from getting soaked, but it did help keep the water from soaking our clothing and sitting on us.
By the time we crossed over the second Bunches Creek crossing and started our descent up the trail to the parking lot, the trail up was literally a strong running creek. Water was running down the trail, and across it coming down the ridge. At one point, it was flowing so heavily we were a little scared to cross, afraid our feet might wash out and carry us down the ridge. We found a few sturdy tree branches and roots to grab onto, and made the crossing safely. I carried our daughter.
We made it back to the car without injury, thanks to God above, and all of us having high quality hiking boots (we’re big fans of the Keen brand), we never fell once and when we arrived at our SUV, the lower parts of our feet were surprisingly dry.
While our feet were dry, the rest of us were soaked to the core. Fortunately we learned a long time ago to always bring a change of clothes. We changed into some dry clothes and shoes in the SUV.
Weather is all part of the adventure of being outdoors here in the Blue Ridge, and the key is being prepared. Always expect rain storms, as the Blue Ridge are considered a rain forest. We headed back home and not more than .5 miles up the road, the sun came out and it stopped raining. We just laughed and said “figures!”.
Flat Creek Trail is an awesome moderate trail that is perfect for families looking for a nice quiet hike, without all the people found on many of the more popular trails. We really enjoyed it, and look forward to hiking it again soon. We especially look forward to hiking it in the Fall, once the leaves change colors!
Be sure and check out all of the great photos we took by viewing the Photo Gallery below!
This isn’t our video, but it does give you a perspective on what the trial looks like, especially the creek crossings. We’ll try to get some video the next time we’re out there.