Easter weekend brought a new challenge for me.† Fungirl is visiting her family for a week, and everyone else I know was out of town or had other plans.† I decided to take the dog on an otherwise solo backpacking trip.† When I do a solo trip, I like it to be truly solo.† I donít like crowds of other people around.† I considered Standing Indian, but dismissed it because the Appalachian Trail thru-hikers would be coming through.† They might provide interesting company, but shelters and campsites would be crowded.† Where could I go over a holiday weekend and have the place to myself?
I had recently purchased maps and a guide for the Chunky Gal trail and the Fires Creek Rim Trail.† The unfortunately named Chunky Gal Trail runs 21 miles from the AT near Standing Indian to Tusquitee Bald.† There it joins the Rim Trail, which circles the Fires Creek Basin on ridges.† Neither trail gets much traffic, and I had never hiked in either area.† Chunky Gal is a one-way hike, which presents the solo backpacker with some logistical challenges.† The Rim trail, however, is a convenient loop of 25 miles Ė perfect for a 3-day weekend.†
I had my destination, but not without experiencing some second thoughts.† The Rim Trail has a reputation for being overgrown and hard to follow.† Its remote location and lack of traffic meant that in the event of an injury, help might be days away.† In short, itís exactly the sort of trail a solo hiker should avoid.† I decided to do it anyway.
To get to the trailhead at Leatherwood Falls, follow these directions.† Drive exactly to the middle of nowhere, and then keep going another 30 miles or so.† Turn right off the paved road, and youíre starting to get close.† Park at the signboard with the map that says, ďYou are here.† What the hell where you thinking, anywayĒ?†
Ok, so those arenít the real directions, but itís not far from the truth.† The trailhead is outside of Hayesville, NC.† What, you didnít realize that such a town existed?† Me either.† For your information, Hayesville is about 45 miles west of Franklin, but still 15 miles or so east of Murphy.† I left Charlotte at 6AM on Friday, which was shockingly early.† The drive was quicker than expected though, as I arrived at the Fires Creek Picnic Area at Leatherwood Falls before 10:30.† I had expected the drive to take at least 30 minutes longer.† It was a good thing, as I ended up needing every bit of that extra time to reach my campsite that night.
Saucony and I got our packs together and hiked a short distance up Fires Creek Road to the trail on the right.† We were hiking the route counter-clockwise, which is backwards from the direction my guide is written.† I chose this route because the weather forecast for Friday and early Saturday looked fabulous.† After that, rain was expected to move in.† I wanted to reach the scenic balds along the southeast part of the loop before conditions deteriorated.† Unfortunately, this meant my first day would cover 9 miles with over 4000í of gross elevation gain.
We started up along a small stream, and I encouraged Saucony to drink.† The Rim Trail has few water sources, and even those are frequently unreliable.† Unfortunately itís hard to explain the concept of getting well-hydrated to a dog.
We left the stream for a steady climb along a ridge.† Initially the climb wasnít too bad.† There were even a few flat stretches that came as a welcome change.†† It wasnít long though before I hit the first steep grade.† Here I met a dayhiker cautiously working his way down.† I spoke with him briefly, not knowing that he would be the last person Iíd see all weekend.†
I hiked for 90 minutes and reached Carvers Gap for lunch.† I had covered 2.7 miles, and gained 1000í, so I was feeling pretty good about my progress.† I had no idea what the section ahead held in store for me.†
After lunch I hiked a tedious section of trail.† It stayed on the top of the ridge religiously, cresting the very pinnacle of every wooded knob before plunging into the next gap.† After another 2.5 miles of extremely difficult hiking I reached Cold Spring Gap.† I consulted the map.† I was thrilled to see that the rollercoaster I had been on for the past couple of miles had worn me out but accomplished little.† I was only a few hundred feet higher than I had been at lunch.† I still had almost 2000í of climbing ahead of me.† In fact, the meat of the whole hike was immediately ahead, with a 1000í climb to Chestnut Stomp Knob in about a mile.†
Before I tackled that climb, Saucony and I searched for water.† We headed north into the basin from the gap and found a muddy spring in a rhododendron grove.† It was a hot day, and we had already finished most of the 4 quarts of water I had carried from the trailhead.† The muddy spring was great for Saucony, but I had a tough time getting water out of it.† Ultimately I scooped water a few ounces a time with a measuring cup.† I dumped this into my collapsible bucket and filtered from there.† This worked, but the water was still quite silty and hard on my filter.† At least Saucony was refreshed.
The next mile was a blur of sweat and pain.† My pack was heavier, too, thanks to the extra water weight.† Finally we had Chestnut Stomp Knob behind us.† After another gap, we climbed Johnson Bald.† Beech trees have over grown the meadows, eliminating any view. †There was one interesting sight on Johnson Bald though.† The wreckage from an airplane was strewn about the south side of the summit.† Iíve seen the remains of airplane crashes in the mountains before, but never one with so much of the plane still visible.
We descended to another gap.† We had already finished the 3 quarts of water I got at the previous spring, and needed to refill again.† Here we followed a marked side trail north into the basin.† It led to another muddy water source right in the middle of the trail.† After some exploration, I found clear water off the trail to the right.† This was a strong spring and much easier to filter from.† I loaded up a full gallon, knowing that it would be the last water source before we reached camp.
We crossed wooded Matlock Bald and descended slightly before the final climb of Potrock Bald.† It was 6:30 when I finally staggered into a small meadow just short of the summit.† Here I was greeted with a stunning view that made all of the pain seem almost worth it.† The view was mainly to the south, with Lake Chatuge far below and the high mountains of north Georgia beyond.† Farther east, Standing Indian rose across a series of ridges and valleys.†
I made camp right there in the clearing.† There was only room for one tent, so it was good I didnít have any company.† The ground was lumpy, but I didnít think anything would keep me awake that night.† By the time I finished all of the chores associated with setting up camp, the sun was dropping and it was getting chilly. †The clear skies promised a cold night ahead.† I heated a dinner of red beans and rice with sausage.† I was so tired and overexerted that I had trouble finishing it.† Saucony hadnít shown any interest in her dinner, so I slipped some sausage into her food.† This inspired her appetite, and she finished the whole bowl in only a few minutes.
I barely waited until full darkness to go to bed.† I was attempting to read through the trail guide for the next day when I passed out.† Later, I woke up and immediately noticed a nasty smell.† Saucony was curled up in a ball on the far side of the tent, but at some point she had thrown up.† There was dog barf everywhere, but most notably on my down sleeping bag.† There wasnít any on her side of the tent though.† Either she had spewed all the way from her corner, or she had come over to my side to do her deed.† I scraped it out the door as much as I could and tried not to think about it as I went back to sleep.† But then I wondered, would dog barf smell like food to a passing bear?† I bet it would, given a bearís tendency to eat pretty much anything.† I was starting to actually worry about it when I passed out again.
GIVE BLOOD, HIKE THE RIM TRAIL
I woke up at sunrise on Saturday.† I was thrilled to see that there still werenít any clouds in the sky.† After some oatmeal and hot chocolate I packed up and hit the trail.† I had another 11 miles to cover, and hoped to reach camp before the rains came.
I descended from Potrock Bald and stopped at the mountains namesake rock.† The ďPotrockĒ is a small bowl carved into rock next to the trail.† Some suggest that it may have been carved by Indians.† I have seen potholes in rocks before, but usually on an exposed cliff or along a stream.† This was simply an ordinary rock in the shelter of the woods.
I continued on a surprisingly easy trail.† It was almost flat, which made up for the numerous briars and fallen trees.† The briars were the sneaky sort, the kind that would grab at you as you walked by before you noticed them.† Yes, I hiked the Rim Trail, and Iíve got the scars to prove it.
I reached a junction at a metal sign announcing the Rim Trail.† Here the Rim Trail continued ahead.† To the left, a ribbon marked a faint path heading down to a possible water source.† I turned right though, climbing the Chunky Gal Trail.† I followed a steep, rocky path up to the summit of Tusquitee Bald.† At the very top the tunnels of rhododendron ended and I found a grassy clearing with an ideal campsite and a great view.† The best views here were east and south.† The campsite was better than the one on Potrock Bald, but I donít think I couldíve hiked another mile Friday evening.
After a lengthy break I returned to the Rim Trail and continued around the head of the basin.† This section led through a dark forest shaded by rhododendron.† After Signal Bald, the trail emerged from the tunnels and regained the ridge top.† Here was a rock outcrop with one final spectacular view.† This opening provided the best vista of the trip.† In the farthest distance, the Smokies and the Balsam Mountains were visible.† Closer to me, I could trace the route of the Appalachian Trail as it runs from Cheoah Bald, through the Nantahala Gorge, over Wesser and Wayah Balds, and on the Standing Indian.
It was hard to leave that view, but I still had a lot of miles to cover.† I hiked on to County Corners, where I found a grassy campsite and 2 junctions.† The first, the Shinbone Ridge Trail, led a short distance into the basin to a fantastic spring.† I loaded up on water there before continuing the hike.† At the campsite, the Old Road Gap Trail heads east and down towards the Appletree Group Campground.† This trail can be used to connect with the Bartram Trail.† From there itís possible to make a long loop with the Appalachian and Chunky Gal Trails.† Loop trips of over 100 miles are possible by combining these routes.
Today I was more than content to focus on just finishing the 25-mile loop around the Fires Creek Rim.† I hiked another couple of miles, looking for a lunch stop mentioned in the guidebook.† I found the spot, which promised a view to the north.† However, dense rhododendron blocked any vista.† Generally, I found the views on the north side of the loop to be limited at best.† There werenít any clearings, but some views are possible in the winter when the leaves arenít on the trees.† Fortunately, winter or early spring is exactly when you want to do this hike.† In the summer, the briars would be even worse, and the springs less reliable.
I had lunch despite the lack of a view.† I shared some of my tuna with Saucony, since she hadnít fully benefited from dinner the night before.† It was clouding up rapidly, so we didnít linger long.† I pushed on, hoping to make it to camp at Will King Gap before the rain started.
The north side of the loop seemed easier.† Here the trail frequently skirted the wooded peaks, rather than staying strictly on the ridge.† This was a welcome change from the previous day.† The trail was easy to follow the whole way, as it was frequently posted with blue markers.† All side trails are also marked blue, which could cause some confusion.† I wonder why they didnít choose a different color for the side trails?† Despite this, anyone with basic map reading skills would have little trouble following this trail.
I passed the old road to Big Stamp, but skipped the summit since the fire tower is no longer there.† A couple of miles later, I was beginning the descent into Will King Gap.† Thatís when the rain started.† I didnít see any campsites along the trail, but descended a side path to an old roadbed.† There was a spring visible far below, but nowhere suitable for a tent except in the road.† The road was flat, but barely wide enough.† In fact, there wasnít enough space for the entire vestibule.† I was tired though, and I wasnít going any further in the rain.† Hopefully horseback riders wouldnít come up the side trail that evening.† If they had, they never wouldíve made it around my tent.
The drop off below the tent was exceptionally steep, but thatís exactly where I had to go to get water.† The spring was fairly strong but shallow, making filtering tricky.† Again I used the scoop and bucket method, with some success.† By the time I returned with the water, the rain had stopped.† Go figure.
I settled into my campsite, which has to rank as one of the worst Iíve ever experienced.† Despite this, I still had a pleasant evening.† I enjoyed a tasty dinner of Asian noodles with chicken and mushrooms.† Once again, I shared my bagged chicken (motto: Tastes like Tuna!) with Saucony.† Afterwards I had enough water left over for a hot cider spiked with a little liquid pain killer.
It only rained a little that night, but got started again early the next morning.† This provided me with an opportunity to experience one of lifeís little miseries Ė packing up in the rain.† First I enjoyed a couple of cereal bars and a chocolate Easter egg in celebration of the holiday.† Then I went through the awkward process of loading my pack inside the tent, with the dog constantly in the way.† Eventually I had to pack the tent, which required getting out of it.† Fortunately, the rain was light and was only a mild nuisance.†
I broke camp at 8:20 and began the final climb of the hike.† The trip wouldnít have been complete without one more steep, tedious climb.† This one took me to the heavily forested summit of Big Peachtree Knob.† The trail skirted the next peak on the ridge, Shortoff Knob.† (This Shortoff isnít to be confused with the one in Linville Gorge, or the one near Cashiers.† Who knew Shortoff would be such a popular name for a mountain?)† We skirted the north side of Shortoff and passed a decent spring.† Next came a gap with a campsite, which wouldíve made a nicer destination for the previous night.† Then we descended steeply, passing several more springs before reaching a gated forest road.† On the far side we crossed an actual stream, which amounted to the most water Iíd seen in 3 days.† Afterwards, we wandered through an area that had suffered a recent forest fire.† The rain had stopped, and I was greeted with a dramatic view through the remaining trees.† To the south, mist was rising from the valleys as blue ridges rolled away to the horizon.
We descended on switchbacks (!), which was the first time Iíd seen evidence of that trail building technique since the beginning of the trip.† We crossed the road again, and reached a junction with the trail from the picnic area.† We crossed a bridge over Leatherwood Branch, and hiked downstream along the cascades.† It was hard to get a view of the falls, thanks to the profuse rhododendron.† Still, it was a nice change of pace after 3 days on dry ridges.†
We reached the picnic area a few minutes later and headed for home.† It was only 10:30, but I was hungry.† The biggest challenge of the trip might have been finding something open on Easter Sunday.† After all, I wasnít just in the bible belt, I was on the buckle.† Surprisingly, the first store I found outside of Hayesville was open.† I held out for Franklin though, where I indulged in McLunch.† I was amazed at how many people were there in their Sunday finest, having a value meal for Easter dinner.†
It was still early, so I decided to take the scenic route home.† That isnít to say that driving through Dillsboro and Asheville isnít scenic, but the drive through the Cullasaja River gorge to Highlands is incredible.† I headed up route 64, following the ďhighwayĒ as it clung to the cliffs high above the river.† My first stop was a tiny pull off at an overlook of Cullasaja Falls.† This pull off is exceptionally dangerous.† I was within 6 inches of the guardrail, and my left tire was only a foot from the white line.† Given the inability of most drivers to stay within the lines on this section of road, I definitely donít recommend parking here for long.† Even pulling in and out of this spot is hazardous.† I made my visit a quick one.† I walked down a short but steep trail to take a few photos of one of North Carolinaís most spectacular waterfalls.
I headed up the road a few miles to visit Dry Falls.† I wanted to get some photos, because on last visit my camera had malfunctioned.† I had better luck this time, and took numerous pictures from all angles at the falls.† I was cautious behind the falls though, as the constant spray was a threat to my new digital camera.
I drove into Highlands, and took the real back way from there to highway 107.† I drove down through Horse Cove, passing below the sheer rock walls of Whitesides Mountain.† From there I took Bullpen Road across the mighty Chattooga River.† I reached the main road, and dipped briefly into South Carolina, before taking a short diversion over towards Whitewater Falls.† I skipped the waterfall, as Iíd already spent $2 at Dry Falls, but I did stop at a breathtaking overlook of Lake Jocassee.† The view of the fog rising off the lake and obscuring the surrounding mountains provided a dramatic finish to my trip.
From there it was a simple drive back into South Carolina, through Cleveland and Gaffney and back to Charlotte.† It had been an adventurous weekend, and Iím looking forward to hiking in the area again.† However, Iím not sure if Iíll backpack the entire Rim Trail again.† For prospective Rim Trail hikers, hereís a few suggestions:
∑ Go in the winter or early spring.† Water sources will be more reliable and briars will be less of a hazard than in the summer or early fall.
∑ For you ďbuy a whole cd but only listen to the best song typesĒ, consider a dayhike or short backpack on the Chunky Gal Trail from the Bob Allison Campground to Tusquitee Bald.† Itís a 7-mile hike roundtrip, but with a 2000í climb.† From Tusquitee Bald the hike can easily be extended to Potrock Bald, Signal Bald, and / or County Corners.† This approach would hit the major highlights of the area with less time and effort.
∑ The best springs I found were at County Corners and the gap between Johnson and Potrock Balds.† The best campsites were at Tusquitee Bald and County Corners.
∑ For additional water sources and other helpful information, consult the trail guide written by John Ray, Malcolm Skove, and Bill Kenyon.† I found it extremely helpful both in planning my hike and on the trail.†
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