The Appalachian Trail In NC
America’s ultimate hike begins in Georgia and ends in Maine but North Carolina’s section of the two thousand mile long Appalachian Trail (AT) is arguably among the most scenic, rising and falling along the spine of the Blue Ridge and through the heart of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Whether you’re spending a few hours on the trail or a few months (a “through hike” usually takes half a year), North Carolina’s portion of this national treasure is particularly memorable.
The AT in NC is about 88 miles long, with another 200 miles that run on or near the North Carolina/Tennessee state line. The NC section of the trail offers diverse opportunities for both novice hikers and serious climbers. South of the Smokies, the AT offers long climbs in the Stecoah-Cheoah Mountain area, then the outstanding Nantahala section with 4,000-foot gaps and 5,000-foot peaks. Cheoah Bald offers panoramic views of Western North Carolina. Like much of the AT in the South, you have a feeling of remoteness, yet the AT is often very accessible. The variety of forest growth and flowering shrubs, along with the many spectacular views, make this entire section of the AT in North Carolina a hikers’ paradise.
The section from the Nantahala River to the Georgia border features the best-graded trail at high elevations in the South, with a few short exceptions. There are lots of views from natural openings and fire towers, some requiring short side trips.
At the Nantahala River, the AT climbs out of Nantahala Gorge and, heading south, proceeds over a series of 5,000-ft. summits and 4,000-ft. gaps. It flanks the headwaters of the Nantahala, Little Tennessee, and Tallulah Rivers. At Ridgepole Mountain, the end of the Nantahala Range, it turns to the Blue Ridge for the rest of its journey to Georgia.
The trail traverses historic country in Western North Carolina. Before the arrival of white settlers in the 18th century, the entire area was inhabited by the Cherokee Nation, with settlements along all major streams and trails going through the gaps.
The Appalachian Trail in this section is entirely within the Nantahala National Forest and is routed through mature, hardwood forest for the most part. Rhododendron, mountain laurel, flame azalea, mountain ash, vast beds of fern and galax, the profusion of wild flowers and the long flowing streams make the AT in the North Carolina very appealing.
The late Rev. A. Rufus Morgan, who helped establish and maintain the AT in North Carolina, has described the significant beauty of this part of the AT:
"...a fall trip is a beautiful experience. Early October will give an abundance of wildflowers, such as asters, phlox, self-heal, and closed gentian. A Spring trip, perhaps in late April, will show the white flowering trees, such as dogwood, bellwood, service, and black locust. Along with these the red maples show a beautiful contrast. Then there are the flowers...the bluets furnish quite a carpet. There are violets in abundance, as well as the trilliums and trout lillies. The many varieties of fern present an interesting study...from Deep Gap to the Georgia line the interrupted fern grows in great profusion...during June (and July)...a wealth of flame azalea and rhododendron especially the purple rhododendron on Standing Indian Mountain."
This section of the AT runs right through the Nantahala Outdoor Center (NOC) at milemarker 133.9. The NOC is a well-known basecamp for day hikes on the AT, in addition to providing a great re-stocking and resting place for through-hikers. And if you want a little diversion from hiking, the NOC is a recognized leader in whitewater adventures, with more than 35 years of experience. The NOC offers whitewater rafting trips on the Nantahala, Ocoee, Chattooga, Gauley, Cheoah, Pigeon, French Broad, New or Nolichucky rivers.
The AT also runs right down the main street of Hot Springs, NC. It is a favorite spot for long haul hikers to take a break on their way to Maine and to rejuvenate their aching muscles in the healing hot springs. But the trail here also leads to one of the most memorable views of a lifetime and a stretch of mountaintop that finds many exclamations points in hikers’ journals – Max Patch!!!! You don’t have to be a serious hiker to enjoy what has been called “The Crown Jewel of the Appalachian Trail”, however, be warned - it is a curvy, partly dirt road from Hot Springs to the Max Patch parking lot. But it’s well worth the effort.
Hiking along this part of the AT leads to the top of this 4,600-foot mountain where you can see Mt. Mitchell to the east and the Great Smoky Mountains to the south. This 350-acre tract of land was cleared and used as pasture in the 1800s, but today its lush green mountaintop provides 360-degree views that won’t let you go. The summit is a short walk from the parking lot.
Two easy loop trails lead you to, and around, the summit. The 1.4-mile short loop crosses the summit. The 2.4 mile loop circles the mountain for outstanding views from all sides. From the parking lot, follow the marked trail to the left. You will ascend through a forest and then reach the top for amazing views. The rest of the hike is on the grassy bald. You can also hike north or south on the Appalachian Trail for as far as your legs will carry you.
Lodging Along the Way
The Appalachian Trail in North Carolina features numerous hostels and campsites along the way for lodging. Everything from warming huts (usually these are free, unlocked, and have minimal facilities) to hostels with running water and electricity can be found along the trail. Information about the trail and the Appalachian Mountains can be found at the Appalachian Scenic Trail Ranger Station in North Carolina.
If you want to upgrade your lodging with more creature comforts in Hot Springs go to: www.hotspringstreehousecabins.com
In Nantahala, the NOC offers lodging and meals: www.noc.com
Note: The A.T. is marked with 2x6 inch vertical white paint blazes. A double blaze, one above the other, is placed before turns, junctions, or other areas that require hikers to be alert. There are approximately 165,000 such blazes along the Appalachian Trail.
added: December 17, 2008
updated: May 4, 2009
Ideas & What To Do
From the Mountains to the Piedmont to the Coast, there are variety of…
Lights that once warned travelers, now welcome them.Seven coastal…
Renew your spirit and unwind along North Carolina’s Outer Banks,…
America’s ultimate hike begins in Georgia and ends in Maine but…
George Washington Vanderbilt was not your typical wealthy 19th-century…
Travel a road that is the trip.The Blue Ridge Parkway spans 250 miles…
Here are twelve reasons to feel proud of your home state. Explore one…
You’re standing near a flowing stream, surrounded by rainforest…
Your whole village gathers on the banks of the Oconaluftee each…
When Franklin Graham first approached his father, world-famous…