Wayah Bald Fire Tower On the AT – 2/20/12 – 9 Miles
Jim and I played hooky from the world for a few days in the mountains of western North Carolina. Rain persisted as we kicked around Bryson City for an afternoon until we gave up and retreated to our rental cabin near the teeny tiny town of Almond at the eastern end of Lake Fontana. After a dreary, rainy, cold night by our cozy fireplace, we drove over to Franklin, NC, passing through the clouds and over the mountain to sunshine and blue skies.
The goal: to hike in the Nantahala Mountains on the Appalachian Trail to Wayah Bald lookout tower. My curiosity was piqued by the book, “Hiking North Carolina’s Lookout Towers” by Peter Barr. The original wooden tower was built in 1929. The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) replaced it with a stone tower completed in 1937 and it was opened to the public. The tower served as a fire lookout until 1945. In the ensuing years renovations were made, including removal of the upper stories and addition of a new roof and interpretive signs to identify the surrounding peaks.
You can drive all the way to the tower if you want, but what fun is that? We wanted to hike from the Wilson Lick Ranger Station, about three miles one way. We drove up, up, up Forest Road 69, and at Wayah Gap the tower road entrance gate was closed – so now it looks like a 4.2-mile one-way hike with a side trip to the Wilson Lick historical buildings.
The AT starts off steep here, sucking wind right away, but my breathing was soon regulated. Jim never breathes hard. Those cyclists have superhuman lungs… The air was chilly, mid-30’s, but warming with the sun and a cloudless sky and traces of snow on the ground.
Looking towards Franklin – wonder what the two peaks are?
After the short climb, the trail flattened out a bit and alternated between rolling and uphills, crossing the forest road several times. We had the trail to ourselves.
Evidence of wild hogs rooting around
Wayah Bald tower
Looking out over the wall at the base of the tower
Just a few minutes after we arrived at the tower we heard voices – who else is out here on a Monday morning? Well, three thru-hikers, of course – two men in shorts and a woman in a skirt. The woman and one man were a couple, Ma and Pa, and the other man introduced himself as Crash. The three are not hiking together, just crossing paths. All had thru-hiked before. This is Crash’s third time and he will turn 60 on this go-round. We had a great chat, got a little education on thru-hiking and the fact that repeaters tend to start earlier than first-timers, and that this year was a particularly good one for starting early because of the mild weather. I asked Crash about his pack, which looked like clear plastic. It was made of Cuben fiber and weighed less than a pound empty.
So much for our solitude of the morning. On our return hike we passed 18 other hikers, including 2 more thru’s, some college age kids, and a Boy Scout troop with the leaders bringing up the rear. The AT is like a highway sometimes, but it was nice to see people out enjoying the beautiful day.
Seemed like we arrived at the side trail to Wilson Lick Ranger Station in no time. We took a little while to explore the site that once supported the watchmen who worked at the fire tower. Built in 1916, the remaining buildings are a historical exhibit and not in active service.
I highly recommend Peter Barr’s book for its background information and hiking routes to fire towers in North Carolina. Peter is passionate and thorough about his subject. Maybe you don’t need a reason for hiking, but this book gives a different perspective and new destinations and can lead you to explore areas you may not have thought about.
If you are seeking creative ideas, go out walking. Angels whisper to a man when he goes for a walk. ~Raymond Inmon