Bartram Trail - Franklin, North Carolina
Wallace Branch to Wayah Bald

April 29, 2023 - One of the more difficult runs I have done in a long time at 500 feet of vertical gain per mile for ten miles ~ on par with running Pikes Peak's Barr Trail which gains 7700' in 14 miles, or La Luz Trail up New Mexico's Sandia Peak which gains 3500' in 7 miles. Any climb of 1000' or more in a mile is a daunting challenge, but to be faced with persistent steep climbs of an average 500' per mile with little relief for ten miles is tougher, physically and mentally.

This was my first time running this NC section of the Bartram Trail, beginning at 2400' outside Franklin at the Wallace Branch TH and following the ridges and knobs up to 5000' where the Bartram Trail meets the Appalachian Trail below Wayah Bald... and then back again for a 20-mile round trip. I was told it was difficult jaunt by another hiker a while ago, so I wanted to find out!

Beginning at 0555, I only needed a flashlight for 20 minutes before there was enough ambient light to see the trail clearly. The first two miles with a climb of 1000' to an overlook called William's Pulpit seemed to go up easy, even though I was experiencing some sharp lumbar pain and was a bit fatigued from doing yardwork the day before, and maybe from running a lot the week leading into this. My two previous runs that week were 21M with 6752' of climbing and 23M with 7560' of climbing. With today's vertical measure of 7385', that's 21,697' of up in 64 miles. A good week in the Southern Appalachians... and I was the old 70-year-old I saw up there doing it.

There was a sea of clouds hanging low in the hills below me from the ridgetop in every direction before Old Sol broke over the horizon to warm the day. From 2 miles through 5.5 miles the trail rolled up and down without much net elevation gain before it climbed the rest of the way in earnest, gaining 3000 feet in the final 4.5-mile assault.

Temps were good and I felt comfortable running, mostly, but I became weary of the persistent climb, especially having to step around so many limbs on the trail and over a few blow-downs from winter storms. Despite running most of the way with some pauses, and few times power walking, I had difficulty maintaining even 3 mph progress. The return trip was not much quicker, given the steepness of the downhills and littered and leafy trail. Only on the final two miles could I confidently run without worrying about stumbling, and up my tempo.

Toward the top the trees showed the remains of the forest fire that claimed the roof of the Wayah Bald Tower in October 2020. It makes for some stark photographic contrast, so I clicked away. At mile-high elevation in NC, the tree leaves were still not in spring bloom, but pretty pioneer flowers were just emerging to lead the way.

Aside from exhaustion, it was a most enjoyable adventure. The only wildlife I encountered were flushing a ruffed grouse and spotting a wily squirrel in the distance. No bears. And maybe a dozen weekenders who smelled good, hiking the first two miles up to Williams Pulpit as I finished my foray.