On The AT: Tellico Gap to Burningtown Gap

Trails Illustrated Map, National Geographic

Trail at a glance
Mileage: 4.8 miles
Elevation change: 1500 ft
Water sources: Springs

We couldn’t have asked for a better day. The sky was clear and the temperature, though only 30 degrees when we left home, soared to 66 by noon.

And, as you know, there’s nothing like being on the Appalachian Trail on a beautiful day, hiking with friends, taking in the sights and sounds.

My oldest daughter and I met up with some members of the Nantahala Hiking Club (NHC); 16 people in all, plus a couple of dogs.

The plan – called a “key swap,” which was new to me – was to split up into two groups; one going southbound (SOBO) from Tellico Gap and one going northbound (NOBO) from Burningtown Gap.

My hiking buddy for the day.

My hiking buddy for the day.

The idea is to exchange car keys when you meet in the middle of the trail, hike to the opposite trailhead, drive to a designated rendezvous point and get everyone back into their correct car.

The plan actually worked out well.


Being in the SOBO group, we made our way to Tellico Gap (3850 ft), which is easily accessed from the east or west via SR 1365. There’s a small parking lot at the trailhead where the AT crosses SR 1365.

Packs on, our hiking poles extended, we paused for a few minutes to talk to a couple of thru-hikers coming down the mountain, heading north on the trail. They were excited about the warmer weather and eager to make some good miles today.

You can visit Robin and Mary’s trail journal if you’re interested in their progress or if want to get a sense of life on the trail.

Copper Ridge Bald viewBefore the day was over, we would bump into 7 more thru-hikers, a couple of section hikers and several day hikers. It was a busy day on the trail.

I can’t speak for everyone, but, for a moment, I certainly wished I was going north with the thru-hikers. A thru-hike would be an amazing adventure. Someday.

Back to our hike!


The walk out of Tellico Gap is a steep one, but surprisingly enjoyable. As the trail climbed higher, the views through the still bare trees got better and better.Rocky Bald sign

We had a clear view of the fire tower on Wesser Bald and all of the surrounding mountains and valleys, including a great view of the Smoky Mountains.

At one point we even got a glimpse of Lake Nantahala, peeking from behind the mountains.

But the highlight of the first half of the hike was Rocky Bald (5030 ft). It’s just a short blue blaze trail off the AT and well worth it.

Rocky Bald, as the name implies, is a giant, treeless rock face with stunning views of the Cowee and southern Nantahala Mountains. We spent several minutes exploring and enjoying this amazing vista.

Rocky Bald

Rocky Bald

Another great thing about Rocky Bald is that it marks the end of the dramatic 1.7 mile climb out of Tellico Gap.

Being almost noon, we marched up the trail a short way and stopped for lunch. It was a great chance to chat and get to know our hiking buddies a little better.

After lunch, we met up with the other group at Copper Ridge Bald (5080 ft). We exchanged keys – and stories – and got the run down on what’s ahead for us. There was a small section of trail on the north side of a mountain with some snow and ice. Nothing serious, but we were careful of our footing.


Looking southeast from Rocky Bald

Looking southeast from Rocky Bald

The highlight of the second half of our hike was Cold Spring shelter (4945 ft).

Cold Spring shelter is the oldest shelter in the Nantahala Mountains. It recently went through some major renovations to make it a much more comfortable place to spend the night.

Two feet of head room was added to the shelter when the lower two logs, weak from years of being wet, were replaced with new ones. The NHC also added a new floor and graded the surrounding area to keep run off from damaging the logs again.

Cold Spring ShelterBeing a rather small shelter, the NHC has also groomed some campsites less than a tenth of a mile north of the shelter. It’s a great place to stay when you’re hiking, complete with a moldering privy (sorry, no pic – someone was using it) and a bold, clean spring.

With only about a mile to go before our hike ended, it was all downhill from here…literally. A gentle downhill grade leads to the parking area at Burningtown Gap (4236 ft). It would be time to go home.

I always get somewhat sentimental when a hike is coming to an end. I wish they wouldn’t end. It would be nice if there were jobs for perpetual hikers. I’d take that job. If anyone’s offering a job like this just let me know.Vintage AT sign

But all great hikes must come to an end sooner or later, right? Even a thru-hike has an ending point.

I can’t complain. After all, it was a great day on the trail. Then again any day on the trail is a great day. In fact, a bad day on the trail is better than a great day in the office.

Where would you rather be – on the trail or in the office?

See ya’ on the trail,

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