Hike the Appalachian Trail in North Carolina, climbing to the Albert Mountain fire tower, hiking through Bearpen Gap and catching stunning views along the Big Butt ridge to Mooney Gap.
LOCATION:on the Appalachian Trail near Franklin, NC
OFFICIAL MAP: Nat Geo 785 Trails Illustrated Map
The Appalachian Trail hikes more than two thousand epic miles from Georgia to Maine, trekking through shady forests and lush creek valleys, and over towering mountain summits. The AT’s stretch in North Carolina is exceptionally beautiful, climbing and diving through the Blue Ridge mountains after making its Georgia exit at Bly Gap near the GA-NC border.
This moderately challenging, 4-mile out-and-back hike travels a particularly scenic stretch of the Appalachian Trail near Franklin, NC, climbing Albert Mountain to a historic metal fire lookout tower and catching exceptional, 360-degree panoramic views from the mountain’s summit. The hike descends Albert’s southern, rocky, sun-drenched slope, trailing through Bearpen Gap and ducking through tunnels of dense, gnarly-branched rhododendron. The adventure catches a few more sublime views from the lower elevations of Big Butt Mountain before descending to Mooney Gap, and then flips to return to the trailhead by following the outbound hike in reverse.
It’s a view-packed hike through a beautiful stretch of the Nantahala National Forest, and a very scenic drive from Franklin, NC. The area is prone to electrical storms, so be sure to check the forecast and change plans if a storm is even remotely likely. And the return hike is a workout, requiring some light scrambling over exposed rock – but it’s so worth it. The views are simply unforgettable.
Albert Mountain fire tower: the hike
The adventure begins at a gravel parking area off the graveled FS67 in the Standing Indian area of the southern Nantahala National Forest (view maps and driving directions). The hike crosses through a metal gate to the north, following a blue-blazed access trail to the northeast, and beginning a climb through a dense forest of gnarly-branched rhododendron.
The hike reaches the Appalachian Trail at .3 mile, hanging a right to follow the white-blazed AT toward Albert Mountain. The trail begins a steep ascent, climbing southbound toward the summit. The AT summits at .5 mile, reaching the historic steel fire tower on the rocky mountain’s peak.
While the former-live in quarters at the top of the tower are usually locked, the tower’s metal stairs and lower landings are often open and offer some exceptional views. Views stretch endlessly in all directions on a clear day, reaching south toward Georgia, west to Standing Indian Mountain and down into the adjacent Coweeta Valley. The views are particularly beautiful in fall when autumn’s colorful leaf splendor paints the nearby mountains and valleys in vibrant oranges, golds, and reds.
The hike departs the tower and continues following the iconic, rectangular white blazes of the Appalachian Trail southbound, descending the mountain’s rocky southern slope. The trail dives elevation sharply, carefully navigating over steeply angled rock outcrops and dropping to a gravel road, reaching Bearpen Gap at .75 mile.
The hike begins a short climb from the gap, ascending through a forest of oak and rhododendron, and passing a campsite on the left. The Appalachian Trail winds through switchbacks, descending once again, and reaching a large campsite on the left at 1.2 miles. A side trail makes a short trek eastbound to an overlook with exceptionally beautiful views and several rustic wood benches.
The hike continues its southbound trek on the AT, ducking under a dense rhododendron tunnel and rolling elevation along a rocky ridge near the summit of the oddly-named Big Butt Mountain. Through-the-trees views extend on the left as the trail carefully navigates a narrow path in a rocky, steeply-pitched landscape. A small spring drips down the mountain’s mossy, steep walls at 1.65 miles.
The Appalachian Trail passes a campsite at 1.9 miles, just before crossing a small creek over a large metal culvert. The hike passes a wooden sign for Mooney Gap and reaches a gravel road, FS83, at 2 miles.
From here, this hike flips in reverse, retracing its outbound steps on the Appalachian Trail and beginning an extended climb to the Albert Mountain fire tower. It’s a rolling, 725-foot climb to the summit from Mooney Gap, but a second chance to soak up those sublime views (and a great workout, too). After summiting Albert, the hike descends the AT to the north and hangs a left on the blue-blazed access trail to return to the trailhead.
Nearby can’t-miss hikes near Franklin
Up for some more summit serenity and gorgeous mountaintop views? Hike the Appalachian Trail to Standing Indian Mountain, catching some beautiful summit views of the Tallulah River basin and Georgia’s Lake Burton. Hike the Big Laurel Falls Trail to a beautiful waterfall in a lush, rhododendron-filled forest. Or hike the oddly-named Pickens Nose Trail to a rocky mountain summit marked with sharp, angular rock outcrops and exceptional summit views; the Pickens Nose trailhead is just southeast of Mooney Gap on FS83.
And if you loved the incredible views from Albert’s summit, check our our other favorite hikes to fire lookout towers near Asheville for more adventures to Western NC’s few remaining towers.
Trails and routes may change – so please refer to official trail maps for the latest route.
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Free parking is available at the trailhead. Before you go, check for seasonal trail and road closures on the USFS Nantahala National Forest site.
35.052562, -83.480219 // N35 9.20993 W83 34.83923