A “Wanderful” Experience

Panthertown Valley has been called the Yosemite of the East. I prefer to compare it to those Choose-Your-Own-Adventure books I used to read as a kid.

Paintertown, as it’s sometimes called, offers everything from grand mountain vistas to burbling creeks that turn into stunning waterfalls. My favorite thing, though, is the wide variety of ecosystems, particularly the muffled pine grove along Mac’s Gap Trail. The constantly changing scenery, combined with the labyrinthine trail system, makes me feel like I’m walking through a fairy tale. Or would that be a fairy trail? 

One day recently I headed up to the Saltrock Gap Trailhead and set off, map in hand, with a mind to visit Granny Burrell Falls and decide on the rest of my day from there. 

Well, I didn’t consult the map in my hand and after some confusion ended up at Frolictown Falls instead. (This sort of thing happens when you don’t consult your map at Panthertown.) Going with the flow, I crossed the creek below the falls and sat with my back against a tree that seemed deliberately placed as a spot to rest and watch the falls. 

Watch: bright white streams of water steadily erode the rock beneath it. Sunlit mica glints hello from the bottom of the creek. An electric blue dragonfly floats by your face. Moss tendrils up the base of a rhododendron that has one evanescent bloom left on this late summer morning. A woman in pink leans against a tree, eating a sandwich. 

Solitude can be found in abundance in Panthertown when it can’t be found anywhere else during the high season in Cashiers and Highlands. There will almost always be people hanging out at Schoolhouse Falls, Granny Burrell Falls, and the Salt Rock Gap Overlook, but beyond those places you can easily find peace and quietude. Do take a map with you. Panthertown has well-marked trails, poorly-marked trails, trails that aren’t marked at all, animal trails, is-this-a-trail? trails, the occasional gap in rhododendron branches that looks like it might be a trail but definitely isn’t…you get the idea. It’s easy to get turned around and lost (which adds to the fairy tale quality of the place, really). Burt Kornegay’s “Guide’s Guide to Panthertown” is invaluable and can be purchased at both Highlands and Cashiers locations of the Highland Hiker or online. 

To reach the Salt Rock Gap trailhead from the Cashiers Crossroads, take Highway 64 east toward Brevard for two miles and turn left onto Cedar Creek. In another two miles take a right onto Breedlove Road. When you feel like you’ve surely driven too far (or a little over three miles) the road turns to gravel and dead-ends at the trailhead.

Don’t forget your map!