About ten highway-miles west of Lake Toxaway on US-64 on land now bordered by Southern Highlands Reserve, developers planned to build a lodge in Panthertown Valley in the 1960s. A dam, impounding the headwaters of the Tuckasegee River, would offer guests a scenic, recreational lake. The National Park Service and local politicians were also charmed by the natural beauty of the area. Enthusiastic about the new, well-travelled Blue Ridge Parkway connecting Shenandoah and Great Smoky Mountains National Parks, officials proposed a parkway extension to Georgia that would slice through Panthertown Valley. Duke Energy also wanted to own the valley to build its power transmission line.
Tea-colored waterways, sandy beaches and over half-a-dozen premier waterfalls and a dozen smaller ones in Panthertown attracted the attention of outdoor enthusiasts. Unique plant communities in rare mountain bogs and atop monstrous granite domes fueled the passions of the NC Chapter of the Nature Conservancy. Through the organization’s campaigns and fund-raising efforts in the 1980’s, Panthertown was saved from development. Later purchased by the US Forest Service, Nantahala National Forest now maintains the 6700 backcountry acres as a primitive area for hikers and a sanctuary for black bears. From its two main entrances, popular day-hike destinations in the open, flat valley are sheer rock cliffs, deep swimming holes and gorgeous waterfalls, like Schoolhouse Falls.
Recently, the USFS district ranger for Nantahala National Forest estimated that over 20,000 visitors explore the thirty miles of hiking trails and scenic vistas in Panthertown Valley each year. The organization, Friends of Panthertown Valley, partner with the forest service to help maintain the trail system. Each season, the group sponsors guided hikes, including wildflower walks led by renowned Appalachian botanist and retired Western Carolina University professor, Dr. Dan Pittillo. In 2017, the Friends joined Mainspring Conservation Trust to raise money to purchase 16 acres adjoining Panthertown’s Salt Rock Trailhead entrance. The Friends of Panthertown Valley provides further information about their activities on their web page: https://panthertown.org/. Maps are available at the USFS office and local outfitters.
Image of Warden Falls courtesy of Thomas Mabry