The great outdoors lives up to its name in and around Cherokee County. Photo by BEN KATZ

PEAKS AND VALLEYS: Bikers and hikers rejoice

    This is a preview article for the Peaks and Valleys magazine that will appear in the May 24 edition of the Cherokee Scout.

    No matter how you choose to navigate outside, there are plenty of trails, streams and big game just waiting to be explored.
    If you fancy the great outdoors, western North Carolina offers an abundance of adventures to feed your imagination and stretch your physical limitations. There is no excuse for not being able to find something to do.

Outdoor trails
    The options begin within the Murphy town limits. Piney Knob Trails is a newly carved, 700-acre trail system that is off Piney Knob Hill Road on the old Murphy watershed property. The 28.3-mile network of trails is nearing its completion, with plenty of elevation changes and breathtaking scenery for either hiking on foot or enjoying the trail via mountain biking.
    The region and neighboring Fannin County, Ga., gives outdoor enthusiasts a number of fishing, hiking and whitewater rafting destinations to choose from.
    There are 341 listed trails that stretch across the 24 counties in western North Carolina – 100 intersect within one hour of Murphy – while Fannin County showcases up to 20 trails for the choosing. Among the most challenging lies the treacherous terrains of the Benton Mackaye Trail and Rim Trail – plus the largest of them all, the historically renowned Appalachian Trail.
    Incorporated into the National Parks System in 1937, the Appalachian Trail passes through 14 states – from Georgia to Maine – and hosts 2-3 million visitors each year, as per appalachiantrail.org. Luckily for Cherokee County residents, part of the trail runs just above the county border. Hikers can either put their stamina to the ultimate test with the “thru-hike,” where individuals can attempt to complete the trail from beginning to end, or just experience a piece with a day-long excursion.
    Named after a Appalachian Trail visionary, the Benton Mackaye Trail stretches 300 miles along the western crest of the Blue Ridge Mountains, touching Georgia, Tennessee and North Carolina. This popular and physically demanding trail is within driving distance of Cherokee County. Visitors can select from five access points – Twentymile Ranger Station, Lakeview Drive, U.S. 441/Smokemont Campground, Straight Fork Road and Big Creek/Davenport Gap.
    Southeast of Murphy lies Clay County’s Rim Trail in Hayesville. This 26-mile stretch circles Fire Creek, where hikers can experience the scenic forests, rivers, wildlife, wildflowers and a lone waterfall, all while breaking a sweat on this physically challenging route. Although it is primarily open to hikers, some areas accommodate horseback riding, while other areas have options for camping, fly fishing and birdwatching.
    Fat Bald Springs, Huskins Branch, Little Fires Creek, Rockhouse Creek and Standing Indian Mountain Deep-Gap Trail give hikers and casual walkers additional options in Clay County.
    For those wanting a more leisurely day walk in Cherokee County, there lies 12 walking/hiking trails in Murphy along with a trail in Hiwassee Dam near the Nantahala National Forest, which wraps around the Cherokee and Hiwassee Lake. Six of the hiking trails make up the Hanging Dog Recreation Area. The campground re-opened in 2016 after a two-year hiatus and provides fishing access to Hiwassee Lake as well as 8 miles of trails for mountain bikers on the Ramsey Bluff Mountain Biking System.

Take me to the river
    Kayaking, canoing and whitewater rafting enthusiasts living in Cherokee County are nestled between two of the best whitewater rafting rivers in the Southeast – the Ocoee River to the west just over the Tennessee border, and the Nantahala River to the east near Bryson City.
    The widely popular 40-mile long, dam-controlled Nantahala River runs through the Great Smoky Mountain National Park, Nantahala Gorge and Nantahala National Forest. The site to the 2013 Freestyle World Championships, the river welcomes individuals of all skill levels to participate in paddling sports – kayaking, whitewater rafting and canoing.
    The most popular and family friendly section for ages 7 and up falls within an 8-mile stretch in the lower run of the river, taking groups on a journey through class I and II rapids, and then a class III grand finale toward the end. Full-length tours are offered for this section of the river, which requires riders to weigh at least 60 pounds and wear life vests in order to participate in this exhilarating three-hour-long excursion.
    There are numerous equipment rental businesses along the route, allowing visitors to sign up for full-length raft adventures or rent kayaks and duckies. If your group is feeling brave, find a river trip package, which includes a 4-6 person kayak, use of the facilities, equipment and shuttle transportation so long as the group attends an orientation beforehand.
    The most intimidating section of the river extends from the Nantahala Dam to the Nantahala Powerhouse is the upper section class III-V rapids called the Nantahala Cascades, which bares many nicknames, like the Horns of God, Big Kahuna and Chinese Feet. The steep running current takes the most daring kayakers through a fast-paced thrill ride. The Cascades rely heavily on rainfall and wet seasons to keep the water flow continuous, so this section runs on scheduled bypass releases – one weekend in April, four summer afternoons and another weekend in September.
    Tennessee’s Ocoee River – just beyond the Cherokee County border and less than an hour from Murphy – is open from April through August, offering visitors two whitewater sections for their enjoyment, the Middle Ocoee and the Upper Ocoee. This well-known river features many tightly spaced and large rapids, and was a site for the 1996 Summer Olympics.
    The Middle Ocoee is the most popular whitewater site in the United States and hosts more than 200,000 visitors – beginner/seasoned rafters and kayakers – each year. This 5-mile stretch of continuous features 20 named class III and IV “drop and pool” rapids, which takes three hours to complete. All participants must be at least
age 13.
    The Ocoee, although challenging, is a fun experience for the entire family. Life vests and helmets are required on this guided trip.

Gone fishin’
    Cherokee County and the surrounding areas are home to several trout streams – and 33 different species of sport fish – two deep-water reservoirs, five hatchery-supported sections of water and thousands of acres worth of public hunting game land. Groups like the Mountain Country Rod & Gun Club work diligently to help improve the quality of local fishing and hunting.
    Local anglers have the option to choose five trout streams in Cherokee County: Apalachia Creek, Hyatt Creek, Davis Creek, Shuler Creek, Junaluska Creek and the Valley River. The state stocks public lakes, ponds, streams, creeks and rivers with more than 6 million trout each year.
    The Valley River – a tributary of the Hiwassee River – runs parallel to U.S. 19 between Murphy and Topton, giving anglers 29 miles of hatchery supported trout waters from Andrews to Murphy. It’s generally stocked with about 4,950 rainbow, brown and brook trout.
    The four creeks to inhabit Cherokee County include Davis Creek, Junaluska Creek, Hyatt Creek and Shuler Creek. Davis Creek has a 6-mile section that receives 3,200 trout five months out of the year; a 6-mile stretch of Junaluska Creek will stock 2,800 trout from March through June; Hyatt Creek with 1,200 trout from March through May each year; and Shuler Creek has a 3.9-mile section that will stock more than 2,700 trout from March through May.
    For those willing to venture across the Cherokee County border, Fires Creek (Hayesville), Nantahala River (Macon County) and Big Snowbird Creek (Graham County) are the most popular delayed-harvest streams in the area, and estimated to bring in an annual revenue of $2.1 million per year. A 3-mile portion of the Valley River is set to become a delayed-harvest section by 2017, said Bobby Hand, president of Trout Unlimited Chapter No. 201.
    The Hiwassee River, the county’s largest deep-water reservoir, houses various types of native sport fish – walleye, three species of bass, catfish and sunfish. The Apalachia Reservoir (1,070 acres) is the second of Cherokee County’s two deep-water reservoirs and possesses some of area’s largest quantities of trout, as the state stocks the lake with 10,000 annually. It also is an ideal location for hiking, canoing and camping.

Choose your target
    For all big-game hunters, the Cherokee and Nantahala national forests are inhabited by deer, wild turkey, wild boar and black bear.
    Hunting these various species are separated into different seasons, as the black bear season runs from Oct. 16 through Nov. 18 and Dec. 11 through Jan. 1. The N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission provides detailed information regarding the locations and restrictions associated with hunting this big-game animal at ncwildlife.org. The black bear is the only bear species found in North Carolina or anywhere in the Eastern United States.
    White-tail deer are the most popular to hunt in the area and are separated into three different hunting seasons –archery (Sept. 9 through Oct. 1; Oct. 15 through Nov. 19; Dec. 10 through Jan. 1); black powder (Oct. 2-14) and gun (Nov. 20 through Dec. 9). As for wild turkey, the youth turkey season (individuals ages 15 or younger) will run from April 7-13. The statewide spring season for male bearded turkey is April 14 through May 12.
    For details on fishing, hunting or how to obtain a hunting/fishing license, contact the Wildlife Resources Commission at 1-888-248-6834 or visit their website.