The Nantahala River is a premiere location for whitewater rafting and water slalom. The Nantahala Outdoor Center is situated right along the banks of the Nantahala's rushing waters, and on a good weekend, you can expect at least a hundred people here. Meanwhile, there's something for us hikers too. The Appalachian Trail passes through the NOC, crossing the busy US 74 and the Nantahala River. The Appalachian Trail offers a couple destinations in this area, including Cheoah Bald and Wesser Bald. While both are not easy to reach, both have ultimate rewarding views. This hike occurred on Friday, July 4th, 2014. My plan was to follow the Appalachian Trail from the NOC southward to the Jump-Up, and then even further to Wesser Bald and its fire tower. I would come back the same way.
R/T Length of Trail: 13.5 Miles
Duration of Hike: 7 Hours, 40 Minutes
Difficulty Rating: 8 out of 10
Pros: Gradual ascent with few steep sections; very good winter views during the entire hike; fire tower; 360 degree views; outfitter store at trailhead
Cons: One extremely steep and rocky section, but short; lack of water; significant length of hike
Best Season(s) to Hike: Autumn; Winter
Trail Blaze Color(s): Appalachian Trail - White; Spur trails to shelters and water - Blue
Beginning Point: Large parking area at the Nantahala Outdoor Center
Directions: From Bryson City, NC: From the intersection of US Route 19 and US Route 74 near Bryson City, follow US Route 74 South for 9.4 miles until you see a road crossing a bridge to the right. Turn right onto the bridge, cross the railroad tracks, and park in the designated area.
It's been a while since I last hiked more than 10 miles. Also, it's been a while since the last weekend with temperatures in the 70s and low humidity. Time for a long hike! I have been thinking to get to Wesser Bald for a while now, but all the time, something else came up that I liked more, and I would usually change my mind. However, this holiday weekend, I finally got together some more information about the hike, and decided to attempt it on July 4th.
I love the drive down the Nantahala River. It's fun watching all the rafters with the river flowing along the road. I am not sure about what kind of other parking there is, but the place where I parked for the hike was in the Nantahala Outdoor Center parking lot. The most confusing thing about the entire hike is finding the trail. In most cases, the trail stats at the same place as where you park. Not in this case! It's more confusing than you think. In order to get onto the Appalachian Trail Southbound, you need to cross the bridge over the Nantahala River back onto US-74. Right away, cross US-74 and go onto Silvermine Road. After crossing a small creek on the road, watch for an Appalachian Trail sign on the left. Turn left onto the path here. The trail kicks off with a set of switchbacks up the steep mountainside. The switchbacks are accompanied by 5 small footbridges that help navigate muddy areas. After the last switchback, the trail leveled out and started following the edge of the mountain. During this time, the trail crossed two small streams that can be easily rock-hopped. There were also a couple rock cliffs. As the trail rounded the side of the mountain, the sounds of a tributary of Silvermine Creek were heard on the right. At 1 mile from the start, the trail reached the spur trail to the Rufus Morgan Shelter. The spur went to the left, while the AT continued forward past a majestic tree at the intersection. The real ascent started here.
The trail ascended sets of steps as it followed the drainage of the Silvermine Creek tributary on the right. By the time it rounded the drainage, there was no water there. The trail continued its ascent via wooden steps. Here, I saw a black snake on the side of the trail. It was acting like it was dead. Shortly afterwards, the trail reached a gap and continued ascending. Over the course of the next 2 miles, there is nothing much to describe. The trail keeps following the hillside, crossing several ridges that climb up to the main one, as well as one small stream that appeared to be a tributary of Wesser Creek in the valley below. The trail kept getting rockier and rootier towards the 3-mile mark, and then, it suddenly popped out onto the main ridgeline. The trail reached a high point on the ridgeline, where there was a large rock. Then it went steeply downhill into a gap, before ascending again to follow the sometimes knife-edge ridgeline. However, the climbing was far from over, and the steepest was still ahead. There were several points where I could see Lowing Bald to the west. Also, around here was where the trail crossed from Swain County into Macon County. And then all of a sudden, you see the summit of the ridgeline looming right up front, and the steep part starts. The trail ascends through several rocky areas, including a place where minor scrambling is required. Following that, the trail climbed straight up with almost no switchbacks via numerous steps. Finally, the last push to the Jump-Up was another minor rock scramble to an incredible view.
To the north, I could see the Nantahala River Valley and Fontana Lake. On the horizon, I could see the Smokies. The panorama was great - and yet, this wasn't that close to the final viewpoint. I was now 4.3 miles from the trailhead. Another 2.4 miles to go. The trail shortly reached the high point of the ridge, before steeply dropping down into another gap. And yet, only to climb again. A couple switchbacks brought me to the crest of the knife-edge ridge, only to descend again shortly. The trail followed the ridge as it turned more to the southeast. There were several gaps and several hills in the course of the ridge. A final descent off the ridge brought me to the junction with the Wesser Creek Trail at 5.9 miles. If turning left onto the blue-blazed Wesser Creek Trail, it will bring you to the Wesser Creek Trailhead in 3.6 miles. This is certainly a shorter way to access Wesser Bald, but I decided to take the one I took so as to not miss out on the Jump-Up, and I am glad that I did. Also, the spur trail to the Wesser Bald Shelter went to the right. The final ascent to Wesser Bald started here. The rail ascended via long switchbacks. On one of the switchbacks, there was a spur trail to water, likely the headwaters of Wesser Creek. The ascent to Wesser Bald was perhaps one of the easiest parts of the hike. I was surprised. The switchbacks kept it almost unnoticeable. Finally as you reach a small gap, there is a view to the left, and a spur trail that goes forward. The AT goes to the right (downhill), but keep forward onto the spur trail. It shortly reaches the Wesser Bald summit 6.7 miles from the starting point.
The Wesser Bald Fire Tower was erected in the mid 1900s, but in 1979, someone burned the cabin at the top of the fire tower. This was the reason that 2/3 of the tower was taken down. However, the stairway remained, and the empty space at the new top of the tower right above the treeline soon had an observation deck. The stairs led to this deck. There were only two flights of steps. But, at the top of the steps... what a view!!! The 360 degree panorama was as follows.
I could have, and did, stay for about a half-hour. On my way back at the Jump-Up, I managed to catch a brilliant sunset. Personally, I think it was the best one this year so far.
Below are my pictures and a video from the hike. If you decide to do this hike, know that it's long, and know that there's other ways to reach it. You can cheat and come up from Wesser Creek or Tellico Gap, but the true sensation of accomplishment is when you do the hike like I did. The hike is not overly hard, and only on the lower end of challenging, because of its length. If you have been hiking in the area for a while, you can probably do it! I think this hike deserves to be classified as a "Best Hike".
Mark Oleg Ozboyd
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