Posted by: pjbarr | April 1, 2010

A World of Mountains Piled Upon Mountains

Start: Meadow North Of Siler Bald
Finish: Wesser Bald Lookout Tower
Distance: 17.1 mi.
Trip Distance: 128.5 mi.
Side Trips: Siler Bald, Wilson Lick Ranger Station, Wesser Bald
Side Trip Miles: 1.0 mi.
State: North Carolina
Highlights: Siler Bald Sunrise, Wayah Bald, Wesser Bald

“I began again to ascend the [Nantahala] mountains, which at length I accomplished, and rested on the most elevated peak; from whence I beheld with rapture and astonishment a sublimely awful scene of power and magnificence, a world of mountains piled upon mountains” -William Bartram, Bartram’s Travels, 1775

I awoke late and raced one again up Siler Bald to see the sun break the horizon. How lucky I am to be in these splendid locations to witness such astonishing displays of nature. I completed the climb to the summit, which would have been a less favorable place to view the sunrise because of nearby trees. The grassy summit had favorable views south to the Southern Nantahalas, especially Standing Indian. To the north the Wayah-Wine Spring Bald massif loomed large. I would be there soon. I recollected great memories from my first trip to Siler Bald in 2007. Allison and I hiked there from Wayah Gap and upon reaching the summit I completed one my peak-bagging quests – the Southeast 100 Highest. I would later complete more expansive and inclusive peak-bagging lists in the southeast and North Carolina, but this first one was still very special.

I walked back down to my campsite in the meadow in the gap north of the summit. Ironically this meadow was the site of a small log cabin used to house a fire lookout man who would climb Siler Bald to scan the horizon for fire detection. This was before the implementation of Fire Towers themselves. It was my second night at a fire lookout location in a row, and tonight would make my third.

I packed my camp quickly as I knew the seizure dog guy had spent the night at the Siler Bald shelter the night before and should be popping out on the meadow from the side trail any second. I started hiking without seeing him, and spent the next several hours looking over my shoulder in fear he would catch me, especially when I stopped for water and when I side tripped to Wayah Crest to dispose of my trash at a trash can there.

I passed through Wayah Gap before begging the climb up Wine Spring Bald. Its appearance now is pretty benign with a simple road crossing, but it was the location of a great Indian history. Wayah Gap was known as Atahita or “Where They Shouted”. Cherokee trails crossed through the gap. In 1776 it was the site of a bloody battle between Cherokees and Colonial soldiers. Colonel Williamson and his troops from South Carolina were attempting to rendezvous with General Rutherford and his forces on their march west. Williamson and his troops were ambushed at Wayah Gap by waiting Cherokee in revenge for Williamsons burning of the Indians lower towns to the east. The battle was costly for both sides with the death of many men, though Williamson’s troops claimed victory and would advance to meet with Rutherford.

Rutherford’s route west is now known as Rutherford Trace and marked heavily by historical markers today. He probably crossed the Nantahalas at Wallace or Winding Stair Gaps, where I passed through yesterday, when headed west, but it seems he crossed through Wayah Gap on his return East.

My climb up the Wayah massif was difficult on the account of the already oppressive heat and beating sun. I was hiking hard and looking down at the ground, suddenly WHAM!– a massive blow to my forehead and instantly seeing strobe light effects around me. When I finally regained my senses I discovered a log clearly cut sticking out exactly halfway over the trail at head level. It had been deliberately cut this way. I examined it at length. There was no justifiable reason for not cutting it even another one foot further to prevent it from protruding into the trail. It was absolutely not cut and then later fell into its current place. Rather it was as if some trail maintainer was playing a prank and hiding in the woods to see how many tired souls would knock their noggins on it. I am shocked that I did not lose consciousness based on the violence of the impact. I was so angry and filled with rage as my head throbbed (and continues to do so now).

I shook off the head shot and side tripped to the Wilson Lick Ranger Station historical site. The Forest Service maintains a few cabins dating back to about 1914 when the Nantahala Nation Forest was freshly established. Men who lived in these structures frequently traveled up the mountain to staff the fire tower on Wayah Bald when it was still a wooden lookout.

The remainder of the climb proved still difficult, but I needed no stops. I passed the aptly named Wine Spring near where the Bartram Trail joins the AT for a short duration. I opted out of a side trip of Wine Spring Bald. Despite the true peak of this massif, I had been there twice before and it has no views and ugly communication towers. I didn’t intend to revisit Copper Ridge Bald later in the day either.

I really dislike this section of trail between Wine Spring Bald and Wayah Bald it is rocky, has no views, and descends and resends unnecessarily. Thinking I heard a voice behind me, I rushed ahead toward Wayah Bald. As if it was an ironic joke, I soon caught up to a person ahead of me – seizure dog guy. You’ve got to be kidding me! I had been racing to distance myself from him and here I catch up to him. He must have passed me when I detoured to Wilson Lick. Damnit.

Though a weekday, I encountered drives of tourist at the Wayah Bald lookout tower. One insightful man was showing his wife Asheville in the valley below. Now, perhaps I have a higher than usual knowledge of lookout towers and their views, so you think he just doesn’t know better. Well perhaps…except for the half dozen illustrated signs posted atop the tower depicting the view and what you can see in detail. Between him and the dozens like him and seizure dog guy, I spent less than 5 minutes at the tower – a tragedy considering my affection for that lookout.

I caught a glimpse of its backside before departing and viewing and viewed the appauling crumbling rock from the towers side. A heap of stone lay on the ground below. Built from 1935 to 1937, the tower was once a three story live-in lookout. It was only used for fire detection for less than 10 years as hairline cracks developed in its stone which allowed water to seep in a further damage its structure. It is this same problem that remains today and is slowly bringing down the tower.

The Wayah Bald lookout tower was cut in half in the 1950s and converted for use as a public observation tower – the first instance of a fire tower being converted specifically for public recreation and as a visitor destination. It later set precedent for the Wesser Bald look out to the north and hopefully will continue to serve precedence for other fire towers along the AT in North Carolina. A federal economic stimulus package received by the USFS last year will pay for repairs to the Wayah Bald lookout tower this year. I personally believe I had a lot to do with that funding lobbying the archaeologist for years to submit for funding for fire towers in North Carolinas National Forest.

After descending Wayah Bald, I held a high pace and never stopped the rest of the day. I ate and drank on the move. My destination was still distant – the Wesser Blad lookout tower, and I was determined to reach it and secure a camping spot on top of it, and hopefully lose seizure dog guy. If he joined me atop this tower it would ruin and experience I had been planning for several years.

I passed quickly through Burningtown Gap – where many scholars believe William Bartram crossed the Nantahalas on his journey in 1775. Some believe he side tripped from here to Wayah Bald and described his experience at the summit with the quote at the beginning of this entry. I’m personally not so sure. That would have been a pretty lengthy side trip over uncut and rugged terrain when mountains of nearly equal height – Burningtown Bald or Copper Ridge Bald – just slightly further, would have been much closer and accessible. Some believe he crossed the range at Wayah Gap. Even still, he probably climbed Wine Spring rather than Wayah Bald, or possibly even Siler Bald to the south. Which ever gap he passed through, he wrote of a first unnerving, but ultimately pleasant encounter with an Indian.

The accent up Burningtown Bald was seemingly unending and I retrieved my MP3 player and used it while hiking for the first time on my thru-hike. It seemed to be the motivation I needed – Paul Simon’s “Call me Al” both amused me and fueled me up the mountain. I stopped at Cold Spring Gap shelter and hurriedly refilled my water with intention of carrying it all the way to Wesser Bald. So determined to make it there quickly, I even skipped the side trail to the great view on Rocky Bald. I flew by and raced down to Tellico Gap.

The final climb of the day, up Wesser Blad, was overwhelmingly hot. My tank was running low on energy. My emotions starting fluctuating dramatically. At one point I nearly fell asleep and another I nearly cried while thinking about seeing my family and Allison the next day. The top seemed like it would never come.

It finally did, and I climbed the tower without taking my pack off. I was going up for the night. I made amazing time getting there – my pace from Wayah Bald, a distance of about 10 miles was over 3 mph.

When I got to the top I was stunned, sleeping bags and pads everywhere and no less than 10 people were standing or sitting on the wooden platform. Shit.

I soon discovered that the majority of them were day hiking tourist. Only a man and three teenage boys remained. They said they planned to spend the night on top and I told them I would join them.

After much conversation, I grew to really like my tower-top companions. Lucky, the man leading the boys, was a retired fighter pilot. I picked his brain and extracted many of his great stories from his career. What an amazing job he had – and he told me without hesitation that it was everything you dream that it is like: the excitement, the exhilaration, the adventure. The kids were a lot of fun too and really good natured. I enjoyed goofing around with them. Austin, the man’s son, and Jacob, a friend in his Boy Scout troop were in 11th grade. The other boy, Tyler, was also in the troop and in 8th grade. His trail name was Big Foot because he already wears a size 14 shoe and is still growing! Lucky, well that is his trail name, but also his call sign when he was a fighter pilot. How badass is that?

Lucky told me the name of his old fighter pilot squadron but I forget its exact name. It was something that combined cool with equal part tough. Something like the “Death Marauders”. The guy was a true American cowboy.

The five of us enjoyed a stunning sunset. The views from the tower were superb thanks to the clear weather, but several fires burning in the distance soon had the vistas enveloped in a smoky haze. This was actually well timed – the smoke mad the setting sun extra vibrantly red. My third sunset in as many nights, and this time the sun was setting on my time in the beautiful Nantahalas.

I always imagined sleeping atop the Wesser Bald lookout on my thru-hike alone reenacting Earl Shaffer’s 1948 visit on his hike. But he wasn’t alone – in fact he stayed up late talking about countless subjects with the tower operator. Nor am I alone, I lay awake staring at a night sky filled with countless starts listening to the boys go from one subject to another – from astronomy to military to aviation. Their excitement to be out here is contagious. Thanks for the memories guys, and goodnight Earl.


  1. Man, I’ve gotta say you’re writing the most interesting trail journal I’ve ever read! It’s hard not to be out there, especially in the heart of spring. You are a true Appalachian hiker if there ever was one. Looking forward to hiking with you here in good ole SWVA soon.

  2. Some people get to live a dream — others are working it!
    Nice touch on the Site, as well the entire theme behind it.
    We’ve been renting the ‘lookouts’ in the Pacific Northwest for over ten years now — wouldn’t have it any other way. (The experiences from this — priceless!!)
    All the best…

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