Panthertown Valley -- High Bethel Loop (4-2-16)
It's hard for me to believe that, only a short two-and-a-half years ago, I was just beginning to make my first foray's into Panthertown Valley. Since then the valley has become my unofficial 'backyard' of sorts. Only 20 minutes from my house and filled with all the types of natural wonderment that draw me outside, Panthertown has become a regular destination when I need a close-and-convenient day hike. As a result the blank, unexplored spots for me on the Panthertown map are growing smaller and fewer in number. Indeed, this hike would fill in one of the remaining final chunks of the map and, arguably, the last major natural landform I had yet to visit at Panthertown...a place called High Bethel on the slopes of Cold Mountain in the valley's north-eastern corner.
Cold Mountain itself is one of Panthertown's two highest peaks...at 4,650' it is only surpassed by Toxaway Mountain a short distance south which tops Cold by 100-feet. The highlight of Cold Mountain, however, is not its summit but rather a small stretch of open ledges on its western face upon which has been built something quite interesting. Between the years of 1956 and 1974 stones were brought up from the nearby Canaan Land Camp to the clifftop, where they were stacked and mortared. When completed these stones created a small alter of sorts, measuring perhaps three feet high by three feet wide. The spot was named <i>High Bethel</i>, in honor of the biblical 'Bethel' where Jacob had his vision of a stairway to heaven. 'Bethel' also, in Hebrew, means "House of God". Both references, I think, are quite appropriate considering the location of High Bethel.
There's a couple of reasons I had saved exploring this particular corner of Panthertown until almost last. First of which was the length of the hike considering the payoff. It's a full <i>nine mile</i> loop, and a strenuous one at that, to reach the small clifftop overlook. Secondly, a full half of this hike would be along some of Panthertown's infamous 'unofficial' trails. Sometimes these unofficial trails are fantastic and easy to follow, sometimes they degrade into little more than a muddy belly-crawl and disappear. Not many folks undertake the hike up to High Bethel so info on current trail conditions is all but non-existent. So, the plan of attack was this...
I would begin at the now quite familiar Cold Mountain Gap Trailhead and begin by descending into Panthertown via the Panthertown Valley Trail. Perhaps a mile or so in I would then turn right onto the new-to-me Devil's Elbow Trail and follow it, in its entirety, up its namesake ridge. Upon reaching the northern end of the Devils Elbow Trail things would get a bit more interesting because I'd be on 'unofficial trails' from there on out. First off let me say that the invaluable Kornegay map was a wonderfully useful and, more importantly, <i>accurate,</i> tool on this part of the hike. The trail up and over Shelton Pisgah is, for the most part, easy to follow but it's steep and unrelenting. There's not a whole lot of scenery around either so I found it quickly degraded into a monotonous uphill slog. After topping out on Shelton Pisgah the still easy-to-follow path drops to the high gap between Shelton and neighboring Cold Mountain. At a spot along the tiny Little Green Creek the trail splits. Straight ahead downhill is the Little Green Creek Trail while turning left across the creek is the (unofficial) trail which continues up to High Bethel. Its only about a half-mile from this gap up to High Bethel but there's still a decent amount of climbing to do. The payoff is more than worth it, however. The views from High Bethel takes in all of Panthertown and beyond. After taking in the view from the alter I'd then retrace my steps to the gap and head back down into the valley via the aforementioned, unofficial, Little Green Creek Trail. The Little Green Creek Trail has a bit of a split personality. The upper half of it is open and quite pleasant to walk while the lower half involves mud, rock, laurel hells, and a couple stream crossings. Its a decent enough path but if you decide to use it you need to always be keeping a close eye on your route, especially along the lower section. Upon reaching the bottom of the LGCT I'd be back at the Devils Elbow Trail which would take me back to the Panthertown Valley Trail which would, in turn, take me back to the car! Easy enough, right?
It did go off pretty much without a hitch, I'll let you in on that spoiler. Anyway, I invite you to come along with me as I explore a lesser-visited corner of Panthertown Valley...lace up your boots, make sure you have good map and plenty of water...LET'S GO!!!...
Trailhead GPS Coordinates: 35.157798, -82.998943
Mileage Hiked: 9.0 miles Hike Duration: 3:45
Trailhead Temp: 50'F Trail Traffic: 1-5 people
Min. Elevation: 3,550' Max. Elevation: 4,465'
Total Vertical Gain: 1,750' Avg. Elevation Gain / Mile: 194'
Trails Used (blaze color): Devil's Elbow (unblazed), High Bethel (unblazed), Little Green Creek (unblazed), Panthertown Valley (unblazed), Riding Ford (unblazed), Shelton Pisgah (unblazed)