Hiking North Carolina's Valley River Mountains

Sniff the rhododendrons and enjoy hiking the Valley Rim Trail in North Carolina's Valley River Mountains.
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Sniff the rhododendrons and enjoy hiking the Valley Rim Trail in North Carolina's Valley River Mountains.

After I lost the trail for the third time, I knew I'd come to the right place. I'd picked North Carolina's Valley River Mountains for solitude, after all, not for an easy walk in the park. So there I was, map and compass in hand, reveling in the route-finding challenges posed by the 25-mile Rim Trail, one of the wildest backcountry routes in the state.

Rather than being loved to death, the Rim Trail is in danger of disappearing due to lack of use. Overgrown with briars and obscured by blowdown, the path could use a few more boot tracks. The sparse usage isn't due to a lack of scenery, however. The Rim Trail loops through rhododendron thickets, under shady canopies of hardwoods, and over classic Southern balds that offer sweeping views. It also circles Fires Creek Wildlife Management Area, a 16,000-acre swath of the Nantahala National Forest managed as a black bear habitat.

From the trailhead, I climbed to the ridgeline encircling the Fires Creek watershed, then followed blue blazes over Big Peachtree Bald. I then proceeded to a campsite at Will King Gap, one of the few places along the route where water is plentiful. Check with rangers about water conditions before heading out.

The next day, after passing Big Stamp, a former fire lookout site, I again had to sniff out the trail like a hound tracking a fox. But with the help of my map, and the precipitous wooded ledge of the Fires Creek basin, I stayed on course. On the ascent to County Corners, a lofty junction where the boundaries of three counties meet atop Weatherman Bald, the paperlike trunks of yellow birches appeared between rhododendron thickets.

The climax of the loop comes atop 5,250-foot Tusquitee Bald, where a beautiful, forest-girdled field affords never-ending views of the Nantahala and Snowbird Mountains. The Rim Trail can be challenging, to be sure, but once you find it, you'll likely have the path all to yourself.

EXPEDITION PLANNER: Rim Trail, North Carolina

DRIVE TIME: Fires Creek is 2 hours (about

125 miles) north of Atlanta, Georgia, and

4 hours (240 miles) west of Charlotte, North Carolina.

THE WAY: From Atlanta, take US 19 north for 110 miles to Murphy, North Carolina. Drive east on US 64 for 9.4 miles and turn left onto Fires Creek Road (NC 1302). Go 3.6 miles, then turn left onto Fires Creek Wildlife Road (NC 1344) and proceed 1.8 miles to the Leatherwood Falls Picnic Area. The Rim Trail starts at the bridge just before the picnic area.

TRAILS: The Rim Trail is a 25-mile loop. Other paths add 15 more miles and shorter loop possibilities. Trails and junctions are rarely marked, so bring a map and compass.

ELEVATION: The Rim Trail ranges from 2,000 feet on Fires Creek at Leatherwood Falls to 5,250 feet atop Tusquitee Bald.

CAN'T MISS: The vista of Chatuge Lake and

the North Georgia mountains from atop

Potrock Bald.

CROWD CONTROL: The rough trails and lack of publicity have left Fires Creek well off the beaten track. Finding solitude should not be difficult, even in summer.

SEASON: Spring through fall. Winter on the balds can be surprisingly cold.

GUIDES: North Carolina Hiking Trails, by Allen de Hart (Appalachian Mountain Club Books, 800-262-4455; www.backpacker.com/bookstore; $18.95). The Tusquitee Ranger District in Murphy has a simple (and free) map of Fires Creek, but the following USGS topos are recommended: Andrews, Hayesville, and Topton (888-ASK-USGS; ask.usgs.gov).

WALK SOFTLY: Fires Creek is a black bear sanctuary. Call Tusquitee Ranger District (see Contact below) for up-to-date information on regulations.

CONTACT: Tusquitee Ranger District, Nantahala National Forest, (828) 837-5152; www.cs.unca.edu/nfsnc.