Back in the Backwoods: A Weekend in Panthertown Valley, Nantahala National Forest

“It was good to be back in the wilderness again, where everything seems at peace.” – Richard Proenneke

I guess I had a busy winter, which seems like a weak excuse for taking it easy. With birthdays and holidays, I always find it hard to escape during the off-season. I’ve been outside plenty but I haven’t found myself at peace on an empty trail in some months. Barky, Slob and I set out to remedy that injustice as March became April and winter became spring.

nantahala-map
source: mshajobtour.com

Our destination was a chunk of backcountry called Panthertown Valley in the eastern corridor of Nantahala National Forest. If you’ve never heard of Nantahala, you wouldn’t be faulted. It’s tucked in the far southwestern corner of North Carolina and has some flashy neighbors. To the southeast is Gorges State Park. Immediately south is Georgia’s Black Rock Mountains State Park and Chattahoochee National Forest. To the northeast rises NC’s Pisgah National Forest and Mount Mitchell State Park, the tallest temple of earth in the eastern United States. Immediately to the north stretches the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. This is God’s country.

panthertownvalleymap
source: RomanticAsheville.com

We planned to hike a rough loop (with a few detours) through the backcountry — from Wilderness Falls Trail to Granny Burrell Trail to Great Wall Trail to Big Green Trail to Mac’s Gap Trail to Little Green Trail to Panthertown Valley Trail to Deep Gap Trail and back to Wilderness Falls Trail. (That’s a lot to keep up with but the PDF map at RomanticAsheville.com makes it clear.) Along the way, we’d follow running creeks, see three waterfalls and top two mountains.

View/Download the full-size trail map at RomanticAsheville.com

On Friday, we entered the forest at the Panthertown Valley Trailhead by the West Entrance Parking area off SR 1121. Hiking south, we scouted the flattest section of the backcountry along the creek for a good campsite and found several rock-ring campfire pits already established off Great Wall Trail. Below the pine where Granny Burrell Falls Trail meets Great Wall Trail was a lovely campsite pre-stocked with dry kindling. I think this is what the map-maker for Romantic Asheville means by “shelter.” We found no proper shelter — like what you’d find along backcountry treks in the Smoky Mountains — but we weren’t looking hard. This spot below the pine would be a great place to pitch camp if you were traveling on horseback or were among a sizable group but it also looked as though it might attract other campers.

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Slob and Barky on the Trail

We skipped the shelter and the campsites along Great Wall Trail and, instead, opted for a more secluded campsite near a crisp, running stream between Frolictown Falls and Wilderness Falls along the noticeably less-traveled Wilderness Falls Trail. Wilderness Falls is a steep and tall, rocky, slip-and-slide sort of waterfall whereas Frolictown is cascading. These two, in my not-so-humble opinion, could be the most picturesque in Panthertown.

Together, we collected and organized firewood by size (kindling, small fuelwood, and large fuelwood), constructed a tipi of kindling and conjured a flame. This, I think, is what I really came for. Building a fire is like riding a bike; you never forget how. Still, it felt good to exercise my bushcraft. Barky snuck in three tallboys of Yuengling and we sat around our fire, trying to sip them down on stomachs full of freeze-dried dinners. I came for this as well — not the Yuengling or freeze-dried food but to be with the boys — to talk about old friends and family, to talk about those good times long gone and those that we hope are still to come. College buddies who met in our rowdy years, we talked about the Menzingers, the Lawrence Arms and where punk rock has gone — how we used to pound Guinness and shake fists at the sky! Is punk dead or are we just too old to believe in what’s new? We talked about wives, husbandhood, fatherhood, kids and prospective kids. We talked about Auburn University and student loans, careers and coworkers, buying houses and settling down. Mostly, we talked in and of the moment — whatever was on our minds. We listened, too. Each in his turn.

Just about any rural expanse in the eastern United States is “Bear Country” but we were warned to be especially careful in Panthertown. Reportedly, hungry bears have been harassing backpackers in Panthertown, shredding tents in hopes of finding an easy meal. Last I heard, two weeks after our visit, forest rangers closed the valley to camping for the season.

Lucky us, we slipped in early and did everything by-the-book to avoid an encounter, including hanging our food bags using the PCT method. I had never tried this nifty technique before our trip to Nantahala but it worked like a charm. The hammock camping site, TheUltimateHang.com, has a great diagram that explains how to employ the PCT method:

hanging-a-bear-bag
source: TheUltimateHang.com

At one point during the weekend, we noticed what appeared (with a little imagination) to be bear tracks through our campsite but our bear bags, backpacks and tents were undisturbed. If it was a bear, it got no easy pickings from us.

Early Saturday morning, we struck-out south back along Wilderness Falls and Granny Burrell Trails toward Great Wall Trail. Wilderness and Granny Burrell are handsome, yawning descents over rocks and exposed roots. Great Wall is a soft and flat trail under the morning shadow of the sheer, rocky face of Big Green Mountain. (Between the mountain and the trail is where you’ll find those rock-ring campsites previously mentioned.)

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Fun Fact: Bears built these stairs.

After roughly 1.65 miles, the trail turns northeast and begins a steady, moderate climb for another 1.65 miles. This was by far the hardest part of our day but it wasn’t so bad. I like to think of Nantahala as the Smoky Mountains’s little brother. Nantahala is roughly the same size as the Smokies acreage-wise and its tallest point, Lone Bald, is less than 1,000 feet shorter than Clingman’s Dome, the top of the Smokies. Like the Smokies, Nantahala has rolling mountains, waterfalls, cove hardwood forests with thick stands of rhododendron and balds that create natural lookouts over the surrounding area but Nantahala’s trails are cake in comparison. Sure, there are dips and climbs aplenty in Nantahala but hiking the Smokies can feel like hiking a roller coaster — up and down and up and down. Nantahala, with its wilderness stairways, is much more forgiving.

From here, we turned north on Big Green Trail. This section of the hike was a bit of a bust. I’ll admit, we could have missed something. We were working with the Romantic Asheville map (which is useful if a little rough) and the National Geographic Trails Illustrated Map for Nantahala and Cullasaja Gorges (which was a little too “big picture” for our purposes and lacked detail). Being the tallest peak in the valley, we were expecting some epicocity atop Big Green. The trail is handsome. I wouldn’t have been drawn to the east if I wasn’t in love with thick forests. Still, Big Green is not where hikers witness heart-jerking panoramas. That’s where Little Green Mountain shines.

We turned back south and hiked the entirety of Big Green Mountain Trail (2.7 miles), stopping for lunch at the midway point (at the Great Wall Trail junction). Here I suffered my biggest mistake of the weekend. Rusty from a winter off the trail, I had become forgetful and negligent, and of all the gear that I could’ve left at the campsite, I left my spork!  I know, right?! How did I even stumble from that wilderness with my life and wits intact? I’ll tell you. I mustered through. Like Bear Grylls and Daniel Boone, I hydrated my freeze-dried AlpineAire Southwestern Style Mesa with Beef, rolled the bag into a tube, squeezed and ate that sloppy goodness like it was Go-Gurt.

At Mac’s Gap, we turned north and hopped on Little Green Trail (.94 miles) toward Schoolhouse Falls. Little Green Trail climbs over Little Green Mountain. Get your cameras out because the rocky tops of Little Green create breaks in the forest, almost like balds, and open wide windows over southern Appalachia beyond. Little Green is windswept and the flora, shrubby and prickly on these bluffs, seem to feel it. The instinct is to look up and out on the scenery but rocky breaks in the forest mean no boot-trampled earth and fewer trees for eye-level blazes. The blazes along Little Green Trail are a shade of green that I believe Crayola calls “Lost in the Flora.” Panthertown trails are generally easy to follow, but over Little Green, blazes can be easy to miss either due to their color or because they are not eye-level in the trees but on the ground.

The eastern side of the valley seems more popular than the west, which could be because Asheville is due northeast, supplying eastern Nantahala with day-hikers. Granted, that statement is speculative and anecdotal but we certainly came across the heaviest (though still light) traffic as we topped Little Green Mountain and then descended toward Schoolhouse Falls.

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Setting up the camera by Schoolhouse Falls

Schoolhouse falls cascades gently before showering over a clear and shallow pool. Hikers can wade in its waters or explore the shallow rocky cave behind the falls. The rocks before the pool make for an ideal picnic or resting spot. We turned northwest on Panthertown Valley Trail back toward Deep Gap and our campsite off Wilderness Falls Trail. The going was mucky but flat and quick. In stride, we quickly put several miles behind us. With the sun setting, thick brush encroaching the trail and Panthertown Creek gurgling nearby, this seemed like the kind of place where tired, unaware hikers might sneak up and startle a bear. We spoke a little louder here and clapped our hands from time to time to advertise our presence.

Barky, Slob and I have had some disagreement regarding the distance that we hiked on Saturday. Fittingly, the National Geographic and Romantic Asheville maps also disagree at times and we did some section hopping whereas trail mileage is usually measured from end to end. In all, I’d guess that our loop covered somewhere between 13 to 16 miles.

Sunday, we woke late, ate slowly, packed up and hiked out along Wilderness Falls and Panthertown Valley Trails back to the dirt parking lot, back to our cars and back to our suburban lives. I hate to leave it behind but every Sunday should begin on a trail.

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