Fires Creek Rim Trail thru-hike (a failure)

September 29-30, 2017

We’re a goal-orientated society. Get in that school, graduate, get that job, get that promotion, get married, have kids, rinse, repeat. We look at life through the lens of being successful in our capitalistic orientated economic model. We don’t look on with favor at those who quit. We sneer and think, “They must be weak.” I’m as guilty as anyone of this, and I must admit that it has leaked into my hiking as well.

This past weekend, I got together with two lawyer buddies, Joseph and Mitch to hike the little known Fires Creek Rim Trail in western North Carolina. Fires is located in Nantahala National Forest, just outside of Hayesville and Murphy. The 25.5-mile loop in the Fires Creek Backcountry Area runs mostly along a ridge.

The plan was to start on Friday, hike a couple of miles in and camp, then split the remaining 23 miles over Saturday and Sunday. The easiest point of entry is the Leatherwood Falls parking area. From there, we could hike up to the ridge-loop in either direction. We chose the clock-wise approach, to get the elevation gain out of the way early.

The first 3 miles gain 2,000 ft. in elevation, but once you’re on the ridgeline, there is only slight undulation. After 1.5 miles is a nice vista of the western mountain ranges, and soon the trail re-enters the woods. We planned on camping at mile 1.9, but the water source was dry. Mitch, Joseph and I talked it over, and decided to press on towards the next source.

While the trail for the first 2 miles was in good shape, the next mile was a nightmare. We averaged .5 miles per hour for the next 2 hours. It was in such bad shape and there were so many trees down, that the hike resembled more of a glorified bushwhack than a weekend hike. We’re not talking small limbs to step around; we’re talking trees 4 ft. in diameter. The briars ripped at your pants and arms. The sun began to set and the next water source was dry. We took out our flashlights and pressed on. At darkness, we made our way up towards the ridge, not with the goal of finding water anymore, but just finding a level campsite. As darkness fell upon the landscape, Mitch scanned two glowing eyes running towards him on the trail. A bear-hunting dog ran by us. With dogs out and about, and no knowledge if hunters were out illegally, we turned back and luckily fell upon a level campsite just off the trail.

I had hiked in with 2 liters of water, so I had enough for that day and that night. We made a fire, ate and talked before turning in.

We had seen the reflection of water near that camp as we hiked in, and when we woke we walked down to check it out. The water was nothing more that a trace amount on top of mud, and wholly impossible to gather.

From mile 3.5 to mile 5 (Big Peachtree Bald) is the last of the steep uphill hiking, and by the time we were at the base of Peachtree, everyone was out of water. We sat down, talked about it, and decided that it was not wise to press on. Firstly, we ran into a hunter that morning that said the trail was dry for the next 10 miles. Secondly, the trail was in absolute horrid shape, trees and overgrowth made it hard to follow and quite painful.

We ate an early lunch and decided to walk back. At a juncture right above our campsite from the previous night, we met a group of four locals on horseback. They were incredibly nice and offered us water and Gatorade. And as locals are prone to do, they offered us lots of advice. “You’uns just need to scamper down most any gap for a thousand feet and you’ll find water.” “All you do is dig a hole in the mud and water will come right up.” We didn’t take either of this advice, however they did offer one bit that enticed us. We told them of the rough nature of the trail going back down the mountain, and they said that the “trail” that they just came up led to a forest service road and a straight shot to the car. “Just take that unmarked path through the woods, it’s clear (it wasn’t) and after ¾ a mile (2 miles) you’ll come to a road, take a left (it was a 5 pointed junction of roads) and you’ll go straight to your car. We bushwhacked down this trail that was so chock-full of briars it ripped at your arms until the crossroads. We took what was one of the left turns and walked downhill. The F.S. road was a dead end.

Mitch wanted to press on and try a different road, but Joseph and I voted to go back to our last known location. This turned out to be smart, as we still had no water and our “local shortcut” took us 5 miles out of our way. By the time we got back to the place where we met them, the sun was beating down on us. We then started the slow, tedious bushwhack back down the trail.

By the time we made it back to the car, we had walked 10 miles in 7 hours. While the company was great, this was one of the worst trails I have ever hiked. In no way was it fun nor redeeming.

Driving back, I thought a lot about quitting. But, we as a group thought it through, talked about it and made the wisest decision we could with the information that we had. To me, this was smart. There’s no way we wanted to hike 20 miles with no water, jumping over down trees and dodging briars.

We quit and I couldn’t have been happier about it.

GPS link (Day 1):

GPS link (Day 2):


5 thoughts on “Fires Creek Rim Trail thru-hike (a failure)

  1. It’s a life lesson, Jonathan. I’m sure you gained some insights along the way or maybe just reinforced some pre-existing thoughts, and you learned things about each other when facing difficult situations. At least you had maps and direction-finding capability with you. And it all worked out in the end. Did you find a cold beer on the way home? 😉

    Liked by 1 person

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