27 Oct Advice on hiking the Batram – AT Loop
The Bartram Trail intersects the Appalachian Trail in 2 places, on the north end near the top of Cheoah Bald and on the south end near the top of Wayah Bald. The loop is about 58 miles long. The Bartram trail portion includes several road walks and requires care to avoid getting off the trail. The good news is that the Bartram trail is blazed with yellow blazes and you should usually be okay if you look out for blazes. There are a few places where the blazes are confusing or not as frequent (for peace of mind) as I would like. Also, there is a section of the Bartram that is likely to be overgrown. This section is going north from Appletree Camp that following the banks of the Nantahala river. Other than the long climbs or descents, the AT is no problem. It is well marked, cleared of deadfall, and crowded. Here is my section by section advice, but first is a link to an excellent video of the hike that was produced by Foothills Backpacker. These 4 guys did their hike in June 2015, while I hiked the loop in October 2015. There is nothing like seeing the trail for better finding your way. Read my description, then view the video. Pay particular attention to the first part of the video where these guys are hiking the Bartram and look for key points in my descriptions. Many of these are points where I went the wrong way or had trouble figuring out the right way.
Foothills started at the point the Bartram Trail came out on the road at Nantahala Lake. They headed north (Clockwise) as I did. Going the other direction from their starting point is a steep climb toward the AT intersection south of Wayah Bald.
My starting point was off Highway 19/74 in Nantahala Gorge. I parked at a small parking area at Winding Stair Road. Look carefully for this road. It is easy to miss. If traveling north on Hwy 19, begin looking for it on your right after you pass Wayah Road (Hwy 1310) on the right. From Winding Stair Road, it is another 6.3 miles of driving on Hwy 19 to the NOC. Here is the Google Map location for Winding Stair Road.
I dropped my backpack at the NOC Outfitters and day hiked from Winding Stair Road back to the NOC (about 13 miles), where I picked up my backpack. It is nice not to have to lug the backpack up and over Cheoah Bald. If you plan on doing this, call the NOC Outfitters first to verify their hours. When I hiked, they opened at 10 AM and closed at 6 PM. They were actually there at 9:30 AM and I ended up leaving my backpack with them at 9:50 AM. I drove back to Winding Stair Road and was on the trail just after 10 AM. If you try this, remember that you need to make it to the NOC Outfitters (13 miles) before closing time.
As you can see in the Foothills video, the 3000 ft vertical climb over 5 miles is challenging. It is also one of the most beautiful and peaceful sections of the hike. Even thought it was a beautiful autumn Saturday morning, I did not see anyone else on this portion of the Bartram. There is always going to be more deadfall to cross on any portion of the Bartram than you would find on the AT. The deadfall was there, but it wasn’t too bad. Just remember that crawling over and under fallen trees adds to the effort.
Once on the AT, it wasn’t long before I ran into other hikers (maybe 5 minutes). Like I said, as lonely as the Bartram trail may be, the AT is like a super highway. Well marked, well traveled, and full of people. The 3000 plus vertical foot descent to the NOC is long and tiring on the feet and joints. I was back to the NOC before 4 PM. I picked up my pack from the Outfitters. There are showers at the railroad station. They take quarters. One of the showers worked and the other didn’t. Ask at the Outfitters for directions to the showers. (Hint: Go across railroad bridge, bear right and cross tracks.) When I hiked into the NOC, the train had just arrived and disgorged all of its passengers who were busy enjoying a beer and watching the kayakers.
The nice thing about planning the first day to arrive at the NOC is that I was able to enjoy a dinner and beer at the restaurant. After showering and eating, I packed up and hiked an uphill 0.8 miles to Rufus Morgan Shelter for the night. Nice, because no need to pitch a tent and no worry about how late I left the NOC because anyone can do 0.8 miles even if a headlamp is needed.
The next section is another 3000 vertical foot uphill grind on the AT. The Wesser Trail comes in from the left near Wesser Shelter. (Just thought I would mention this fun fact because the Wesser Trail is the old AT. It left hikers on Hwy 19 about a mile north of the NOC and required a dangerous road walk on the highway. My brother and I did this in 1978.)
There is plenty of information out there on the AT, so I won’t dwell on this portion of the hike.
I spent my 2nd night at Wayah Bald Shelter. This shelter doesn’t seem to be on maps or guides that many people have. You will see a sign pointing to a water trail to the right about a mile before the top of Wayah Bald. This is shortly after you begin the climb. The shelter is at a trail to the left. If you continue hiking toward the top of Wayah Bald, you will shortly (0.2 miles from shelter) come to a campsite where the Bartram trail (from the south direction) joins the AT. This is not your turn! You continue south on the AT where the Bartram trail shares the trail with the AT for another couple of miles at least. Just past the campsite you will find a good water source next to the trail. With water, this makes a nice campsite (Bartram – AT Trail Junction Campsite).
Follow the Bartram – AT trail 0.8 miles to the top of Wayah Bald.
Continue past Wayah Bald on the Bartram – AT for a couple of miles. Look out for the yellow blazes. There are more white blazes than yellow blazes.
Reach a small creek with a campsite on the right (excellent campsite with water). This is next to the Bartram – AT trail junction where the Bartram trail leaves the AT. From here you follow ridges and several meadows. (Bartram trail always goes straight across the meadow. Be on the lookout for yellow blaze on the far end of the meadow ridge.)
After you cross Saw Mill Gap (Big Saw Mill Gap Road Sign) you will start with a little climb and after passing Jarret Bald, elev. 4820 feet, and a little more than a mile beyond Saw Mill Gap, you begin a wicked descent. There is not much in the way of switchbacks and it seems like the descent will never end. This descent is actually 2.3 miles to Nantahala lake.
You are rewarded for this descent by a short walk (turn right onto road (SR 1310) and walk to the Lake End Marina Restaurant where you can have a hot lunch. It would be great to time your hike so that this restaurant is open. After lunch or dinner, whatever the case, continue down the road past the Phillips 66 gas station and general store. The general store as a few food items.
Turn left down a road just past the Phillips 66. Look for the sign and look for blazes. This is also one of the few places you can ask directions since there are likely to be people around the Marina and Phillip 66. When I asked, some people knew and others just said that most people get off the trail here and skip forward (probably to Appletree Camp).
The next section follows the lake toward the dam, sometimes coming following a gravel road and other times following a trail parallel to the gravel road. Until you cross the river below the dam (on a concrete ford), you need to be very aware of the yellow blaze. I didn’t run into trouble until I was nearly to the bottom somewhere below the dam. I came out on a road and saw a blaze along the road that was uphill and to my left. I knew that had to be the wrong direction, but I walked up that way a short distance and referred to the Bartram Trail Guidebook. This was at mile 21.0 in the guidebook which was described as “Old road joins from right. Turn to left 80 degrees leaving road as descend to campsite on steep sided gorge with view of waterfall. Then at guidebook mile 21.1 it says “Turn right 90 degrees onto same road as on previously, Nantahala Gorge on left as gently descend.” I had missed the tenth of mile between 21.0 and 21.1 and had somehow come out on the “gently descending road” well below the campsite and waterfall. As you can see, it is hard to walk with a guidebook in your hand while constantly following directions. I mainly used the guidebook whenever I got off track.
Shortly after this point you cross the concrete ford and turn right onto High Water Trail Road. This road parallels the Nantahala river (what little there is of it given that it has been diverted). You now have a 2 mile road walk on this road. I never saw a single car on this gravel road.
The next possible point of confusion is when this road intersects into Cloudwalker Cove Rd.. You turn right here and a short walk passing under a the piped Nantahala river where you hit SR 1401 and turn right again and can see Appletree Group Camp sign. Take a break at the sign. The Bartram trail will be obvious there. If you review Foothills Backpacker Bartram – AT Loop Youtube you will see good video of this section with the guys passing under the pipe and coming up to the Appletree Group Camp sign.
The movie also shows the overgrown trail along the river that goes past Appletree Camp. This part of the trail is a little annoying because there is a gravel road (with easy walking) that is directly across the trickle of a river. I met a guy while hiking that told me his story of hiking this section on an earlier trip. He and his buddy got off the trail in the overgrown jungle along this river section and had a very tough time until they finally came across the trail again.