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Alarka and Panthertown February 28, 2011

Posted by Jenny in hiking, Southern Appalachians.
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Upper Tuckasegee River in Panthertown

Seth was the mastermind behind this two-part hiking day. He wanted to explore a little-known area called Alarka Laurel, but he thought it would be a good idea to add on another hike, since Alarka itself is rather small. So we started with Alarka and then went on to Panthertown, a place that I’ve been wanting to go if only because of its name.

We met up at the Cork and Bean in Bryson City and had a fine breakfast of crepes, which is the C&B specialty. Then we headed east of B.C. to a town called Whittier and, after some circling around caused by a missing street sign, located the Connelly Creek road. We drove up to a gap where we suddenly faced three gated roads. Fortunately, the Walton trail through Alarka has one of its starting points at this three-gated junction. However, a side visit to the Cowee Bald firetower was now off the table, since it would involve more of a road walk past a gate than we wanted to do. (The gates will open sometime in March, depending on road conditions, according to a road engineer we passed as we drove back out.)

Big, beautiful red spruce soar up from the bog

The thing that’s special about Alarka is that it has the southernmost naturally occurring growth of red spruce, which rise out of a bog in an unusual high-elevation (4000’+) flat-bottomed hanging valley.  It boasts an incredible variety of plant life growing side by side that you don’t normally see near each other, like oak growing cheek-by-jowl next to spruce.

I understand the area was under threat of private development (like so many places in Swain, Jackson, and Macon Counties), but that a land swap was arranged, with the Forest Service taking the land in exchange for acreage on the shore of Fontana Lake.

We followed the trail with its interpretive signs through a rhodo/laurel tunnel, spotting a few baby spruces that served as an appetizer for the spectacle that lay ahead. Eventually we came out on the  boardwalk you see above. Spruces towered over our heads.

Towering trees

What an incredible place this is. It has just the right magical combination of ingredients—the elevation, the dampness, the exposure, the soil—to make this combination of plants possible. We saw all the trees that you would see in a typical oak-hickory forest, plus a lot of higher-elevation hardwoods, plus the spruce.

I’m not sure whether I can explain why I like spruce so much. It’s partly, I guess, that they are about the only needle evergreen still looking big and healthy in the Southern Appalachians after the infestations of the balsam woolly adelgid, the hemlock woolly adelgid, and the pine bark beetle. (One of the interpretive signs ominously stated that the pine bark beetles have started eating the spruce. They all looked healthy to me, and I pray that the sign is just plain wrong.) It’s also that I like the delicate round needles, the bushy shape of the tree, and the nubbly bark.

Trees in the bog

Since the boardwalk prevented us from actually touching the bog, we looped back around to the gates and followed the road that goes along the edge of the area. We crept in among wet mossy spaces and worked a short distance through some laurel and greenbrier until we reached a point where it was so thick and the footing so difficult that it would have been virtually impossible to bushwhack. Now we had truly experienced the bog. The standing water had a barely perceptible flow to it that perpetually cleanses the valley floor so that it never becomes stagnant.

Bog jumble

I plan to return to Alarka several times this year to experience the wildflowers that grow here: everything from painted trillium to pink ladyslipper to showy fringed orchis.

Now, it was on to Panthertown. I told Seth that the name made me think of a city inhabited by panthers, with their own homes, schools, and restaurants. The name of the Panthertown high school football team would be “The Humans.” Convenience stores would provide sour-cream-and-onion-flavored or BBQ-flavored mice for snacks. Of course, the real story behind the name is that early settlers saw panthers (cougars) here.

Panthertown is an area of the Nantahala National Forest located west of Route 281 and north of Lake Toxaway, not far from Cashiers and Rosman. The area passed through a series of private hands until 1989. It was logged in the 1920s and 1930s by the Moltz Lumber Co., and was sold to a private developer who had plans for a big resort. That particular area of western N.C. seems to have become the victim of an unusually large number of grotesquely pretentious gated communities with golf courses. Fortunately, Panthertown was spared that fate, though it didn’t come through unscathed—Duke Power bought the land and built a large transmission line across the area. The Nature Conservancy bought all the land except for the power line right-of-way in 1989, then sold the land to the Forest Service.

Panthertown encompasses the headwaters of the Tuckasegee River and the east fork of the Little Tennessee River. Beautiful streams wind between mountains with faces of granite akin to those of Looking Glass Rock and Table Rock—the “plutons” of the Blue Ridge. The streams have a certain distinctive character to them, gliding over panels of granite, dropping over cascades and waterfalls, lined with a tapestry of rhodo and laurel that hangs over the banks, big pines soaring up in the background. A wonderful place.

Hanging garden

We started at what I believe is called the Wolf Mountain trailhead (I seem to have lost my map) and followed the Rattlesnake Knob trail, the Power Line trail, and the Riding Ford trail. Then we took an unmarked manway that led from the Devils Elbow trail near Riding Ford up past Elbow Falls and finally to Red Butt Falls—the manway was very rough in the last section.

Riding Ford

Riding Ford is just what it says—a ford that has to be waded. Seth was wearing his kilt, so he didn’t have to worry about getting pants legs wet.

Seth crosses the ford

Elbow Falls was very pretty.

Elbow Falls

There were some wonderful potholes.


Some potholes were underwater.

The water had a beautiful amber color

At Red Butt Falls, we found an interesting overhang as well as the granite island shown in the photo at top.

Overhang at Red Butt Falls

By the time we got back out, it was starting to get dark and chilly, and we were glad we’d paid attention to the route. You do need to notice where you’re going here. Only the major trail junctions are marked, and the manways are obscure and unmarked. In one spot on the way in, we turned onto the Riding Ford trail and followed a roadway until it ended at the power line cut, then realized that the trail used the roadway for only a short distance before turning onto a small unmarked path.

It is a place that I plan to return to many times.

Red Butt Falls



1. Thomas Stazyk - February 28, 2011

The walk looks wonderfully peaceful from the pics. I’d definitely go back and do it again!

2. brian - March 1, 2011

Interesting. A spruce bog is not a place I have ever been. Are there cranberries there? I did go through a weird swamp way up Left Fork of Raven Fork. Gas from decaying plants bubbled up from the muck when we waded through. That was in spruce but didn’t look anything like Alarka. You all get some points for trying to bushwhack in there. Bogs are an unforgiving place to get around in. So thick and there’s no terrain or view of any kind to give you the sense you are going anywhere. The coastal bogs in the Carolinas and Georgia make the worst of Appalachians seem friendly. You start to lose heart you will ever come out of them.

You’re on the wrong track about Panthertown. I’m sure it was where the Underground Panthers lived. Probably they still hide out there and only emerge occasionally to dash across the roads early in the morning and confuse us:


Jenny - March 1, 2011

Before I clicked on the link, I thought maybe you were going on a completely different tack—the Black Panthers—descendants of Eldridge Cleaver suddenly dashing across the road. But these underground panthers are even better. These folk tales (tails?) are truly amazing!

I did a bit of investigating about cranberries, but haven’t found a definitive answer to whether they exist at Alarka. Wild cranberries do grow as far south as North Carolina. There are several species of wild cranberry. Vaccinium oxycoccus is bog cranberry, always growing in acidic bogs in association with sphagnum moss. Vaccinium macrocarpon is large cranberry, the type that is cultivated commercially. Vaccinium vitis-idaea is mountain cranberry. the type I’m most familiar with. It grows in fairly dry places near treeline in the northeast: for instance, on Cranberry Peak in the Bigelow Range in Maine. It also grows in the Presidential Range in New Hampshire.

3. kaslkaos - March 3, 2011

The photos are gorgeous, especially the first one. Wow! What a beautiful hike.

4. panthertown - January 2, 2012

Great post and super photos. Thanks for sharing your adventures. Would you mind if we link to this article on our website? Panthertown Valley is a very special place, indeed.

Friends of Panthertown

Jenny - January 2, 2012

My pleasure. I look forward to visiting Panthertown again very soon.

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