“I…. am always glad to touch the living rock again and dip my hand in the high mountain air.” – John Muir
I’ve been accused – at times – of letting my imagination run away with me. I’m certainly OK with that. Life would be boring without a little imagination, don’t you think?
And what better place to let your fantasies run wild than on the Appalachian Trail – or any trail for that matter?
The deep “forest” has held a special place in storytelling, myths and fairy tells since time began. Mysteries abound – both good an evil – within the deep woods.
Think of stories, like Little Red Riding Hood, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, Lord of the Rings, The Wizard of Oz, and on and on. Sure they’re just stories, but they have the ability to leave an indelible mark on our psyche especially since we hear these stories as children.
What sort of fears and joys these seeds grow into depends on our perspective of the deep, dark woods and how we’ve been influenced by our cultural consciousness.
Most of us don’t believe in big bad wolves, headless horsemen, trolls, Tree Ents, wizards, witches and flying monkeys any more. Or, do we? After all, what makes us jump when a twig snaps in the woods?
I’m not trying to scare you out of the woods. I’m merely setting the stage for today’s enchanted walk.
Seriously, what would be better than hiking over magical moss covered rocks, meandering through a beautiful wooded plateau or descending through dark mystical tunnels? Nothing, in my opinion! So let’s get going.
Getting to the trail head is easy. From Franklin, NC, travel about 9 miles west on Hwy 64, passed Winding Stair Gap, and turn left on Wallace Gap Rd. In about a mile and a half turn right on Forest Service Road 67, the entrance to Standing Indian Campground.
Starting at Rock Gap parking area (elev 3757) – about a half mile from the main entrance to the Standing Indian basin – we’ll head southbound on the AT. That would be toward the right when you’re facing the trail with your car to your back.
At this point, there’s a gentle rise to the path as it heads toward Rock Gap Shelter – another tenth of a mile up the path and a 30 foot climb in elevation. Look for the blue blaze painted on a tree.
Blue blazes, for those of you who don’t know, always indicate a side trail to and from the AT. Blue blazed trails can lead to shelters, springs and water sources, gorgeous views and other points of interest. Some blue blaze trails will take you around steep climbs and exposed ridges that might be dangerous in inclement weather.
If this is your first time on the trail, indulge yourself and visit Rock Gap Shelter. It’s about the closest shelter you’ll find to a trail head. It’s rustic, to say the least, but it’s a good example of what shelter life is like – and it’s not far from the main trail.
Besides the sleeping area, you’ll find a covered dining area, a fire pit, bear cables (for hanging your food), a spring, and off a side trail you’ll find a rudimentary toilet.
It’s not much, but for a trail weary traveler it’s a welcome site, especially if it’s raining, storming or snowing. To get back to the AT, simply take the short shelter loop trail uphill and look for the white blaze.
Watch your step! The trail gets rather rocky around here. You’ll quickly understand why this place got its name. Take a look at the rocks. These rocks aren’t just any rocks. They’re much more alive than any stones you’ll see anywhere else. Seriously!
These rocks, both big and small, have all sorts of things growing on them; moss, lichens, liverworts, and things I wouldn’t begin to know how to identify. I guess I should have paid more attention in high school biology.
To the botanically challenged, it would appear as though magic was at work around here. How else could these tiny plants grow and thrive on a rock? Someone obviously cast a powerful spell. Whatever it is – botany or magic – these rocks are amazing works of art.
But onward we must go. So take a deep breath because you’re getting ready to climb…and climb. Over the next couple of miles or so we’re going to go from 3787 ft to about 4500 ft in elevation. But don’t sweat it! The scenery is beautiful and the switch backs are gentle enough. And, I promise, it’ll be worth it – so worth it.
Eventually the trail stops climbing and you’ll find yourself on unusually level ground. It’s not a ridgeline per se; it’s too wide. It’s more like a wooded plateau suspended between two knobs. For those of us in the Appalachian mountains, a knob is the top of a hill or mountain.
Stop for a moment to take it all in.
What an enchanted place. One look around and you’ll understand why humans have visited here for thousands of years. It’s as if it were hallowed ground.
One could sit here and meditate for hours. It’s that peaceful – and quiet. It’s hard to leave. There’s something that holds you here; something powerful; something good.
When you gather the strength to leave, you have a choice to make. Depending on how you feel, you could turn around now; head back to Rock Gap and call it a day.
Or, if you’re up for more walking, I suggest you continue toward Glassmine Gap. It’s a gentle 200 foot drop over about a mile and a half through some of the most beautiful, mystical and dark rhododendron tunnels I’ve ever seen.
If you believe in wizards, elves, hobbits and dwarves, then you would see them somewhere along this stretch of trail.
These rhododendron tunnels are so thick sunlight barely breaks through and when it does it comes through in concentrated golden streams of light as if it’s coming from a high-powered flash light. The darkness is only accentuated by the proverbial “light at the end of the tunnel.” It’s no wonder you get that strange feeling Frodo, Gandalf or Aragorn are going to step out around the next bend in the path, beckoning you to join their fellowship. I don’t know about you, but I’d probably go with them.
Eventually the tunnel ends and you’ll find yourself at Glassmine Gap. This is a crossroads, of sorts, where the AT intersects with the Long Branch trail; a blue blazed trail that winds past a gorgeous mountain stream on its way to the Backcountry Information Center in Standing Indian basin.
This is a good place to take a break, have a snack and rest up for your return trip. You’ll want to make sure you have enough strength to out run any Orcs along the way.
See ya’ on the trail!
Trail at a glance
Mileage: 7.2 round trip
Elevation change: 750 ft
Water source: springs
It’s not official – at least not yet. But it’s a good idea, don’t you think?
Taking your mom for a hike in the woods is a great way to include three of your favorite things in one event. Of course, I’m assuming you enjoy spending time with your mom, which is one of the three things – the other two being exercise and your love for the outdoors.
To me, there is nothing more enjoyable than being on the trail. When I’m not hiking, it seems like I’m talking about it or showing people my photographs from the trail. My whole purpose is to enroll others to join me because there’s nothing I enjoy more than sharing the AT with someone else.
So, you can imagine my excitement when my mother asked me to take her out on the Appalachian Trail one evening.
I turned and looked at her smiling face. “Are you serious?” I thought, but, of course, I didn’t say it out loud.
I was tickled that she even considered this a possibility. We talked about schedules, picked a day and penned it on the calendar.
And that’s when I got nervous. About what, I wasn’t sure.
A Little Background
My mother’s fit and healthy – even without qualifying this with her age. She’s been an exercise walker for a long time and has always eaten right and taken care of her health.
During the ‘70s, my parents lived in New York City. They didn’t own a car. They walked everywhere; to movies, to shops, to restaurants, to work and around Central Park just for fun. It was their life. It was their exercise.
Once they left NYC for Atlanta, they still walked. Sure they owned a car and used it for most of their errands, but living only a few blocks from Piedmont Park it became a daily ritual to walk their Australian Shepherd through the neighborhood and around the park.
Even in the foot hills of the Smokies, where she lives now, she’s had a nice public green space to perambulate.
I guess my concern was could Mom handle the terrain of the trail; you know the ups and downs, the roots and rocks, the unevenness of the foot path?
It wasn’t her fitness level that concerned me. She’s certainly as fit as most of the hikers I see hitting the trail every spring – if not in better shape. How well could she adapt to the unpredictable trail after years of paved, smooth, even walkways?
I know I shouldn’t be concerned. She wouldn’t have asked to go if she didn’t think she could do it. After all, she’s seen umpteen photographs of the trail. She went to camp as a young girl. It’s not like she’s never been in the woods.
And it’s not like people her age never hike the AT. There’s Grandma Gatewood, for example; the first woman to thru-hike the AT in 1955. Solo. Wearing a pair of Keds. When she was 67 years old. And then repeating this feat at age 72 and 75, becoming the first person to hike the trail three times. Pshaw! If she can do it, my mom can certainly handle an evening hike through the long green tunnel.
There are plenty of other septuagenarians and octogenarians who thru-hike and section hike the trail every year. I don’t mean to leave any of them out – I’d list them all here if I could. The point is there are no limits on what you can do unless you decide yourself you can’t.
So, I’m going to get over it. Mom can handle this! But that doesn’t mean I won’t be right behind her the whole way, watching every foot fall she makes. C’mon, I want the first time to be a perfect experience for her. I want her to want to go back on the trail.
Hitting the Trail
The big day finally arrived. I had put a lot of thought into the local sections of the AT and picked what I thought would be a fairly easy, interesting and pretty section for her to walk.
We drove to Winding Stair Gap, about 15 minutes east of Franklin, NC. I was like a kid on a field trip as we headed north on the trail. The plan? We were going to walk for an hour; half hour out and back.
I couldn’t have asked for a better day. The sky was sunny and blue. The temperature was a perfect 72 with a slight breeze and the trail was dry. I called ahead and asked all the tics and chiggers to stay off the trail that day. I didn’t want to take any chances.
And I’m happy to report Mom had a great walk. She loved the waterfall, the back woods campsite, all the switchbacks and stairs cut into the trail. She loved how the trail seemed to meander aimlessly through the woods instead of a straight line from point A to point B.
She never fell, which was my biggest concern, but I was right there the time or two she caught her foot on a root. I had offered he my trekking poles but she wasn’t interested.
Her impression? She liked it but it was more back woods than she expected and the trail was narrower than she thought it would be. She seemed impressed that the trail was over 2100 miles long and tickled that she was on such a famous foot path.
It was a good experience. Will she do it again? I don’t know. Time will tell. But I do think she has a greater appreciation for my love of the trail; an understanding of why it means so much to me. I’m thrilled I got to share this with her – even if it turns out to be a once in a lifetime evening hike.
I invite you to share the trail with your mom or someone else you love – especially someone you wouldn’t expect to go hiking. Who knows what doors it’ll open for them and how it might impact your relationship. Just put some thought and planning into it so the experience will be as perfect as it can be for both of you.
See ya’ on the trail!
Trail at a glance
Mileage: 4 round trip
Elevation change: 720 ft
Water source: springs/streams
One of my favorite round trip hikes, from Winding Stair Gap to Panther Gap, gives you a little bit of everything; switchbacks, uphill climbs, gentle ridge walking, waterfalls and stream crossings, wildlife and gorgeous scenery.
It’s a relatively short hike too. It’s easy enough to complete in the morning before your day gets busy, after work (during daylight savings time, of course), or on a weekend before you have to do your chores. It’s challenging enough to quicken your pulse, deepen your respiration and cause you to break a healthy sweat without over taxing you.
Think of it as a moderately strenuous hike. It has an elevation change of 710 feet over two miles. It has the perfect mix of steep inclines that quickly give way to relatively level – if slightly undulating – ridgelines. And, like all great hikes, it’s downhill when you return.
The trailhead is easy to find and well marked. It’s across the street from the parking lot at Winding Stair Gap (elev 3770), which is approximately 8 miles west of Franklin, NC on Hwy 64. Stick to the white blazes, designating the AT, and you won’t get lost.
As soon as you walk down the steps you’ll plunge deep into a rhododendron thicket – and the undeniable depth of the Nantahala National Forest. It’s almost jungle-like, especially in summer.
A friend of mine, who grew up in Arizona, considered living here in the mountains but quickly changed his mind; he said there were too many trees. He didn’t like that he couldn’t see the horizon. It made him very uncomfortable – almost claustrophobic. He didn’t stay long.
You realize quickly, with the thick leaf cover, it’s significantly darker in the woods than it was at the parking lot. You’re barely 50 feet in and your eyes have to adjust.
A pleasant coolness permeates the air, as if you walked into an air conditioned home.
Everything is damp; the ground, the trees, the leaves overhead. And, it’s not surprising. This part of the Nantahala Mountain range gets plenty of rain. And that’s OK. It helps feed all of the springs, streams and waterfalls.
Very little sun gets through the thick canopy. Temperature changes can be drastic in these mountains. One recent evening, it was 101 degrees at home in the valley and 85 at Winding Stair Gap. Then it dropped another 5 degrees once I stepped into the woods. There have been summer evenings when I’ve wished I had on more than a t-shirt.
After crossing a forest service road and up a small incline, you’ll come to a beautiful waterfall. For me, this is the official start of the hike. Once you cross the foot bridge it’s like you’re crossing a wilderness threshold.
The stream divides the busy life behind you and the peaceful rustication ahead – albeit brief, since we’re only taking a short walk. But, nonetheless, and for a moment, you get a sense of what a thru hiker must feel. You get a sense of what Benton MacKaye, Thoreau and even Emerson were looking for.
Breathe deeply and let it all in. These mountains are known for their healing properties.
Winding Stair Gap is a popular place for locals, day hikers and section hikers. I’ve been there many times and it’s rare I’m the only one in the parking lot. On weekends and holidays it’s not uncommon to see license plates from our neighboring states, South Carolina, Georgia and Tennessee. Occasionally you’ll find a car from more distant states, like Ohio, Maryland and Florida.
One of my favorite things is when I bump into another hiker either on the trail or at one of the many trail side campsites. Most are eager for company. So, chat ‘em up if they’re interested – they’re a wealth of knowledge about current trail conditions or even a funny story or two.
There are several campsites on your way to Panther Gap should you decide to spend the night on the trail. The first one is about 3 tenths of a mile from Winding Stair, sitting right next to a stream crossing. It’s a nice spot for one or two tents, but it’s not where I would spend the night.
For one thing it’s too close to the highway. Colorful locals – of the partying persuasion – have been known to practice the art of bacchanalia at this spot, especially on weekends.
It also has a serious drainage problem, being situated at the bottom of a good sized watershed. Rain water rolls down this hill, especially during a gully washer – and, remember, it rains often in these mountains. There’s nothing worse than having your tent floor fill up like a bathtub. So, if you’re planning on camping, I’d suggest moving onto the next site.
The first thing you notice upon leaving this spot is the immediate uphill climb. This may be why hikers camp here after a long day. But it’s not too bad – there are certainly steeper climbs along the AT – so don’t despair! It’s only about a quarter mile long and levels off nicely, giving you time to recover before the next climb – or the next campsite.
The end of this climb begins one of my favorite stretches. At certain times of the year, you feel like you’re walking out of darkness and into the light when you crest the hill, leaving the dark side of the mountain behind you.
The path becomes amazingly level, giving way to a slight downhill slope. From here, it winds around for several tenths of a mile. The path switches back on itself as it follows the contour of the mountains and eventually brings you to the second trail side campsite (elev 3814). It’s about ½ mile from the previous campsite.
If I were camping, this is the spot I would choose. It has several level tent sites, plenty of trees for hammock hangers, a ready source of water and plenty of private places – away from the water – to take care of any bodily functions.
Drainage is good, being above the stream and not in the direct path of downhill running water. There are a couple of fire rings, ample firewood and a decent amount of sunshine early in the morning and late in the evening. I’ve never camped here – yet – but I would imagine you’d be well protected from any cold air sinks too.
After a brief rest stop – or an overnight stay – you’ll be refreshed and ready to continue onward. Good thing too, because this is the next uphill section you’re going to face. Again it’s not too bad; longer than the last climb but broken up by switchbacks and short stretches of level walking.
On your way up you’ll pass one of the most photographed “gaps” on the southern AT. It’s called Swinging Lick Gap, but you wouldn’t know it from the sign. Creative vandals have a knack for altering the sign, giving the gap a more infamous sounding name. I’m sure you can guess what that is.
The sign was gone last time I was up there – just the sign post was left – and I assume it was sent out to be repaired once again.
When you finally wind your way up the ridgeline, pat yourself on the back; you’re almost there. Just a little farther and the ridgeline opens up to a fairly good sized, level opening. This is Panther Gap (elev 4480).
You’ve made it. Just off the right side of the path you’ll find the third campsite. It’s much smaller than the last one, but level, protected by trees and, depending on the time of year, offering a fairly decent view to the south east.
This is the perfect spot to rest, if you need to, before you head back down to your car. If you’re camping, be sure to fill up with water at the second campsite. There is NO water at Panther Gap. And, before I forget to mention it, you probably ought to be sure the weather is going to be good before you camp here. You’d be pretty exposed during thunder storms and the wind always seems stronger in the gaps. So, mind the gap, as they say.
As you’ve already figured out, the walk back is much easier, being mostly downhill, and takes less time. I’d suggest you have some trekking poles with you. I find the downhills much easier when my poles can take some of the weight off my knees.
There you have it; a nice roundtrip wilderness walk. It’s about 4 miles up and back. I’ve done it as fast as 90 minutes, pushing hard and taking very few breaks, but I prefer taking my time. Two hours is a nice time to complete this walk. And if this seems fast to you remember I’m not carrying a 30 pound pack on my back.
Give it a try sometime. If four miles seems like a long way, gradually build up to it, going just a little farther out than the last time. Try setting a timer – 15 minutes out and 15 minutes back. Gradually build up your time until you can manage an hour each way. The exercise, fresh air and the quiet peace of the woods will do your body good.
See ya’ on the trail!