Panthertown Valley

Several years ago, Sierra magazine described Panthertown Valley as “one of the least known, but most magnificent areas in the Southern Appalachians.” Others have called it “the Yosemite of the East.” Within Panthertown’s more than 6,000 acres are placid, meandering streams, beautiful waterfalls, rare natural communities (including several bogs), and a network of old logging grades and trails. Rising above the valley floor as if keeping vigil are massive and imposing granite domes.

Panthertown is no longer little known, however. Since it became part of Nantahala National Forest in the late 1980s, it has been transformed into a popular playground for hikers, mountain bikers, equestrians, and anglers. Waterfallers especially have taken to Panthertown. When I explored the valley in the early 1990s, I hiked to virtually all of its waterfalls, but I included only two of them in the first edition, thinking the others were either so remote or insignificant that they didn’t warrant inclusion. What was I thinking? Thanks to the exploding popularity of the Internet, it didn’t take long before most of Panthertown’s waterfalls were exposed for all to see.

In the last edition, I included all of Panthertown’s significant and named waterfalls that I knew of except for Panthertown Creek Falls. Since then, an unprecedented number of people have hiked in Panthertown, exploring every little cascade. Some have given names to insignificant falls, and I’ve even seen new names for some of the falls that have long-established names. I won’t recognize any of these new names in this edition.

The name Panthertown is often used loosely to include areas outside the valley, such as the Bonas Defeat and Flat Creek areas and the headwaters of West Fork Pigeon River. Even the Forest Service refers to these areas as being in Panthertown. The official I spoke with said that while the Forest Service has not set formal boundaries for Panthertown, it generally lumps all the surrounding areas into it when referring to the area. However, the name Panthertown Valley refers only to the watersheds of Greenland Creek and Panthertown Creek in the upper Tuckasegee River drainage, along with a little bit of the Tuckasegee River downstream from their confluence. When I say Panthertown or Panthertown Valley, that’s the area I’m talking about.

Anyone hiking in Panthertown should carry Burt Kornegay’s excellent map, A Guide’s Guide To Panthertown Valley. The map is a copy of portions of the Big Ridge and Lake Toxaway topo maps and has all the main logging roads and trails marked on it. It includes many landmarks that aren’t on the topo maps, as well as most of the valley’s waterfalls. It’s impossible to hike in Panthertown without getting confused by all the meandering paths. Kornegay’s map makes it much less puzzling. It doesn’t include all the falls adjacent to Panthertown, and I don’t follow the same naming convention as that in the map, but that doesn’t affect its usefulness. It’s available at many area outfitters or may be ordered directly from Kornegay at www.slickrockexpeditions.com.

You can’t hike to a waterfall in Panthertown Valley without experiencing the hard work of Carlton McNeil, Panthertown’s longtime unofficial caretaker. All those winding, twisting paths are his doing. During the 1990s, you couldn’t hike in the valley for long before you bumped into him. He has been criticized for some of his trail building because there’s no grading and the paths wind all over the place. But there’s no debating that he loved and cared more than anyone for Panthertown. He showed me Panthertown’s waterfalls before most people even knew the valley existed. I feel honored to have hiked with him. Carlton passed away on July 20, 2007.

There are two main entrances to Panthertown Valley. The Cold Mountain Gap trailhead is on the east side and the Salt Rock Gap trailhead on the west. You can access all of Panthertown’s waterfalls from either of these trailheads, as several trails connect them. But unless you’re trying to see all the falls in one day, as some have, you’ll want to use both trailheads. If you do attempt to see all of Panthertown’s waterfalls in one day, you’ll need to choose a long summer day, and you’ll need to be physically fit. And don’t plan on spending much time at the falls taking pictures and admiring the view.

Cold Mountain Gap trailhead, east side. Take NC 281 north from US 64, drive 0.85 mile, and bear left on Cold Mountain Road. Stay on this road and climb the mountain to the gap at 5.7 miles. The old access to Panthertown is straight ahead, but it’s now closed. To reach the new access, follow the road as it swings sharply left and becomes unpaved. In about 0.1 mile, you’ll reach a road on the right that leads 0.1 mile to a new, large parking area. The GPS is N35.15788, W-82.99921 .

Salt Rock Gap trailhead, west side. At 1.9 miles east of Cashiers on US 64, turn north on Cedar Creek Road (SR 1120). Follow the road for 2.2 miles and turn right on Breedlove Road (SR 1121). Breedlove Road changes to gravel at 3.3 miles and continues another 0.3 mile to the trailhead at the gate. The unpaved portion is rough. The GPS is N35.16786, W-83.03986 .