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The Yosemite of the East: Exploring Panthertown Valley

From the towering trees, creeping vines, and wildflower-covered grounds to the broad valleys, granite rock faces, sheer gorges, and roaring waterfalls, Western North Carolina is a paradise for lovers of the great outdoors. There is endless opportunity for outdoor recreation; whether you enjoy fishing and boating or hiking, biking, and horseback riding, this area offers something for everyone with an adventurous spirit.
We are uniquely positioned on the Highlands-Cashiers Plateau to explore the natural beauty of the Blue Ridge Mountains, and lucky for us, thousands of backcountry trails exist right in our own backyard.

Panthertown Valley is a treasured public, backcountry area and black bear sanctuary. Its 6,311 acres are located in the Nantahala National Forest, between Lake Toxaway and Cashiers. Panthertown is located on ancestral lands of the Tsalaguwetiyi (Cherokee East) and potentially other tribes, so its lands are rich with history. Unlike a National or State Park, which may offer some frontcountry amenities and experiences, Panthertown is entirely wild and unforgiving, offering more than 30 miles of designated trails for hiking, biking, and horseback riding, as well as camping, fishing, and climbing. Many of the trails are old logging roads leading to waterfalls, bogs, and spectacular valley and cliff-face overlooks. 

Working in partnership with the U.S. Forest Service, Friends of Panthertown is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization dedicated to conserving Panthertown as a backcountry natural resource and enabling sustainable recreation. Since 2005, the organization has been raising funds, and training and coordinating hundreds of volunteers, for trail maintenance and conservation projects within Panthertown Valley. 

The group is responsible for restoring and maintaining the area’s 30 miles of public, non-motorized, multi-use trails; constructing trail-head facilities, repairing bridges and existing structures; protecting natural resources and monitoring fragile ecosystems; and providing funding for conservation projects through grants and contributions. With a strong commitment to environmental stewardship, volunteerism, and raising public awareness, Friends of Panthertown also engages in outreach and education to strengthen public knowledge of Panthertown’s diverse ecosystem and ways to enjoy the outdoors sustainably.  

You can become a friend of Panthertown Valley by volunteering or donating in support of their conservation and stewardship work. Sign up for one of their Trail Workdays (no previous experience required) or make a donation via their website at panthertown.org.

Hiking, Biking & Horseback Riding

There are countless trails to choose from when visiting Panthertown Valley; some take you to picturesque waterfalls, while others lead you to incredible scenic overlooks. Most of the trails in Panthertown have been there since before 1989, when the large swath of land was purchased from Moltz Lumber Co., Liberty Insurance, and Duke Power, becoming part of Nantahala National Forest. Popular hikes in Panthertown Valley include Schoolhouse, Granny, and Frolicktown Falls, Salt Rock Gap, and the Overlook Trail. Be sure to check the designated uses for each trail, as specific trails are marked for mountain bikes and horses. Anyone entering Panthertown Valley is strongly encouraged to come prepared with a map and compass and to know how to use them! Friends of Panthertown highly recommend Burt Kornegay’s A Guide’s Guide to Panthertown (2017 revision).

Camping 

All camping in Panthertown Valley is dispersed and primitive, meaning no designated campsites or amenities exist. Campsites are limited to no more than 12 people per site, and campsites cannot be within 50 feet of water sources. Bear-resistant containers are required for all overnight camping in Panthertown Valley, and proper precautions should always be taken to limit the chance of bear/human interactions, which we will discuss further below.

Fishing 

Located on the Western North Carolina Fly-Fishing Trail, anglers from across the world travel to cast a line into the waters of Panthertown Valley and Panthertown Creek. With the headwaters of the East Fork of the Tuckasegee River and 20 miles of native brook trout streams that include Panthertown, Greenland, and Flat Creeks, there is endless opportunity for landing a spectacular catch. All fishing in Panthertown is catch-and-release, artificial lures only, and you must have a valid NC fishing license.

Leave No Trace 

The great outdoors can have a profound impact on us, from our physical health to our mental well-being, but in turn, we need to keep our impact on the great outdoors to a minimum. As lovers and stewards of responsible recreation in nature, we should all be mindful of the 7 Principles of Leave No Trace. Plan and prepare before you set off on your adventure or activity, bring a good map and compass and know how to use them. Check the weather and always be prepared for extreme weather events, hazards, and emergencies; repackage food to minimize waste; and visit in small groups during low-use times. Travel and camp on durable surfaces for your protection and the protection of the ecology, stay on marked and maintained trails, and avoid shortcuts through the woods. Remember, good campsites and trails are found, not made!

Dispose of waste properly and always pack out what you pack in, leaving behind no trash, leftover food, or litter. Leave what you find and take only your photos home with you, making sure all rocks, plants, and natural objects remain undisturbed in their environment. Minimize campfire impacts by using a lightweight stove for cooking, candle lanterns for light, and only utilizing established fire rings, fire pans, or mound fires. Keep them small and put them out completely! Respect wildlife, always observe from a distance, and never follow or approach. Do not feed animals or leave behind food scraps (including fruit and their peels), and always control your pets or leave them at home. Venomous copperheads and rattlesnakes are common in Panthertown, so make sure to watch your step. When visiting Panthertown, be considerate of the land, wildlife, and other visitors. Stay on the trails and yield to others passing, avoid loud voices and noises, and be courteous to the enjoyment of all who make use of the trails and campsites.

For more information on the 7 Principles of Leave No Trace and best practices for sustainably outdoor recreation, visit the Leave No Trace website at lnt.org.

Stay “Bear-Aware”

As Panthertown is part of a protected bear sanctuary, it is important to stay “bear-aware” and take proper precautions to respect them and their natural habitat, as well as limit any possible interactions or attacks. These precautions include but are not limited to utilizing bear-proof food containers, keeping a clean camp, never storing food in your tent, and cooking away from where you sleep. The U.S. Forest Service requires the use of bear-resistant containers for all overnight camping to help prevent bear/human interactions, and they strongly recommend that you learn to understand bear mannerisms and how to react if you encounter a bear.

Food odors and improperly stored garbage will attract bears to campgrounds and picnic sites which means it is vital to maintain a clean camp and store any trash and food in your car or a bear-resistant container. Even items like toothpaste, deodorant, and beverages may tempt the nose of a hungry or curious bear. In 2020 Friends of Panthertown staff and volunteers installed two large metal “bear boxes” in the area. One is located near the Panthertown shelter on the valley floor, and the other is located near where Greenland Creek and Panthertown Creek meet to form the Tuckasegee River. For more information on bear safety and awareness, visit panthertown.org/bears.

Salt Rock Gap Trailheads (West Entrance)

From Cashiers at the NC 107 / US 64 junction, take US 64 east for 2 miles to Cedar Creek Road (SR 1120) on the left. Take Cedar Creek Road for 2.3 miles to Breedlove Road (SR 1121) on your right. Travel 3.5 miles to the end of the pavement for Breedlove Road, and turn left onto the gravel road to the parking area.

Cold Mountain Gap Trailheads (East Entrance)

From Cashiers at the NC 107 / US 64 junction, take US 64 east for 13 miles to Lake Toxaway.  Turn left at Blue Ridge Road (NC 281). Take Cold Mountain Road for 5.8 miles to the end and turn left onto Panthertown Road (gravel). Go 0.1 miles to gravel parking lot entrance road (Hogback Spur A) on the right. Horse trails and trailer access are not available at the East entrance.

Flat Creek/ Rock Bridge Trailheads (North Entrance)

From Cashiers at the NC 107 / US 64 junction, take US 64 east for 13 miles to Lake Toxaway.  From Lake Toxaway at the NC 281 / US 64 junction, take NC 281 north for 9.1 miles to Rock Bridge Road (SR 1140) on the left. Take Rock Bridge Road (SR 1140) for 0.8 miles to a small parking area on the left with Rattlesnake Knob Trail (FS 452: hike, bike, and horse). Continue for another 2.3 miles to a much larger parking area suitable for horse trailers. The Turkey Knob Trail (hike and horse only) starts across the road from the large parking area and leads into Panthertown Valley.
 

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