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!