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Hiking the A.T. in the Nantahala National Forest

Each year I try to take a backpacking trip up north during the summer. In the past, I’ve gone to the Chattooga River in South Carolina and Grayson Highlands in Virginia. This year my friend Travis and I decided to hike part of the Appalachian trail in the Nantahala National Forest in North Carolina. The plan was to hike 30 miles from Rock Gap to the Nantahala Outdoor Center (NOC). With a couple weeks of planning and conditioning hikes we were ready to hit the trail.

Trail sign at the Rock Gap parking area

Trail sign at the Rock Gap parking area

Day 1 – Starting Off

We arrived at Rock Gap around 5:40pm on Thursday. We took some photos around the trail sign, grabbed our packs, and started hiking north. As we hiked we started to gain elevation. It was clear early on that my training hikes in Florida weren’t quite the same as hiking in the mountains of North Carolina. We made it 4 miles in before it started to get dark. We stopped at a stream-side campsite which is about 4 miles away from the Siler Bald Shelter. With the sun going down we decided to stay for the night.

We set up our tents and did our best to start a fire. All of the wood was damp and it started to drizzle halfway through the evening, so that was a no go. Instead we made dinner and called it a night.

Streamside campsite
Streamside campsite
Day 2 – Where’s the water?

I had set up my tent right next to the stream, so I was able to enjoy the sound of the water all night. Feeling refreshed, we got up and made breakfast. The plan was to hike around 11 miles to the Licklog Gap campsite.

nantahala-trail-wayah

We started hiking and gained even more elevation this time. After another 4 miles we made it to Siler Bald. The only way to actually get to the bald was to walk up a steep ¼ mile side trail. A few grueling minutes later we were at the top with a great panoramic view of the area. We had gained 1,148 ft of elevation since breakfast and were now at 5,216 ft. Once we finished taking a few pictures we hiked down and started the 5.5 mile walk to Wayah Bald.

View from Siler Bald
View from Siler Bald

While hiking over to the bald it started to rain. Luckily we only had to go a little further before we made it to the stone fire tower at Wayah Bald. The tower had an open area at the base so we were able to go in and wait out the storm. While we were sitting in the tower a bird kept flying through the window and then out the door. It did it so many times it was clear he was messing with us. Once the rain died down we checked out the fire tower and got some pictures of the surrounding area.

Stone fire tower at Wayah Bald
Stone fire tower at Wayah Bald

One great thing about this spot was the permanent latrines near the fire tower. That may not seem like a big deal, but when the alternatives are privies at the shelters or a hole in the woods a latrine is pretty great.

Two miles later we arrived at a campsite that at first we thought was Licklog Gap. We were pretty spent, so decided that even if it wasn’t the right spot we would stay. A few minutes into unpacking I realized that I only had about half a Nalgene bottle left of water. Travis had a full bottle, but we would need most of that for dinner. We decided it would be best for me to go find some more before it got dark. According to the guidebook there was a water source at Licklog Gap, so I grabbed all the water bottles and left Travis to try and start a fire. I made it to Licklog Gap, but couldn’t find any water source. Annoyed I arrived back at camp only to discover that Travis was having just as bad luck with the fire.

In order to save water we made our dehydrated meals with only half the water. They turned out crunchy and thoroughly disgusting. Deciding we were too tired and thirsty we called it a night and crawled into our tents around 7:30. We had hiked around 14 miles for the day.

Day 3 – Lots of views and…wait is that a rattlesnake?!

We woke up early the next morning and broke down camp as quick as possible. As we were packing up two older guys came walking by. They barely seemed to be carrying any gear and were moving fast for it only being 7 am. We would wind up running into them throughout the day. Slightly jealous, we ate a Clif bar and started walking the 2 miles to where a stream was supposed to be. We eventually found it and spent the next few minutes loading up all of our water bottles. With all of the water refilled, we started hiking towards Wesser Bald Shelter, our goal for the day.

Cold Spring Shelter
Cold Spring Shelter

One mile later we arrived at Cold Spring Shelter where the same two guys from the morning were packing up. They were just leaving so we didn’t talk with them much. Since this was the first shelter we had actually walked to we were interested in checking it out. The other shelters we had passed were off the trail a 1/2 mile or so and we never wanted to spend the time to walk over and see them. We spent a few minutes checking out the trail log book. It was interesting to see some of the notes from fellow hikers who were passing through.

Two miles from Cold Spring Shelter we arrived at Rocky Bald. The bald was a large slanted area of rock that led up to an overlook. Once we were done checking out the view we went down to the base of the bald and had our breakfast for lunch. We made oatmeal and had our instant coffee.

Having coffee at Rocky Bald
Having coffee at Rocky Bald

After 4 more miles we arrived at the observation tower at Wesser Bald. The tower was an aging metal structure that looked like you would get tetanus if you cut yourself. We slowly hiked up the metal steps and took in the panoramic views of the area. The view was right up there from the first view at Siler Bald. At that point we had a combination of nerves over the structural integrity of the tower and sore legs. This made for an interesting climb down. Once safely on the ground we walked the next mile and a half to where we had planned on stopping for the day, Wesser Bald Shelter.

View from Wesser Bald
View from Wesser Bald

Wesser Bald Shelter is the largest shelter we saw on the trip and had room for 8 people. There were clothes lines and even a spring feed cistern .1 miles away. Our original thought was to camp there for the night and then hike the final 6 miles to the NOC on Sunday. We had walked 7 miles at this point and it was only 3:30 pm. Deciding we couldn’t just sit there all afternoon, we added more Leukotape to our feet, took some Advil, and continued on to A. Rufus Shelter.

Spring-fed cistern at Wesser Bald shelter.
Spring-fed cistern at Wesser Bald shelter.

We had already gone through the highest parts of the trail, so it was downhill from here on out. You would think that would be a good thing. I had heard that the descents were just as bad as the climbs, but didn’t really believe it. After a little while of going down hill I definitely understood what they were talking about. My left leg started to get shin splints and every step was painful. Luckily we had trekking poles, but it still made for slow going. To top it off the area has turned dry and rocky. We had a few moments where we had to sit and slide over the rocks instead of walking.

Rattlesnake we almost stepped on. Unfortunately the photo came out a little blurry.
Rattlesnake we almost stepped on. Unfortunately the photo came out a little blurry.

While going by one of the small campsites Travis (who was leading the way on the trail) jumped back. He had been just feet from stepping on a female rattlesnake. The snake was going the same direction on the trail as we had. We slowly backed away and walked through the campsite to get around. The whole time the snake acted like it couldn’t care less. Thankful that we didn’t have to deal with a snakebite we kept going.

Trail in Nantahala National Forest

Having finished the five miles from Wesser Bald we arrived at A. Rufus Morgan Shelter. Being so close to the NOC we had assumed we would be the only people there. As we got close we could see that the same two guys as before were already set up. We would later find out that their names were Doug and Steve. We talked with them as we got set up and made dinner. They were both in their 50’s and their hiking/adventure resume put us to shame. For this trip they had hiked from the start of the Appalachian Trail in Spring Mountain, but had decided to call it a trip 30 miles after the NOC. They were ONLY going to do 160 miles this time. They told us about previous through hikings of the AT, hiking the John Muir Trail, and kayaking in the Grand Canyon. We listened with interest and realized these guys were pretty serious. Also, by looking at their gear we realized we needed to cut some weight before our next trip. Their packs were probably about half the weight of ours.

We spent the evening staring at the still cold fire ring, talking about Florida, Cincinnati (where they were from) and drinking Bourbon. Steve had a few more sips than everyone else, so he started to entertain everyone with some more colorful stories. Once the sun went down everyone called it a night. We had hiked around 15 miles that day, so it didn’t take much convincing to get me to go to sleep.

Day 4 – Rest and Pancakes for everyone!

Around 3 am it started to rain. The rain is always a great sound when you’re sleeping, so at first it was a nice addition. I woke up a few hours later to it getting heavier and heavier. Still our tents were staked down and were we on a slant so the rain would run down to the stream. Once we woke up we realized we would be packing up a bunch of wet gear. Driven by the promise of bacon and coffee we quickly broke down our tents and ate a Clif bar. We said goodbye to Doug and Steve and started our final mile to the NOC.

The trail wrapped around the hills and took us over foot bridges as we descended down to the NOC. With each step you could hear the water from the rapids underneath of the NOC bridge. We eventually arrived at the NOC around 8:30 am. It was like showing up at an outdoor theme park. We walked over the bridge and through the crowds of clean people there for ziplining and kayaking. We dropped off our packs at Travis’ car. We were officially done. We had hiked around 34 miles. It was no through hike or even a long section, but it was a great hike for us.

Breakfast at the River's End Restaurant at the NOC.
Breakfast at the River’s End Restaurant at the NOC.

We celebrated with a big breakfast of eggs, bacon, pancakes, and coffee at the River’s End restaurant overlooking the river. Completely full we picked up my car from Rock Gap and started the 3 ½ hour drive back to Charlotte. It was a great trip and was definitely worth the planning, driving, and vacation time used to put it together. While the hills definitely weren’t easy, it gave us an idea of what to expect. We learned some lessons about our gear and we’ll be even more prepared for our next adventure.

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