Christy came out of hibernation for a backpacking trip last weekend. She has been recovering from a running injury for the last couple of months. She isn’t healed, but she couldn’t pass up this trip. We were headed to one of our favorite places, Panthertown Valley. We try to go there every spring to see the abundant wildflowers. More importantly, our Panthertown trips tend to follow the same pattern. We usually hike in a mile or two, camp, and do dayhikes or simply relax. Christy figured she could handle the typical Panthertown trip. Unfortunately, this one turned out to be anything but typical.
We met Dave and Sasha in Charlotte and rode together from there. Sasha is Dave’s new puppy, whom he rescued from the pound only a few days earlier. Sasha is about a 1 year-old border collie mix. She’s fairly small, and black with white feet. I told Dave that Sasha was a stripper’s name, and that I was going to call her Socks. So Socks and Saucony and the 3 humans and 3 backpacks somehow squeezed into my Toyota Corolla for the 3+ hour drive. Sasha and Saucony hadn’t met before, so they spent most of the ride trying to get to know each other. This was interesting for me, as I was trying to operate a motor vehicle at the same time. Somehow we arrived the Cold Mountain Gap trailhead, on the east side of the valley, without causing any major traffic accidents.
We usually go in from Salt Rock Gap on the west side, but decided to try this approach for a change. This was my first mistake of the trip, though I wouldn’t know it until Sunday afternoon.
We hiked a fairly primitive trail down to Greenland Creek. We worked our way upstream through tunnels of rhododendron and joined an old road that led down to a ford. Greenland Creek is fairly large, and 3” of rain had fallen in the area only 2 days earlier. The water was still up, so we had to put on sandals and wade. It was only knee-deep, and the current was fairly mild, but the water was still cold! This was Sasha’s first attempt at swimming, and it went poorly. She didn’t make it far before retreating to the bank. Ultimately Dave had to carry her across her first stream.
We crossed two smaller streams and climbed to join the Hogback Mountain Trail. From there we hiked another 20 minutes or so to what may be my all-time favorite campsite. The location of the site will be intentionally vague in this narrative, but prospective campers can be assured that there are many outstanding sites in the valley.
We set up camp in a stand of white pines and had lunch before Dave, the dogs, and I set off on an afternoon dayhike. Christy’s hip was hurting from the hike in, so she decided to stay in camp and relax. Before we left camp, I found a patch of pink lady’s slippers growing not far from our tent. Finding wildflowers was one of my goals for the weekend, and we were already successful.
We started our hike with a steep climb over Little Green Mountain. We enjoyed great views from the open granite faces on the peak. We were also surprised to find rhododendrons already in bloom. It’s the earliest I’ve ever seen wild rhododendron blooming, but they do receive full sunlight on Little Green Mountain.
Beyond the summit, we descended to Greenland Creek at the base of Schoolhouse Falls. Schoolhouse is only one of several falls on Greenland Creek, but it’s probably the prettiest. It’s about a 30’ freefall into a deep swimming hole. The water projects out from the cliff, making it possible to walk behind the falls. We found 2 other groups here, including some people swimming. We weren’t surprised to find others here, as Schoolhouse is probably the most popular spot in the valley. We lingered for a little while, and Saucony went for a swim. Then it was on to our destination at Panthertail Mountain.
We crossed an old, rickety bridge over the creek and followed an old road down into the Tuckaseegee River Gorge. The Tuckaseegee forms in Panthertown Valley, where Greenland Creek and Panthertown Creek join. From there it cuts through the mountains before joining the Little Tennessee and Nantahala Rivers in Fontana Lake, at the foot of the Smokies. Today we were only following the river a short distance, but it’s certainly one of its nicest stretches as it tumbles over numerous waterfalls.
We reached Little Green Creek, and followed a primitive path upstream through a dense tangle of rhododendron. We crossed the creek frequently, when we weren’t forced so simply walk up the stream itself. This was traumatic for Sasha, who had managed to develop an intense fear of rushing water earlier that morning.
Eventually we climbed away from the creek. Here the path passed through a carpet of pink trillium. We reached a gap on the ridge at a spring and turned on a new trail towards Shelton Pisgah Mountain. After a short distance we turned off onto a side path that’s not shown on any map I’ve seen. It is marked with ribbons though, so it was easy to follow. Eventually our path forked, and we turned right to climb to the summit of Panthertail Mountain. I had read that Panthertail featured great views of the surrounding mountains, so we were highly disappointed when we reached the summit. There was enough vegetation to block any view. It might be easier to see in the winter, but I would still recommend climbing to the High Bethel Altar on Cold Mountain before attempting this summit.
We headed back to the main trail and hiked over to Shelton Pisgah Mountain. I thought I remembered a good view here, but we weren’t having any luck finding it. Finally I called for a snack break, as I was running low on energy. A couple minutes after we resumed the hike, we reached a cliff with a great view of the valley and the surrounding peaks. It would’ve been a great place for a break. As it was, we took a few minutes to enjoy the scenery.
We descended quickly along the ridge and rejoined the Tuckaseegee Gorge Trail near Devil’s Elbow. From there we hiked quickly back towards camp. For variety, we took a different path back. First we followed an exceptionally muddy trail along Panthertown Creek, passing some folks camped on the beach at the Sandbar Pool. A short distance upstream we found the trail I was looking for. It provides a nice short cut back to camp, and passes through a gorgeous white pine forest. We had to cross the creek to get there, but the water is shallow. Well, it’s usually shallow. It’s a very clear stream, and is deeper than it looks. Today it was just deep enough to run into my boots. By the time I realized that, it was too late. I splashed the rest of the way through the creek, but had a real disaster getting out on the far side. The only place to get out was muddy, but I didn’t realize it was thigh deep until I was in it. I looked like the Swamp Thing by the time I pulled myself out of it. Even Sasha’s white feet turned black on this afternoon!
We finally made it back to camp by 7pm. While we hiked, Christy spent 6 hours sleeping in her hammock. That evening we enjoyed a dinner of salmon cakes and pasta, with white wine to wash it down. Later we enjoyed cocktails of rum and lemonade around what would’ve been a pleasant fire if anyone had been industrious enough to gather wood. We slept well that night, and the anticipated rain never came.
CLIMB TO SAFETY
We got off to a leisurely start Sunday morning. It was still a nice day, though a bit cloudier. We enjoyed some Blueberry Pancakes without the blueberries, since they had been left behind. Afterwards, we decided to take another hike. This was my second major mistake of the weekend, though it seemed like an innocent choice at the time. Christy decided to join us, as she didn’t think she could nap all day again.
I hiked in sandals, since my boots were still soaked. I wore my last pair of dry socks with them, because I was trying to look like a foreigner. Actually I wore the socks because they help keep dirt out of the toes when wearing sandals. Our first stop on the hike was at a scenic bog, where I promptly soaked the soaks in more black mud. I guess I should’ve seen that coming. At least the bog provided a nice view of the valley with Blackrock Mountain looming over it. Christy also spotted a snake that may have been a Copperhead.
We crossed a bridge over Panthertown Creek and hiked up the main trail towards Salt Rock Gap. We turned off it quickly though and followed the Frolictown Trail through a meadow full of Pink Lady’s Slippers. We continued on to Frolictown Creek, where we viewed a small but lovely waterfall. We continued on up the valley all the way to the national forest boundary on the Eastern Continental Divide. On the far side, we were disappointed to find the end of a new road, complete with lots for summer and retirement homes. We headed back quickly, as thunder was rumbling in the distance. We took the most direct route to camp, which involved wading Panthertown Creek. Then we followed a primitive path through more rhododendron, passing Granny Burrell Falls before reaching the trail that led back to camp.
We took the tents down and got everything under the tarp before the rain began. We ate lunch and packed while we endured a tremendous thunderstorm. The downpour finally abated, and at last we headed for home through lingering drizzle.
There are multiple routes out from camp, but each seemed unappealing for one reason or another. One would involve wading through the mud Dave and I had nearly drowned in the day before. Another would take us back across the exposed summit of Little Green Mountain, which seemed like a bad idea in a thunderstorm. We decided to head back the way we came, as it seemed the quickest way out. This was mistake #3 of the weekend.
We reached the top of the ridge, and I suggested we try a “shortcut” trail that heads directly down to the creek. I warned that the crossing might be tricky, but once across we’d be 15 minutes from the car. We descended a long, steep hill and reached the creek amid a thicket of rhododendron. The limbs were arched out across the stream in an impenetrable tangle. Without backpacks, it would’ve been extremely difficult to wiggle through all those limbs while wading the rushing stream. With the packs, it would be impossible. We had no choice but to backtrack. I wasn’t a very popular person as we slogged our way back up the hill as rain continued to fall.
We rejoined the main trail and debated our options again. The water was up, and I was concerned about crossing the stream at the ford. The creek is smaller farther upstream though, and the current is gentle there. Nobody wanted to backtrack and cross over Little Green Mountain, so we followed our footsteps from the previous day. We descended a trail that was more a river than a path. The water was knee deep in places – on the trail. The two small streams we had crossed Saturday were roaring creeks. When we finally reached the ford at Greenland Creek, my greatest fears were realized. The stream was now a raging torrent of chocolate colored water. The gentle current was a memory, as powerful waves raced towards the waterfalls just downstream. It was impossible to tell how deep the stream was, but it looked impassable.
Dave decided to give it a try. He did fine until he got into the middle of the current. Then, he was nearly knocked over, but managed to regain his balance. He stumbled out of the deepest section, which was up to his chest. He dropped his pack, and started to come back across to get Sasha. We stopped him. Would he really be able to carry a wriggling dog across that? How would we get Saucony across? She’s too big to carry. She’s a good swimmer, but only 60 pounds. She would be carried far downstream before she made the far side – if she made it all. Christy is strong and her pack was light, but that’s because I was carrying almost everything. Combining my heavy, low riding pack with my short stubby legs, and an attempt at crossing would be a disaster waiting to happen. We’d have to go around.
Christy wasn’t happy, but she understood my decision (I think). We told Dave we’d meet him at the car. Then we took the 2 dogs and headed back towards camp and Little Green Mountain. After another long slog through mud and water, we reached the steep path up to the summit. Christy’s hip was hurting, and chivalry isn’t dead, so I offered to make two trips and carry Christy’s pack to the top. Finally we humped across the top and descended rapidly towards the roar of the creek in the gorge far below. Finally we reached the creek, once again at the base of Schoolhouse Falls. The difference in the waterfall in 24 hours was stunning. What had been an elegant freefall was now a violent expulsion of mud, water, and rocks. The pool at the base looked like Satan’s bubble bath, thanks to the swirling eddies and piles of foam. The rocks we had rested on the day before were completely submerged. The awesome power of the creek was stunning to behold. If I had any lingering doubts, I knew then that I’d made the right decision in turning back.
We headed downstream towards the bridge. At that point, a new thought entered my mind. What if the bridge was gone? After all, it’s old and rickety. The only possibility would be to return to the falls and scramble behind them. I doubted that passage would be possible though, given the volume of water crashing over the cliff. We reached the main trail, and were relieved to see the bridge still intact, though just barely. Normally the water is 6’ or so below the bridge. Now it was less than 2’ from it. More thunder in the distance indicated that this flood might just be starting.
We climbed one more hill, following the old gravel road out of the valley. Finally we turned off the road, and followed a new path through the woods to the parking area. We found Dave waiting there, 2hours or more after we’d parted. Dave and Sasha were reunited, and Christy and I were thrilled to collapse in my car. Our wild adventure was over, and everyone was in one piece. I drove away, reflecting on the power of nature. Even a simple, relaxing trip to a familiar place can turn into a traumatic event unexpectedly. Christy had a different take on things. For now on, our trips to Panthertown Valley will always start on the west side.
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