This loop travels around the southern portion of the Nanatahala National Forest, tracing the basin from which the same-named river originates. The trail is a popular one with backpackers, as it can be tailored to fit different lengths depending on the trail used to connect to the AT, and there are several 5,000+ peaks that give tremendous views into the surrounding countryside.
I began the loop on the Long Branch Trail from the Standing Indian Backcountry information station. The trail winds up for ~1.75 miles before connecting to the AT. Turning up, you walk along rhododendron tunnels and deciduous forests until reaching Albert Mountain, about 5.5 miles from the trailhead. This can be a good place to camp for the night, but I found that I had topped out after only 4 hours on the trail, and still had some juice in me. Plus, water on Albert Mountain was scarce, and I was running low. So after climbing the fire tower, looking out over the forest which was to be my home for the next couple days, I descended the much steeper southern side of Albert and headed on, through to Betty Creek Gap. There are several pleasant camping sites there, and the creek was gurgling happily. It made for a nice night, after about 7.7 miles of hiking.
The second day was a much longer segment, pushing all the way to Standing Indian, but much of it is along ridges or keeping flat along the same elevation, so it didn't seem as much. Water was plentiful at the shelters or even a couple creek crossings, so don't worry about your water levels. The hike is pleasant, and this is probably the quietest portion of the trail (as it is furthest from other day hike-in points). The final section to Standing Indian isn't very steep either, which helps make this direction a better option in my opinion (see below). Camping on Standing Indian, there are a few spots right at the top with beautiful views across the mountains to the south. As noted elsewhere, these tend to fill up quickly; I arrived around 3:30, and within an hour they were all taken. But it is a fantastic place to relax and you get great sunsets over the Blue Ridges. Note: watch out for the insects... when I was there the top of Standing Indian was covered, and they were thick all about. Long pants and repellent work, but keep an eye out for them.
To wrap up the loop, I chose to descend the Lower Ridge Trail (~ 4 miles) rather than Kimsey Creek Trail. Mostly it was logistic; I stayed on the top of Standing Indian, and the junction was right there, whereas Kimsey I'd have to hike down past the shelter another 1.5 miles before hooking up with the 5.5 miles of Kimsey. (So if you stay at the shelter rather than the summit, Kimsey Creek is a better choice). The Lower Ridge Trail was quiet and beautiful, but I ended up giving it the name Knee-a-saurus, because it was a steep monster that ate knees for breakfast. The trail drops 2000 ft in these 4 miles, making a steep grade the whole way through. Keep the trekking poles at the ready. At times it was rocky too, I nearly turned an ankle twice.
It is a beautiful trail, with a good portion along the AT, and very customizable for different lengths and abilities. Camping is readily accessible at the shelters, and water is not an issue. The trail pace is gentle, without any major ascents that will kill you, and the scenery invites you to take your time and enjoy each step. A great weekend outing!
Trail length: 21 miles
Trail time: 2 days
Trail difficulty: moderate
For more information, see the review at Everytrail.com
Looking Glass Falls is a beautiful roadside waterfall in Pisgah National Forest. As such, it is one of the most popular and most visited waterfalls in western North Carolina. If you're in the area and only have time for a quick waterfall stop, this is the one to hit. The waterfall consists of a single plunge of about 60 feet and is very impressive with little effort to see it. From the pull-off along US-276, there is a handicapped-accessible viewing area along the side of the road and stairs leading down to the river for a closer view. It is also possible to walk a little ways downstream along the river to view the falls from a different angle. Just use extreme caution as wet rocks can be very slippery and pose a serious hazard.
This trail in Shining Creek Wilderness rises along the pretty gurgling (or roaring, depending on what time of year it is) of the East Fork Creek. This hike is a one-way trail, but it allows you to connect with many other trails ranging through the area; at the top of the ridge you'll find the Art Loeb Trail, which can lead you through the wilderness and make the hike an extended loop if desired. This is not a difficult hike per se, the trail is well laid out and easy to follow up to the Art Loeb Trail at the ridge. It rises through rhododendron thickets and the mixed forest characteristic of the Pisgah Forest. There are several small creek crossings, but nothing too horrible or requiring a lot of fording skills.
The greatest part of this trail, as in all of the Shining Creek Wilderness, is the number of opportunities to camp out in the back country. With no requirements for wilderness or camp permits, you can just hike till you find a quiet spot and pitch a tent. I camped along the creek, with a beautiful view and totally devoid of other human contact. It was sheltered and very relaxing. I highly recommend spending a night out under the stars.
Trail length: 4 miles (one-way)
Trail time: 2-3 hours (one-way)
Hawg Wild is a great barbeque restaurant in in Pisgah Forest just outside of Brevard, NC. The restaurant offers both dine in and carry out options, and its open on Sundays, a good thing if you're looking for a good place to eat on the way out of town after a weekend in the mountains. And being a conservative area, finding places open on Sunday can be a challenge. They have both the western barbeque (tomato based) and eastern barbeque (vinegar based), and everything from BBQ sandwiches to pulled pork to rack of ribs. The prices are very reasonable and its a good place to go with the family.
Favorite Dish: You can't go to a place called Hawg Wild and not get the barbeque. I prefer the eastern style (vinegar). They also have some good sides, including the corn nuggets that are like poppers with creamed corn on the inside.