Monday, June 10, 2019

Bartram Trail: Appletree to Winding Stair

Bartram Trail: Appletree Group Camp to Winding Stair Access – 9/1/18 - 13.2 Miles

Still stinging from my Benton MacKaye Trail experience back in June, I turned my attention to the Bartram Trail, a 60-mile trail through Northern Georgia and western North Carolina.  I've already hiked the last five miles from Highway 19 to the terminus at Cheoah Bald where it intersects with the AT. Nothing like starting at the end! As part of this Labor Day weekend, I planned to check out the section that starts at Appletree Campground and tags up at Highway 19 (also known as Winding Stairs Road access).

I’m using the detailed trail guide for the NC section produced by the Bartram Trail Society. It’s a spiral-bound booklet with map excerpts and a painstakingly detailed narrative of features nearly every tenth of a mile. I am not great at narrative interpretation so I knew I had to be diligent in case there are little or no markings, and I did get used to referring to it during the hike. A separate topo map (also by the BT Society) covers the entire NC section, scale 1:38,000.

[Note: the trail guide includes notes such as, at XX mileage point “pass by interesting old dead tree trunks covered with moss.” Love it!]

Our hike/bike formula would apply very well to today’s hike plan, but I had no idea what trail conditions might be on this 12+ mile section and questionable bailout points. Jim’s research on biking routes in the area was fuzzy too (is such-and-such a road paved or gravel?) He agreed to hike with me and I found a shuttle driver through the Nantahala Outdoor Center. [Her name is Villa, she’s awesome, contact the NOC if you want to use her services.] We met her early on Saturday morning, after she walked her dog, of course. 

Villa was right on time and a treasure trove of information about our hike and the bike ride Jim was contemplating for Sunday. She showed us where the trail comes out onto Wayah Road at the NOC rafting put-in on the Nantahala River. [In fact, Villa worked for the NOC for many years, was an avid paddler, hiker, mountain biker, did her share of road biking. Her favorite hobby is photography. Shuttle drivers are some of the most interesting people!] Farther along the drive to Appletree Campground, Villa waved in the general direction where Piercy Creek Trail exits at the river and Wayah Road, the one possible bailout option from the Bartram (you have to cross the river to get to the road). Foliage was so thick I couldn’t spot the trailhead. Pretty sure we don't want to do that.

The gray, dreary early morning gave way to blue sky by the time Villa dropped us at Appletree. Off to a promising start with good blazes, yellow metal rectangles nailed onto trees. Some blazes throughout the day were painted but most were the metal rectangles. What could be the difference?

In the first half-mile the trail passes through Appletree’s group camp area, buzzing with families on the holiday weekend.  Appletree is an excellent base camp or a Bartram thru-hike stop. For the next couple of miles we stayed level with the Nantahala River, but views are obscured by late summer dense foliage.  At about three miles the trail makes a sharp elbow left turn away from river (actually reversing direction) and begins a moderately steep climb up out of the gorge. Jim led the way, the thick spiderwebs sticking to his maroon colored shirt like silver threads.

After a mile the trail levels out again, moving on and off old roadbeds. There are plenty of suitable spots to pop up a tent if you don’t like the Appletree Campground option. We passed a couple of trails on the left coming up from the campground. There was a moment of head-scratching at a meadow of shoulder-high grass but we found our way to where the trail re-entered the woods. Over the course of the day we met a half dozen creek crossings, the first three bridged and the rest quick rock hops.  The trail guide says there are deep winter “panoramic vistas” when the foliage is gone, but today we stayed in a long green tunnel. Lots of fun stuff to look at up close, though.

Trail conditions were excellent, well defined tread, not rocky, long stretches of pine needle beds. Blazes were abundant and there was signage at every intersection. I could have easily done this on my own.

Great Lobelia


We stopped for lunch at the Piercy Creek trailhead which Villa had mentioned as a bailout option. The trail looked seldom used. This sign posted at the intersection seems open to interpretation: does Appletree mean the campground entrance where we started or the Appletree Trail from the Group Camp meadow? Do these mileages jive with my trail guide (published spring 2017) or will our hike be longer than we anticipated? I'm sure it will all make sense when we're sitting at the bar tonight.

Next challenge, the second part of the climb up Rattlesnake Mountain; however, the trail doesn’t cross the summit. It goes over a shoulder and then begins a long gradual descent, winding gently in and out of hardwood coves.

Pale yellow jewelweed covering the slopes

Jewelweed and blowdowns

Water surge tank

Finally, a nice view! Hmmm…why does the sign indicate the trail in only one direction?

But wait, we’re not done with that long gradual descent. We’ve got 1.7 miles to go on a steep gravel service road.  And as sometimes happens when a trail meets civilization, the road is in sight and yet somehow we missed a well-marked turn near the Duke Energy substation and had to backtrack.

We crossed Wayah Road and followed the yellow blazes. Dozens of paddlers were loading into rafts to float the Nanty down to the NOC. [Many years ago Jim and I took a couple of our kids on the same rafting trip.  The water was freezing cold. As I recall, Jim fell out of the raft, and the petite female guide grabbed him by the shoulders of his PFD, flipped him around and hauled him back into the raft quicker than you could say “what just happened?”  Good times.]

The Bartram Trail follows the Riverwalk, a lovely paved greenway path, for 1.5 miles to our car at Winding Stair Access - a mellow ending to a great hike. Done before 2:30 p.m., ready for a shower, some food and a few beers at The Warehouse at Nantahala Brewing in Bryson City.  Yep.

"Some old-fashioned things like fresh air and sunshine are hard to beat." ~Laura Ingalls Wilder

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