6 NC wilderness beauties that can take your breath

CorrespondentJuly 9, 2014 

  • If you go

    Wilderness areas by law lack improvements, such as bridges, developed campsites and trail signs. Even painted trail blazes on trees and rocks have been removed.

    The nosigns rule has a few exceptions. Small, kneehigh trail signs can be found in bottom of Linville Gorge because of the number of people who have gotten lost in the gorge.

    Carry a map, compass or GPS device. Outdoors stores and the U.S. Forest Service sell maps for all six areas. See www.fs.usda.gov/main/nfsnc/mapspubs.

— Take a walk on the wild side this summer – in one of six wilderness areas in the North Carolina mountains.

Hike in Ellicott Rock, Joyce Kilmer-Slickrock, Linville Gorge, Middle Prong, Shining Rock or Southern Nantahala to experience nature’s solitude and retreat from modern civilization.

In Shining Rock, grandstand views of hazy-blue mountains spreading in all directions draw hikers like Mills Grant. During late June, Grant perched atop a white quartz outcrop poking above the red spruce forest.

“It’s such a unique area. It’s one of my favorite places,” he said, gazing at the sunset-lit peaks with son, Gram, 13, friend A.J. Malde, and son, Ronak, 14, members of a Greer, S.C., Boy Scout troop.

“It has the grassy valley, open-meadow look.”

Shining Rock and the five other wildlands are swaths of remote, roadless peaks and coves in the Nantahala and Pisgah national forests. Their designation by Congress imposes the nation’s strictest land-conservation rules, banning timber cutting, road building and mining. Also generally prohibited are trail signs, foot bridges or rustic shelters.

Wilderness areas are open to hiking, off-trail camping, fishing, hunting and, in some places, horseback riding. Motorized vehicles aren’t allowed, neither are mountain bikes. Travel is by foot or by hoof.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Wilderness Act by President Lyndon Johnson on Sept. 3, 1964. The wilderness act preserves or, as in the case of many places in the East, recreates, a nature-dominated landscape resembling the America that explorers found centuries ago.

The act set aside the state’s two oldest wildernesses, Linville Gorge and Shining Rock. Three others followed in 1975; the fourth, Southern Nantahala, in 1984. Only federal lands such as national forests, national parks and national wildlife refuges are eligible. Today, the national wilderness system consists of 110 million acres.

Shining Rock covers 18,483 acres west of Asheville in the Pisgah National Forest. It’s named for the white quartz on the 5,940-foot-high summit that glints in the sun.

On a recent June day, the summit appeared deserted, except for the presence of Doug White, an instructor for North Carolina Outward Bound. The forest, however, secluded eight teenagers. They spent the day at their tents, but within whistle sound of White and instructor Sterling Wharton.

White said the students, three girls and five boys, were engaged in the solo part of their 14-day expedition, which meant isolation for 24 hours. “They can reflect on their experiences and commune with nature, or what this course has meant to them,” White said. The next day they arose at 4 a.m. to hike 6,030-foot-high Cold Mountain to view the sunrise.

For those who want to venture into a wilderness, here are suggested day hikes. Hikes require either a round trip or a car shuttle to complete.

Ellicott Rock: North Carolina, Georgia and South Carolina sections total 9,012 acres. In 1813, boundary surveyors chiseled the latitude on a rock where the three states meet. To hike to Commissioners Rock, start at South Carolina’s Walhalla Fish Hatchery. Follow the 2.6-mile East Fork Trail to the Chattooga River Trail; go north for 1.7 miles. Just before the N.C. line, where the trail begins ascending, look along the river’s edge for the rock and inscription, “LAT 35/AD 1813/NC+SC.”

Joyce Kilmer-Slickrock: 17,394 acres, partly in Tennessee. Near Robbinsville, the wilderness holds 3,800 acres of old-growth forest. Park at Wolf Laurel Hunt Camp off Santeetlah Creek Road. Take the Stratton Bald Trail to Stratton Bald (elevation 5,341 feet). Follow the Haoe Lead, Jenkins Meadow and Naked Ground trails for a total 6.1 miles to the Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest parking area.

Linville Gorge: 12,002 acres, one of the deepest (and never logged) gorges in the East, near Linville. Hikers will descend 1,200 feet or more. From the road along the western rim, take the Cabin Trail 0.75 miles to the Linville Gorge Trail at the bottom. Go south 0.5 miles to the Babel Tower Trail (1.3 miles) to get back to the road.

Middle Prong: 7,460 acres. Middle Prong is west of Shining Rock, separated by N.C. 215. Four miles of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail traverse the southern part of Middle Prong. Park at the pull-off along N.C. 215 a half-mile north of the Blue Ridge Parkway. The trail leads to grassy meadows (along the Green Mountain Trail) that offer panoramic vistas. Take the Buckeye Gap trail to get to the parkway.

Shining Rock: 18,483 acres. At parkway milepost 420.2, take the Black Balsam Road to the parking area, elevation 5,800 feet. Follow the 4.5-mile Ivestor Gap Trail past grassy meadows to Shining Rock. Expect large crowds on summer weekends.

Southern Nantahala: 23,417 acres, split between North Carolina and Georgia. It lies southwest of Franklin. Start at the Standing Indian national forest campground north of the wilderness. The 4.2-mile Lower Ridge Trail connects to the Appalachian Trail where it crosses the grassy summit of Standing Indian mountain. The 5,500-foot peak provides views that include Chatuge Lake.

Jack Horan of Charlotte is author of the guidebook, “Where Nature Reigns/The Wilderness Areas of the Southern Appalachians.”

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