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Panther Stairs via Toms Creek December 21, 2014

Posted by Jenny in bushwhacking, hiking, Smoky Mountains.
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Jenny climbing up Panther Stairs. Photo by Clayton Carver.

Jenny climbing up Panther Stairs. Photo by Clayton Carver.

My hiking friend Clayton and I had been talking about a few options lately, ranging from Big (involving Lester Prong) to Small (off-trail to Chimneys). For various reasons over the past few weeks things haven’t worked out. But we decided December 21 would be a good day, despite football conflicts (more about that later).

We were still thinking about the Lester option, but the weather didn’t look great. It wasn’t even that the weather would be bad, it was that the forecasts were full of annoying uncertainty. The whole thing about doing anything in the central Smokies in winter is,will the Park Service shut down Hwy. 441 (Newfound Gap Road) because of snow at the higher elevations? I kept monitoring my usual weather websites (more than one, which clearly marks me as a weather geek), and I finally threw up my hands after the latest shift in prediction. I emailed Clayton and said, “Let’s go up the Panther Stairs.” That is in the Cosby area of the Park, away from this zone of uncertainty.

He agreed, and we started off on an absolutely beautiful winter day, not too cold and brimming with sunshine. We took the Lower Cammerer trail for a short distance and then went up the left branch of Toms Creek, following an old settlers’ road that you can barely make out.

You can see the path of the road, but there is quite a bit of rhodo along it. We left the road at around 2900′ to angle up to a ridge that connects with the main ridge of Rich Butt (that is the wonderful name you see on the map), where the Panther Stairs are found.

Clayton bounded along, and at this particular place I definitely had a tough time keeping up with him. He is always faster than me, but here I thought, “Geez, I am really going to slow him down.” Well, I maintained the role of the older slower person (I am 32 years older than him), but as things went on we kept a closer distance.

Once we got on the ridgecrest, we ran into a lot of briers. They kind of came and went, as if some mischievous god of mountains was saying, “Now you see it, now you don’t.”

I don't know how well you can see that there is a solid wall of briers just ahead of us.

I don’t know how well you can see that there is a solid wall of briers just ahead.

We found bear paths (with occasional large deposits of bear poop) and every now and then we found what seemed more like human paths (fortunately without large deposits of poop). After a long flat stretch on the ridge, we started tackling the Stairs. Here is the base of one of the lower Stairs.

At base of a Stair.

At base of a Stair.

We had the kind of view that makes you want to yodel (fortunately neither one of us did that), or at least shout, “Yo-Ho!”

Looking down from the top of the biggest Stair.

Looking down from the top of the biggest Stair.

Clouds were streaming over the stateline ridge.

Clouds were streaming over the stateline ridge.

We worked around some of the obstacles and tackled others directly. Below I work along what has become a very clear human herd path.

I climb around some of the smaller rock formations. Photo by Clayton Carver.

I climb around some of the smaller rock formations. Photo by Clayton Carver.

Finally we popped out on the side-trail to Cammerer, thinking someone might be walking by. Nope. In fact, we did not see a single other person at the Cammerer tower or all the way down the A.T. and Low Gap Trails. The Sunday before Christmas is an excellent time to go hiking!

Any time you get close to civilized areas the weekend before Christmas, you are dealing with stressed-out, aggravated individuals who are rushing about buying presents, making cookies, coming back from ritual holiday visits, trying to squeeze everything in. Then, all of a sudden, on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day, we are supposed to be suddenly harmonious and go into a “spiritual” mode. This will probably annoy some people, but I don’t care: I am so happy that I participate in very little of this stuff.

Clayton and I reached the side-trail to Cammerer and made the short trip over to the lookout tower. We walked around the tower and looked at the different views.

View to the northeast from the tower.

View to the northeast from the tower.

It is a beautiful construction.

It is a beautiful construction.

We headed on down without much delay. Clayton is a fan of the Cowboys, and there was an important game at 4:25. I am a fan of the Patriots, but I knew I could see their game on my “NFL Rewind” streaming app. I will say to you who think professional sports is insignificant: I truly believe sports has more reality to it. It is a contest between real human beings which, in the end, just can’t be faked. You either have it or you don’t, and the game will ultimately reveal that. That’s more than you can say about anything in the commercial, political, or academic worlds.

Falls on Cosby Creek.

Falls on Cosby Creek.


1. Al - December 23, 2014

I wonder what they keep in the space below the tower. Seems like the old Cammerer tower was constructed the same way.

Jenny - December 23, 2014

I wonder about that space myself. Maybe they keep materials there for repairing the tower. I believe the current design of the tower is a close replica of the original tower.

2. Al - December 23, 2014

Maybe fire fighting stuff or emergency food/bedding in case the rangers are on a rescue mission ?

Jenny - December 23, 2014

Makes sense to me.

3. norman medford - December 25, 2014

Merry Christmas Jenny, using photo of “falls on cosby creek” as wallpaper for now. Enjoyed the read!

Jenny - December 25, 2014

And Merry Christmas to you!

4. Hoover - December 27, 2014

Good stuff, Jenny. I agree 100% on the whole Christmas orgy. Just can’t bring myself to enjoy it (or care much). BTW, I gave up caring about NFL, etc. a few years ago — so I’m 100%, certifiably cynical. I’m waiting for you to take that final step. 🙂

Jenny - December 27, 2014

Giving up on the Christmas overindulgence AND the NFL! My goodness, that really puts you beyond the pale! Actually, the funny thing about the NFL is that I gave up following it for a few years. But all it took was having a rabid fan (Clayton) to trade jabs with. So much fun!

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