Exploratory hike heading
east from Lost Cove

(attempting to reach Poplar, NC)

Forest views from the northwest face of Flattop Mountain

Click on any of the images on this page for full size/full resolution pic.

If you've seen my webpage on Lost Cove, you've seen a reference to an old roadbed that heads east, away from the old community.

Lost Cove, located in Yancey County, NC, is the (now abandoned) location of a community of people who lived there from the mid 1800's to the 1950's. Old records from that era, mention residents heading over to Poplar, NC for trading. Poplar Township, currently identified in size as 19.7 square miles, with a population of 339 people (reference), is a small community located along NC197 in Mitchell County, on the north side of the Nolichucky River. Lost Cove is located very near the Nolichucky, on the river's south side.

As the crow flies, it is only 2.6 miles from Lost Cove to Poplar; however, the rather imposing Flattop Mountain lies between those two locations. Once the railroad was built in the late 19-teens, Lost Cove residents used that mode of travel to reach Poplar. But apparently before then, they walked there.

When I found the remnants of an old roadbed heading east away from Lost Cove, I was curious if this was the remains of a forest trail they may have used.

On a cool spring day in May, 2015, I decided to follow that old road and see where it went. I had hopes of it ending up at Poplar (or more accurately, on the banks of the Nolichucky across from Poplar .... not sure how the residents forded the river to reach the Poplar side), but looking at the topo maps, I had my doubts. Flattop mountain is a rather imposing barrier, with its steep one to two thousand feet of elevation lying between the two locations.

This is a trip report of what I found that day!

Joe Lewis Field

Joe Lewis Field

As I climbed to the top of Joe Lewis Field to begin my descent into Lost Cove, I noticed that the entire Nolichucky River valley was blanketed with fog.

Fog, lying along the Nolichucky River, as viewed from the top of Joe Lewis Field

Fog, lying along the Nolichucky River, as viewed from the top of Joe Lewis Field

I descended the 2.5 mile trail that leads from the ridgeline at the top of Joe Lewis field down into Lost Cove. And, once I spotted the "old house" that is the signal that you've arrived at Lost Cove, I headed east along the trail that leads to the remains of the another old building. It seemed weird to not stop and start exploring like I normally do as soon as I hit Lost Cove, but my goal for today was the area east, and so I quickly hiked past these two familiar landmarks.

Remains of an old structure in Lost Cove

Remains of an old structure in Lost Cove

The old trail one follows to this old building continues past it, turning into a wider, eroded roadbed littered with downed trees and briars in the first few hundred feet beyond this old building.

For the next half mile, I continued to hit sections of downed trees, thick undergrowth, rhodo patches, all interspersed among sections of open roadbed. After the umpteenth downed tree that I had to get around, I told myself that if there was one more downed tree, I was turning around, as I did not want to spend all day going over, under or through arboreal blockages!

And of course, I hit one more!

And of course, I plowed through it and kept on going!

And, delightfully, that was the last major obstacle of the day (till the very end ... see below), and the trail/roadbed alternated between clearly visible and barely there, but the whole rest of the way had me going through open forest.

Old Roadbed

Old Roadbed

In the first mile after leaving Lost Cove, I gradually climbed 300 feet in elevation, and crossed 7 different tributaries. The photo at the top of the page shows the view I had as I looked down the tributary valleys into the forest.

The next mile had me descending about 400 feet, and the area was much drier, with only one noticeable stream. However, at one spot, where the roadbed was very rocky, I could hear a stream running underground!

Along this section of trail, I also noticed that there were periodic marking ribbons along the trail.

About 2 miles from where you leave Lost Cove, the old roadbed came to an area that was wide, and relatively flat. Up until this time the terrain was going either up or down, and the hillside was noticeably sloping and steep. I was heading straight ahead, in the general direction I had been heading, when I noticed that the marking ribbons were bearing off to the left.

Since I didn't know exactly where I was (in relation to Poplar), I decided to keep following the ribbons. If you look at the GPS track (below), this spot is marked with a waypoint, and looking at the track, it appears that I kept going straight, when in fact, I made a distinct left turn in order to follow the ribbons. However, there may have been a path that continued straight (east, according to the map).

From here, I started to lose elevation very quickly .... 400 feet over the next couple tenths of a mile. The terrain became rockier and rockier, and I began to hear the sounds of the river. Finally, the roadbed ended abruptly, and the terrain fell away almost vertically. Below me was terrain that was filled with boulders, mountain laurel, and rhododendrons. An unnamed tributary with a fair amount of water volume flowed down this steep hillside to my right.

Rhodos of course, provide good hand holds along a steep bushwhack, so I made my way down the hillside, until I got to a spot where I found myself directly above the railroad track which runs right along the river's edge. 5 - 10 foot high vertical rock walls lined the railway, and I found myself sitting atop one section of this rock wall.

Heading west a little bit had me find a narrow, soil filled crevice that I could make my way down through to get to the railroad.

Railroad which runs along the Nolichucky River

Railroad which runs along the Nolichucky River

I had hoped to get down to the banks of the river itself, but the other side of the railroad had another steep descent, and I was already leary of what I had come down to get this far. I'm always much more cautious on solo hikes than when I'm with other hikers, hence I didn't attempt this next descent.

Nolichucky River as viewed from the railroad bed

Nolichucky River as viewed from the Railroad Bed

So, from here I retraced my steps back to Lost Cove. It always amazes me on hikes where I follow old trails that come and go, how, on the way out, these old trails seem super easy to follow, but on the way back, they always seem to disappear. Several times on the way back I found myself wandering around where I thought the trail was, looking for signs of it. Just a heads up that if you want to try this trek you definitely need to know how to find your way around in the middle of the woods. And if you're going to depend on the GPS track, remember that GPS units can run out of juice at the most inopportune times!! Make sure you're comfortable wandering around off trail!

Surprises on the way back!

As I got closer to Lost Cove, I was not looking forward to tackling all those downed trees again, so when I hit the first ones, I headed uphill a bit, to my left. The forest was quite open, and provided really easy walking ... MUCH easier than navigating over, under, and through those trees and associated briars.

Open Forest

Open Forest

And it was this detour that led me to the neatest surprise of the day ... I found another section of Lost Cove that had remnants of an earlier era!

Remnants of earlier days in Lost Cove

Remnants of earlier days in Lost Cove, above and below

Remnants of earlier days in Lost Cove

Also in this area was a log structure. Its very intact condition and much newer construction and appearance indicates it was built fairly recently, although I can't imagine when or why. It appears to have been a barn of some sort, as the interior was one large open area ... no walls of any sort. Despite being on National Forest property, a "No Trespassing" sign was posted on the building itself.

Log Structure

Log Structure, above and below

Log Structure

From here, I headed back to the "old house" and headed up Lost Cove Trail, tackling the final 2.5 mile/1400 foot climb back to the top of Joe Lewis Field. I felt a few sprinkles of rain on the way up, and when I hit the big field, the clouds indicated a big storm was soon to hit. Thankfully, it waited until well after I got to the car!

Storm Clouds

Storm Clouds

So, did I get to Poplar?

That was my question once I got home and downloaded my GPS track to the computer. I was very curious where exactly I had ended up. On the map below (best seen in large size), the green track shows my route for the day, and shows that it ended at the Nolichucky River well downstream from Poplar. In fact, I had never crossed over to the other side of Flattop Mountain.

However, I was very interested in the location of where the spot was where the terrain flattened out, and a trail appeared to head east, straight ahead (the spot where I chose to keep following the ribbons, bearing off to the left).

The black track on the map below shows a route I hand drew onto the map, which is really the only reasonable way one could hope to cross the steep spine of Flattop Mountain and reach the river's edge across from Poplar. It begins at this spot where the ribbons go off to the left, but a hint of a path seems to continue straight ahead to the east.

Studying the map further, had me note FS5570, which leads from the river's edge, up along the east side of Flattop mountain. Its ends right at the spot where FS278 begins its two mile climb up the mountain to the Lost Cove Trailhead. (Purple track)

This opens up the idea of a shuttle hike, thereby eliminating the out and back trek (and subsequent 1400 foot climb up out of Lost Cove!). However, 2 miles of this route goes through private property, mostly along the river's edge, so I certainly cannot recommend this route.

Elevation Profile
Click for larger image

Elevation Profile

Click here for a larger map

GPX data for download: GPS track for both my hiking route in this report, as well as my proposed routes over the ridge to Poplar and a possible loop trail are here, including *.gdb format for Garmin users, as well as *.gpx format.


To reach the Lost Cove trailhead, and hike the first two and a half miles into Lost Cove, please see the directions on my Lost Cove webpage. Follow the directions to the east end of the Cove, heading to the old building which is located just beyond the old concrete steps of the church. Once at this point, just continue along the old roadbed. The trail is more or less "there" the whole way, but as mentioned above, there are areas where the trail disappears, or where you have to leave the trail to navigate around a downed tree or other obstacle.

You definitely need to have experience navigating off trail, as there are no blazes, or other markings. The latter half of the route has some marking ribbons, but they are few and far between. And if you get lost in this area, I'm sure it will be months, if not longer, before another person comes along!

And, as mentioned above, don't depend solely on a GPS track! In the 4 years or so that I've been using a GPS, I have had two instances where the unit turned itself off for no apparent reason. Two other times, I've had the batteries die on me. You need to know how to navigate!

However, if you're an experienced off trail hiker, I found this route a pleasant "walk in the woods", and I'm sure I'll head back another time to see if I can get over Flattop's ridgeline to that side of the mountain where Poplar lies!

More photos in my SmugMug gallery.

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