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Fires Creek basin November 15, 2012

Posted by Jenny in conservation, hiking, Nantahala National Forest, Southern Appalachians, Wilderness Society.
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Looking across the Fires Creek basin

This post is one of a series about “North Carolina’s Mountain Treasures,” lands targeted for higher protective designation by the Wilderness Society.  For more information about this campaign, please visit the Mountain Treasures website.

The Wilderness Society refers to this area as the Tusquitee Bald Mountain Treasure. Tusquitee is located at the far eastern end of the tract, and since my exploration was at the far western end, I use the other name as the title for this post to avoid false advertising.

This is one of the largest unprotected primitive areas in Nantahala National Forest—close to 30,000 acres altogether, of which 14,000 are roadless. It mainly consists of the Fires Creek drainage: the stream and the horseshoe-shaped bowl of mountains around it. The 26-mile Fires Creek Rim Trail circles around the upper limit of the watershed. (For a good description of backpacking the whole trail, see this link.)

I started at the easiest access point, the Leatherwood Falls picnic area west of Hayesville, NC, and followed the Rim trail up to the ridgeline. I got as far as Big Peachtree Bald before turning around. It was a hike of about 9 miles and 2500′ vertical.

The threat of development in the whole area becomes apparent as you drive in the side road to the picnic area. You immediately see a billboard with one of those maps indicating lot sizes and boundaries. This eyesore is located in front of an entrance road with a big blue street sign that says “Spectacular Boulevard,” leading up to pillars of brick and a gate of thin, ornate metal bars.  In these gated communities, they always seem to build the gate first and then sell the lots—clearly it’s the gate itself that has such a deep symbolic meaning.

Across the street from “Spectacular Boulevard” is a pretty little picnic pavillion on a stream with not just one, but three signs in a row saying “Private Property—No Trespassing.”

I arrived at the Forest Service picnic area, which—it being a Wednesday in November—I had all to myself. You can see the lower section of Leatherwood Falls right from the parking lot. It would be possible to wade over there immediately for a close-up view, but with a temp in the upper 30s it wasn’t wading weather, and I figured I’d get a better view by going around on the trail.

As it turned out, the side of the Leatherwood Falls Loop that overlaps with the Rim Trail takes you past several segments of upper Leatherwood Falls in distinct increments, sort of like “Leatherwood Chapters 1, 2, and 3.” I took pictures of those and didn’t get the larger lower falls until I came back and the light conditions were not as favorable (see photo at end of post).

But these upper segments were pretty in the morning light.

Leatherwood Creek between falls segments

One of the middle falls

The uppermost falls

The trail climbed up and crossed a Forest Service road. I noticed that even though the forests had gone into their seasonal monotone, there were splashes of color in small tree sprouts here and there.

Sourwood sprout. They are usually salmon-colored in the fall, but this one was really red.

Sprouts of red maple

I climbed to the first piece of ridge and spotted a fire to the west. Between that and the many signs of past fires I saw in the trees around me, “Fires Creek” seemed to earn its designation.

Fire in the distance, and charred stump in the foreground.

I passed through an area of white pines around 3000′.

White pines and laurel

Beyond the pines, I returned to pure hardwoods. The battle between the November grays and browns and the few straggling colors continued.

Color versus monotone

Color was also provided by a few fading gentians and by these great little purple flowers, which I couldn’t identify.

I couldn’t find these in my flower book.

The trail sidehills along a steep slope as it approaches Shortoff Mountain. The treadway is beginning to slide down the mountain, and between that and the thick covering of fall leaves, the footing was a bit tricky. However, it was in this section that I saw a large flock of turkeys and a deer. I spotted a pair of turkeys first, then looked up the slope and could pick out the pink necks of numerous turkeys against the background, which were easier to see at a distance than their bodies. No good photos, unfortunately. I passed a birch whose nurse log had disappeared.

Birch roots

The trail crosses the Cherokee/Clay county line and contours along the side of Shortoff before climbing up Big Peachtree. The summit must have no views at all in the summer but offers restricted glimpses this time of year.

Restricted view from Big Peachtree Bald.

As clouds moved in and I returned in flat, gray light, the trail almost disappeared in places.

The trail lies straight ahead!

I retraced my steps and finally snapped a photo of lower Leatherwood Falls.

Lower Leatherwood Falls


1. Gary - November 16, 2012

Sounds like a great hike, and a pretty falls — we still have color over here, but you can tell now that half the leaves are gone. The dog would be happy if I could walk him all morning.

2. mmbowden60 - November 18, 2012

Nice hike. I love this area. I hiked the rim loop a few years ago gong the same direction you went. I encountered a large rattlesnake in the trail not far from Peachtree Bald. I camped on Tusquitchee Bald. Just beyond Tusquitchee Bald I came up on a group of wild pigs.

Jenny - November 18, 2012

I haven’t seen a poisonous snake for ages—guess I’ve just lucked out. Those wild hogs can be kind of scary if you startle a group of them and they start moving. Last time I saw one was this summer on the Bote Mountain trail in the Smokies.

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