Bob Downing

SKY VALLEY, Ga.: Forgotten William Bartram is an unlikely figure to have a hiking trail named after him 200 years later.

Bartram of Philadelphia was an 18th-century naturalist and explorer and the namesake of the 116.1-mile trail in northern Georgia and western North Carolina. He was America’s leading botanist and its first naturalist. He explored more of America than any scientist of his time — even if he is all but ignored today.

The trail approximates part of the route he covered in his explorations from March 1773 through January 1777 through North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Tennessee, Alabama, Florida, Mississippi and Louisiana. He studied plants, animals and native peoples he encountered in his travels of 6,000 miles.

The trail, a federal National Recreation Trail, offers backpackers and hikers some stunning high-altitude ridge-top views of the Blue Ridge and Smoky mountains.

It is rocky and steep with lots of ups and downs. Encountering other hikers is rare. It is a world of waterfalls, Southern hardwoods, rhododendrons, mountain laurel and wild boars, plus country music and barbecue.

The medium-difficulty trail covers 37.7 miles in Georgia and 78.4 miles in North Carolina, running through Georgia’s Chattahoochee and North Carolina’s Nantahala national forests. It is blazed with a yellow diamond in Georgia and a yellow vertical rectangle in North Carolina.

The trail is limited to hikers; no mountain bikers, horses or all-terrain vehicles. It can be hiked year-round. There are no shelters and few amenities.

In Georgia, the trail is maintained by the Georgia Bartram Trail Group. In North Carolina, the trail was built and is maintained by volunteers from the North Carolina Bartram Trail Society as it crosses three mountain ranges: the Fishhawk, Nantahala and Cheoah. It runs near the towns of Highlands, Franklin, Andrews, Robbinsville and Nantahala.

Most hike it from south to north. That starts out easy and then gets tougher in the mountains of western North Carolina. It is a 10-day trek.

The trail begins at the Chattooga River between Georgia and South Carolina. This is the Deliverance river, the Cahulawassee that novelist James Dickey described in his 1970 novel, popularized in the 1972 whitewater backcountry movie with Burt Reynolds and Jon Voight.

The free-flowing stream begins in the mountains of western North Carolina, then flows south and separates Georgia and South Carolina. It is one of the top paddling streams in the East and one of the prettiest and least spoiled rivers in the Southeast. A 57-mile stretch is part of the protected national wild and scenic river system.

The southern terminus of the trail is at the state Route 28 bridge over the Chattooga. Other trail options are nearby.

The Bartram crosses Rabun Bald, Georgia’s second-tallest mountain at 4,696 feet, and runs along Haley Ridge and into Blue Valley between twisting north into North Carolina near the resort community of Highlands.

In North Carolina, it meets the Appalachian Trail at two spots and ends near Cheoah Bald near Robbinsville. It runs along the crest of the Blue Ridge Mountains and crosses the Fishhawk Mountains before descending into the Little Tennessee River Valley.

Part of the river near Franklin is designated a canoe trail of nine miles. Outside Franklin, the trail turns west and ascends into the Nantahala Mountains to 5,385-foot Wayah Bald, then descends to 1,065-acre Nantahala Lake. It then climbs to Cheoah Bald at 5,062 feet. Getting through steep-sided Nantahala Gorge was the hardest task in completing the trail.

Work is underway on a western extension that would run to the Snowbird Mountains on the North Carolina-Tennessee border.

Bartram (1739-1823) was born to Quakers John and Ann Bartram. The senior Bartram (1699-1777) was named royal botanist by King George III in 1765. He took a trip to America’s Southeast wilderness with his son in 1765-66.

The junior Bartram tried business and farming, then undertook his own explorations after he was offered financial support from a friend in England. He started his trek in 1773 at the age of 35 through what he called the Cherokee Mountains.

He traveled alone and saw few white men in his travels, mostly traders. He came away very impressed by the Cherokee Indians. The Creeks called Bartram “Puc Puggy” or the flower hunter.

He survived two Indian encounters, one with a dreaded Cherokee chief and his party, and the second with a Cherokee murderer who had been outlawed by his own people.

Bartram was an avid writer and illustrator and kept voluminous journals on his travels and botanical research. His trip was an unprecedented blend of scientific and enthusiastic observation.

In 1791, he published The Travels of William Bartram, also called Travels Through North and South Carolina, Georgia, East and West Florida, complete with sketches and drawings. It is one of the most detailed looks at the southern landscape and native peoples.

In his writings (still available today), Bartram is seen as a gentle man in love with his work in the natural world. He was known as an instinctive naturalist. He is seen by some as the first of a long line of American spiritual naturalists, a group that includes Henry David Thoreau, John Muir and Aldo Leopold.

Before Bartram, the main European sentiment was that wilderness is the enemy and that the Indians were less than human.

With publication of his book, Bartram gained an international reputation. After his trek, he returned to Philadelphia and helped in his father’s nursery business. William and John Bartram are credited with identifying more than 200 native plants.

They are credited with saving the Franklinia alatamaha tree from extinction. They found the rare tree on the bank of the Altahama River in Georgia in 1765 and named it after family friend Benjamin Franklin. They gathered seeds and took them to Philadelphia. All surviving Franklinias are descendants of the Bartrams’ trees. The tree was last seen in the wild in 1803.

The North Carolina trail group, working with the U.S. Forest Service, devised the seven-section trail as a memorial to Bartram, beginning in 1976. Using landmarks such as rivers, waterfalls and mountains, they tried to closely match his route. In 1997 the trail was completed and the national designation was approved.

The 200-member group sells a Bartram Trail map for $12 that covers the North Carolina portion. The new two-sided map replaces seven individual map-guides. See www.ncbartramtrail.org.

You can contact the U.S. Forest Service’s Nantahala Ranger District at 828-524-6441, www.fs.usda.gov/recarea/nfsnc/recarea/?recid=48634

The Georgia Bartram Trail Group at www.gabartramtrail.org offers four different trail guides. One costs $4; the other three each cost $8. It maintains 50 miles of trail — the Bartram and two other trails — in north Georgia.

You can get Chattahoochee National Forest information at 706-782-3320, www.fs.fed.us/conf

John Bartram’s house and farm survives today in Philadelphia as Historic Bartram’s Garden. It is in Fairmont Park on the Schuylkill River.

It is billed as the oldest surviving botanic garden in the United States and is listed as a National Historic Landmark. The stone house was built in 1728. For information, call 215-729-5281 or visitwww.bartramsgarden.org.

Bob Downing can be reached at 330-996-3745 or bdowning@thebeaconjournal.com.