by Brian oshay
Panthertown Valley has over 30 miles of trails spanning approximately 10,000 acres, including waterfalls, mountain views, beaches, pine forests, meandering creeks, sandbars, and a vast array of native plant life throughout this outdoor wonderland.
One of the more popular destinations in the valley is Schoolhouse Falls.
Panthertown Valley is off Highway 64 about 13 miles east of Cashiers in Jackson County. The trailhead is located next to the parking lot (directions below) and hikers have some options when preparing to head out. You can take a 2.5-mile loop and be there and back in no time, or you can add Little Green Mountain to the agenda and make it a 5-mile loop to see giant domes of granite with massive exposed cliff faces. Both routes take you by Schoolhouse Falls, and both are well worth it. But for hikers on a time-crunch, the 2.5-mile loop is a great option.
Either way, Schoolhouse Falls is something to behold. It’s not an incredibly high falls with about a 20-foot drop, but it’s one of the most popular in Panthertown and draws visitors from all over the country.
“Schoolhouse Falls is one of many popular waterfalls found in Panthertown Valley,” said Jason Kemenker, Executive Director of the Friends of Panthertown. “It’s a well-known destination and easy to find. Hiking in Panthertown does require some preparation and appropriate caution. Panthertown is a wild backcountry with no amenities. Pack it in, pack it out.”
Upon arrival to the Falls, hikers are greeted to a picturesque scene. The falls drop into a flat pool making a nice swimming hole. Depending on water levels, visitors can walk behind the falls, but be mindful of the slippery rocks.
(Note: I’m a fan of the camping chair set in the water; comfortable, portable, and stable; it’s win, win, win.)
Once hikers have gotten their fix of Schoolhouse Falls, a decision must be made to head back to the car or hit Little Green Mountain. Taking the Little Green Mountain Trail adds another three miles and there are moderate elevation changes.
“Panthertown contains both Little Green Mountain and Big Green Mountain,” said Kemenker. “These mountain peaks and their respective trails are impressive and unique. Hike to the top of either mountain and you’ll usually find clear, wide sweeping views across Panthertown Valley as far the eye can see.”
FoP Board Member Margaret Carton said FoP was formed after the United States Forest Service began its Panthertown Trail Project in 2003 to establish the official trails in the Valley. Interested volunteers from the various Panthertown user groups came together in 2005 under the umbrella of the Jackson-Macon Conservation Alliance to support the USFS efforts in Panthertown and eventually a coordinator and Board for FoP was established in 2007 and became a separate 501(c)(3) organization in 2011.
“The mission of Friends of Panthertown is to work in partnership with the U. S. Forest Service to conserve Panthertown Valley while improving the quality and experience of recreational opportunities in this outstanding natural resource,” said Carton.
Kemenker said Panthertown is the natural-recreational asset it is today through the tireless efforts of a volunteer FoP Board.
“Our dedicated, passionate, and active volunteer board keeps our organization moving forward, and our generous members and volunteers enable us to accomplish our conservation work in partnership with the U.S. Forest Service,” said Kemenker. “I am grateful every day for our community and the opportunities we have to protect this special place.”
FoP has two part-time employees, Kemenker and recently-hired Charly Aurelia as the new Trail Crew Leader.
“Charly comes to us with extensive backcountry experience,” said Kemenker. “He will help us protect, maintain, and improve the 30-mile public trail system in Panthertown Valley by training and leading our hard-working trail crew volunteers.”
FoP raises money in three primary ways; annual memberships and donations, grants, and special events. Carton said the community support to help with trail upkeep is crucial.
“Our work is very dependent on our volunteers, we appreciate everyone who helps us maintain the trails, and we are always looking for more volunteers,” she said.
On a final note, Kemenker said visitors should always practice Leave No Trace principles when exploring Panthertown and help protect the area.
Directions to trailhead: Head east from Cashiers 13 miles to Lake Toxaway. Turn left at Blue Ridge Road (NC 281). Go 0.8 miles to Cold Mountain Road. Turn left and go 5.8 miles to end and turn left onto Panthertown Road (gravel). Go 0.1 miles to parking lot entrance, on right. Trailhead begins here for Panthertown Valley Trail.