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Day Hiking the Appalachian Trail from Wayah Bald to Burningtown Gap


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July 12th, 2022

On Tuesday, Pam, Don and Terre, and I met near the summit of Wayah Bald, outside of Franklin North Carolina. Today we intended to hike a short section of the Appalachian Trail, north from the summit about four or five miles to Burningtown Gap, where we would have lunch before returning to our vehicles.

The last time that I did this section was ten or eleven years ago, not long after my wife Joann and I, together with our three kids had moved from South Florida to the Upstate area of South Carolina. My brother-in-law Neil was visiting from Florida for a few days, so we had planned a short backpacking trip. We began day one of that trip at the Winding Stair trailhead along Highway 64. After hiking 10.1 miles, we arrived at the summit of Wayah Bald and set up our tents in the grass, right beside the fire tower. At 5,342 feet in elevation, the summit is usually a bit chilly, even on a summer’s night, and normally very windy. Back then, I was experimenting with a homemade ultra-light stove that used Esbit tablets for fuel. Because of the strong, swirling winds, I had gone inside the base of the tower to cook. Even so, I still had the worst time trying to get the Esbit to light and stay lighted long enough to actually boil the water for my dinner of Ramen noodles.


View of the Wayah Bald fire tower. On day two of that trip with Neil, we hiked 9.3 miles from Wayah Bald to Tellico Gap where my car was parked and waiting for us. If I had to do it over again, I would have planned to finish our hike at the Nantahala Outdoor Center or NOC, which is about another 7.6 or so miles further north. As it turns out, I’ve hiked all of the A.T. from Springer Mountain to Fontana Dam, plus the Approach Trail. All, that is, EXCEPT for the 7.6 miles to the NOC. Lord willing, I’ll get it done one of these days.


A little over one mile into todays hike, we came upon the Wayah Bald Shelter where we encountered a number of people that were out doing multi-day backpacks, including a father and his young son.

Since it was still fairly early in the morning, the fog had not fully lifted from the valley below. In the above image, the fog had the effect of highlighting the beams of sunlight that were breaking through the forest canopy.


There were a number of wildflowers in full bloom all along the trail. These are Black-eyed Susan.


And this is Fire Pink.


This large hollowed out tree was lying just beside the trail. This section of the A.T., except for the bald, is wooded the entire way. That’s a big plus when doing a hike in the middle of the summer in the deep south.


More wildflowers. This is the ubiquitous Rhododendron. When growing above 3,000 feet they tend to bloom from around the third week of June to early July.


These Orange Peel Fungus (Aleuria Aurantia}, are not wildflowers, of course, but they’re just as colorful.


Okay, maybe I shouldn’t point this out, but to me, this disfigured mushroom appears to have a very bad case of Peyronie’s Disease.


After hiking close to five miles we came upon this sign, which was just above Burningtown Gap. We ate our lunches at a small campsite that was within a few yards of here. The campsite provided a log and relatively soft ground to sit on while we ate.


At the gap, a gravel road terminated at a small parking area with enough parking for probably three vehicles. Also at the gap was this large apple tree. While it was laden with fruit, all of the apples were still entirely too small and green to actually be eaten.


I noticed this old tree on the hike out. Though it may be hard to get a true sense of the scale from this picture, it was, in reality, fairly large around the base and quite tall.


As is evident in this image, the trail in places was very brushy and even somewhat overgrown.


This is the last of the wildflowers that I saw. It’s a type of Phlox, perhaps Meadow Phlox or maybe Thick-leaf Phlox. Whichever variety it is, I think it’s very pretty.


Finally, back at the tower. The hike in towards Burningtown Gap had been mostly downhill, which of course means that the hike out was mostly an uphill climb. The climb wasn’t bad though, except for the last 1.2 miles or so, which was somewhat steeper. This was my first hike in about four weeks and only my second hike in more than two months. While I felt reasonably good, I could decidedly tell that my lungs and thighs were not in top form.


A panoramic view from the base of the tower in a generally easterly direction. I was the first of our small group to arrive back at the summit. Surprisingly, there was no one else around and I had it all to myself for a little while. It was very peaceful, calm and serene.


Here’s a view from up inside the tower. The helpful signage points out the many mountains and landmarks that can be seen. Rabun Bald, Whiteside Mountain, and even Greenville South Carolina, more than a hundred miles away, were just a few that I noted.

In 2016, much of this region was ravaged by wildfires. In November of that year, a fire burned the signage and destroyed the roof of the tower. Happily, In early 2018, the roof was rebuilt and new signage was installed.


I was at least a bit bemused by this sign, which has been installed behind the tower. I guess the intention was to provide an alternative place for people to carve their initials, declare their love, and announce to the world that they had indeed been here! Although it appears that a lot of people have taken the hint and used it for that purpose, Don saw that, unfortunately, others had still carved into the wood portion of the tower structure itself.


That’s Siler Bald near the top center of this image. Siler Bald is accessed via the Appalachian Trail and is a great destination that offers excellent views in all directions. As for the stats for today’s hike, by the time that we reached our vehicles, we had hiked a total of 9.9 miles. Our total vertical was 4,068 feet, which included 2,034 feet of climbing. I would rate the overall difficulty as being somewhere between moderately-strenuous and strenuous.

The sky had remained overcast for much of the day and I don’t think that the temperature ever rose higher than the upper 60’s to maybe the mid 70’s. Other than a bit of humidity, it had been a great day and a great hike.

Thanks for reading.

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