Let’s face facts: Western North Carolina lies within a day’s drive of one-third of the U.S. population. Last year, more than 10 million guests visited Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the most heavily used national park in the country.
From Memorial Day to Labor Day, the parking areas around the Shining Rock Wilderness spill over with vehicles each weekend. Even Asheville’s “Central Park,” Bent Creek, experiences a seasonal buzz of activity that diminishes the quality of our outdoor experience.
To dodge the crowds, then, you have to range farther afield. Here are a pair of places where, even if you do have to share them with some other smiling faces, you can still get a taste of what Thoreau called “the tonic of wildness.”
Song of the South
The South Mills River Area of the Pisgah Ranger District seems to coexist quite well with the thousands of outdoors enthusiasts who visit it each year. Located near the Transylvania/Henderson County line on U.S. 280, just south of Boylston Baptist Church, Turkey Pen Road gently ascends north 1.2 miles to Turkey Pen Gap, where the road ends and the trails begin. (Five trails intersect at the parking area.)
With its vast network of multiuse trails, clear streams and beautiful scenery, South Mills River offers a variety of recreational opportunities year-round. The area’s extensive backcountry trail system includes several circuit options of varying distances. Recently, my Lab Molly and I spent two days rambling along the remarkable South Mills River and Squirrel Gap trails, completing a 16-mile clockwise loop.
The 12-mile river trail skirts the stream the whole way, seldom veering far enough away to lose the sound of rushing waters. The water’s clarity entices trophy-trout anglers from all over the region. On Memorial Day weekend, Fred Robinson of Harnett County was revisiting the stream with a couple of his fishing buddies. (Robinson used to live in the area and fished the stream religiously during trout season.) Asked how the fishing had been this day, he enthusiastically reported, “It may very well be the best day of fishing I’ve ever had on the river.”
Robinson has fished all over the states, including Montana and Alaska. His graceful casting against a pink backdrop of mountain-laurel blossoms etched a memory that won’t soon be forgotten.
The area provides excellent mountain-biking and horseback-riding opportunities, too. Anne, from Brevard, started cycling at South Mills River in the early ’90s. While taking a short break from riding, she acknowledged that the river trail provides “great access.” But she said she also enjoys riding the Mullimax Trail, the Squirrel Gap Trail and the Buckhorn Gap Trail. Shortly after my rewarding experience there, I contacted Wilderness Ranger Pat Lancaster of the Pisgah Ranger District.
His territory, encompassing some 156,000 acres, is the most-visited national-forest district in the state. When I mentioned my interest in “off the beaten path” experiences, Lancaster chuckled, saying, “The South Mills River Area attracts approximately 40-50,000 visitors a year.”
He did agree, though, that most users seem to be taking good care of the area: Nearly all of the district’s 400 miles of trails are maintained by volunteers, including local equestrian groups and the Blue Ridge Bicycle Club.
Scouting Report: Don’t be discouraged by the bevy of cars in the parking lot: Things become more intimate the deeper you penetrate into the watershed. South Mills River is a great one-stop recreational area, good for everything from horseback riding to mountain biking, wildflower day-hikes to weeklong backpacking trips. If you hike the South Mills River Trail, be prepared for the 13 river crossings (only three have bridges), and take each one with a smile on your face. It’s hard to be in a hurry here, regardless of which way you choose to play.
Of oak and elk: the beauty of Cataloochee
Our next adventure leads us north across the Blue Ridge Ledge and roughly 40 miles west of Asheville. Most of the hordes of annual visitors to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park flock to the high-profile, year-round campgrounds and visitors centers. But if you’re patient and willing to venture off the pavement, Cataloochee will reward you with its natural splendor every time you make the extra effort to visit the historic valley. From the junction of U.S. 276 and Interstate 40 in Haywood County, turn north off 276 onto Little Cove Road. Drive about 1.3 miles and turn right on Cataloochee Road (SR1395). A mix of paved and gravel roads meander up and down the hardwood coves for approximately 10 miles.
Just about the time you start to wonder if you’re on the right track, an open meadow of wildflowers welcomes you home — or so say the descendants of the original pioneers who return annually for the homecomings at “Lit’l” and “Big” Cataloochee.
The Cherokee name “Gad-a-lu-tsi” is said to have described the trees along the ridges that seemed to be “standing up in ranks” as they shadowed the peaceful valley. Early-18th-century European settlers called the region Cataloochee. For nearly 100 years, the Cataloochee community remained cut off from the outside world. Then, slowly, the community began to grow. More families settled in the lush valley, carving out homesteads amid the huge trees using only a few simple hand tools — ax and saw, adze and froe. Rail fences, hand-split from chestnut and locust trees, were added to confine livestock. Apple trees were planted and fields of sorghum sowed. By early 1900, the valley’s population had grown to more than 700.
Even today, a visitor to Cataloochee can easily imagine the simple life of early Appalachia. Several of the original dwellings and churches have been preserved to help future generations learn about the fascinating and often entertaining heritage of Cataloochee.
According to park spokesperson Bob Miller, “In addition to the historic settlement, Cataloochee is known for its great fishing, hiking and horseback riding.” Another treasure of the secluded valley are the huge trees along Caldwell Fork: Towering tulip poplars and oaks line the length of the trail.
One of the most exciting new developments at Cataloochee involves a recent wildlife-reintroduction project. On April 2, park wildlife biologists opened the gates to a “soft-release” program, introducing 25 elk into the Smokies. American elk, or wapiti, are of the same family as white-tailed deer but grow four or five times as big. Elk originally inhabited the Southern Appalachians but, like the buffalo, were exterminated in these mountains in the early 1800s. The names of several N.C. towns, such as Banner Elk and Elk Park (both near Boone), commemorate these beautiful creatures.
So far, the elk seem to be adjusting quite well. “After nearly two months … frequent sightings have been reported in the valley,” Miller revealed excitedly. (He also reported that visits to the area have nearly doubled since the program began.)
During the initial release, park officials temporarily closed roads and a few trails to give the elk some space and time to adapt. In an April press release, Park Wildlife Biologist Kim DeLozier stated, “People are welcome to watch or photograph them from a distance, but we ask people not to pursue them if they move off.” Miller agreed, saying the best viewing opportunities have been early mornings and late afternoons.
Although Cataloochee is more remote than other portions of the Smokies, campers often return year after year, and the campground is full nearly every summer weekend. It’s a perfect spot for day trips, but if you’re looking to camp here, “It’s definitely first-come, first-serve,” warned Miller. “We do offer reservations at other campgrounds within the park, but not here.” (On the other hand, the last time my family visited the area, we had the luxury of choosing from among several of the 30 developed sites along Cataloochee Creek.)
For an ideal experience, plan on arriving Monday through Thursday, or call the Backcountry Office (615-436-1231, 8 a.m.-6 p.m.) to register for one of the rationed backcountry campsites, reachable via a two- to four-mile hike. For weekend campground vacancies, call (615) 436-1200.
Now that summer has officially arrived, pull out the maps, clean up the gear, and plan on sharing this great big outdoors with others. And remember: Always pack out what you packed in, so the crowds that come behind you can also enjoy a taste of the tonic.