Over the weekend I was visiting my son again at his boarding school in the high country of South Carolina. As is becoming tradition, we took advantage of the fact that it is so close to the Appalachian Trail, and made sure to fit in another hike. It was after all, a gorgeous day for a walk in the woods, and he’s expressed to me a few times now that he’d like to thru-hike with me one day. This news of course is a dream come true for me! So I have to feed that passion. His trail name is Jiffy Pop, in case you’re new here.
We were up in the Asheville, North Carolina for most of the weekend for other reasons, and I thought about finding some local trail hikes there. I know there are also great trails and hikes near his school in northwest South Carolina and northeast Georgia. However the Appalachian Trail was the trail I wanted to get him on to keep him excited about a thru-hike one day. So I thumbed through my WhiteBlaze 2019 white pages guide while at our hotel for options on the Appalachian Trail nearby in North Carolina.
We did get to drive on the Blue Ridge Parkway, by chance, on the way to one of our activities. What a treat! It is very much like Skyline Drive in Shenandoah National Park, but starts just across the road from Skyline’s southern end in Waynesboro, Virginia and travels a few hundred miles south. It was a bit overcast and cloudy that day (Sunday) but was as a result also a perfect example of why these are called the Great Smoky Mountains. We stopped at an overlook and took some photos of course.
While in the Asheville area I also got to meet in person a thru-hiker from the class of 2018 that we enjoyed following on YouTube – IBTAT. While he’s quite a character, speaking often with regular profanity, he’s a really nice guy who found sobriety through hiking the trail and fully appreciates the beauty of the A.T.
Unlike a large percentage of thru-hikers who are often moving very fast to do the trail as quickly as possible (or treating it like a giant party), he often stopped to observe and point out amazing views and how lucky he was to be able to experience a thru-hike. He’s gearing up for a PCT hike soon. I knew he lived in Asheville and cooked at a restaurant there, and so I reached out to see if he would be working that day we were arriving in town. When he confirmed he was, we went for an amazing breakfast and a quick hello. Because he had thru-hiked last year I was hoping to have him meet my son too but the schedules did not line up.
For the hike we opted to go back to Franklin, an area I knew a bit now from our last visit and hike to Siler Bald in September. I considered a hike up to Wesser Bald from Tellico Gap, or Wayah gap to Wayah Fire Tower, or from Winding Stair Gap all the way to Siler Bald, but all were too long and too much elevation gain for the number of hours we had to spare. We opted for the last hike, but only halfway to Siler Bald, stopping at an overlook two miles up at Panther Gap. While not a 360 degree view, it too had great views south from east to west and as I mentioned we’ve already been up to Siler Bald. We will cover the two miles between Panther Gap and Siler Bald when we thru hike – or at the very least do a long-a** section hike (LASH) in a few years. My son’s not sure he can do it, but he wants to try and we will give it our best shot. Even a week together on the trail will be an amazing bonding experience we would cherish for life.
The climb out of Winding Stair Gap featured an exciting rushing brook crossing, some good twisting, climbing trail with lots of log steps (hence the name) and a beautiful cascade with a bridge across it. Up to Panther Gap the elevation gain was only about 850 ft, but we felt it. There were two steady climbs with a merciful half-mile of flat to gradual uphill in the middle. There was a gorgeous campsite about a mile up at Moore Creek, and oh how I wished we had overnight gear and were spending the night. We stopped a short ways after at the sign for Swinging Lick Gap, which someone had tried to change into a more vulgar name by carving the L into a D. My son got a kick out of this of course. Me being a trail maintainer, not so much. I hear they have to replace this sign often. While it’s a funny name, vandalism isn’t funny.
There was also a camping spot at Panther Gap, which we saw when we finally caught up to Jiffy Pop who was waiting patiently for us at the view. For someone worried about being able to do it, he certainly left us way behind on the climb up! There was a fire pit which had some orange peels in it. Being a ridge runner and an all around leave no trace guy, I cleaned those up. It’s a reflex, and the right thing to do anyway.
I imagine in summer in full canopy this view would be much more obscured but it was great this day. The wind was howling over the ridgeline at the gap. The wind always finds the path of least resistance and a gap sure qualifies. We were at about 4500ft in elevation at this point and I tried to identify the other peaks in the distance as some I knew were along the trail south of here. We had a snack and took in the long views and took some photos and then headed back down as we had to be back at the car in 45 minutes. The rhododendron and mountain laurel were plentiful, and I pictured the glory of this section in full bloom. It was beautiful even in winter.
And, my son did get to meet two thru-hikers on the hike, so that was great. I really wanted him to meet some thru-hikers so he could be inspired by them as well. They were a gentlemen from Ohio now living in Franklin who did the trail in 2015. And a current thru-hiker “Engineer” now “Full Monty”. He said had to take a break in Franklin due to IT band issues for many days but was back out and at it, and optimistic for a great hike. I too have some knee issues and wear compression sleeves for downhills, so I can relate.