Inner Tube Creeking on Deep Creek

August 19, 2012

After a rainy night camping in the mountains above Bryson City, North Carolina, I drove over into the Deep Creek area of Great Smoky Mountains National Park to see if the creek might be running high enough to make it worth a hike up and paddle. I had never been to that area of the park before and the rain gave me an excuse to check it out, not that I needed one. I headed up around 9 am and hiked in to look at a side waterfall before heading up the Deep Creek Trail to scout out the run.
Juney Whank Falls - up a short but steep side trail from the Deep Creek Trail parking lot.
Although it looked like the rain had probably raised the water level some, it was barely sufficient to scrape down the run in a kayak and I thought it probably was not going to be worthwhile. However I had been hearing from friends over the last year or so how great a trip it was on an inner tube. People call it “class V tubing.” Well, it isn’t class V but it definitely rocks tubing unlike my previous limited experiences with the sport. It’s creeking on an inner tube. I was amazed at the vast number of tubing outfitters on Deep Creek Road between Bryson City and the park boundary. Apparently it’s a very popular recreational activity on summer days. I headed downstream in my truck to rent a tube and passed Sandra Walker, daughter Mely Taylor, Lisa Lemza, and Debbie McRae heading up to the trailhead with inner tubes. I hoped to catch up with them.

The stream bed has been carefully channelized by dragging around natural stone to facilitate the run. In places little dams have been built up to create deep pools, and natural chutes have been lined with rocks to compress the flow and keep things moving. It isn’t completely natural but it’s completely fun!

The creek has been channelized to facilitate inner tubing at low levels.

You have to hike up from the highest parking area at the trailhead and it’s a little over a half mile to get to a sign that says “No tubing beyond this point” or something similar. I caught up with the others shortly before they got to the put-in. There is another trail that leads to a side waterfall so we dropped our tubes and took a few minutes to hike over and have a look at it. Lisa Lemza and Sandra Walker couldn’t resist climbing over into the waterfall to have some photos taken and Lisa’s opera voice echoed around the ravine as she was inspired to song. Must have been a hundred decibels or more.

Lisa Lemza and Sandra Walker at Indian Creek Falls - just up a side trail from the put-in on Deep Creek.

We launched out into the current and the run started with a bang as we accelerated and began spinning and careening off rocks down the left side a long rapid that I’m sure would be II+ to III if the creek was actually running with a sufficient level to paddle a hard boat. For paddlers, it’s very difficult to ignore the urge to try to control the descent, but it’s necessary to just go with it and try to stay on top of the tube because you aren’t going to control it anyway. I made it through one of the named drops “Big Dipper” the first time but there were some random swims.

Tube creeking on Deep Creek.

After we got to the bottom of the “steep” section above the upper-most bridge, we carried back up for a second run. This time I wasn’t so lucky. As I approached Big Dipper the second time, I could see Melanie was getting recirculated in the hole at the bottom, which on an inner tube involves spinning in a circle endlessly. It was pretty funny. Unfortunately I went over the drop badly, pushed Mely out of the hole but fell off and plunged deep. I hit my head on something (I wasn’t wearing a helmet) and then tasted something in my mouth that was familiar. What was it? Oh, that’s right, creek water. Now I remember I surfaced within a few feet but my tube had run away from me and I proceeded to have one of the worst swims I’ve had in while until I finally got sense enough to just stand up. I waded down to where the girls had rounded up my inner tube for me, feeling sheepish. The rest of the run went perfectly well but I declined a third lap on the steep section. Down below the first bridge you float under there is another tributary that falls into the lower section of the creek that is gorgeous. The rapids settle down a bit but are still fun.

Tom Branch Falls

This was great fun! I’ve previously disdained tubing a little but I will definitely be floating Deep Creek again.

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