London Bald Trail
“I have no idea where I am,” began my journal entry for the night of September 20, 2010. It was a little after 10 by the time I’d pitched camp and crawled into my tent, exhausted. The entry was a bit ironic, since the plateau I’d pitched camp on had apparently been cleared for a pricey mountain home and I could see a fairly significant — judging from the headlights — road trending northeast to southwest in the distance. The valley below was liberally peppered with the lights of rural civilization. Yet I felt I was in an impenetrable jungle, a not uncommon feeling when you’re navigating the Nantahala National Forest. Or nearly impenetrable, since I had been able to whack my way to this clearing.
A couple years back, an avid backpacker and trusted source had recommended a visit to London Bald. After I had extolled the virtues of my favorite trip in the state — the 14-mile stretch of the Appalachian Trail from Carver’s Gap north to US 19E (trip No. 23 in "Backpacking North Carolina" — he had countered with London Bald. Better hike, better views, better period. It sounded like Shangri La. And perhaps it would turn out to be as awe inspiring as the fictional land of British author James Hilton’s fertile imagination. If I could find it.
The next morning over oatmeal I studied a map of the area, trying to figure where I was, where I’d gone wrong the night before, how I could get back on course to the revered London Bald. I was pretty confident of the first leg of yesterday’s hike, a 4.1-mile early evening climb up a stretch of the Bartram Trail, from a nice trailhead with parking just off US 19/74 to where it veered left about a quarter mile shy of Sutherland Gap. The trail here was well marked: one arrow pointed left to the Bartram Trail, the other right for London Bald. After 30 yards to the right, my confidence began to erode. At first, there was the occasional blowdown blocking the trail. No surprise, since this was a National Forest Service trail and trail maintenance isn’t their top priority. I trudged on, the downfall became more frequent, more challenging. I detoured down the mountain 30 yards, I detoured up the mountain 30 yards. Then, as is wont to happen in the steep Nantahalas, it was all-of-a-sudden dark, the sun having vanished in minutes. I flipped on my headlamp and pressed on. Although the “trail” was quickly disintegrating, I could tell I was still on an old roadbed that must lead ... somewhere. After an hour or so I was spit out onto a maintained gravel road that lead, after a little scouting, to my camp for the night. Staring at the map the following morning I could determine only one thing: I needed to retrace my steps from the night before and, hopefully, stumble across an obvious trailhead that I’d missed in the dark. After nearly two hours of seeing nothing resembling a trail (including the route I was on) I was back at the Bartram Trail intersection. It was a relief to see bonafide trail.
I followed the Bartram down the mountain for a mile to Laurel Branch. There I took a trail borrowing the creek’s name south, up another draw back up the mountain. This trail was actually there, giving me hope for a backdoor climb up to London Bald. At a clear-cut the trail bogged in a jumble of undergrowth three feet high. I took a step and faint buzzing began. I took another step and the buzzing got louder. A third step and ... What the — !?
A scouting party of bees had found my shins and calves. Annoying in its own right, concerning considering I’m allergic to bees. (The last time I was stung — up the left nostril while mountain biking — my face swelled to comic proportions within 15 minutes.) I needed to: 1) Get away from the swarm ASAP, and 2) Get back to the car, equally ASAP.
The next four hours and seven miles was a panicky scramble: an arduous half-mile, 600-vertical-foot climb up to London Bald Trail; a 2.5-mile sprint north to Sutherland Gap, where I discovered the trail I couldn’t find earlier, which is to say the trail I was now on, was obscured by downed branches, and a pleasant 4.3-mile descent back to the car — followed by a half-hour drive to the nearest drugstore for Benadryl.
My swelling ankles kept me from camping near London Bald, my initial objective, and exploring an elongated oval loop consisting of the southern end of London Bald Trail, Junalaska Gap Trail, Diamond Valley Trail and Appletree Trail. That, I'm guessing is the stretch of London Bald with which my friend thought Carver's Gap couldn't compare. And I'll likely try it in winter.
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Trailhead: From the Nantahala Outdoor Center on US 19/74 head south for 7.8 miles and turn left on Wayah Road (at the Nantahala River boat launch site). Go 0.1 mile, then turn right into the Duke Power trailhead parking.
Distance: 14.1 miles.
No. of days recommended: 2.
Loop / out-and-back: Loop.
Campsite locations: 5.1 miles (N35 14.764 W83 40.347); 6.6 miles (N35 13.834 W83 40.669); 7.7 miles, at the London Bald Trail intersection (N35 13.623 W83 41.477); 8.4 miles (N35 14.040 W83 41.350); 9.0 miles (N35 14.365 W83 41.251).
Map: “Nantahala & Cullasaja Gorges: Nantahala National Forest,” Trails Illustrated, 1:70,000, contour interval 50 feet; “An Interpretive Hiking Map of North Carolina’s Bartram Trail,” 1:35,000, contour interval 50 feet.
Water (with GPS coordinates): There is water for about a quarter mile from Laurel Branch, beginning at mile 5.1 miles (N35 14.764 W83 40.347). There’s a seasonal source of water on London Bald Trail a quarter mile west from its intersection with Appletree Trail.
Trip highlight: Rugged terrain, remote, with the exception of the Bartram Trail a good opportunity to challenge your wayfinding skills.
Special considerations: With the exception of the 6.5-mile stretch on the well-coifed Bartram Trail, this is classic hide-and-seek National Forest trail hiking. Downed but passable trees are the norm, and the intersection of what appears to be five trails at Sutherland Gap, with no signage or blazes is a true head scratcher. Reportedly, the North Carolina Bartram Trail Society is planning to take over maintenance of the London Bald Trail, which will greatly help. Also: London Bald is being allowed to grow in, greatly altering the scenic bald experience.
Night hike in? No. Campsites are not always obvious and can be difficult to find in the dark.
Solo? Though the trails can be hard to follow, this is not a big area. If you get lost you’ll likely wander into a road or development before long. The area is fairly popular, though your odds of running into, or being run across by, fellow backpackers or hiker will vary by season.
Family friendly? No.
Bailout options: At mile 6.6, where Laurel Branch Trail Ts into Appletree Trail, go right for about a half mile to the Appletree Campground and SR 1400/Junaluska Road.
Solitude rating: 3.
Nearest outfitter: Nantahala Outdoor Center, Wesser. 888.905.7238.
Hunting allowed? Yes.
More info: 828.479.6431, www.cs.unca.edu/nfsnc; North Carolina Bartram Trail Society.