Nantahala National Forest

Hiking - Highlands Ranger District

Choose a trail. . .

Chattooga River Loop Trails

Trail: Iron Bridge Loop
Length: 2 mile loop
Elevation Change: 200 feet
Rating: Easiest
Head & End: Bull Pen Road
USGS Map: Highlands<>BTrail: Chattooga Cliffs Loop
Length: 2.9 mile loop
Elevation Change: 450 feet
Rating: More difficult
Head & End: Whiteside Cove Road
USGS Map: Highlands

Access: For both loops, start from Highlands by driving south on Main Street and Horse Cove Road 4.5 miles to end of the pavement and the intersection of Bull Pen and Whiteside Cove Roads. For the Iron Bridge loop, take Bull Pen Road which is on the right and drive 3.0 miles to the Iron Bridge. There is parking on the road. For the Chattooga Cliffs loop, take Whiteside Cove Road .4 mile to FS 2052 and park without blocking access to the gate.

Attractions & Considerations: A sixty mile long corridor along the Chattooga River from its headwaters on Whiteside in North Carolina, southward along the boundary between Georgia and South Carolina was designated by Congress as a Wild and Scenic River in 1974. There is a network of trails to and along the river in the three states. This trail connects to the Bartram Trail, which follows the historic journey of naturalist William Bartram.

Within the Highlands Ranger District, a trail is under construction from Whiteside Cove Road to Bull Pen Road. Construction was interrupted in 1993 to clear existing trails of downed trees and uprooted rhododendron after the March 1993 blizzard. Hiking on this trail is not advised because of missing bridges and other hazards. However, there are two shorter loop trails which can be hiked.

The Chattooga/Iron Bridge loop trail is a very short portion of the longer trail. From the Iron Bridge and bulletin board the trail follows up the river for approximately one mile. At the sign, turn left for a gradual climb to an old logging road and the parking area above the Iron Bridge. A trail from the parking area makes a left turn and continues down to the river and Iron Bridge. The hiker can also follow the road from the parking area to the bulletin board. Many enjoy the Iron Bridge and river for its photographic opportunities.

The Chattooga Cliffs loop is longer and more difficult. Start at the gate of FS 2052 and walk on the Forest Service road above Cane Creek. When the sound of the creek becomes faint and another creek can be heard, look for a trail on the left. The trail makes a short, moderate descent along Holly Branch. Just before the junction with the Chattooga River Trail, Cane Creek is crossed on stepping stones. If the water is high an alternative crossing on two logs can be made. Turn up river for views of the cliffs and continuation of the loop. After one-third of a mile, there is an intersection with an old logging road. Bear left and take this road to climb out of the gorge. After one mile the trail ends on Whiteside Cove Road at the county line. Turn left. The walk back along Whiteside Cove Road is short and rewarded with a view of a small waterfall on the side of the road.

Hiking along the Chattooga River is dangerous until improvements to the trail are completed.

Trails in Ellicott Rock Wilderness Area

Trail: Bad Creek/Fowler Creek
Length: 3.5 miles one way
Elevation Change: 800 feet
Rating: More difficult
Head: Bull Pen Road
End: Chattooga River, east side
USGS Maps: Cashiers

Trail: Ellicott Rock
Length: 3.5 miles one way
Elevation Change: 700 feet
Rating: More difficult
Head: Bull Pen Road
End: Chattooga River, west side
USGS Maps: Highlands

Access: From Highlands, drive south on Main Street and Horse Cove Roads 4.5 miles to the end of the pavement. Turn right onto Bull Pen Road and drive east 1.8 miles to the Ellicott Rock Trail head, or 5.8 miles to the Bad Creek/Fowler Creek Trail head.

From Cashiers drive south on NC 107 seven miles to Bull Pen Road. Turn right and drive west 2.7 miles to the Bad Creek/Fowler Creek trail or 6.7 miles to the Ellicott Rock trail.

Attractions & Considerations: Both trails are located in the Ellicott Rock Wilderness Area and Chattooga Wild and Scenic Area. In years gone by, the area was logged extensively, and there is still evidence of old logging trails and fires. When Ellicott Rock became a wilderness area in 1975, logging was stopped, and motorized and mechanical vehicles were prohibited. While nature has obliterated most signs of past human use, it can also wreak havoc as it did in the blizzard of 1993. The debris of downed pines and uprooted rhododendron was cleared with hand tools.

Both trails start on moderate terrain, and it is not until the Chattooga gorge is reached that the grade becomes steep. There are switchbacks on the Bad Creek/Fowler Creek trail. When the Chattooga River is visible from the Ellicott Rock trail, there is a fork. The narrow trail on the left descends steeply into the gorge on switchbacks and over large deadfalls. The wider trail continues straight and makes a gradual descent into Georgia and across a creek before ending at a primitive campground next to the river. While hiking down into the gorge, stay on the trail, and avoid shortcuts. Soils are fragile in the gorge and shortcuts cause erosion.

There are two surveyor rocks on the east bank of the river. The inscription on Ellicott Rock may be interpreted as 'NC', 'NG', or 'NC-'. Obviously, NC is North Carolina, while G stands for Georgia. Under the third interpretation, NC-, did Major Ellicott leave an unfinished inscription for lack of the GA postal abbreviation, or did inclement weather of the Christmas season in 1811 force his early return to Georgia? Downstream is the Commissioner's rock which is the boundary for North Carolina and South Carolina. It is inscribed 'LAT 35 AD 1813 NC SC'. The current boundary between Georgia and South Carolina is in the middle of the river. The River is approximately 100 feet across, rocky and knee deep even when the water level is low. Currents are strong when water levels are high.

Glen Falls and Chinquapin Mountain Trails

Trials: Glen Falls
Length: 1.4 miles one way
Elevation Change: 750 feet
Rating: Most difficult
Head: Glen Falls parking area
End: Bottom of falls
USGS Maps: Highlands

Trials: Chinquapin Mountain
Length: 3.5 mile loop
Elevation Change: 500 feet
Rating: More difficult
Head: Glen Falls parking area, NC 106 pull over
End: Same as head
USGS Maps: Highlands, Scaly

Access: From the intersection of US 64 and NC 106, drive 1.6 miles southwest on NC 106 to USFS sign, Glen Falls Scenic Area, on the left. Turn onto SR 1618 and drive one mile to its end and the Glen Falls parking area. For the second trail head of Chinquapin, stay on NC 106 for 3 miles from US 64 and drive to a pullover on the left side. There is a large rock in the middle.

Attractions & Considerations: The three waterfalls on the East Fork known as Glen Falls, are one of the more popular attractions in the Highlands area. From the parking area, take the trail to the left. The trail to the bottom with views of each of the three falls is steep and the climb back is strenuous. The spur trail to the third falls is marked with a sign which directs hikers to Blue Valley. A short hike to the top of first falls is easy and makes an enjoyable walk. Stay behind guardrails along the trail and avoid shortcuts on switchbacks. Do not climb on the falls; it is very dangerous.

For the Chinquapin Mountain trail, take the trail on the right from the Glen Falls parking area and cross the East Fork on a large log bridge. The trail continues along a tributary, crossing it several times on rocks and logs. This can be wet and slippery. The second trail head for Chinquapin Mountain starts on NC 106 and makes a one-quarter mile descent to its Junction with the trail from Glen Falls.

After the junction of the two trails, the Chinquapin trail ascends to the top on a set of ten switchbacks. On the ridge line at the top (approximate elevation 4100 feet) there are three overlooks with views of Blue Valley. The first two are near the trail, while the third is reached on a steep, quarter mile trail. Continue on the trail as it begins its descent. Before a "T" intersection there are two additional overlooks which have short trails. At the intersection, turn right on a fairly level trail section to the sixth switchback up Chinquapin. This intersection completes the loop. Backtrack the remainder of the way.

Volunteers in the area have maintained trails and posted signs for the overlooks and directions to Glen Falls, Chinquapin, and Little Scaly. Little Scaly is in private ownership, and unless permission has been obtained, please refrain from hiking to Little Scaly and The Mountain Camp and Conference Center.

Panthertown Valley Loop

Trail: Granny Burrell
Length: 1.0 mile one way
Elevation Change: 300 feet
Rating: More difficult
Head: Salt Rock
End: Panthertown Creek
USGS Map: Big Ridge

Trail: Schoolhouse Falls
Length: 2.5 mile one way
Elevation Change: 300 feet
Rating: More difficult
Head: Salt Rock
End: Schoolhouse Falls
USGS Map: Big Ridge

Trail: Little Green loop
Length: 5.5 mile loop
Elevation Change: 350 feet
Rating: More difficult
Head: Salt Rock
End: same as head
USGS Map: Big Ridge

Access: From Cashiers drive east 2 miles on US 64 to Cedar Creek Road on the left. Drive up Cedar Creek Road 2 miles to its intersection with Breedlove Road. Continue on Breedlove approximately 4 miles to its end and the parking area for Panthertown.

Attractions & Considerations: Panthertown is a unique natural area. During the 1930's intensive railroad logging occurred. Thirty years later intense forest fires raged through the valley floor. During the next thirty years Panthertown remained relatively untouched as trees and vegetation grew back.

Panthertown valley is unusually large and flat for western North Carolina. There are several bogs in the valley, and the headwaters of Panthertown and Greenland Creeks, and Tuckasegee River are located in Panthertown. Surrounding the valley are the granite domes of Big Green, Little Green, and Blackrock Mountains. In 1989 the Nature Conservancy purchased Panthertown and held the area until Congress appropriated funds to purchase Panthertown for the US Forest Service. Duke Power owns a corridor for its transmission line between Jocassee in South Carolina and Tuckasegee in North Carolina.

Panthertown is managed as backcountry where no motorized vehicles are permitted. Hikers, mountain bikers, and horses are permitted, and all three share the main roads in Panthertown. Plans are being made to designate appropriate trails for each type of use.

The Little Green loop can be broken down into segments, an easy hike to the Salt Rock overlook and the view of the valley and surrounding mountains, more difficult hikes to Schoolhouse Falls, or Granny Burrell Falls, and the most difficult loop which includes the two falls and a hike over Little Green.

Start down from the parking area for a view from the Salt Rock overlook. Continue the descent on a gravel road to an intersection of three roads (approximately one mile from the parking area). For Granny Burrell Falls on Panthertown Creek, go right .2 miles and cross an old wood bridge. The trail for the falls is on the right. For Schoolhouse Falls, take the center trail .9 miles to a small shelter on the Tuckasegee River. Cross the old wood bridge on the right and continue along Greenland Creek. The access trails to Schoolhouse Falls are on either side of a second wood bridge. If the first trail is taken, watch for a narrow trail on the right which goes up Little Green. The trail on top of Little Green is on the rock outcropping. Please avoid walking on the mosses and lichens; they are fragile and take years to grow back. The trail turns into the woods and goes steeply down to another road. Turn right and hike through a pine forest in the valley floor. The spur trail to Granny Burrell Falls will be on the left. The climb out of the valley is steep.

Whitewater Falls Area

Trail: Top Overlook
Length: 0.2 mile one way
Elevation Change: level
Rating: Easiest
Head: Parking area
End: Overlook
USGS Map: Cashiers

Trail: Whitewater River Bridge
Length: 0.6 mile one way
Elevation Change: 500 feet
Rating: Most difficult
Head: Parking area
End: Bridge at bottom
USGS Map: Cashiers

Trail: Foothills
Length: 5.0 mile one way
Elevation Change: 500 feet
Rating: More difficult
Head: West end of parking area
End: NC-SC line
USGS Map: Cashiers

Access: From Cashiers, drive south on NC and SC 107 9.3 miles to SC 413 and a sign for Whitewater Falls. Turn left and continue 2.3 miles to the intersection with SC 130. Take another left and drive north on SC 130, which becomes NC 281 at the state line. Just beyond the state line is a sign for Whitewater Falls. Visitors coming from Toxaway and other points east should start at US 64 and 281 and drive south 8.6 miles to the Whitewater Falls parking area. New toilets are near the parking area.

Attractions & Considerations: Whitewater Falls has a drop of 411 feet, the highest major waterfall east of the Rockies. Of the trails starting at Whitewater Falls, two are the most popular. These are the paved trail to the top, and the rocky trail to the bottom of the falls. The paved trail is wheelchair accessible and its terminus at the overlook provides one of the best views of the falls.

Next to the overlook is the trail to the Whitewater River Bridge. There is one additional view of the Falls Just below the overlook. While the trail is Just over one-half mile, it is steep with more than 250 steps. Stay on the trail and avoid climbing on adjacent rocks which can be wet or slippery. At the bottom is the new bridge put in place by helicopter in 1993. Across the bridge is the eastern section of the Foothills Trail. Brochures for this trail can be obtained from the Forest Service.

The third trail starting from the Whitewater parking area is the western extension of the Foothills trail. From the overlook continue up along Whitewater River and cross NC 281 south of the vehicular bridge. Again stay on the trail and observe cautionary signs. The hike may also be started here since there is some parking on the shoulder of NC 281. The trail goes up to an elevation of 3200 and then follows a ridge line to the NC-SC border. The trail is blazed in white from the Whitewater Falls overlook. On the South Carolina side the white blazes are continued with a white bar above the main blaze. The South Carolina end is at the Sloan Bridge campground on SC 107. Plans are being made to provide primitive camp sites along this trail in North Carolina.

Yellow Mountain Trail

Length: 4.8 Miles one way.
Elevation Change: 1000 feet.
Rating: Most difficult.
Head: Buck Creek Road at Cole
End: Yellow Mountain Tower.
USGS Map: Highlands, Glenville

Access: Drive east on US 64 from Highlands 2.7 miles and turn left onto Buck Creek Road. Continue 2.3 miles up to Cole Gap. There is a sign and steps at the trail head on the right side of Buck Creek Road.

Attractions & Considerations: With an elevation of 5127 feet, Yellow Mountain is one of the highest mountains in the Highlands Ranger District. On top of Yellow Mountain is the fire tower built by the Forest Service and the Civilian Conservation Corps in 1934. After age, weather, and vandalism had taken its toll, the tower was reconstructed in the early 1990s through the joint effort of the Forest Service, local business and civic groups, and volunteers from the Cashiers area. In 1992 the tower was recognized as a National Historic Lookout. The 360 degree view from the top is spectacular.

The trail from Cole Gap to the top of Yellow Mountain starts at an elevation of 4300 feet and goes along a ridge of Cole Mountain (4600 feet). There is a short descent before Shortoff (5000 feet) is climbed on a set of switchbacks. At 4640 feet, Goat Knob is not as high as the surrounding mountains, but the descent to Yellow Mountain Gap (4120 feet), and the final climb up to Yellow Mountain (5120 feet) dose make this a strenuous hike.

Shorter hikes can be made by terminating the hike at the view over the western cliffs of Cole Mountain, or by continuing to the top of Shortoff. Both Cole Mountain and Shortoff are known for their plant diversity. Please leave the plants and wildflowers for others to enjoy.

Mountains-to-Sea Trail

Length: 12.9 miles.
Elevation Change: 1000 feet.
Rating: most difficult.
Head & End: Bear Pen Gap and Double Top overlooks on the Blue Ridge Parkway.
USGS Maps: Hazelwood, Tuckasegee, Sam Knob.

Access: On the Blue Ridge Parkway between US 215 and US 23/74, the Mountains-to-Sea trail has connections with Rough Butt Bald overlook (mile 425.4), Haywood Gap (mile 426.5), Bear Pen Gap overlook (427.6), Double Top Mountain overlook (mile 435.3), Grassy Ridge Mine overlook (mile 436.8), and Balsam Gap (mile 443). To reach the Mountains-to-Sea Trail in the Highlands Ranger District, park at the Bear Pen Gap or Double Top overlooks.

Attractions & Considerations: Several trail advocates and hiking organizations proposed a 700 mile long trail from the Great Smokies to the Outer Banks. The 1973 North Carolina Trails System Act is making a reality of this proposal. Portions of the trail in the mountains are nearing completion. The 12.9 mile section within the Highlands Ranger District between Haywood Gap and Old Bald was completed and dedicated in August of 1994.

The Balsam-Highlands Task Force spearheaded the planning, location, and construction of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail section on the Highlands Ranger District. The Task Force was composed of volunteers from Haywood, Jackson, and Swain counties. Officials from the Forest Service, Blue Ridge Parkway, and NC Division of Parks and Recreation also participated.

Within the Highlands Ranger District the Mountains-to-Sea trail runs parallel to the Blue Ridge Parkway on the southwest side. Because trail heads are not marked, the hiker will have to look for them at the overlooks. The trail follows old logging roads, railroad beds, and other connecting trails constructed and opened by volunteers with the Balsam-Highlands Task Force. The trail has three inch diameter white blazes, and turns are marked, but be aware it is easy to miss a turn and continue on the wider logging road. On a few of the logging roads there is evidence of horse and 4-wheel vehicle use.

Because of its length, backpackers are the primary users of the trail. There are a number of potential campsites along the trail. Water from many small creeks is available, but it should be treated before drinking. Hiking on the old railroad beds is easy, but the condition of the connector trails is variable. Some are steep while others are rough and rocky. Elevations on the trail can be estimated from the proportion of hardwoods to birches and firs.

In the Highlands Ranger District day hikers have two options. From the Double Top parking area, hike to the Mountains-to-Sea Trail toward Old Bald and a large field which has spectacular views. This makes a 3 mile in and out hike. The second option is a loop. Park at Bear Pen Gap and hike south toward Wet Camp Gap. Continue through Wet Camp Gap in a southwest direction for a short detour up Gage Bald. Backtrack to Wet Camp Gap, pick up the Mountain to Sea Trail and hike around Rough Butt Bald to Haywood Gap. Arrange shuttle service or hike one mile on the Parkway to Bear Pen Gap. Views from Wet Camp Gap and Gage Bald are well worth this loop hike.

Whiteside Mtn. National Recreation Trail

Complete loop: 2-mile loop-Open to hikers only.
USGS Maps: Highlands quad, Nantahala National Forest.
Directions: From Highlands, take U.S. 64E for about 5 miles. Turn right on NC 1680 (Whiteside Mountain Road) and follow the signs to the trailhead.

Attractions & Considerations: This national recreation trail is rated as "more difficult". From the trailhead, the old roadbed to the left is a more gradual climb to the summit, while the right branch goes up a steep set of stairs. Your effort is rewarded by a magnificent view into South Carolina and over the Chattooga River headwaters over 2,100 feet below. The rock outcrops have an abundance of shrubs and wildflowers, including three species of both rhododendrons and azaleas. The mountain summit stands at 4,930 feet. White Mountain, a landmark on the eastern continental divide, has sheer cliffs rising up to 750 feet in height. These cliffs are home to the endangered peregrine falcon that was reintroduced to its native range in 1985.

Long Hikes

The Appalachian Trail
The Appalachian Trail (AT), a national scenic trail, is a footpath that stretches 2,100 miles from Maine to Georgia. It winds about 200 miles across the mountains of the Pisgah and Nantahala National Forests. It is blazed in white with a chain of shelters spaced from 3 to 14 miles apart along the trail. Generally, it follows the ridge crest of the Appalachian Mountains. Hikers do not need permits to use the Appalachian Trail on National Forest lands, but are required in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Detailed guidebooks for the AT are available at district offices or from the Appalachian Trail Conference, P.O. Box 807, Harpers Ferry, WV 25425-0807.

The Bartram Trail
The Bartram Trail is a national recreation trail that travels across the Nantahala National Forest from the Nantahala Gorge east and south into Georgia. The trail takes its name from William Bartram, a naturalist and explorer who roamed the southern wilderness from Florida to North Carolina 200 years ago. He studied plants and animals and recorded many of his findings in a journal published as The Travels of William Bartram. The trail is blazed in yellow for over 70 miles as it crosses Nantahala National Forest.

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 13 Jul 2011
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


Sign up to Away's Travel Insider

Preview newsletter »