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Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Good Ol' RockyTop (Hoar Frost Optional)

Sample some of the best the Smokies have to offer on this rugged 30-mile backpacking loop: from the lush forests in the Middle Prong Valley to the summits of RockyTop and ThunderHead Peaks. Whether you go on the coldest weekend of the year or not is up to you.

This 30-mile rugged loop begins from the Great Smoky Mountains Institute at Tremont on Middle Prong Road near Townsend, TN. Plan your arrival carefully as you'll have to come through some pretty tourist-choked areas surrounding Gatlinburg/Pigeon Forge and traffic can be nuts. Equally grueling for us was convincing an overzealous ranger at the trailhead that I wasn't carrying any contraband. As we were getting packed at the car a ranger vehicle squealed into the parking area and out jumped a hyper-active and hyper-suspicious ranger. "What'd you just put in your pocket sir?" He challenged as he swooped down on me from his Explorer. "Umm, AA batteries for my GPS." was my response. After showing him I was not, in fact, carrying any grenades or cocaine he moved on to permits which we had covered, but still got a, "We'll see about that," and a call to headquarters to verify my reservations. Hopefully you can avoid this unpleasantry, but regardless, once you're permitted to get started, you'll head up West Prong Trail and continue onto Bote Mountain Trail, climbing 3000'+ over 9+ miles. Along the way you'll pass camping along West Prong and enjoy periodic views on the climb up the ridge.


On this Saturday in January it had been 10 degrees Fahrenheit the night before and even with periods of full sun it was cold. We hits snow about 2/3 of the way up, and it was several inches deep by the time we crested the ridge.

At the top of the climb we turned right onto the white-blazed Appalachian Trail (AT) and then an immediate left to arrive at Spence Field Shelter (keep a clean camp and be sure to hang your food on the provided cables - this shelter is frequented by some of the Park's 1500+ Black Bears).

It was nearing dusk when we arrived and the temperature was dropping quicky. We did our best to gather dry downed limbs for a fire in the shelter's stone fireplace, but nearly all surfaces were glazed with ice and snow. To this point only my brother and I had made in to the shelter. We had passed several parties on our climb who were descending having thought better of spending a night over 5000' in 10-15 degree temperatures. Just as dark fell though we were joined by a foursome of lawyer/outdoorsmen from Tennessee. They watched with skepticism as we attempted to get a fire started (they had gone without the night before), but rewarded us with grilled steaks, teriyaki vegetables and sips of scotch when we succeed. We all survived the night with the unfortunate exception of my self-inflating sleeping pad which was the victim of a burning Tupperware mishap at the hand of one of the Attorneys. He was gracious enough to trade out his identical, excepting the nickel-sized burn hole, pad for mine in the morning (yeah, after I slept flat on the wood floor).

Leaving the shelter the first thing to strike us was the sharp crunch that each step made as a thick crust of ice had glazed the ground. The shelter and ridge were engulfed in icy clouds.

Backtrack to the AT and follow the ridgeline up and over some of the better known (and better named) peaks in the park: RockyTop and ThunderHead.

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The ridge through this section of the AT is spectacular. Even socked in by clouds the views were breathtaking as breaks in the clouds revealed dark and frosted ridgelines. In better weather views into North Carolina and Tennessee drift off into seemingly endless National Forest lands. The terrain varies between balds, rocky ridges and hardwood forests. The bitter cold and strong winds continued as did intermittent snow showers, although the temperatures eventually soared into the mid-20's and the sun made punctuated appearances.

Continue to follow the AT to Derrick Knob Shelter where a reliable spring offers a refilling point for water bottles. Not long past Derrick Knob Shelter turn left onto the well-graded Green Brier Ridge Trail. After descending Greenbrier Ridge, turn right onto Lynn Camp Prong Trail and continue to second night's camp at Campsite 28.

I thought that there was a chance that our second night might be at an elevation low enough to be below the snow-line, but it was not. The presence of the snow, however, allowed us to see tracks of coyotes, elk, and black bear that had all traveled the Lynn Camp Prong trail that day. We camped at the relatively small site, situated by the modestly sized stream that borders it. We had a good fire and warm tea as it snowed for the last several hours of the day.

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On your final morning, backtrack to the last intersection and turn right onto Middle Prong Trail which skirts the Middle Prong of the Little River and showcases several of its cascades along the way. The trail here is flat, wide and leisurely and the river is beautiful and dramatic. Continue 4.1 miles on Middle Prong Trail onto the Tremont Road (gravel) and continue on the road an additional 3 miles back to the trailhead.

For this trip's complete photo album click here.
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Permits: Great Smoky Mountains National Park requires a permit for all backcountry camping in the park. Backcountry permits are free and are available at Smokemont or any other Ranger Station or Visitor Center in the park. Campsite 28 does not require reservation and is on a first come, first served basis, while the Spence Field Shelter requires a reservation. If your itinerary includes a reserved site, you must call the Backcountry Reservation Office at (865) 436-1231 to make reservations. The Backcountry Reservation Office is open from 8:00 a.m. until 6:00 p.m. daily.
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Contact: Backcountry Information Office at (865) 436-1297 (open daily from 9:00 a.m. until noon); Backcountry Reservation Office at (865) 436-1231 to make reservations (open from 8:00 a.m. until 6:00 p.m. daily); http://www.nps.gov/grsm/planyourvisit/backcountry-camping.htm .
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To Trailhead: From I-40 west, exit 386B to Alcoa Hwy/US 129 to Townsend entrance of GSMNP. Go to the Y-int and turn right towards Cades Cove, then left over bridge onto Tremont rd for 2 miles (cross 2, 2-lane bridges). Tremont Inst. (permits avail. here) is on left and the trailhead is across on the right.

Check Back! GPS Beta coming soon at:

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Panthertown Crown Loop, Nantahala NF, NC

Tucked in the southwest corner of North Carolina is a little piece of Nantahala National Forest land called Panthertown Valley that, with its exposed granite domes and myriad waterfalls, is often referred to as the "Yosemite of the East." This loop hike highlights all that this area has to offer including seven of its cascades.

Panthertown Valley is found at the headwaters of the Tuckaseegee River on the NW shoulder of Toxaway Mountain about midway between Cullowhee and Cashiers, NC. The valley is relatively flat at about 4,000' in elevation, with several exposed granite domes rising upwards of 600' from the valley floor.


Part of the Nantahala National Forest, the 6,300 acres comprising Panthertown Valley was acquired by the USFS only recently in 1989 and still has substantial adjoining wild private land. Prior to USFS ownership the land was logged extensively by the Moltz Lumber Company. Next ownership went to regional power giant, Duke Energy, who built high tension power lines through the heart of the valley before selling the land to the Nature Conservancy for $8 Million. It is this powerline that bars this region from being designated a wilderness area, however the trail system is still quite primitive and ample opportunities for solitude exist. Those attempting this loop should be cautioned that there are no trail markers and routefinding can be a challenge. Study maps of the area closely and bring a compass and/or GPS and know how to use them to navigate.


Trail starts at Parking on the west side and follows the orange track.


This hike starts from the Breedlove Road trailhead on the westernmost rim of the area. Leaving the parking area you'll climb along the ridge leading to the summit of BlackRock Mountain with occasional views of the valley and opposing cliffs and ridges. Upon reaching the summit you'll turn to drop into the second-growth forests of the valley which mix pines, hardwoods and rhododendrons along ridges and stream valleys.

After crossing the powerline cut you'll soon come to the first of seven cascades on this hike as well as the first of several fords. Use caution in crossing here as you are at the top of the falls and the wet rocks are very slick. Short, quick and obvious scrambles off the main trail will bring you to the next two (and increasingly impressive) falls.

Next, after crossing back under the power lines arrive at SchoolHouse Falls which boasts a sandy beach and Olympic size swimming hole before starting up the ascent of Little Green Mountain. The open summit of Little Green Mountain rewards the climb with sweeping views and blueberries in the late summer. For many, the open granite slabs of the summit are a destination for low-impact camping with sunrise and sunset displays.

The granite domes of Panthertown were formed as bubbles of molten lava cooled nearly one billion years ago forming the smooth granite which have been exposed by erosion.
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Descending off of Little Green the next stretch offers ample opportunity for wildlife viewing as you pass through forest on a gradual traverse of the Southern section of the valley and a gradual climb up the flanks of Big Green Mountain. While the ascent and summit of Big Green are under mature canopy, exploration of short side trails can result in rewarding viewpoints and potential stealth campsites (if you bring you water). The descent from the summit is steep and ends at an old logging road in a campsite-rife pine flat.


Heading west you'll come across three more of the falls on the loop: the fifth is a several-hundred yard-long gradual cascade, the sixth is a 10 foot tall, six foot wide drop, and the seventh plunges a dramatic distance in a narrow, but steady stream.

At the top of the final falls its a short climb further to reach the wide, gravel roadbed which returns to the Breedlove Parking area.

At just about ten miles, this loop is an excellent weekend introduction to the Panthertown Valley, sampling both its peaks and valleys. However, given the nebulous network of trails, one could easily spend much more time here and explore all corners of this lush and geographically unique area.

For the complete Panthertown photo album click here.

The Hike: From Breedlove Parking Area:
Take trail 488 uphill from parking area (left of gate) * bear right at the 1st intersection to stay on trail * follow ridge and turn right near the summit of Blackrock Mtn * descend ridge to intersect trail 448A and turn left * turn right onto trail 491 and arrive at 1st ford and falls on the Tuckaseegee River * bear right on the first connector trail past ford * turn right on trail 486 and at !/4 miles and 1/2 miles descend obvious steep side trails to the right to reach falls 2 and 3 * continuing on trail 486 reach Schoolhouse falls with large pool and beach at its base * bear right just past the falls to ascend trail 485 to the summit of Little Green Mtn. * bear left at the summit to descend the south side * turn left on trail 453 * turn right at next intersection onto trail 469 and ascend Big Green Mtn staying right to continue on to the summit * from summit descend steeply to intersect trail 453 and turn left * take immediate left onto trail 450 and arrive at next falss within 1/4 mile * turn right at ford and quick left to continue onto trail 450 * bear left onto trail 449 and reach next falls within 1/4 mile * bear right at falls to ascend beside impressive final falls * connect with trail 448 and turn left to return to gate and parking*
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Trailhead: From I-40 take I-26 East to exit 40. Follow NC-280 west to US-64 near Brevard. Follow NC-64 through Brevard to Lake Toxaway. Turn North (right) on Cedar Creek Road and follow for approximately 2.2 miles. This will be about 1.9 miles East of Cashiers. Turn right at the brown and yellow USFS Panthertown sign on Breedlove Road. Follow for approximately 3.5 miles to gate and trailhead parking. (Lat:35.16898 Lon:-83.04012)
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Ranger Contact: US Forest Service, Nantahala National Forest - 828-526-3765

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