‘A Guide’s Guide to Panthertown’

Fifteen years ago I took my first trip to Panthertown Valley, a 6,700-acre playground that some call the Yosemite of the East because of its abundance of waterfalls (19), towering (if not old-growth) trees and exposed granite domes. It was also to be my first try at backpacking solo.

Car trouble got me to the trailhead late, about a half hour before dark. The campsite, I understood, was a little more than a mile in, easily reachable by dark. But two things gave me hesitation: First, an abundance of signs noting this was a “Bear Sanctuary,” and second and more significantly, I didn’t have a good map. Didn’t have one because one didn’t exist: The area had only recently (1989) been added to the Nantahala National Forest, with help from The Nature Conservancy. Not only wasn’t there a map, the trails weren’t marked or blazed. I retreated to a nearby motel for the evening.

For years, these two obstacles — lack of a sufficient map, no trail markings — kept me from giving Panthertown as wholehearted an endorsement as I’d liked. Though it is included in my hiking guide, “100 Classic Hikes in North Carolina,” and my soon-to-be-released “Backpacking North Carolina,” I’ve mentioned it sparingly otherwise. Hikers and backpackers savvy with a map and compass would have little problem; those challenged by basic orienteering stood the risk of becoming misplaced. Too bad, too, because while Panthertown does have its challenging moments, by-and-large it’s novice-friendly environment.

About three years ago I started hearing rumblings of a new map, one being put together by guide extraordinaire Burt Kornegay, who’s been guiding trips since the early 1970s, guiding in these parts since the 1980s through his Slickrock Expeditions. Those rumblings turned to reality — for me at least — on Wednesday when I saw the welcome site of “A Guide’s Guide to Panthertown” at the Great Outdoor Provision Co. in Cameron Village.

Get this map. Kornegay hasn’t put everything he knows about Panthertown on the map, but just about. Trails are clearly marked as “Forest Service” or simply “Footpaths,” the three main trailheads are identified as well as nine more discrete roadside accesses. Waterfalls are marked, as are other key features. He provides some history, tips on what to look for, recommended hikes. Map scale is 1:24,000, contour interval is 40 feet. It’s as good a map as you’ll find, both in the field and, just as important, when you’re stuck at home and only have time for a visceral trip.

To assist with the latter, here’s a slideshow from my last Panthertown trip, in fall 2009.

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