Between a Rock and a Hard Place

02 Aug 2023

The importance of Panthertown Valley



Just a short drive from the crossroads in Cashiers lies one of the most intimidating, diverse, and unique ecosystems in the region, Panthertown Valley. (Despite its name, there have been no panther sightings since the logging era decimated the area in the early 20th century.) Granite domes tower over a mountain bog and double as overlooks for hikers seeking views. Geologists, botanists, and historians scour the valley in search of its treasurers, while families enjoy a short walk to Schoolhouse Falls. Campers pitch hammocks between pine trees, and outfitters seek out the most remote waterfalls. Fly fishers scout for native brook trout, and rock climbers plan their days scaling one of the dozens of routes within the valley. There truly is something for everyone in this unique corner of the Nantahala National Forest.

According to Friends of Panthertown, the nonprofit responsible for nearly all trail work and advocacy within the valley, the area was first logged by the Moltz Logging Company in the 20’s and 30’s, then changed hands in the 60’s when Liberty Properties took ownership. The original intent was to develop the area into a resort, but that fell through, and Duke Energy purchased the land shortly after. Though unsightly, they constructed a high-voltage transmission line through the valley following the impoundment of Lake Jocassee. That same transmission line now runs down into Tuckaseegee, where it arrives at the Thorpe Power Station, powering most of the plateau along the way. By most standards, the Tuckaseegee power plant is considered the most aesthetically appealing power station in the country.

Known as “Big Pisgah” by old timers, Panthertown rests on the Whiteside Pluton, a geological phenomenon that dates back some 500 million years, according to local geologist Bill Jacobs. Of the four plutons in the region, he’s studied the valley in incredible detail and writes about its fascinating features in his book Whence These Special Places. The book is available at many local outfitters and outdoor stores for those who want to dive deep into the topic. He also conducts guided hikes and local lectures from time to time through various organizations such as Friends of Panthertown Valley or the Highlands-Cashiers Land Trust.

Capped by Mount Toxaway on the southeast corner of the valley, Greenland Creek and Panthertown Creek adjoin below Schoolhouse Falls, possibly the most photographed and visited waterfall within the valley. If you visited before Tropical Storm Fred in 2021, you’ll likely notice some differences these days due to the extreme flooding that occurred below the falls. Some sources list upwards of 6 inches of rain preceding the storm, with another 10 coming in a 48-hour period.

Because of its unique geology, Panthertown is home to a bog ecosystem, which includes everything from the swampy wetlands at the lowest points to the rock outcroppings that the water drains from. In the heart of the valley, you can find unique orchids, a myriad of unique wildflowers, and even carnivorous plants if you know where to look. Atop the peaks, you can find blueberries, blackberries, and wintergreen, in addition to a diverse assortment of mosses that can withstand both drought and monsoons.

Panthertown’s unique geology is rooted in volcanic activity, and you can find an assortment of “potholes” on both the granite domes and at many waterfalls. Over countless millennia, these phenomena have formed from water running across softer rock over extended periods. Some of them are deep enough that if you were to step inside, your feet may not touch the bottom. Local folklore includes stories about items lost at the bottom of many, including a story of a prized Swiss Army knife resting deep within one.

Abandoned homesteads and strange artifacts can also be found in the valley such as an ancient lawnmower and remnants of a Christmas tree farm north of Panthertown Creek. An old-field pine stands in the heart of the valley and offers a serene setting for campers and those seeking solitude. 

Panthertown is one of our more special places to explore, offering some 35 miles of trails within its boundaries and a myriad of other footpaths. All trails are maintained by volunteer crews with Friends of Panthertown, most of which require no special skills or experience. Trained crews with chainsaws also roam the valley to keep the trails clear of major blockages. Consider donating, volunteering, or becoming part of their recent adopt-a-trail program, and be sure to Leave No Trace during your visit, so we can continue to enjoy this special area for generations to come.

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