July 27, 2019
For the past month, I’ve gone on several backpacking trips and a lot of day hikes, but they have been to places that I have already chronicled (Max Patch to Walnut Mountain, the Roans, the Blue Ridge Parkway around Boone) and have chosen to just enjoy those moments.
This past Sunday was an exception, as I finished hiking the Lookout Tower Challenge, the 24 towers in Western North Carolina. The hiking involved was not overly difficult, but the vast distance covered was. From the north in Wilkes County near the Virginia border to the south in Cherokee County near the Tennessee and Georgia borders, they cover a quarter of the state. The last tower was the Yellow Mountain Fire Tower near Highlands, N.C. I have actually hiked this trail before, but I did not remember the date and it was 6 years ago. I chose to re-hike it for posterity and continuity.
I met my good friend Perry, who was the person I hiked the trail with years ago, on a sunny afternoon. The trail starts at Cole Gap off Buck Creek Road. Highlands is one of the ritziest towns in Western North Carolina, a proverbial rich, white person holiday haven. It is somewhat surprising that the terrain can become so remote, so quickly. Yellow Mountain Trail is actually the toughest hike of any of the towers. It is not the “toughest trail in the South” as some sites call it, but it’s a good one. Totaling 13 miles (out-and-back), there are two different steep portions, Shortoff Mountain and Yellow Mountain. Other than this, the terrain is friendly and not inordinately tough.
Perry and I enjoyed the wildflowers in bloom, the abundant mushrooms and occasional blackberry thickets. We were in the green tunnel for the duration of the hike until summiting Yellow Mountain. This tower is unique, as it’s not very tall. Built in 1934, it holds more of a hut feel than tower. Yellow is the tallest mountain in the Cowee Range. One can view to the south and Georgia or turn around and gaze upon the Smoky Mountains.
I have really enjoyed the Lookout Tower Challenge, it hasn’t tested me physically, but it has given me a new appreciation to these mountains and the history they encompass. Without the work programs from the New Deal, they would not exist. They are a reminder of a different time, a simpler time. Perhaps that is the most appealing aspect of these peaks.
Total mileage is 13 miles.