10 Trails to Hike in the Nantahala National Forest
The Nantahala National Forest is a popular destination for visitors, attracting millions of people every year. It is a vibrant forest with a plethora of hiking trails, fishing spots, campsites, and whitewater rafting opportunities. Being the largest of the four national forests in the southeastern region of North Carolina, it offers endless possibilities for adventure.
With over 100 trailheads in the Nantahala National Forest, there are plenty of options, whether you are a novice hiker looking for a leisurely stroll or an experienced backpacker who loves breaking a sweat while powering through an intense adventure. These trails can range anywhere from an easy 10 minutes to a vigorous 25 hours. Each route is unique and contains different beautiful sights, making this location appealing to a wide range of hikers. So lace up your hiking boots, pack your backpack, and get ready to embark on a memorable journey through the state's natural wonders:
Dry Falls Trail
0.4 miles | 11 min | Easy
Dry Falls Trail is one of the simple yet beautiful trails in the Nantahala National Forest. This short trail is perfect for a simple adventure, and it has a pretty perk. The trail loops behind a stunning waterfall into a small cave, where you will likely be sprayed from the mist of the waterfall, perfect for a hot day. This trail is worth it for almost anyone because of its beautiful simplicity of trekking through the rocky forest and enjoying the magnificence of the waterfall. You have to walk up some stairs, and it can get slippery, but it is well worth it.
The trail welcomes everyone, including your furry friends. However, it is important to keep your pets leashed while on the trail. This spot is also perfect for birdwatching enthusiasts, so expect to see many people admiring the breathtaking scenery that the trail has to offer!
Note: There are wheelchair and stroller-accessible bathrooms at the trailhead and an accessible viewing platform for those who can't explore the trail.
Pickens Nose Trail
1.4 miles | 42 min | Medium
The Pickens Nose Trail is a picturesque gem tucked away in the Nantahala National Forest. Although the trail is relatively short, it offers a moderate level of difficulty due to its incline. As you make your way through the dense vegetation, breathtaking panoramic views await you at the scenic overlooks that jut out over the mountainside.
At the end of the trail, you reach a rocky outcropping shaped to a point that offers the most beautiful panoramic view. This trail is popular for walking as well as hiking; being relatively easy, it is considered a moderate hike. If you prefer to hike and enjoy the surrounding beauty without the hustle of running into a group of people, this hike would be perfect for you. Even on weekends, this trail tends not to be too crowded, allowing you to breathe in the air and soak up the views in your own peace of mind.
Note: It is important to keep in mind road closures leading to this trailhead, as most of the roads are open seasonally.
Huckleberry Knob Trail
1.7 miles | 50 min | Easy
For a family-friendly option, the Huckleberry Knob Trail is a picturesque and easy trail that takes you to a grassy mountaintop covered in wildflowers. After hiking the short distance, you reach a flat, grassy area that gives you access to 360-degree views of the breathtaking forested area beneath you, so if you like chasing sunsets, this is the perfect trail for you. It is typically not very populated and gives you plenty of room to allow your little ones or furry friends to run around. Along the trail, you will come across some camping spots that are first come, first serve, so bring a picnic or a tent and enjoy the scenery and wildlife of this relaxing route. There is limited parking, which regulates the foot traffic and keeps it to a minimum, allowing you to have a relaxing and quiet adventure.
Whiteside Mountain National Recreation Trail
1.9 miles | 1 hr 4 min | Medium
For those seeking a more challenging hike, the Whiteside Mountain National Recreation Trail is a must. This beautiful trail loop is a landmark on the eastern continental divide. It is a moderately challenging hike due to its steep nature, but well worth it. While you are breathlessly inclining this trail, you are making your way to the end view, which towers 750 feet over sheer cliffs. This view allows you to take in most of the surrounding areas covered in wildflowers and multiple unique rock-croppings. While it is a bit of a workout, a steady breeze typically keeps you cooled off as you ascend the trail. You can walk up some stairs on the steepest components of the hike before reaching the forested paths surrounded by pine trees and beautiful wildflowers, leading you to the final overlook. Additionally, there are multiple spots for rock climbing if you feel like adding an extra adventurous component to your day. You won’t want to miss this trail if you appreciate all the natural beauties the forest offers.
Note: There are bathrooms at the trailhead and a $3 access fee.
Glen Falls Trail
2.4 miles | 1 hr 3 min | Medium
Glen Falls is one of the more unique trails located in this region. While it is not a long trial, it has a lot to offer. This trail begins with a downward ascent, where within the first half-mile, you will come across the first waterfall. There are a total of three. While the first two waterfalls are only accessible from overlooks, the last one is where the real adventure is. This trail is slightly more challenging due to the frequent forks and direction changes on the way down, but if you are up for the challenge, this hike is worth it. As you get to the trail's end, a flowing waterfall gushes into a large pool that doubles as a swimming hole. Once you have enjoyed the beautiful views and cooled down, you begin the real workout portion of the hike. The return is a steep ascent back up to the trailhead. This trail is perfect for experienced hikers or people seeking a more challenging adventure.
Note: There is no cell service, and it is recommended that you download the trail maps before you begin.
Ranger Falls Loop Trail
2.4 miles | 1 hr 6 min | Medium
This versatile trail is a simple beauty you must explore. It gives you a little bit of everything, with some waterfalls, creeks, lush meadows, and uphill ascents. This hike will begin with a half-mile trail weaving through meadows until it turns into the forested loop that takes you to where you can access the waterfall. Depending on the time of the year, the falls could be flowing, and the creeks could be full, making for a breathtaking view. The trail is moderately wide and not too inclined, except for the exceptional few steep points. Two different trailheads lead to the waterfall, so be sure to research which one is best fit for you before you arrive. The upper part of the loop, past the falls, is not typically as traveled because it begins with a descent and may be slightly longer, but it will be less crowded if that is the route you decide to take. This trail can be an in-and-out or a part of a loop, making it easy and adventurous as you get to experience a lot in a short amount of time.
Jack Rabbit Trail
4.1 miles | 1 hr 26 min | Easy
Jack Rabbit Trail is one of the kid-friendly trails in the forest. It is a longer trail on flat terrain that creates a loop around the lake that nonetheless provides you with beautiful views. While you explore the main trail, which is in a forested area, you will come across breaks in the path that lead to slightly more difficult trails leading you to fun destinations, including ridgetops and beaches. This trail is very popular among mountain bikers, so be sure to watch out for your kiddos or pets if they are off-leash. Don’t worry! The trail offers flat, wide paths, so there is plenty of space for all the activity that goes on. This loop is near the Jack Rabbit camping ground and has a variety of different wildlife and vegetation. The trail is also well-maintained and has a lot of shaded areas, so it is the perfect adventure for a family looking to have a fun-filled afternoon.
Wesser Creek Trail
8.2 miles | 4 hr 50 min | Hard
The Wesser Creek Trail is one of the more difficult hikes that was once a part of the Appalachian Trail. This trail traverses through a fully wooded area that follows alongside Wesser Creek, as the name suggests and leads to the Wesser Bald Lookout Tower, which is a landmark of the trail end. The trail begins with a steady ascent up a skinny, steep path through the beautiful forestry that leads you to the views of the tower. Once you reach the end of the trail, you will see a flight of stairs leading to the top of the lookout tower, where ridges of blue, green, and brown line the horizon, justifying the difficult journey there. Fun Fact: The Wesser Bald Lookout Tower remains as it stood strong when the surrounding landscape burned down in the terrible forest fires in 2016.
Note: This route can be slippery and icy in the colder seasons.
Nantahala Yellow Mountain Trail
11.7 miles | 6 hr 28 min | Hard
This trail is known to be one of the most difficult trails in the South. As it ascends and descends multiple mountain peaks and winds through lush valleys and tunnels of wildflowers, it can be challenging to even experienced hikers. In certain stretches of the trail, you are climbing a continual ascent of over 1,000 feet to reach the halfway point. The summit at the end motivates those who partake in this adventure due to its unique and breathtaking views. The historic fire lookout tower, located near the summit, offers panoramic views of nearby peaks and cities. While you take it all in, make sure to rehydrate and refuel, as the return hike is equally as difficult with its fair share of steep ascents up hillsides.
Note: You can partake in water refills in the streams lining the trail as you approach the summit.
Standing Indian: Nantahala Basin Loop
21.6 miles | 10 hr 45 min | Hard
The Standing Indian Trail follows along the Appalachian Trail, forming a semi-circle around the Nantahala Basin. This loop is considered hard because of its vigorous length, but is a relatively flat and level trail at a high elevation. With easy access, the loop begins at the Standing Mountain campground, where there are bathrooms, a picnic area, and campsites, giving you the option to stay the night at the end of your adventurous day. There are campsites all along the trail if you wish to break up the mileage over multiple days and enjoy the beauty of it all. The path traverses you through rolling hills that provide lots of different sources of water, so you don’t have to worry about staying hydrated. There are certain points where you are descending a steep summit, and walking poles are recommended. This difficult trail is worth it for the area's serene beauty and relaxing nature.
Note: It is not likely that you will have service, so make sure to have a map of the trail beforehand.
No matter which trail you decide to take, the breathtaking natural wonders of the Nantahala National Forest are sure to provide you with an unforgettable adventure. So lace up your hiking boots and get outside!