Last year, when we hiked the Bartram Trail, our friend Donner and another fellow, Savage, joined us for the first two days. They had found a 55-60 mile loop that the Bartram made with the AT, and they could just about squeeze that into a long weekend in order to join us for a short section of our hike. You can read about our thru-hike of the Bartram Trail here. Also, consider comparing this loop to the Georgia Loop, which is almost exactly the same length.
Since then, I suggested this loop to my friend Jordan, and with COVID-19, hiking a loop is much more appealing since you don’t have to worry about getting a shuttle. Since Jordan wanted to hike a bit slower, we decided that we would join him for part of his hike by starting after him and then catching up to him.
Day 1: 6 miles
In order to make the hike even more interesting, I decided to run a half marathon the day that we started. I also got a message from Jordan that his Achilles heel was sore, and he wasn’t sure if he would continue the hike or not. I told him to try to send us a message either way.
We bought some pizza on our way to the Nantahala Outdoor Center (NOC), and figured out how to park there overnight before hitting the trail at about 5pm.
The hike starts with a 3,000ft climb up to Cheoah Bald along the Appalachian Trail, and my legs were somewhat tired from the half marathon I finished only a few hours earlier. Luckily, we only needed to hike about 6 miles, and hiking muscles are somehow completely different from running muscles.
Although we are certainly experiencing fall weather, the climb up Cheoah Bald was humid, and tiring, and we found ourselves completely sweaty by the time we reached higher elevations, and the sun started setting. We found the perfect camping spot just as darkness fell, and set up camp.
I couldn’t believe how wet my shirt and shorts were. Instead of being smart and changing my clothes, I thought I’d try to get the clothes I was wearing dry by keeping them on. I got cold quickly and crawled into my down sleeping bag. If you know anything about down, you probably know that it performs really poorly when wet. Somehow, John and I were not very tired, and we stayed up for an hour or so giggling about this, that, and the other. The humidity inside the sleeping bag felt like a sauna, but luckily it wasn’t that cold at night, and everything did eventually dry out.
Day 2: 22 miles
We got up at dawn and climbed the last little bit to the top of Cheoah Bald. Although it was nice and cool, there was almost no view with the morning haze.
The Bartram starts near the top of Cheoah Bald, and we found the familiar yellow blazes and started following them away from the Appalachian Trail.
We descended and descended some more, and along the way we followed a lovely stream with lots of waterfalls. I remembered from our previous hike that this section involved quite a few stream crossings, so when I came across one, I just barged right through it, not bothering to try to rock hop. But, the water was much lower than it had been the following spring, and in fact the rest of the stream crossings were easy rock hops, so in fact I got my feet wet for no reason.
At some point I turned on my phone to see if Jordan had left us a message. Unfortunately, he had decided to quit because the pain in his heels was not getting better, and he managed to get a ride back to the NOC. That meant that we no longer had a predetermined destination for the day (we were supposed to meet up with Jordan at a predetermined camping spot).
Not many people hike on the Bartram Trail, and one consequence is that the spider webs across the trail are plentiful. We took turns walking through them, but John spent more time in the lead, because even if I walk ahead, he still gets spider webs in his face because he’s a foot taller than I am.
When we got to the spot where we were originally supposed to meet Jordan, it was only about 4:30PM, and so we decided to carry on, despite the fact that we knew we’d be sacrificing a burger at the Lake’s End Cafe and Grill, because we would be walking past well before they opened the next day. I told myself we’d get a burger at the end of the trip instead.
Because of our experience hiking the Batram last year, and finding the concrete ford just below the Nantahala Dam was completely uncrossable, we decided to take a slightly different route through that area, which put us on the other side of the river. We wound up walking up to the ford just to take a look at it, and we were shocked to see that it was completely dry. Last time it was under 3 feet of water! I couldn’t believe it, because just 2 days ago, hurricane Sally dumped a couple of inches of rain in this area. We must have been at this ford right when they were releasing water from the dam last time.
We camped slightly uphill from the dam.
Day 3: 20 miles
First thing in the morning we were able to hike a very small section (like 2 miles) of the Bartram that we were unable to hike last time because of the ford issue, and it was actually a really nice section with views of the lake with fog on top of it.
We then popped out on the road and passed by the restaurant 3 hours before they opened, and just carried on along the road to where the trail disappears into the woods again, headed straight up towards Wayah Bald. The climb up Wayah Bald is very demoralizing. The trail is very steep in sections, there were a number of blowdowns, and my legs were very tired.
When we finally intersected the Appalachian Trail, I was very excited to join the well maintained superhighway of a trail. For a few miles, the AT and the Bartram share a footpath past Wayah Bald. We got to Wayah Bald, and spent some time admiring the view. Lots of other people were up there, having driven most of the way up. This whole area experienced a fire a few years ago, and we walked through dead trees for a while.
At the point where the Bartram and AT parted ways, we caught up to a gentleman carrying a strange long pole and we got chatting. Apparently he was helping with a project to collect American Chestnut seeds so as to preserve as much of the genetic diversity as possible. There aren’t many American Chestnuts left at this point. He was also from Asheville, so we talked for a bit about the state of Asheville and the effects of COVID-19.
We parted ways, and eventually found a water source where there was supposed to be some camping, but there were already 4 people there, and so we collected some water and stated our intentions of carrying on. Two of the other people said they were also going to try to hike further, but there was a huge climb coming up that we should be aware of. As we left, I checked my map to find that the “huge climb” was actually less than 1,000ft. I guess everything is relative.
We found a nice little spot almost at the top of the “huge climb” and set up camp. As we were eating dinner, the two other hikers passed us, huffing and puffing and absolutely drenched in sweat. Meanwhile, John and I were huddled together for warmth with all of our layers on.
“I can’t imagine sweating that much in this weather!” John whispered to me once they were out of earshot. It was probably in the low 50’s, and we knew it would probably dip below 40 at night. Luckily neither one of us were sweaty, so we were able to climb into our sleeping bags and warm up quickly.
Day 4: 7 miles
In the morning it was chilly, and we put on all our layers and climbed up the remaining bit of mountain to reach the fire tower on top of Wesser Bald. We climbed the tower to get a wonderful view of the surrounding mountains with patches of fog in the valleys.
We hiked on towards the NOC, and the trail was a bit rough for the Appalachian Trail – it probably needed some more work since the fires in 2016, and this section is quite rocky, and also remote, so trail work is hard.
We had a long downhill into the valley, and my mind was fixated on one thing: a burger. I had no idea if the NOC restaurant would be open, or if they served burgers, but I was hopeful. Once we popped out of the woods, the restaurant was right on the other side of the road, and I ran up to it. It looked closed. I sighed, and looked at the menu, which was posted on the outside of the restaurant. They did sell burgers! But they didn’t open until 11AM. I looked at my watch, 10:55AM.
“They’re just about to open!” I shouted over to John.
We waited patiently for a few minutes until they opened the doors. We got a nice seat outside and devoured our burgers. It was pure joy with a side of fries, and a great end to our hike.