Southern Nantahala Wilderness

January 19, 2017

In 2016 a fire was intentionally set along the Tallulah River in Georgia. The area was in the midst of an unprecedented draught, without rain for months, the landscape tinder. The resulting fire consumed over 20,000 acres, much if it within the Wilderness.

I was invited last Thursday by the Southern Appalachians Regional Office of The Wilderness Society (TWS) to tour the damage. TWS is the leading group dedicated to conserving and protecting the nations shared wildlands. Years ago I met Jill and Brent with TWS and have always respected their dedication, but it was an added pleasure to meet Michelle, Pearl, Hugh and Brent’s nephew, Zach. Joined by an ecologist with the Georgia Forest Watch, Jess, we started hiking from the southern trailhead, just outside of Tate City, Georgia. I really enjoyed the drive through this town. The small green sign on the road proudly states: “Tate City: Population 32 +-.” Small family farms and large vacation homes dot the landscape before the wilderness.

Jess pointed out that the fire damage we saw on the drive in was likely back burn, intentionally set by the firefighters to protect the homes in the area.

The Beech Creek Trail (or loop) circles Big Scaly Mountain northeast of Tate City, encompassing both Georgia and North Carolina. Between Standing Indian (off the A.T.) and Scaly is the Tallulah River. 2 miles into the hike and after seeing the beginnings of the fire damage, Jess led us via a manway to Chimney Rock, an impressive rock formation next to Scaly.

Overcoming my fear of falling for being clumsy, I’m glad that I headed up the face, for we were greeted with an expansive view of Standing Indian and Deep Gap. After lunch we continued to hike to Case Knife Gap, where we encountered the most expansive damage.

Both Jess and Brent indicated that the lasting legacy of this fire won’t be from the burned trees, but from the now exposed landscape, sans undergrowth. The ground is charred in spots, with loose soil dotting the sloped terrain; a heavy rain would certainly bring erosion.

The bushwhack down the ridge was fun, albeit steep. I always enjoy getting off the trails, in a more spiritual communion with nature.

For more information regarding the Wilderness Society feel free to click here. To learn about the Georgia Forest Watch click here.

GPS link: https://www.movescount.com/moves/move139125334

Total mileage is 7.49 miles.


10 thoughts on “Southern Nantahala Wilderness

  1. Interesting hike, Jonathan. I read a book by Norman Maclean a number of years ago- ‘Young Men and Fire.’ It describes the 1949 Mann Gulch Fire out in Montana, the elite airborne firefighters who fought it- the Smoke Jumpers, and Maclean’s investigation of the causes of the fire and the reasons a dozen men died fighting it. The book is very good, and I believe a person could possibly find ways to save themselves in a wild fire situation, by applying some of the ideas presented in the book. I’d hate to find myself in such a situation, but the book is actually that good! The science and dynamics of wildfires are well discussed. I’d recommend it just for it’s potential practical value!

    Another good read is ‘The Big Burn,’ by Timothy Egan. Egan discusses the big fires of 1910 out in Washington, Idaho and Montana, as well as the development of the U.S. Forest Service. The books are very different, but both are very interesting. Both books are listed in my Recommendations section. If I could read only one, it would be Maclean’s work.

    I have a post in my blog describing a hike in Yellowstone last summer. We hiked an area I had hiked 8-10 years earlier just after a big burn. I had pictures taken shortly after the fire, then again last summer. Some good contrasts, but it was amazing how quickly the area recovered. And as you mentioned, erosion can be devastating in some areas after a fire. Good post!

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    1. I will have to check out the Maclean book. I certainly enjoy non-fiction adventure/historical intrigue. Great articles from 2010 and 2016. Amazing contrast at how fast the terrain has recovered (and a great beer recommendation!). Thanks for reading. JCP

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  2. And since we are recommending books (I just bought both books Mike recommended above), another great one in the same vein is Fire Season: Field Notes From a Wilderness Lookout by Philip Connors. Not as much about actual fires as it is about the solitude and beauty of an unusual job.

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  3. Is this area re-opened to the public yet? Any idea how badly damaged the Beech Creek Valley is? The Area around High Falls? The Big Scaly summit?

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    1. The area is open to the public and no trails remain closed. Scaly isn’t bad, minor damage. The Beech Creek Valley has more extensive damage and is particularly at risk for erosion in my opinion. I didn’t venture to high falls, and can’t venture a guess on that area. I will add that the worse damage is near Case Knife Gap. I didn’t go to Standing Indian, but have heard it’s bad there.

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