Stepping onto the trail, I feel like I am greeting an old friend. It’s been a while since I’ve visited, but there’s a connection to something bigger here. Maybe it is the trail’s history dating back to the eighteenth century. Winter and early spring just happen to be my favorite times to hike this trail, the North Carolina Bartram Trail, for the stillness of it. With the leaves on the trees gone, you can hear the tiniest pin drop. The crunch of the crisp foliage beneath my feet indicates this is a road less traveled. The only other sound I hear is the animated commotion up ahead as my “Labradorgi” (lab/corgi mix) dives into a small waterfall pool. He’s like a kid in a candy store.
Aside from my four-legged hiking companion, I am taking to the Trail with a small group of friends who gather annually for this winter hike. Considered one of the most famous hikes in North Carolina, it honors the legacy of the legendary William Bartram, the botanist, naturalist, artist, writer, and explorer who pioneered this route in 1775. On his exploratory journey from Florida to the Carolinas, he documented his findings on native flora and fauna and acutely studied the multiple Indian cultures. According to an article written by National Geographic, Bartram dedicated his life to nature and is considered an icon in wilderness preservation, leaving behind a unique collection of art and writings from pre-Revolutionary War days.
The Bartram Trail, all one hundred miles of it, is a moderate to strenuous trail that winds through old-growth Nantahala Forest, waterfalls, and tunnels of rhododendron thickets while undulating over mountains of granite. Backpacker magazine rated it as one of the “Ten Best Long Trails in America” and “Number One” for solitude. The North Carolina portion of the Trail begins just after the second highest peak in Georgia, the magnificent Rabun Bald (4696 feet elevation). Today our group chooses to catch a two-mile moderate part of the Trail off Highway 106 and summit Scaly Mountain (4804 feet elevation).
Time feels elusive on the Bartram Trail. There is no evidence of modernity except for the occasional yellow trail blazes that assist in keeping you on the path. While ascending 1100 feet, we are reminded that this was once Cherokee land and every now and again you’ll pass an ancient “marker” tree that was once used to guide the Indians on their travels. As we climb, we pass a small exhibit of cairns, or rock piles, created by previous hikers. Although the profusion of color from wildflowers and plant life seen on the trail in warmer months is now gone, the colors that remain are hues of evergreen, sage, burgundy, and brown.
As we reach the pinnacle of Scaly Mountain, the breathtaking blues of the Blue Ridge Mountains come into view. Our group settles onto the warm bed of granite with a southerly exposure to catch some rays and take in the vastness of the mountains before us. We are all quiet as we breathe in the clean fresh air and let the awe-inspiring vista imprint our reflective thoughts. One can only imagine that this is the same view that spurred William Bartram to write in his journal while resting on an elevated peak in these same mountains, “…I beheld with rapture and astonishment a sublimely awful scene of power and magnificence, a world of mountains piled upon mountains.”
For a trail with many places of interest and incredible biodiversity, it is never crowded even in the summer. On today’s four-mile hike, we encounter only five people and two dogs over the course of two and half hours. The Trail is not a loop, so consulting a trail map is important when determining a turning-around point. Going beyond Scaly Mountain, the trail will take you on a much longer, more strenuous hike towards Tessentee Creek Campsite and further yet to Wayah Bald (5342’). At one point, the Trail briefly crosses the Appalachian Trail and continues for many more miles to the trail’s end at Cheoah Bald (5062 feet elevation).
North Carolina Bartram Trail Society, a non-profit trail club established by local residents in 1977, created the North Carolina Bartram Trail. Along with the aid of the US Forest Service, the society’s volunteers are responsible for maintaining the trail and continuing the work of William Bartram. A helpful trail map can be purchased at local hiking shops and from the Society at ncbartramtrail.org. Memberships are also available if you would like to help contribute to their efforts.
The week following our group hike, we received 15” of snow. My group decided to do the same hike again, but this time with snowshoes. The Trail took on a distinctive character with sugary white fluff decorating the forest and blanketing the mountain. We were the first and only tracks in the snow and felt as if we were pioneering the Trail, just like Bartram must have felt almost 250 years ago.
My Day Hike Checklist
One excited dog
Collapsible dog water bowl
Water for my dog and me
Bear spray/ whistle
Hiking poles (optional)
Layers of clothing: hat, gloves, and jacket
Small first aid kit