Our adventures in Nantahala National Forest, part one: Standing Indian Campground

Exploring the AT at Rock Gap.

We have had an extraordinary past two weeks playing around Georgia and the Carolinas.

The first part of our trip was spent at Standing Indian Campground in Nantahala National Forest, at the headwaters of the Nantahala River, a river that is very popular for whitewater rafting. (Something to do in the summer, not this time of year, however.) The forest is located in western North Carolina.

Y’all, I have spent a lot of time camping and hiking, from California to the Rockies to the Appalachians. Standing Indian Campground is the most beautiful place I have ever stayed in my life. Wandering around the woods there, you have zero difficulty understanding why the Cherokee considered this land a sacred place. Every minute of the day, you are just overwhelmed with gratitude to God that such a place exists. In my love language of gardening, Nantahala is an Eden of sorts.

The drive up to the campground is not for the faint-hearted. It’s a steep and squirrely climb with no guardrails along the cliffs and ravines. Definitely a drive to go slow and enjoy the scenery. But the road is somewhat wide and actually paved, thus preventing it from ranking in my Top 5 Most Traumatic Drives through the Appalachian Mountains. (Let’s just say Kingdom Come in Eastern Kentucky is aptly named, okay?)

Standing Indian Campground is managed by a private concessionaire who takes the job very seriously. Although it is a primitive campground (no electricity – if you go, I highly recommend taking headlamps like you’d use for an ultramarathon or other footrace at night), there is a campground store stocked with things you might have forgotten and snacks for hikes. The community bathrooms and showers are kept spotless. They also have firewood, which they will drop off for you at your campsite by the truckload (take a tarp to shelter your wood – Nantahala is almost as wet as the Pacific Northwest). The retired schoolteacher who staffs the store (as a volunteer!) is a trail guru who gives excellent directions as to how a multitude of long trails connect and where to see grand waterfalls. Each loop of the campground has camp hosts (usually staying in RVs) who will help you out at all hours of the day or night. (They have signs in front of their sites indicating they are hosts.) We arrived after check-in and our camp host helped us get firewood even after the store had closed. Just a brilliantly managed campground overall.

There is no internet or phone connection (except for emergency numbers) there. If you want to detox from a scrolling addiction, this is 100% the place to do it. If you absolutely must check back in with civilization, however, the closest place to get reception is at the Rock Gap parking area (leave the campground and drive left). This is on the Appalachian Trail, and you will see thru-hikers gathering there to take a shuttle to a nearby town for showers and provisions. Many thru-hikers will also come into Standing Indian Campground to use the facilities there. (We always asked them if there was anything they needed that we could furnish them from our own supplies. I think it’s a good example to set for kids that you help people out who are attempting to do something big. Elise came home with a carved walking stick that someone left along the AT. She’s quite proud of it.)

Some of the campsites can be reserved and others are available on a first-come, first-served basis. While my husband was talking to the camp host just after we arrived, I wandered around the campground. I ended up finding an even better site than the one we had reserved that was still open. They allowed us to move onto that site, which was directly on Kinsey Creek (campsite #43). Our daughter would play in the creek (which was shallow at that location) while we set up the camp, something children usually find boring. Elise kept saying over and over that she was having the best day of her life.

View from our campsite.
Elise standing on a fallen tree by our campsite.

Our first night at the campsite, severe weather was moving through. We quickly roasted some hotdogs before the storm moved in, then spent the night reading the sequel to My Side of the Mountain out loud by the light of our lantern, listening to rain hitting our tent and the creek roaring. It was sublime. Trust me when I say that your family will leave this place with memories that you will cherish forever.

The campground opens in April, but I would recommend going a bit later for two reasons. First, we ended up cutting our trip a day short after a freak winter storm moved through the region. Not having access to weather reports because there’s no internet connection, I could feel the weather coming in when we came off the top of the mountain from a long hike. (Decades of gardening seem to have given me quite the ability to read the weather.) We decided to play it safe and leave, and it’s a good thing we did. We have a high-quality tent and sleeping bags, but there was nothing to do for our dog when it dipped into the low 30s and then 20s at night. So the weather is kind of iffy in April for tent camping at least. We still had an absolute blast for the days we were there though.

Such a cold puppy!

Second, in May-June, you are likely to see the rhododendrons in bloom. This is no small thing. The mountains and the campground are full of mature rhododendrons that are 10 to 15 feet tall. You’d definitely need reservations months in advance, but being there during this time of year would be an unbelievable experience. Picture miles and miles of hiking paths that are tunnels of blooming rhododendrons along rapids. *head explodes*

In addition to being gorgeous, Nantahala National Forest is a great example of well-managed forest land. Before we left for our trip, I was trying to teach Elise how to write a five-paragraph essay for homeschooling. The topic we chose for her to research and write about was how our society could do a better job of preventing wildfires. She was the authority on building and maintaining our campfire for the week. But on one of our long hikes, she was able to see what a controlled burn looked like (the immediate aftermath anyway). She was super excited to see her lessons applied in the real world. We had a terrific discussion about controlled burns in the east, how Florida has “fire ecosystems,” and how politics makes that impossible in places out west, such that they have horrific wildfire seasons each year. It’s not that wildfires do not happen in the east, but they are able to contained much faster because there is less fuel (and we also manage available water better).

Keeper of the fire.

In addition to ecology discussions, it was a terrific opportunity to talk about the history of the Cherokee and how they fit into American history. “Nantahala” is a Cherokee word meaning “Land of the Noonday Sun.” In some spots, the sun reaches the floors of the deep gorges of the forest only when it is overhead at midday.

The forest was part of the homeland of the historic Cherokee and their indigenous ancestors, who occupied the region for thousands of years. Many were removed from the land following the Revolutionary War, when the territory was divided up by the newly established American government and given to patriot soldiers as a reward for their service.

I found this wonderful article from the Macon County News about the overlap between recreation and the living history of Standing Indian Campground:

Macon County is saturated with Cherokee history, culture – and even mythology. Perhaps nothing is more of a testament to the latter than Standing Indian Mountain, which looms over Highway 64, West Old Murphy Road, and parts of the Appalachian Trail at an elevation of more than 5,000 feet.  

Standing Indian is in close proximity to the Southern Nantahala Wilderness within the boundaries of the Nantahala National Forest. Besides being one of the mountains that lies along the Appalachian Trail, it is also the highest point along the Nantahala River.

According to Cherokee legend, the Cherokee name for Standing Indian Mountain is Yunwitsule-nunyi, which translates to “where the man stood.” Cherokee mythology affirms that Standing Indian is home to the remains of a Cherokee warrior, who had been sent to the mountaintop to keep a lookout for a winged monster whose lair was located on Standing Mountain. The so-called beast would swoop in from the skies and steal children. However, the Cherokee prayed to the Great Spirit for assistance and the Native peoples’ prayers were answered when the Great Spirit destroyed the monster and its lair with thunder and lightning. The myth further states that because the lightning frightened the warrior and the warrior abandoned his post, he was turned into stone for his cowardice.

As evidenced by the ancient Cherokee area council house mounds, such as ones at Nikwasi, in downtown Franklin, and another along the Little Tennessee River in Cowee, the Blue Ridge Mountains have been sacred to the Cherokee for centuries. In fact, these mountains have been referred to by Cherokee as “the Great Blue Hills of God.” 

To be continued….

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