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November 27, 2006

Fires Creek Rim Trail

View from Potrock Bald.JPG

View to the Southeast from Potrock Bald

This past weekend, I had the pleasure of exploring a new area here in the Southern Appalachians. The 25.5-mile Fires Creek Rim Trail is an area that I've been planning to hike since 2004, and I finally took the time to get out there and hike it.

The Fires Creek Rim Trail is a rugged loop trail located near Hayesville, North Carolina in the Tusquitee Ranger District of the Nantahala National Forest. The beauty of a loop trail, is that you can park your car at the trailhead where you begin your hike, and walk the trail (without retracing your steps) right back to where you started! Joining me on this hike was John R. Ray, and my regular hiking buddy Dave "Youngblood" Womble. John, a retired Physicist from Clemson University discovered this trail about 6 years ago, and has since developed a comprehensive hiking guide for the area. He has also spent a considerable amount of time clearing brush and downed trees, and placing blue plastic trail markers on the trail. Dave is a friend that I met while hiking the Appalachian Trail in 2000. We have since hiked a number of trails together.

We started our 3-day trek on Friday November 24, and it was great to know that while most of America was jostling for their place in checkout lines at the mall, we were out hiking on a glorious fall day.

We began our hike shortly after 10 AM at the Leatherwood Falls Picnic Area - elevation 1843' - and spent most of the day climbing up to the north rim of the trail. Water is scarce on this trail, so having a trail guide with you on a backpacking trip is essential. There are only two places on the entire 25.5-mile loop where water actually crosses the trail. John's guidebook lists all the places where water is accessible along the way.

We spent our first evening camping along an old Forest Service road just the other side of Big Stamp. The elevation was 4263', so once the sunset, the temperatures started to drop quickly. After eating and chatting with my hiking buddies, we all retired for the evening. With sunset at about 5:30 PM, and sunrise at about 7:15 AM, it would be a long night inside my tent.

In the morning, a deer hunter walked into our camp, thereby emphasizing the need to wear blaze orange while hiking during hunting season. He was a pleasant fellow who was out looking for deer. The Fire's Creek Rim Trail itself follows the boundary of a Bear Sanctuary where hunting for Black Bear is prohibited. But that doesn't stop bear hunters from hunting all around the periphery of the sanctuary.

Day two on the trail was a rough one. The Fires Creek Rim Trail is what I would classify as a "primitive trail." Dead and down trees block the treadway in places. Briars have grown up along the trail where sunlight is able to penetrate the forest canopy. And the tread was 6" deep in leaves most of the way. Unlike more heavily trodden trails like the Appalachian Trail, the treadway in some areas was barely discernable, but to this hiker, that's part of the adventure. Of course, this adds an element of risk to the hike, as there is always the possibility of getting lost. With John Ray with us, that likelihood was diminished. Again, I want to emphasize the importance of carrying a map and compass if you choose to explore this trail!

Day two was marked by several wildlife encounters. We saw or heard a variety of birds including Wild Turkey, White-Breasted Nuthatch, Pileated Woodpecker, a Red Tailed Hawk, and a number of Ruffed Grouse. It also brought us past an area of great concern along the trail.

High on the north rim of the Fires Creek basin is a 50 acre parcel of private property. This parcel, commonly referred to by the Forest Service as a "in-holding" is completely surrounded by public land on all sides. The parcel itself is marked on the map in John's trail guide, and is denoted by hatching. Unfortunately, the owner of the property has stated their intent to develop the land. There are a number of reasons why this is a concern. This would be the only development inside of the basin, and the area is high on steep slopes in the headwaters of a stream feeding Fires Creek. This will threaten the pristine water quality in the area. The proposed development also threatens to sever the Rim Trail almost at it's mid-point, and disturb the peaceful backcountry setting of this remote area. The fragmentation of the Fires Creek basin would spell bad news for the migratory songbirds that breed there in the summer, and the Black Bears that roam through the region. Hopefully the land can be acquired, and this development will not occur.

As we continued along the north rim, we came to a couple of overlooks where we could see the ridge that the Appalachian Trail is found on, as well as the Great Smoky Mountains off in the distance. It was truly spectacular! We finally settled in for the evening on the flanks of Tusquitee Bald at over 5200'. Since the skies were clear, and the weather was unseasonably warm, I decided to roll out my sleeping bag on the forest floor, and sleep under the stars cowboy style. As the last light of the day died out in the west, a Screech Owl called from a dense thicket of Rhododendron - right next to where I lay. It was a great close to day 2 on the trail.

On the morning of Day 3, we walked up to the Summit of Tusquitee Bald and watched the sunrise. We were standing on the Chunky Gal Trail, which crosses the summit of the Bald, and connects with the Fires Creek Rim Trail at mile marker 15.6. The other end of the 22-mile Chunky Gal Trail connects to the Appalachian Trail near Deep Gap.

After the sun was up, we packed up our things and prepared to break camp. Before we did, I interviewed John Ray in our camp. To listen to the entire 5 minute 51 second interview, click here.

Day three was my favorite day out on the trail. After breaking camp we climbed to the summit of Potrock Bald, named after the bowl-like carvings found in a rock near the summit. The summit offered a breathtaking 180 degree view of the Southern Nantahala Wilderness, Lake Chatuge, and Brasstown Bald. This would make a great place to spend an overnight - but you'd have to work for it! That would involve driving about 10 miles up a Forest Service Road, and then climbing 2000 feet in 1.9 miles on the Far Bald Spring Trail. Another couple of miles on the Rim Trail would get you to Potrock Bald.

The remainder of the day we climbed up and down a series of knobs, balds and hightops. At one point we passed the wreckage from a small plane that crashed in 1974. The crash killed two adults, but two young boys survived the wreck. Looking at what remained of the plane, it was hard to imagine how anyone had survived the crash.

All in all, it was a great day to be in the woods with some friends. The only downer was being passed by a rider on a motorcycle. The Fires Creek Rim Trail is only open to hikers, and in some places equestrian traffic. Motorized traffic is strictly prohibited, but that didn't discourage this guy.

At around 4:45 PM on Sunday afternoon, we arrived back at our starting location. Our hike was over.

If you'd like to explore this area, you'll need to purchase John Ray's guidebook. It is available from the US Forest Service and a number of retailers. You can also purchase the guidebook directly from John. To contact John Ray, you can visit his website, or send him an email. He's always looking for new folks to help him work on the trails, so if you're interested in volunteering, please give him a shout!

That's all for now. Stay tuned for more dispatches from the trails of the southeast.

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Great Places to Hike | By Jeffrey Hunter | 09:33 AM

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