During our time in Nantahala National Forest in North Carolina, we went on the most glorious hike. I feel the need both to share this information and memorialize the path for myself so we can do it again at a later date.
A lot of the trails around Standing Indian Campground start off at the bridge across the Nantahala River. For the most part, all of the trails up here eventually become technical and challenging, even if you are in superb physical condition. I don’t recall seeing a trailhead that was not marked intermediate or most difficult.
(Standing Indian Campground itself is fully handicapped-accessible, however. If you are traveling with someone who is disabled or has other physical limitations, this is a wonderful place to be. They have taken great care to make it so everyone can enjoy the river and creeks and generally have a fantastic time. I think about these things a lot because my father’s aneurysm left him in a wheelchair, and he has always been such an outdoorsy person. This place would make him so happy.)
The trails are also closed to horses and mountain bikes. Foot traffic only.
The lady who volunteers at the Standing Indian Campground store recommended that we start off at the Nantahala River bridge, take the Park Creek Trail (mostly flat along the river, but it has a lot of exposed roots) a short way to the Kinsey Creek trail, which goes 4.5 miles to the Appalachian Trail, which you can take 3 miles to the Lower Ridge Trail, which goes another 3 miles and will land you pretty much behind where we were camped at campsite #43 on Kinsey Creek.
(This is not the most direct path to the AT from the campground though. If you want to be right on the AT for the sake of being on the AT, drive to the parking area at Rock Gap and start there. The trail is immediately in front of the parking area.)
I cannot tell you how glad we were to take her advice. This is a truly spectacular path that at first follows a high ridge (with stunning views). Then you have to trek up an access road for a very short bit (turn right from the trail on the access road and you will start to see blue blazes again), at which point the entire trail follows Kinsey Creek, one of the tributaries of the Nantahala River.
In my experience, you know you are going to be in for it if you begin a hike along a riverbed. Rivers follow the path of least resistance along the bottoms of valleys. There’s nothing but a quad-busting vertical climb to be had from there. And so it is with this hike. The first twenty minutes or so of this hike will make you say shameless things about the trail’s mama. Power on, because it is worth it and gets less punishing.
I have been on endless hikes where simply getting to a water source is the highlight of the trail. For this trail, you are hiking up shallow creek beds, with rapids and gorgeous waterfalls beside you the entire time. I have never seen anything comparable. We wanted to get footage of the trail using our drone, but the winds up there made it impossible. I was thankful to be camping in cooler weather, however, as this is not an easy hike. We had tossed some beef jerky and energy drinks into our packs in addition to taking drinking water, and we needed that extra punch after a while. I am not typically a Red Bull drinker, but I think it is going to become a staple of difficult hikes for me. (Cue the Red Bull gives you wings jingle.)
Hikes like this are such cleansing experiences on so many levels. Serious physical exertion has always seemed purifying to me in a way, but the arresting beauty of the path also lends itself to a spotless mind. Sometimes you have to stop along the way just to let it all wash over you. It was a delight to hike it as a family too. I feel like some of the most memorable things you can do as a family is work together to achieve something difficult. It’s a neat form of bonding. By the time we made it back to the campsite, we had so many inside jokes and battle stories to banter about around the fire.
Most of the bridges along the water crossings are in decent physical condition. There’s one over a series of waterfalls where planks are not stable and/or missing. You can make it just fine across it, however. There are some deep pools, but the for the most part the main hazards are slippery rocks. I stomped through a lot of the water because I was tired of skipping rocks and paid for it the next day with chapped and blistered feet. (This was my first time hiking in North Face Hedgehog boots too. I usually hike in Salomon Speedcross trail running shoes, which would have probably been better for a trail that involved so much agility. But the woman doth complain too much.)