Wayah Bald, a little to the west of Franklin, in Macon County, has proven to be a popular destination for Western North Carolina residents and hikers for years – and for good reason. The sign on the mountaintop gives its elevation as 5,342 feet; the map gives its elevation 43 feet higher.
Either way, the stone observation tower atop Wayah Bald offers unobstructed views of the Appalachians as far as South Carolina, Georgia and Tennessee.
Wayah Bald is about 200 miles from Charlotte, about a four-hour drive.
To see and do
In pioneer days, the motivating force behind climbing a mountain, in most cases, was to get to the other side; nowadays, people often do this to reconnect with nature, for the exercise and to enjoy the views. Wayah Bald nicely meets all these goals. The stretch of trail to the top is actually a small part of the Appalachian Trail, so you can hike as long or as short a distance as you want. The panoramic views from the summit are delightful year-round.
On your way to the summit, take a few minutes to walk around the buildings at Wilson Lick. Built in 1916, this was the first ranger station constructed in the newly formed Nantahala National Forest. From the station, it’s roughly 3 miles to the summit. For those adventurous enough to reach the top on foot rather than by car, the path you will follow is part of the Appalachian Trail as well as the 115-mile Bartram Trail. The latter, named for American naturalist William Bartram, runs from northern Georgia to Cheoah Bald in North Carolina and crosses Wayah Bald at the summit.
Views from the top are reward enough, but the old stone fire tower there is the cherry on the sundae. The stone edifice was built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s. The tower was named for John Byrne, who in 1933, at age 33, became the youngest man ever appointed a national forest ranger.
The tower was three stories and 53 feet tall. The top floor was the watch deck; the second floor was living space for the watchmen who lived at the tower for two-month periods. Despite its solid appearance, however, the stone tower wasn’t as sturdy as it needed to be; by the mid-1940s, cracks allowed water to seep into the structure. Fire detection service was stopped in 1945, and the upper levels of the tower were removed two years later for safety reasons. But the former lookout was such a popular destination that in 1983 the second floor was reconstructed, replicating the original design, and the tower was opened to the public as an observation deck. The Byrne Memorial Tower was added to the National Historic Lookout Register in 2007.
For those who might be curious about the name, Wayah is derived from the Cherokee word “Wa-ya,” which means “wolf.” Red wolves were once plentiful in the region; they were eradicated there in the mid-1800s.
Wayah Bald is west of Franklin. From U.S. 64, turn north onto Old Murphy Road/State Road 1442. Turn left onto Wayah Road/State Road 1310. Drive 9 miles and turn right onto National Forest Road 69 and continue 4.5 miles to the summit. FS 69 is closed Jan. 1-April 1. Details: www.blueridgeheritage.com/attractions-destinations/wayah-bald.