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Hiking North Carolina’s Valley River Mountains

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.

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