LAKE TOXAWAY, N.C. — It used to be that Panthertown was half myth, like the cat itself in the Carolinas. The valley was the forbidden haunt you didn’t enter without someone who knew the way. It was a place you’d get lost, winding through weaves of unblazed woodland trails to countless waterfalls and steep rock-face climbs.
The 10,000-acre tract near Lake Toxaway is now mapped public land, part of the Nantahala National Forest just across the border in North Carolina. But it almost became a golf resort, with the heart of it flooded for a lake, like the ritzy Lake Toxaway abutting its cliffs. It was saved by a grass-roots effort that has maintained its forbidding allure.
“The mythical aura,” David Loveland said in the tent camp below Schoolhouse Falls, that’s what drew him to lead a dozen or more members of the Charleston Hiking and Outdoors Meetup Group into the valley for a first-time hike on a recent weekend. “This Shangri-La that no longer exists. I just had to come see it.”
Like many hidden gems, including those in the Lowcountry, the popularity comes with a price as so many descend on the area to take in the wild beauty. Like Botany Bay on Edisto Island, Panthertown needs volunteers to protect it’s natural state.
If the Linville Gorge wilderness is the “Grand Canyon of the East,” Panthertown Valley is its Yosemite — a labyrinthine, 10,000-acre bowl of round rock knob mountains like bald lawn gnomes, granite walls that rise hundreds of feet high and stretch for a mile or more. The valley is combed with its spectacular ridge vistas, mountain bogs, old-growth trees, wild orchids, plumes of mountain laurel and rhododendron.
Panthertown got its name because the place was so wild, its earliest settlers said it might as well have been a town for panthers. Its prominent features have tags like Devil’s Elbow, the Great Dismal Wall, Rattlesnake Knob and the redoubtable Bonas Defeat cliff face, named for a hound trained by a settler family to run deer off the cliff for venison. One day, the story goes, Bonas the dog went a bit too far and fell with the deer to his “defeat.”
The valley now is relatively heavily used, its access road lined with cars. But most of a 10-mile hike exploring it on a recent holiday weekend was made in solitude, occasionally retracing steps to find trails that vanished at difficult spots such as an exposed and treacherous rock slope.
“There’s a maze of trails there and people get lost frequently,” said Burt Kornegay of Cullowhee, N.C., a retired guide who ran trips in the valley for 20 years and whose map is recommended gear. “Ninety-five percent of the people go to five percent of the valley. On other trails, chances are you might not see anyone at all.”
That’s why the Panthertown myth persists. There still are stretches Kornegay advises people not go on unless they are with someone who has done them before. He will tell you flat-out he knows places in the valley nobody else does and still finds things he hasn’t come across before. The landscape remains singular and remote.
“I don’t know of any other place like that in our mountains,” he said. “It really is beautiful.”
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