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Trail to Tavern: Panthertown Edition

Posted on August 30 2016

Following along only the sound of the river, I was ducking and diving through overgrown hydrangea and rhododendron tunnels, one dog at my heel the other not in sight. It was dark and tight. I broke through the overgrowth to be met with wide open copper colored streams, a cascading waterfall, and one other human in sight. And it was fourth of July weekend. Yeah, Panthertown does not suck.

best backpacking with dogs

A hidden gem in Western North Carolina makes this “Yosemite of the East,” a fantastic day, weekend, or weeklong adventure. It’s proximity to Asheville and breathtaking North Carolina hikes makes Panthertown a top destination among nature lovers. Due to its rising popularity, development has been done to make a good bit of the waterfalls accessible and parking abundant. Over the weekends you can find novelist and day packers scouting these beautiful watering holes. However, car camping is not allowed, so if you are ready to pack in you will be sure to find a slice of solitude amongst towering pines, hidden streams, jumping trouts, and noble rock walls. Not to mention it is completely dog friendly, making Panthertown one of the best Western North Carolina dog camping spots.

Best Waterfalls in North Carolina

"Panthertown is comprised of  6700 acre tract of high-elevation Forest Service land.

At least 8 major waterfalls and countless smaller ones lie along the area's streams. You'll also find hikes that take you to cliff-top views of the surrounding mountains, or to sandy beaches on deep, clear swimming holes

In contrast with the typical "V" shaped valleys of these mountains, the Panthertown area (generally south of Flatrock Mountain and north of Hogback Mountain) is actually composed of several finger-like valleys that are nearly level at the bottom, flanked on three sides by sheer slopes and granite domes. And in those valleys, streams are slow and lazy, with some areas that look more like they belong down on the coastal plain, than at 3600' elevation in the mountains.

Many of the trails were created by the late Carlton McNeill in the 1990's, who lived just outside the valley until he passed away in 2007. He was considered by many to be the unofficial caretaker of Panthertown. He loved the place so much that he is single-handedly responsible for clearing many of the foot-paths leading to some of our favorite destinations there.

Several of his trails which (mostly) met Forest Service standards have been added to the official trail system, mapped, and signed - and these are the ones you should use. One such trail, which was only recently added to the trail system, is named in his honor - called Carlton's Way.

However, several more of these "user-created" trails, as the Forest Service calls them, still do exist. But they are not part of the official network and can be quite confusing to try and follow, since they're not mapped, blazed, or signed. We recommend you stick to the signed and mapped main paths for the best and safest experience in Panthertown." Hike WNC

We snagged this puppy at a local outfitter on the way there and was by far one of the best purchases. This map came in great handy as we navigated the twisted and convoluted trails searching for that perfect swimming hole. Call me old fashion or a hopeless romantic, but there is something about the touch of the paper and the folding of the map that just feels like an adventure to me. No screen. No service. No scrolling. Just good ole map reading. Luckily my camping buddy was much more adapted at reading maps than me and getting lost is only part of the adventure.

What to do in Panthertown

One terrific element about Panthertown is all the different trails you can explore. And that we did. We set-up camp and took on foot. We found ourselves on man-made foot trails, chasing the river to each new watering hole. The pups would plop down and roll in the clear yet copper colored water while we brought the tavern to the trail with some great local Asheville beer. This is the type of adventure where you bring the tavern with you. 

This land has a weight to it. And a good one. It feels calm, old, and welcoming. Nothing is better than sitting by the fire being bathed in nothing, but starlight and a light cool summer breeze. Patiently waiting for a campfire meal to be served. That was our next mission and the universe was on our side. We stumbled upon ripe blueberries ready to be picked. We gathered the wild sweet things right at dusk on the way back to the site and were determined to make something yummy.

Wild Blueberry food harvesting

I love cooking while camping. In fact, it is one of my favorite things to do. What to cook while camping, is a question I get asked a lot by people new to backpacking. Especially, when packing in. I always say “Keep it simple stupid.” For shorter trips think light, fresh, and creative. Also, invest in a good food dehydrator and your possibilities become endless.  And don’t be scared to forage. You never know what mushroom, berry, or root is right below your feet. Before you start eating wild things though, do you research! Better to be safe than sorry. You can learn more about Western North Carolina foraging here and here! Also, stay tuned for a dedicated post on cooking while camping.

I was lucky enough to try out a new piece of cooking equipment this trip and it has become one the best camping gear products on my list! The Outback Oven by Backpackers Pantry. Bake away. Pizza, breads, casseroles. And the technology actually conserves fuels! It is efficient, packs down, and evenly distributes the heat.  I am 100% sold.

We plopped those blueberries in some flour, filtered stream water and chunks of dark chocolate and had desert under the moon.

Cooking while Backpacking

It was short trip. In total, only 2 full nights and 3 days exploring. There was much more to see, but reality was biting at our heels. A french press was in order (check out the awesome GSI one here!) followed by A pack-up and pack-in (always leaving it better than how you found it). Pups and people exhausted, we made our way back to the car.

Best Camping Gear

Panthertown is one the best dog friendly camping sites in Western North Carolina. Add in a ridiculous amount of waterfalls, unexplored trails, trout fishing, and solitude it has easily become on of my favorite quick nature getaways near Asheville. No matter where you are, get out and stay out. Discover the Earth we call home, and reconnect to your surroundings. Thanks for following around and we’re excited to share our next Trail to Tavern Cedar Ravine journey!

Best Asheville Backpacking

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