The Standing Indian Mountain Loop is a moderate 25-mile hike that mostly follows the Appalachian Trail (AT) as it makes a semi-circle around the Nantahala Basin. I usually avoid the AT in the warmer months, but I thought that early May—between when the NOBO bubble has passed and when kids get out of school for the summer—might be a sweet spot. I was right.
After doing the 58-mile AT/Bartram Trail Loop nearby, I thought this hike would be much harder than it was. It’s moderate at worst. As a matter of fact, it’s hard to find a flatter (relatively speaking, of course) 25-mile section of trail in the southern Appalachians. You start high in the mountains and you stay high in the mountains. If you do the loop clockwise, the hardest sections are both downhill.
About the loop
The Standing Indian Mountain Loop starts at Standing Indian Campground. The park has a small store and ample campsites, picnic areas, and restrooms. If you actually use the park facilities, it’s $2 per day to park. But you don’t have to enter the park to do this loop. You can park at a free backcountry lot near the trailhead.
The map point below will take you to the trailhead. Make sure to get your navigation app up and running while you’re still in civilization. There is no cell signal at the destination, but there is spotty service (I’m on Verizon) on the mountain peaks along the loop.
If you do the loop clockwise, you’ll take the Long Branch Trail (2.3 miles) to the AT near Glassmine Gap. Then you’ll turn right onto the AT (15.4 miles) and take it all the way to Deep Gap. Finally, you’ll turn right onto the Kimsey Creek Trail (6.9 miles) and take it back toward, and eventually through, Standing Indian Campground. That’s 24.6 miles total that I’m rounding up to 25 since it doesn’t include the blue-blazed ascent/descent of Standing Indian Mountain.
I relied on my own GPS map ↗ on my smartphone to track my progress on the trail. Many people don’t know this, but you don’t need an internet connection to ping GPS. It even works while your phone is in airplane mode. This GPS map showed me exactly where I was on the trail at all times. Feel free to copy this map or download the location data points and import them into your preferred GPS app. These step-by-step instructions will show you how to do that.
As you know, tech can malfunction, break, or run out of power. It’s prudent to take a contour map and a declination-correcting compass on your backpacking trips as well. The declination for this area is around -6 degrees. This is what I used.
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Day 1 (1 mile)
I drove straight from work on Friday afternoon to Franklin, North Carolina, and grabbed a beer at the Lazy Hiker Brewing Company. Then I made my way to Standing Indian Campground and found the Long Branch Trailhead across the gravel road from the backcountry information board. I stepped onto the trail pretty late and walked maybe a mile. I made camp at the first (dry) campsite I came across. It was around 8:00 p.m. and I just wanted to get some rest so I could hit the ground running the next morning.
I should add that I got the best night’s sleep I’ve ever had in the wilderness on this night. The weather was clear and surprisingly cold. Luckily, I erred on the side of caution by bringing my 20° quilt and slept great. The small bit of bourbon I brought probably helped too.
Day 2 (23 miles)
I’m usually up before dawn, but I actually laid in my quilt until 8:00 a.m. I broke camp and started walking up Long Branch Trail. I quickly came upon a much better campsite in a small, grassy clearing next to a stream. Oh well. This section of trail is mostly rolling hills until the final ascent to the AT intersection. You’re never far from water here, so there’s no need to carry a lot until you’re climbing up to the AT. Once on the AT, it’s more rolling hills. Like I said before, you start high in the mountains and you stay high in the mountains. There are no PUDS on this loop.
Since I was headed SOBO, I passed several thru-hikers and weekenders. I ascended Albert Mountain in short order and enjoyed the view from the fire lookout tower. The sky was overcast, but that was a welcome alternative to the heavy rain that had been forecast.
The descent down Albert Mountain is probably the most technical section of this loop and the only part that could be considered strenuous. Trekking poles are worth their weight here. After that, you’re mostly ridge-walking on the backbone of the mountain. When you’re not on the ridge, you’re walking the counter between fields of ferns and tunnels of rhododendron. Flowers bloom everywhere this time of year. Despite the lingering evidence of fire damage, the wilderness was teeming with life. You’ll pass several shelters and countless existing campsites. If you want to just walk until you’re tired, you’ll find a place to set up a tent. The only concern with camping high on the ridge is water, so carry a lot in this area if you think you might sleep at a site with a view of the valley below.
The next big attraction is Standing Indian Mountain. There’s a blue-blazed trail to the summit. The views are excellent and there must be room for at least 100 people to sleep on the way up and on top of the mountain. I took a few pics, an obligatory selfie, and started back down. If you want to shorten your loop, you can take the Lower Ridge Trail (4.2 miles) directly into Standing Indian Campground from this intersection (see Update 2 below to learn more about this trail—it’s steep and overgrown). I got back on the AT and headed toward Deep Gap.
It’s all downhill from here. There are some rolling hills here and there, but you are losing elevation all the way back to your car. That’s why you do the trail clockwise. There is plenty of water the duration of this loop. After Deep Gap, you’re spit out onto a road with a parking area. The blue-blazed Kimsey Creek Trail is to the right.
Unlike the AT, the Kimsey Creek Trail does not feature a lot of campsites after the first half mile. The trail follows the creek and is wet and muddy the whole way. There are a few camping areas, but they’re almost all in high-condensation areas. Some looked prone to flooding in the event of heavy rain. I felt good and could have made it back to my car, but I had no desire to drive back home tired on a Saturday night. So I walked until the trail exited around a forestry gate and turned 90° to the left. There’s a large clearing and campsite not too far from the creek, so I made camp. It rained on me during the night, but not hard or long enough to pose any problems.
Day 3 (1 mile)
I woke up, packed up, and started climbing the mountain on an old forestry road. I was very surprised to look down and see primitive campsites with fire rings and bear bag poles on the other side of the creek. I had camped just outside the perimeter of Standing Indian Campground without knowing it. Soon, the trail splits off the forestry road until it descends into the campground proper. This is an easy stroll and a pretty one as well.
After you cross the road, you take a very short trail through the woods to the backcountry parking area. I was in my car around 9:00 a.m. and grabbed breakfast at Stamey’s Café in Franklin. A sign by the door read, “welcome hikers,” which made me feel comfortable about my disheveled look and likely smell.
The sky cleared and the sun came out, revealing a glowing fog in the valley recesses. It was a beautiful sight to see and I was excited to still have a leisurely Sunday ahead of me.
If you’re pretty new to backpacking, you could hardly do better than to choose this hike. Even if you’re dealing with people who are young or out of shape, everyone should still be able to finish this loop over a 3-day weekend. You have great attractions in Albert Mountain and Standing Indian Mountain and you can cut a few miles off if necessary by taking a shortcut back to the car. It’s a great introduction to multi-day hiking and primitive camping.
Although there are some scenic overlooks, most of this trail is green tunnel. The section between Albert Mountain and Standing Indian Mountain is the only part where you might need to worry about water during the drier months. Otherwise, there’s plenty of water. You never go more than a half mile without encountering a stealth campsite or two. So you can certainly plan how to break up your days on this loop, but you can just as easily walk until you get tired and set up a tent on already-cleared ground. Then again, you could also make use of the shelters (and privies!) if you don’t mind the mice.
If I do this loop again, I’ll hike it counter-clockwise as a day-hike. Actually, I think I’ll do that in preparation for my Uinta Highline Trail hike in the summer of 2018 just like how I day-hiked the 30-mile Art Loeb Trail in preparation for my John Muir Trail hike in 2017.
If you enjoy this hike, there’s a similar one not too far away that uses the Appalachian Trail and the Bartram Trail to form a 58-mile loop. There are several places you can park depending on where you’re coming from, but I recommend parking at the NOC so you can begin and end your hike with a hot meal and a cold beer. That hike is more strenuous than this one since it involves hiking out of, and then back into, the Nantahala Gorge.
I went back in June 2018 and did this loop counter-clockwise. It’s definitely more difficult than clockwise, but it’s not so bad. I got started around 11:00 a.m. on Saturday and did around 20 miles to a campsite just on the other side of Albert Mountain. The steep climb to the fire tower on the summit was brutal at the end of a long day. That said, all I had to do the next morning was stroll the remaining 5 miles down the Appalachian Trail and Long Branch Trail to my car. I was on the road by 8:30 a.m. and rewarded myself with an omelet and a chili-cheese dog from Tastee Diner in Asheville.
The elevation from the trailhead to the summit of Standing Indian Mountain via Kimsey Creek is not very steep, but it’s relentless. And it’s longer than the 5-mile hike up to Albert Mountain when you go clockwise, so you feel like you get no relief. If you were doing this loop counter-clockwise over 2½ days, your entire first day (the first ~10 miles) would involve walking uphill to a campsite atop Standing Indian Mountain with no water source. So you’d have to carry your camp water with you. That’s not very fun.
I highly recommend doing this loop clockwise. I know that you technically ascend/descend the same elevation regardless of your direction, but going clockwise just seems easier and more rewarding.
I went back yet again with some company and used the Lower Ridge Trail to short-circuit the clockwise loop. That led to a 22-mile loop that avoided all of the muddy trudge along Kimsey Creek. The first mile of the Lower Ridge Trail was steep with overgrowth encroaching all over the trail. By overgrowth, I mean that I couldn’t see where I was stepping. If you take this trail, check yourself for ticks afterward. There’s also no water until you’re close enough to the trailhead to just wait to fill up at the campground.
Once you’ve made it back to Standing Indian Campground, getting back to your car can be a little confusing. I suggest you don’t take the trail across the road. Instead, turn right onto the road and take it past the bathrooms on your right. Stay on the road until you cross a concrete bridge over the creek. This is a great swimming area, by the way. Then you’ll see a sign on the right indicating the very short trail to the backcountry information board and your car.