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An Appalachian Trail Thru-Hike: Part 5 - Nantahala Outdoor Center and Robbinsville, North Carolina

Updated on February 5, 2013
Wesser Bald, the mountain that overlooks the Nantahala Outdoor Center at Wesser, NC.
Wesser Bald, the mountain that overlooks the Nantahala Outdoor Center at Wesser, NC. | Source

"We ate a quick breakfast gleaned from our dwindling supply of food, and we started hiking."

Meeting a Deadline

We awoke in the middle of the Appalachian Trail a little groggy after a late night excursion into Franklin, NC. We crawled out of our sleeping bags, stuffed them into our stuff sacks, and strapped them to our packs. We ate a quick breakfast gleaned from our dwindling supply of food, and we started hiking. The day was sunny and cool, especially on top of Wayah and Winespring Balds, two of the mountains the trail brought us over that day. We ate lunch at a stone tower on top of Wayah Bald. We had a productive hiking day which was good because we needed it. We had about a day and a half to cover the 30 miles from Wallace Gap, where we started that morning, to the Nantahala Outdoor Center in Wesser, North Carolina where we were supposed to meet two ladies that had promised to buy us some groceries with money we had given them. We didn’t know what we would find at Wesser since we had gotten conflicting information about it from various sources. At a minimum we knew we had to meet up with the ladies and get our food.

That evening we found a good spot to set up a tent. Luckily we could set the tent up quickly because thunder was rumbling as the sun was setting. We used Dave's tent on the trip – a Eureka Timberline. It was well-suited for us. It fit two people with their packs perfectly. We got so we could put it up in under 5 minutes and it kept us dry and kept insects away from us on many nights.

The thunder turned out to be the result of cold air moving into the region. When we woke up the next morning our water jugs were frozen and there was a dusting of snow on the ground. Breaking camp froze our fingers and seemed to take forever, but finally we got started. The hike into Wesser was up-and-down, but we moved pretty fast and covered 13 miles that we had left by early afternoon. To our great delight we found that everything at the Nantahala Outdoor Center was open.

Gates maintained by the Nantahala Outdoor Center used for kayak racing during times of high water on the Nantahala River
Gates maintained by the Nantahala Outdoor Center used for kayak racing during times of high water on the Nantahala River | Source

"Nantahala is an Indian Word that means 'Land of the Noon Day Sun'."

Fun in Wesser Followed by Some Steep Hiking

Wesser North Carolina is located along the Nantahala River within the Nantahala National Forest. Nantahala is an Indian word that means land of the noonday sun. As one might expect from a name like that, Wesser was tucked into a valley surrounded by high, steep mountains. The place had the feel of a trading post. There were a cluster of rustic dark-stained wood sided buildings – a store, a restaurant, a cheap motel, hostel, and an area for parking and unloading canoes, rafts, and kayaks next to the river. Altogether it formed the Nantahala Outdoor Center. I don't remember any houses. Everything was related to whitewater or hiking. We met the ladies who brought us the supplies and of course we were grateful for their assistance even though everything turned out to be open. The motel was so inexpensive that Dave and I opted for a room in the motel over a couple bunks in the hostel. Being able to split the room always helped to make motel rooms less expensive. We were able to get our first shower of the trip and we washed our clothes in the sink.

I remember the restaurant in Wesser more than anything. It overlooks the river and was bustling with people. In fact the entire Nantahala Outdoor Center was bustling. As it turned out, not only was the Nantahala Outdoor Center open, but there was a big kayak race scheduled for the next day. We walked into the restaurant and it was so busy that people were sharing tables. We ended up sitting with a couple friendly guys who were there to race the next day. They said they were training for the Olympics and they knew a lot of the other people in the place. Lively banjo music was playing and there was a great atmosphere of camaraderie in the place, along with a mixture of excitement and relaxation. The salad bar made a great impression on both Dave and I because on the trail it's rare that you get a chance to eat good fresh vegetables or salad. About the best we ever did on the trail was to heat up canned vegetables like green beans or corn. We would also carry canned peaches or pears. A good salad bar with lots of topping choices was a treat. Other than the salad bar I don't remember what we ate except that it was good.

We made sure to get two more meals at the restaurant before we left. Breakfast was french toast – another treat. The highlight of the day was watching the kayak race. We found a good spot along the river to sit and watch the bright colored kayaks with the racers all sporting numbers on their vests, navigating the rapids and passing through gates. Dave had his camera out with his telephoto zoom lens. He got some good pictures. We had such a good time there that we hung around the area until midafternoon. We were reluctant to leave, but we finally forced ourselves to shoulder our packs and start tramping up the trail. We only went a little way before we set up our tent. It seemed quiet and lonely after the excitement of the activities and races in Wesser.

The day after we left, we were still missing Wesser. We had trouble getting into a hiking mood. This was partly because after our first serious resupply of the trip our packs were at their heaviest. When backpacking, the longer you are out before resupplying, the lighter your pack gets as you eat all your food. This was especially true for us since we were willing to carry cans of food. As mentioned before, we carried some cans of fruits and vegetables and even things like Denty Moore beef stew and Spam. The cans and all the liquid they held were heavy. Carrying canned food is not a recommended backpacking practice and Dave and I both knew it, but at that point in the trip we were both unwilling to compromise on the kinds of meals we wanted to eat on the trail, and we convinced ourselves that we were strong enough to carry the extra weight. The next couple days made us question that philosophy a little bit.

When we came out of Wesser our packs were stuffed full with quite a few cans. That combined with the steep hiking coming up out of the gap from Wesser made the hiking tough so we moved slow the whole day. I particularly remember Cheoah Bald as a long steep climb. Most of the uphill sections we had traversed so far had been switchbacks, where the trail goes back and forth across the slope at a shallow incline so that as we hiked we slowly made our way up steep slopes in a zigzag fashion. Not so with Cheoah Bald. The trail just went straight up. The only other mountain like that we had encountered up til then had been Albert Mountain. Cheoah was longer and steeper. The steep hiking was made worthwhile by some spectacular views combined with an excellent day – cool, but no wind, and crystal clear. We camped at the top.

One thing about Cheoah Bald was that even though it was called a bald, I don't remember a large open area on top like some of the other balds that we would run into later. The balds in the southeastern mountains are a unique phenomenon. They are mountains that have open areas at the top. They tend to be tall mountains around 5000 feet, but in the southern climes that elevation is not enough to be above tree line. Still, the open areas exist. They are covered by grass but are bald of any trees or large shrubs. Thus the term bald for mountains matching that description. The extent of their baldness differed from mountain to mountain. Cheoah had a clearing on top, but trees most of the way up. Later balds we would encounter were clear of trees for a large portion of the hike up the mountain.

The next day was overcast, windy, and cold. We were going to try and make it to Fontana Dam, but when we got to Stekoah Gap we decided we would rather go into Robbinsville 9 miles down the road. The memory of the comforts and fun and Wesser were still fresh in our mind as we encountered the cold weather. Temptation of another hot shower, warm bed, and restaurant meal was enough to send us on another side trip. First we walked up the trail until we were just out of sight from the road. Then we walked into the woods a ways and covered our packs with leaves and brush after we had removed essentials such as money, some water bottles, and trail guides. Then we hiked the 9 miles into town. Hiking along the road without the packs made us feel like we were flying. We tried hitching, but we didn’t have the good fortune we had when we caught a ride into Franklin a few evenings before. We concluded that without our packs people didn’t know we were AT hikers and weren’t as willing to pick us up.

"We were reluctant to leave, but we finally forced ourselves to shoulder our packs and start tramping up the trail."

A kayaker on the Nantahala River.
A kayaker on the Nantahala River. | Source

A Visit to Robbinsville

As we entered the town of Robbinsville we saw a sign that said welcome to Robbinsville, home of Ronnie Millsap. That was an interesting surprise for us since we were both familiar with his music and we both liked a lot of his songs, especially one that was popular at the time – Smoky Mountain Rain. After seeing that sign we struck up the tune and sang it together as we walked into town:

“Smoky Mountain rain keeps on falling

I keep on calling

her name

she's somewhere in the Smoky Mountain range …”

Luckily for the townspeople we didn't sing too long or too loud. As we walked through the town we were greeted by several friendly people. There was one woman in particular that stands out in my memory. I'm not sure why except that her greeting was both so friendly and so distinctive that I never forgot it. She was working in some flowerbeds in front of her house and as we walked by she looked up with a big smile and said Howdy fellers how are you two doing today?

We replied that we were doing well. We both looked at each other after we passed her. We had never heard anyone use the word feller before other than on TV. I almost thought she was putting us on except that a few other folks we met as we walked through town also called us fellers when they greeted us. It was a regional expression that sounded odd to our northern ears, but one that we identified as an example of southern hospitality. That's not to say that it is an expression used throughout the South. I've only heard it in the southern Appalachian Mountains, but it is part of the Appalachian version of southern hospitality.

In my journal for that day I recorded that “We ate at the best fast food restaurant either of us had ever eaten at. It was called Debbie's Fast Foods”. Debbie's Fast Foods made quite an impression on us. I can't say whether I would have had the same reaction under circumstances where I wasn't a hungry late teen hiker coming off the AT. My tastes have changed and I'm not as into fast food as I once was. Still, it would be interesting to try eating at a place that Dave and I ordained as the “best fast food restaurant ever” to see if it still stood up to that reputation. Unfortunately, neither of us ever saw another Debbie's Fast Foods restaurant so we must simply rely on our memories.

We split a $20.00 motel room in Robbinsville. In the morning we got up and had two breakfasts – one at the motel restaurant and the other at Debbie's. We then bought a loaf of bread, and some bananas and headed back to Stekoah Gap. We got back to our packs around 11 o'clock.

At Stekoah Gap we met someone who at first seemed interesting and funny. He saw us where the trail crossed the road and pulled his truck over to get out and talk. He asked us if we were hiking the whole AT. When we said yes he insisted he had to help us and he started grabbing things out of the back of his truck to offer them to us.

“How about a flashlight? Do you need a flashlight?”

“No we have flashlights,” we answered.

“What about a frying pan?” he asked, holding up a large heavy skillet.


“A blanket?”


“A cup?”

“No thanks”

And so it went on for 10 to 15 minutes. Finally he grabbed a can of WD-40 and said we could use it as a fire-starter. He then demonstrated. He pulled out a lighter, lit it, and sprayed the WD-40 into the flame, creating an effective flamethrower. We ended up taking the can just to get him to stop. We were relieved when he finally got back in his truck and drove away. Dave took the can of WD – 40 and set it behind a guard rail support on the side of the road and that is where we left it. We didn't hike very far up the trail before we pitched the tent. We spent the rest of the day in camp.


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