So, you’re ready for a challenging hike? Have I got one for you.
Get in shape. Gear up. Pack plenty of food and snacks. We’re going to Lower Ridge Trail at Standing Indian.
Designated as “More Difficult” and marked with blue blazes, Lower Ridge Trail is not for the casual hiker or the family out for a walk in the woods with young kids. This bad boy trail will test your mettle and make you question what you’re doing there in the first place.
But, don’t let this scare you off. It does have its redeeming qualities. Lower Ridge Trail will reward you with some amazing landscapes, gorgeous streams and a unique ridge walk.
I originally did this trail from bottom to top. I DON’T recommend this approach. You’re much better off coming down Lower Ridge Trail from the Appalachian Trail as part of a loop with another trail, like Kimsey Creek Trail. But if you insist, you can easily do it in one day – maybe a long day for some, but it’s not uncommon for people to camp along the trail.
In my experience, Lower Ridge Trail can be broken up into three distinct personalities.
The first section, starting at the lower end, is definitely the easiest. It starts at the Backcountry Info Center, and ambles along the Nantahala River and some of its feeder streams. The trail passes Standing Indian Campground and gradually climbs to one of the many soggy hollers in the Nantahala Forest.
There’s a magical quality about this section. You’ll see large, gnarly trees that somehow missed the loggers’ saws and boulders that must have tumbled from high up the mountain.
Kimsey Creek Trail, Long Branch Trail, Park Creek Trail are all very soggy and muddy in places and Lower Ridge Trail is no exception.
In fact, it’s not uncommon for a spring to pop up right in the middle of the trail, trickle downhill for 15 feet or more and mysteriously disappear back into the trail.
It’s all part of the charm of Standing Indian.
When The Blush Is Gone
The problem with the first section of Lower Ridge is that it lulls you into thinking it’s going to be an easy hike. But like a super villain – Mwahahahaha! – it will punch you in the stomach and laugh as you try to catch your breath.
Seriously! Heed my warning. Don’t take on the second section unless you’re in fairly good shape. This is where the work starts; the real up hill climb – or crawl – begins.
How much work? We’re talking 500 feet elevation gain in less than a quarter mile. Thank God for switchbacks.
Let’s not dwell on this hellacious climb for too long. We’ll just pretend it doesn’t exist and hopefully it’ll go by fast.
On your way up, though, look for the odd sign welcoming you to the Southern Nantahala Wilderness. It’s out in the middle of nowhere, but it’s your reassurance you’re almost done with this section.
So, take a deep breath and plow ahead. You can rest at the ridgeline.
After you’ve had a chance to catch your breath at the top of the ridge, look around. You’ll notice there isn’t a view – unless it’s winter in which case the lack of leaves allows you to see the southern Nantahala range and the northern Nantahala range simply by turning your head left to right.
But you didn’t come for the views, did you? You came for the challenge and if you keep telling yourself this, you’ll actually begin to believe it.
If no views, then what do you get?
What you get instead, and you’ll be all the happier for it after that climb, is a gently undulating and very pleasant ridge walk through a fern covered landscape that gradually gains elevation.
That doesn’t sound bad, does it?
And, thankfully, when the ridge does take a sharp rise, the trail skirts the ridge from one gap to the next. Watch your step here, though. The trail gets rather rocky, narrow and uneven between gaps.
The upper section of Lower Ridge Trail is also littered with large trees that had been uprooted long ago. Judging from the amount of decay and the fact that they’re all pretty much falling in the same direction, I would speculate they came down during Hurricane Opal in October of 1995, just as we were in the process of moving to western NC.
This incredibly powerful category 4 storm dropped 17 inches of rain in our area, which, combined with heavy gust of wind, toppled trees and caused widespread flooding and landslides. The remnants of the storm, all the toppled trees, are a reminder of how powerful Mother Nature can be.
Should you decide the trail is too much for one day – and I totally get it if you do – then you’ll be glad to know there are two opportunities to camp along Lower Ridge Trail.
You’ll find a campsite at John Gap and another one about a mile or more up the trail at Frank Gap. I didn’t see a water source near these campsites, but I did see some rhododendron, which is often an indication of a spring or stream nearby. Maybe someday I’ll get a chance to check this out. Maybe!
From Frank Gap the trail slowly rises – but nothing too steep – until you get closer to the Appalachian Trail. At this point, the trail takes another sudden, and sharp climb UP to Standing Indian Mountain. It’s not very far, but after tackling the trail up to now, it might feel like forever before you get to the AT. (Again! This is another reason why it’s better to come down Lower Ridge.)
If you’re making it a day hike, you can turn around here and get a completely different view of the same trail on the way back down.
Or, and this might be a better idea if you have the time and you insist on going up Lower Ridge Trail, you can make a loop and go northbound or southbound on the AT, easily picking up another blue blaze trail, like Long Branch or Kimsey Creek, and head back down into the Standing Indian basin. This would be great for a long weekend.
See ya’ on the trail,
Trail at a glance
Mileage: 4.1 (one way from Backcountry Info Center to AT at Sanding Indian Mtn.)
Elevation change: approx. 2000 ft
Water sources: Springs