Day 29-31: From Tower to Gorge
Day 29: Near Wayah Bald (Mile 120)-Wesser Bald (Mile 130.5); 10.5 miles
Our alarm rang extra early so we could beat the sunrise. We climbed the nearby stone tower at the top of Wayah Bald and watched the first light fall on distant peaks.
From the tower we could see Standing Indian and Deep Gap where we had been days ago. It’s always very satisfying to look back on our progress like this.
We enjoyed a relaxed morning, then began walking down off the bald. We encountered some trail workers from Natahala Hiking Club and chatted with them. Thanks for all your excellent trail work!
Farther down the trail, Boot Scoot and his friend David Bradford Donovan were providing trail magic. We had been planning to stop for lunch anyway and hungrily devoured their tasty snack packets. In addition, to North Star’s delight, they had portioned a variety of spices into small plastic bags. We looked forward to the extra kick these would add to some of our meals. David and Boot Scoot have just launched Yeti Food Outfitters which provides food and resupply logistics for hikers. They’re good guys with a cool small business.
Continuing uphill, the bright sun and temperatures in the upper 70s made for hot, sweaty climbing. We couldn’t complain, though – the warmth was most welcome!
The climb ended at the top of Wesser Bald where we found another fire tower. This tower rose above even the tallest trees.
Climbing the rickety steps gave us a good but hazy view of the surrounding terrain. We decided to camp nearby and return to the top at sunset. We did so and were rewarded with rich colors above blue layered mountains fading into the distance.
Day 30: Wesser Bald (Mile 130.5)-Nantahala Outdoor Center (Mile 137.5); 7 miles
We descended almost the whole day. In some sections pine trees lined the trail and their needles cushioned our steps. Other parts were more gnarly, but our knees held up well.
Viewpoints were scattered throughout the 3000 foot descent into the Nantahala River Gorge. One of the best was at a spot called The Jump Off.
As we descended we saw a few flowers blooming. All kinds of buds were popping out.
Near the end of the descent, the Nantahala Outdoor Center (NOC) and the Nantahala River came into view. North Star saw all the kayaks lined up along the river and got very excited about the possibility of rafting the river. When we reached the NOC we inquired about that possibility. The friendly folks there signed us up for a complimentary guided ducky trip the following day in exchange for relating our experience here on the blog. Thanks NOC!
Getting ready for bed we heard crickets chirping outside. Later, a big storm rolled through. Each loud thunderclap would silence the crickets. Then their chirps would return amidst a torrent of rain.
Day 31: 8 paddling miles (zero AT hiking miles) at Nantahala Outdoor Center
The storm turned out to be a mighty one, dropping a full inch of rain overnight. As a result, the river was flowing much higher and faster than yesterday. We were excited.
Stuart, our rafting guide, had the duckies (inflatable kayaks) all ready to go when we arrived. He also set us up with wetsuits and booties so we’d be nice and warm while splashing through the rapids.
Soon we were in a van with the duckies in a trailer behind, headed to the drop off point eight miles upriver. When we arrived, Stuart explained a few things about our duckies and the river.
We briefly played with the boats in calmer water first to learn how they handled. Then we headed into our first rapid. Water churned around us as we paddled our boats in Stuart’s direction. Splash, wheeee, splash! Past our first rapid, we were both beaming from the exhilaration and happy that we hadn’t gone swimming!
Between rapids, the water was calmer and we chatted about the history of the area as we enjoyed the passing scenery. From our point of view on the river we could see barren trees on surrounding peaks and a gradual transition to spring’s light new green on trees at lower elevation.
Calm water didn’t last long though. We were soon playing in our next rapid.
Stuart pointed out evidence of beaver handiwork along the bank. Minutes later North Star spotted the brown oily fur of a beaver back curving into the water. During our time on the river we also saw a kingfisher and a heron fly overhead, and mallards swam alongside us.
The trip was a good mix of steady and exhilarating paddling. With each rapid we improved our ability to maneuver the duckies, which was a good thing because the toughest rapid would be the last.
In a calm part of the river, Stuart briefed us on how to navigate Nantahala Falls. Rounding the final bend, we paddled hard to line ourselves up for the falls. The water grabbed our boats, rushing us past large rocks and through turbulent whitewater. Then, suddenly we were back into calm water, hearts racing with adrenaline.
This was the most fun we’ve ever had resting our legs from hiking. We highly recommend AT hikers take off their packs and explore the Nantahala River with NOC. It will be a memorable part of your thru hike.
After our river adventure, we ate a late lunch watching professional kayakers do tricks in one of the rapids further downstream. Some were even doing front flips! Crazy.
The remainder of the day was spent doing town chores (eating large quantities, blogging, calling family, etc.) Our legs are well rested and we’re eager to hike north again tomorrow.