Panthertown Valley really does look like Yosemite.
The granite domes and sheer cliffs offer an Eastern reminder of California's iconic Yosemite National Park.
The cliffs in Panthertown Valley are not as tall or as dramatic - only 200 to 300 feet high. But they create a Yosemite-like valley that is heavily forested and wild country.
The similarity is striking and even more surprising. It's a dramatic landscape that dazzles visitors. Yet most people have never heard of Panthertown Valley, a mountainous 6,300 acres in Nantahala National Forest, once home to the Cherokees and located not far from where North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia come together.
Never miss a local story.
The valley has been designated a Blue Ridge Natural Heritage Site and Mountain Treasure Area. It has survived as wild country in an area dominated by mountain vacation homes and resorts.
Today, the valley in Jackson and Transylvania counties is a playground for backpackers, equestrians, mountain bikers, rock climbers, anglers, bird watchers and nature lovers. Wilderness camping is permitted.
According to oral history, the valley was once so wild it was said to be the home of "a town of painters" or panthers. There are no large cats there today.
The granite domes, uncommon in the southern Appalachians, offer spectacular long-range vistas. They are plutons, mountain-sized nuggets of buried rocks that were later exposed as the overlying Appalachians eroded away.
The valley was bought in the late 1890s by R.G. Jennings of Pittsburgh for hunting and fishing. It was heavily logged from the 1920s into the 1930s by a lumber company. In the 1960s, it was sold to a private development company that had plans to turn the valley into a mountain lake resort with a lodge, golf course and houses.
Duke Power Co. briefly owned the main valley; in 1989, the Nature Conservancy bought the 6,300-acre main valley (except for the Duke Energy right of way) for $8 million. Later, it was sold to the federal government and added to the Nantahala National Forest.
The main valley lies between Sassafras Mountain to the north, Toxaway and Hogback mountains to the south, Cold Mountain to the east and Laurel Knob to the west.
It runs up to 51/2 miles east to west and up to 71/2 north-south, although its dimensions are generally smaller.
The main rocks on the floor of the valley - a banded gneiss - date back 750 million years.
The valley at 3,600 feet in elevation is also known for its waterfalls, trout streams, rare, high-altitude bogs and its biological diversity.
There are eight major waterfalls in the valley and numerous smaller falls, plus holes for a summer swim.
The rugged gorges within the valley contain old-growth forest, mostly eastern hemlock now under attack by the wooly adelgid, and the yellow birches.
The headwaters of the East Fork of the Little Tennessee River and the Tuckasegee River and 20 miles of native brook trout streams including Panthertown, Greenland and Flat creeks are within Panthertown Valley. The streams are stained brown with tannic acid from leaves that fall into the water.
The flat main valley is home to 11 unique plant communities, including the rare southern Appalachian bog and the swamp forest-bog.
Visitors are asked to stay on trails to reduce damage. Rare ferns, mosses and liverworts thrive in the wet microclimates around waterfalls and are easily disturbed. The waterfalls support the highest concentration of rare plants in the valley.
The trail system in the Panthertown Valley is unique, a befuddling maze. None are blazed and few are signed. Compasses and maps are essential - but not all the trails show up on maps.
The Forest Service has established an official trail system marked with carsonite markers. But Panthertown is filled with numerous unofficial trails, many lovingly built in the early 1990s by the late volunteer Carlton McNeill. It is very easy to get lost on the myriad trails.
Enter local outfitter Burt Kornegay, who has combined the official and unofficial trails onto one map: "A Guide's Guide to Panthertown" ($12; www.slickrockexpeditions .com ).
Using Kornegay's map and a compass, I didn't get lost on a day hike but I did lose two trails and was forced to backtrack.
The main trail in the valley is the 3.25-mile east-west Panthertown Valley Trail that connects two trailheads.
Schoolhouse Falls on Greenland Creek is the best-known waterfall. The west entrance to the valley is closest to Granny Burrell and Frolictown Creek falls. It offers great vistas from Blackrock and Big Green mountains.
Rhododendron and mountain laurel thickets are everywhere, along with berry patches.
In 1981, the U.S. Forest Service acquired an additional 3,600-acre Bonas Defeat tract to the north along the headwaters of the Tuckasegee River.
The Bonas Defeat Gorge takes its unusual name from a pioneer dog, Bonas, that was reputedly trained to chase wildlife over a cliff for its owners. One day, Bonas failed to stop at the cliff. It was Bonas' Defeat.
The story could be whimsical, but the gorge is serious stuff. Some consider it a world-class day hike for the very dedicated. It has been called the wildest trail in the East.