Over the next several years I hiked all the main trails in and around Panthertown Valley then started on the more obscure ones. Things became less wild as the forest service began marking the main trails and the Friends of Panthertown organization kicked in their efforts to maintain and improve the trails, build bridges, and control erosion. With the advent of Kornegay’s excellent updated map in 2009, I started spending more time exploring the trails to the north of Panthertown valley.
When I started coming to Panthertown with the WCBI, our preferred method of exploring the region was to park our car at the Cold Mountain Trailhead, hike in a couple of miles to the confluence of Greenland and Panthertown Creeks, and set up a comfortable base camp at the incredible campsite there. We’d strike out in the morning and hike long distances to cover as many of the trails as we could and return in the evening to some of the comforts of home. That abruptly came to an end in 2013 when we had a nasty encounter with a very large, very aggressive, and completely fearless black bear. It not only terrorized us at night but came during the day while we were hiking and destroyed or damaged every piece of gear to determine if it was edible. It even bit holes into Nalgene bottles to see if the liquid inside was tasty!
Although there are many well marked and easy trails in Panthertown Valley, we’ve included descriptions of hikes that were particularly rewarding due to their degree of difficulty and spectacular beauty. For most of the length of these hikes the trails were obscure and unmarked and in some cases there was no trail at all as we followed very rugged streambeds.
Panthertown is an 8,765-acre mountain preserve that contains the headwaters of Tuckaseegee River and is known for its broad, flat valley flanked by cliffs rising several hundred feet. It’s one of those rare hidden Shangri-Las that because of its many streams and waterfalls, large rock exposures, biological diversity, and amazing trail network, is almost too wonderful to believe when you first experience it.
I stumbled on it in the early 1990s, not long after the Nature Conservancy purchased it from Duke Power (now Duke Energy). It was the dead of winter and everything was snow covered and frozen but even then I was completely intrigued by the place and developed a strong, permanent attraction that seems to grow stronger every time I go there. That was before Burt Kornegay’s first trail map was available and there were no signs or trail markers. When I got my first glimpse of his map in the late 1990s, an electric shock of excitement went through me when I saw that trails went to every corner of the place.
Panthertown Location Map
Left: Early 20th century logging in the Smokies. Right: The Wonderful Panthertown Map - don't Leave Home without it!
Sources: Friends of Panthertown Website
Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics Website
Although it’s not known whether permanent settlements ever existed in Panthertown Valley, Native Americans hunted and fished this and almost every other valley in the mountains. Pioneers termed the valley "Paintertown" (local for "Panthertown") due to the abundance of panthers, or Eastern Cougar, living in the area.
The valley was logged in the 1920s and 1930s by the Moltz Lumber Company and a combination of wildfires and floods that followed left it a shadow of its former self by the mid-twentieth century. A network of dirt and gravel roads that were once used to carry timber out of the valley eventually become the backbone of Pathertown’s trail system.
In 1960, Liberty Properties purchased the valley with the intent of building a resort, complete with a golf course and plans to flood parts of the valley for a lake. The Blue Ridge Parkway also had plans for a route through the valley. Pines that were planted for Christmas trees in the 70's but were never harvested, have grown to become several of the stands of large White Pines seen in the valley today.
Following the logging of previous decades, the area began a slow recovery.
By the 1980s the diverse Appalachian hardwood forests of Panthertown had
recovered surprisingly well. A combination of unique geology and unusually
high rainfall (the area receives up to 100 inches annually, some of the highest
levels in the east) led to a proliferation of plant diversity in the valley. The
ecological diversity and beauty initiated a drive by conservationists to push for
Panthertown’s protection. As part of a bid that began in 1987, the North
Carolina chapter of the Nature Conservancy purchased the valley from Duke
Power in 1989 for $7.9 million. The Nature Conservancy then sold Panthertown
Valley to the U.S. Forest Service for inclusion in the Nantahala National Forest.
The deal was a bittersweet one for conservationists. Although Duke Power was
willing to sell the land, it was planning to build a controversial, high-voltage
transmission line on the valley’s eastern flank. Duke was only willing to sell the land to the Nature Conservancy if the company was allowed to keep the easement for its transmission line. But after negotiations, Duke agreed to locate the line across high points on either side of the valley and to paint its towers so as to blend into the surrounding landscape, heralding a compromise with conservationists.
At some point after the exchange between Duke Power and the U.S. Forest Service, Carlton McNeill, a local resident, began building a trail system, seeking out remote waterfalls and cliffside vistas and clearing existing roadbeds. While the roadbeds needed little construction to become trails, many of Carlton’s new paths were narrow and torturously winding, the dense undergrowth on either side often less than a shoulder’s width apart. Over the past several years, the Forest Service and Friends of Panthertown have been busy mapping and signing many of Carlton’s trails, as well as closing several of the most environmentally impactful.
In 2009, working with Friends of Panthertown to gather public input, the U.S. Forest Service signed a decision memo concerning the Panthertown Valley Trail Project. A trail system map was released and trail uses were designated for hikers, mountain bikers and equestrians.
The area is home to eleven natural plant communities, including a handful of rare mosses and liverworts restricted to the moist recesses of cliffs and waterfalls. Among this smorgasbord of rare plants, the valley hosts an incredible spring display of wildflowers, including the delicate pink lady’s slipper and the rare Cuthbert’s turtlehead. The federally endangered Rock Gnome lichen can be found in scattered patches on the valley’s numerous rock outcrops. Only fifty or so populations of this species have been discovered worldwide, all of them in the southern Appalachians. The most rugged gorges in the valley escaped logging and approximately 246 acres of old growth forest remains.
While there are no longer any painters, er, I mean panthers in Panthertown, there
are all the usual critters that inhabit high elevation mountain valleys, the most
notable of which is the black bear. Panthertown Valley is designated by the North
Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission as part of the Panthertown-Bonas Defeat
Bear Sanctuary. Bear hunting is prohibited everywhere in Panthertown. Due to
increased bear activity in Panthertown and the surrounding forest, the U.S. Forest
Service encourages campers and visitors to always practice bear safety. Although
no injuries have been reported, there have been frequent reports of bold bear
encounters at camp sites on and around Little Green Mountain and at the shelter.
Bear interactions can be minimized by practicing these simple safety tips:
Don’t store food in tents.
Properly store food by hanging it in a tree or in another secure container.
Clean up food or garbage around fire rings, grills or other areas of your campsite.
Don’t leave food unattended.
Friends of Panthertown
If you spend time recreating in Panthertown, you should become a member of the Friends of Panthertown, a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization. Your membership contribution helps protect and maintain this outstanding natural resource. Every time you visit Panthertown, you’re benefiting from the work the Friends of Panthertown are doing. In the last few years, thanks to membership contributions and volunteer efforts, the Friends of Panthertown have funded many necessary conservation projects throughout the valley, provided outdoor recreation opportunities and trained hundreds of volunteers, educated visitors on Leave No Trace backcountry principles, and advocated for the protection and stewardship of Panthertown Valley. At the request of the Nantahala National Forest District Ranger, the Friends purchased and installed trail marker signs at all major trail intersections, built informational bulletin boards with large maps at the trail heads, purchased tools and safety equipment for volunteers, collaborated with the U.S. Forest Service to create a sustainable trail system and trail map, and recorded more than 7,500 volunteer hours maintaining trails, repairing bridges, building staircases, and improving recreational opportunities in Panthertown Valley. Go to panthertown.org for information on joining and volunteering.
Maps and Information
The maps provided in the “Trip Logs” included in this web site were developed by a rank amateur cartographer (Doc Livingston) and are kinda-sorta accurate. They’re only intended to help you get the general lay-of-the-land and if taken on the trail and relied on completely, you may have a much more intense adventure than you bargained for. The map you really need is Burt Kornegay’s “a Guide’s Guide to Panthertown”. Get this map and make sure you take it with you.
Steel Towers “Blending in” to the Panthertown Landscape
Carlton McNeill, the Mayor of Panthertown
Black bears are capable of just about anything, including defying gravity, when it comes to stealing food