A Tree, a Trail, and a Tale
by Brian O'Shea
A little known trail, an unnamed waterfall, and the third tallest tree in North Carolina.
The Plateau is chocked full of amazing day hikes for all seasons, but one that doesn’t usually make the guidebooks is The Padgett Poplar Tree Trail, which leads to the third largest tree in the state.
The trail is named after James “Bob” Padgett, who bribed logger Tearly Picklesimer $1,000 to spare the tree in 1966, according to “Heart of the Blue Ridge” by Ran Shaffner.
The tree tops out at 127 feet, has a 20-foot girth, and a crown measuring 76 feet. The tallest tree in the state is a tulip tree recorded at 192 feet at the Biltmore Estate in Asheville, the second largest is recorded at 130 feet in Cherokee. Word from locals in the know said the Padgett Poplar would be the second tallest if it wasn’t struck by lightning decades ago, blasting the top off.
Helen Raymond-Goers and her husband Steve were visiting family from Cincinnati, Ohio, and visited the Padgett Poplar.
“I’ve been known to stop my car along the road to read plaques or markers on things that I wasn’t even interested in to begin with,” said Helen. “I love that stuff. And the more personal it is, the more I like it. The fact that one dude saved that one tree is somehow more interesting to me than a bunch of people saving a whole bunch of things. Throw in the nature element and I’m sold.”
Helen said she visited Sequoia National Park, which has larger trees, and saw The Senator (largest and oldest bald cypress in the world) in Florida before it was burned, so it wasn’t the oldest she had ever seen, but it was still something to behold and would recommend making the trip.
“There are so many lovely hikes in and around Highlands, that this one would probably be easy to overlook, but it is a perfect, ‘I have an extra hour of day’ kind of wander,” said Helen. “Not only is it a short, easy hike, it’s a beautiful hike. Anyone who doesn’t take the opportunity is missing out!”
The loop trail spans less than a mile and passes a small-unnamed waterfall. The area is gorgeous and is known by bird enthusiasts as a hot spot on the Plateau. The entire loop can be hiked in an hour or you could spend hours just enjoying nature. The base of the tree makes a good picnic area if you don’t mind sitting on the ground.
Directions: To get to the trailhead from downtown Highlands, go east on Main Street, which turns into Horse Cove Road (SR 1603). Drive on Horse Cove Road for approximately two miles to Rich Gap Road (FR 401). Turn right on Rich Gap Road and go approximately 300 feet to a parking area and kiosk on the left side of the road.
(If you’d like to learn more about The Padgett Poplar, see Donna Rhodes’ Highlands History article on Page 128.)