“Backpacking North Carolina” refers to the 21,000-acre Fires Creek area as “a backpacker’s playground.” For similar reasons, it’s also a hiker’s playground. A 25-mile trail traces the horseshoe-shaped rim of this mountain island; roughly 20 miles of trail descend to the valley below, making for a nice variety of hiking and the opportunity for numerous loop hikes. The East Rim loop, for instance is a 6.8-mile hike that includes a 2-mile climb to the rim, nearly 3 miles on the rim (which includes several passages through rhododendron tunnels), a chance to mark Tusquitte Bald on your bald checklist, and a 1.7-mile return down Far Bald Spring Trail. The 9.4-mile West Rim loop begins with a mellow 5-mile climb to the rim. After less than 3 miles on top, it’s a knee-jarring 1.7-mile drop back to the trailhead down Rockhouse Creek.

More info: USDA Forest Service, Nantahala National Forest, Tusquitee Ranger District, 828.837.5152; “Backpacking North Carolina,” trip nos. 29, 30, 31.

Maps: Chunky Gal Trail and Fires Creek Rim Trail: Detailed Trail Guide with Maps of the Trails in the Nantahala National Forest in Clay County, North Carolina, by John R. Ray, Malcolm J. Skove, and Bill Kenyon; USGS: Hayesville, Andrews.

Map of trailhead coming soon.

fires creek
Location: off U.S. 64 west of Franklin
Nearest town: Franklin
Latitude: N35 08.457
Longitude: W83 45.374
Difficulty: Moderate
Distance: 25-mile loop around rim, with various shorter options beginning from the valley floor.
Loop/one-way: Mostly loops
Time to complete: 4 hours to a day