This past March, I made my second trip to the mountains of Western North Carolina. Having fallen in love with the area the year before during a trip to Asheville, I knew that I had to return and stay for a longer period of time to explore some more of what the region offers. The weather was absolutely lovely for the entire week, only shifting to rain on our final day in the mountains. The six days allowed us to get in three good hikes while also taking some time to soak up the local color in Asheville. I just love everything about that area — the music, the people, the food, the hiking. If you haven’t been, you’re missing out.
During our first trip to NC, we had only one day of nice weather. And with that single day of sunshine, we choose to drive to Fontana Lake in the Nantahala Forest and hike the trail to Nell’s cabin. And yes, I mean that cabin. The film “Nell,” which starred Jodie Foster and Liam Neeson, was filmed in a remote location on Fontana Lake, accompanying scenes being shot in nearby Robbinsville. After the filming was complete, the cabin still stood on the edge of the lake, a piece of Hollywood history for those who wanted to hike the old Forest Service road in to the remote area. But the Forest Service soon realized that the cabin — not constructed to be structurally sound — was a bit of a hazard for those not careful or up to no good. So they tore it down, and today, all that remains is a small bit of foundation stone that was part of the cabin support. Still, the whole trail has significance, as many scenes were filmed along the trail, and at the lake. Those very familiar with the movie will recognize those areas, and as soon as you step out of the woods into that Fontana Lake cove, the view is unmistakeable — even those who’ve only seen the film once or twice will remember the red clay and the blue water. Being a film buff, this trail was too cool for me.
And so, even though there are literally hundreds of trails we wanted to explore when we returned to NC this spring, I insisted upon going back and doing the Nell’s Cabin trail all over again.
Last year, on our way back to the car, we found a large bear pawprint, fresh in the mud. It hadn’t been there on our hike in, so we knew the bear was in the area. It spooked us enough that we decided to get some bear spray this time around. Of course, in Massachusetts, you can’t have bear spray without a permit. So we headed straight to REI as soon as we landed in Asheville, and picked up two cans. Easy. Thankfully we didn’t need to use the spray; a bunch of retired guys on ATVs roared up the trail about a half mile in, and that probably scared away anything that may have been around.
The rest of the trail was great — plenty of sunshine (maybe a little too much — it was a scorcher that day, summer having arrived quite early in the south), blue skies, and complete isolation (after we got rid of the guys on ATVs).
Below are some comparison shots from our trip and the film. The water level was still low in March because they drain the lake to make room for the spring run-off, but it was lovely nonetheless.
The second hike we wanted to do was a six-mile trail in DuPont State Forest that takes you up along three sets of waterfalls. This area is also a former film location, the falls and surrounding forest having been used in the recent hit “The Hunger Games.” Seeing as we were actually in Asheville for the opening weekend of the film, we anticipated a lot of fellow travelers on the trail. But as luck would have it, once we started the more steep ascent to High Falls and beyond, most people had already bailed. It was another hot day with abundant sunshine, and even though the trail was pretty steep and dry in spots (which made for a traction issue for my trail-runners-clad hiking partner), the views of the falls were spectacular. Triple Falls, pictured below, has some great opportunities for climbing out on the flatrock to experience the falls up close.
High Falls is a little trickier, so we stuck to the main trail and took photos from the lookout, and from the covered bridge above the falls.
After leaving High Falls, it’s another mile and a half to reach Bridal Veil Falls. But again, it was worth the gravel road travel in direct sunlight once you decend into the forest and see the falls in front of you. A family was just leaving the area and suggested we climb the rock face on the side of the falls, and slip around behind the top of them for a cool experience. After taking a few shots of areas used in the film, we started up the rock face. A few spots were slightly wet, and the moss underneath was so slick that even with good hiking boots, it was rough going. After we reached the top, we decided that taking off our shoes and trying to slide along the wet moss to get behind the falls just wasn’t in the cards for us. So we snapped some more pics, enjoyed the sound of the rushing water, and decended.
After two great hikes, we spent some time enjoying Asheville and the surrounding areas. Our last planned hike was for Hot Springs, which is one of the most popular trail towns on the AT. We fell in love with its charm the previous year, and walked the entire section of the AT that goes right through the center of town, but didn’t get a chance to do anything more. We figured this year we’d start off from Hot Springs and head north for a rewarding 7-mile hike. And we planned to take in the views from Max Patch, which is considered the “crown jewel” of the AT. But the weather forecast was calling for storms in the afternoon, and I was feeling under the weather, so we opted to drive to Max Patch and ascend from the parking lot there, and then head down into Hot Springs to enjoy the town. Even though it was hazy and storm clouds were rolling in, Max Patch was fantastic. The views are breathtaking, and I can understand why many thru-hikers love getting to this spot after a long trek up from Hot Springs. It’s definitely rewarding.
The drive down from Max Patch to Hot Springs is no joke. The roads are dirt, and very narrow. But it’s great to see old homesteads and really experience the rural South. So different from the rural areas in the Berkshires. The Smokies and Blue Ridge mountains are really incredible, and such a departure from the Berkshire, Taconic, Adirondack, and Green Mountains that I grew up with. And the way of life is a bit different, too. I’m just in awe every time I visit, and I can’t wait to go back again soon and explore even more of what Western North Carolina has to offer.