Come visit the most scenic spot on the Appalachian Trail in North Carolina and the tallest peaks in the Nantahala Mountains! Built in 1937 by the Civilian Conservation Corps, the Wayah Bald Lookout Tower located in the southern Nantahala National Forest is one of only a handful of stone towers found along the entire Appalachian Trail. Standing at an elevation of 5,342 ft, Wayah Balds panoramic vistas of the Great Smoky Mountains in Tennessee to the north and the rolling hills of Georgia to the south are unmatched. This popular stop for thru hikers and casual weekend visitors is the perfect place to catch a mid-afternoon break and enjoy a picnic lunch while soaking in the views.
Wayah Bald Trail | 0.4 Miles
Wayah Bald Trailhead Location | Google Maps
Overview of trails surrounding Wayah Bald.
Wether you’re a weekend section hiker, photographer, or an outdoor enthusiast looking to take in some panoramic mountain views you can’t go wrong with making the drive out to see the Wayah Bald Lookout Tower. We visited the Wayah Bald Lookout Tower as part of a day trip to see Pickens Nose, Rufus Morgan Falls, Big Laurel Falls, and Mooney Falls. There are several ways to reach the Wayah Bald Lookout Tower as the Appalachian Trail and Bartram Trail both cross over its peak. One option is to tackle the 9.1 mile Wayah Crest Trail who’s trailhead can be found at the intersection of Wayah Bald Rd and Forest Road 69. The 10.5 mile Wallace Branch to Wayah Bald section of the Bartram Trail is another more rugged, yet popular day hike. On todays adventure, we’ll be driving up FR69 from Wayah Gap to the near summit of Wine Spring Mountain, the tallest in the Nantahalas, and continuing out to the Wayah Bald Lookout Tower Trailhead and Picnic Area. This 5.0-mile gravel road can be narrow and curvy at points, but generally considered an easy drive for most vehicles with decent clearance and all wheel drive capabilities. Please note that FR69 is seasonally closed from January 1 to April 1.
Paved path for Wayah Bald from Forest Road 69.
Appalachian Trail thru hikers approaching Wayah Bald.
History of Wayah Bald
Before we talk about the fire tower, it is important to mention that people have been visiting Wayah Bald for thousands of years before this tower was ever built. During its initial construction, archeologists discovered spear points belonging to indigenous people dating back 11,000 years B.C.E. In the Cherokee language, the name “Wa ya” means wolf. This name was given to the area for its large population of red wolves that once inhabited the area. Red wolves used to roam throughout the eastern seaboard from Pennsylvania to Florida and as far west as Texas. Today, North Carolina’s Albemarle Peninsula is home to the only confirmed wild red wolves in existence. It is believed that at this very moment there are roughly only 15 red wolves left in the wild making it the most critically endangered wolf in the entire world.
Exploring the history of The Watchmen and Wayah Bald Lookout Tower. Archeologists have also discovered Native American spear points here dating back 11,000 years.
Just before reaching the trailhead parking lot FR69 drives past two historic sites that were crucial to the early development of the Wayah Bald Lookout Tower. The Wilson Lick Ranger Station looks more like a ghost town today, but back in 1916 when it was built this was the first ranger station in the newly formed Nantahala National Forest. The forest's first District Ranger, Grady Siler, lived at Wilson Lick from 1917 through 1918. This ranger station was the go-between for The Watchmen, as they were called, whom were responsible for manning the Wayah Bald Lookout Tower and keeping an eye out for forest fires on 2 month rotations. Up until being decommissioned 1967, the Wilson Lick Ranger Station held annual first aid and fire training sessions for Forest Service employees stationed in the Nantahala National Forest. Soon after passing this site, there’s a small intersection with Wine Spring Bald Rd on the left. This small road leads to Wine Spring Bald, the tallest peak in the Nantahala Mountain Range. Due to being thickly forested and with no outward views, the Civilian Conservation Corps decided on building the lookout tower on its neighboring peak, Wayah Bald. Today, Wine Spring Bald houses a communications tower and weather tracking system.
New roof on Wayah Bald Lookout Tower rebuilt after the 2016 Camp Branch wildfire.
Wayah Bald Lookout Tower Trailhead
Upon reaching the end of Wayah Bald Rd, you’ll see the beginning of the paved path to Wayah Bald with the lookout tower off in the distance. The road continues just around the bend to a large picnic area with vault toilets and parking for a dozen vehicles. At only 0.40 miles, this easy and family friendly path is more of a stroll than a hike. Even without reaching the lookout tower, the views from the trailhead are absolutely jaw dropping. You can turn around in a full circle and see for miles in every direction. This is a particularly special place to visit during May and June when the rhododendrons and azaleas are blooming. Due to its high percentage of annual rainfall, this section of the Appalachian Trail in the Nantahala National Forest from Deep Gap near the Georgia state line to the Little Tennessee River is one of the most studied for its diverse flora and fauna.
Hiker reaching the terrace on Wayah Bald.
Wayah Bald is a popular and sought after landmark for Appalachian Trail thru hikers while traveling through North Carolina.
The Appalachian Trail merges with the Wayah Bald Trail right here at the trailhead and continues just on the other side of the fire tower, where it also meets the Bartram Trail. While some people chose to use Jones Cabin Road as a bypass to avoid the crowds at Wayah Bald, most hikers make the journey up to take a photo as this is a sought after landmark on the AT. Looking around it is hard not to notice all of the charred remains of burnt trees lining the walk up. In late 2016, the Camp Branch Wildfire ravaged 3,422 acres of the Nantahala National Forest, destroying the wooden structure of the lookout tower in the process. It took nearly 2 years for private donors and organizations to raise the funds needed to rebuild the structure close to what it originally looked like.
Looking out from the second story observation platform on Wayah Bald.
On a clear day like today you can see all the way north to the Great Smoky Mountains and south into Georgia.
Wayah Bald Lookout Tower
Having traveled to several Forest Service fire towers in the Southeast as a side hobby, I can tell you that the Wayah Bald Lookout Tower is one of the prettiest and most impressive out there. Walking up to the structure, there is an arched entrance to a ground level enclosure at the bottom of the tower. If there’s a storm in sight, this is the spot thru hikers run for to seek shelter. While camping is not allowed here, the Wayah Bald Shelter is only 0.9 miles away on the Appalachian Trail. The front of the tower has an expansive east facing terrace. Today it was full of section and through hikers taking a break from the 2,000 ft of elevation gain it takes to get from Wayah Gap to the summit. Working our way to the north side of the tower, we found the stone staircase leading up to the second level. In the observation platform there is a display tagging each of the viewable mountain peaks stretched out from north to south.
Looking out from the tallest peaks in the Nantahala Mountains.
Looking south towards the Wayah Bald Picnic Area.
Originally, this fire tower had an interior stairway to the second story, where an external wooden catwalk encircled a public observation level enclosed by 12 windows. The third story housed fire-detecting equipment and served as the lookout, with 16 windows providing a 360-degree view of the Nantahala National Forest. It also contained living quarters which including two drop-down beds attached to the wall and a wood stove. After being decommissioned in 1945, the Forest Service removed the upper levels of the tower. Even without a third story, it is hard to imagine how the scenery could get any better.
Wayah Bald Lookout Tower keeping watch over the Nantahala National Forest.
Up next, we’re driving back down the mountain to check out one of the tallest and most scenic waterfalls in the southern Nantahala National Forest. At 60 feet tall, Rufus Morgan Falls is a sliding cascade waterfall located in the Nantahala Ranger District west of Franklin. This little visited and iconic waterfall was named after Albert Rufus Morgan, a pioneer in helping to create the Appalachian Trail. An easy and family friendly 1.0 mile loop takes visitors to the falls while exploring the wildflower filled cove forest surrounding the Left Prong of Rough Fork. Stay tuned for this upcoming article and as always, see y’all on the trails!