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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.
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*
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)
Ranger Contact: US Forest Service, Nantahala National Forest - 828-526-3765


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