Hiking the Appalachian Trail: Wonderful sights in the Land of the Noonday Sun

A gnarled old oak tree sits atop Bly Gap at 3,800 feet on the Appalachian Trail, famously marking the boundary between Georgia and North Carolina. The Tar Heel State, the second on the northbound thru-hiker’s agenda, wastes no time with fancy introductions, putting a couple of brutally steep 4,000-footers directly ahead: Courthouse Bald and the aptly named Sharp Top.

North of the Georgia line to the Smokies, the trail follows a meandering route through the 531,000-acre Nantahala National Forest. Nantahala is Cherokee for “Land of the Noonday Sun,” and in many of the region’s deep river gorges, hemmed in by steep-walled mountains, only a few hours of direct sunlight reach the ground around midday.

The first 5,000-foot summits of the AT trek are reached on the second and third days in North Carolina – first the grassy perch atop Standing Indian, “the grandstand of the southern Appalachians,” and then Albert Mountain, with its fire tower and far-reaching vistas.

Beyond the trail town of Franklin and Winding Stair Gap, the trail follows a rather rough-and-tumble route over the Stecoahs, a series of high, grassy balds in the 4,000-5,000-foot range. Siler, Wesser, Wayah, Cheoah and any number of lesser balds all provide wonderful views, allowing hikers to trace their route from the Tennessee Valley Divide in Georgia all the way to the Smokies.

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