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ROBBINSVILLE, N.C. — Motorcyclists may love the 11-mile stretch of Highway 129 known as the Tail of the Dragon, but for the rest of us, those 318 curves over the mountain make for a gut-wrenching drive.
Just south of the Dragon, the road crosses Calderwood Lake just below Cheoah Dam. Two miles later there’s a gravel Forest Service road on the right that climbs seven miles until it dead-ends at Big Fat Gap, the trailhead for this month’s hike.
It’s a lot of hard driving for a day hike, but well worth it considering the destination is Hangover, one of the most stunning overlooks in the Southern Appalachians. Located in the Joyce Kilmer/Slickrock Wilderness, Hangover affords a 360-degree view of the surrounding Cherokee and Nantahala national forests. Botanically speaking, the overlook is a heath bald where the vegetation — mostly rhododendron, mountain laurel and high bush blueberry — is kept in check by the thin, acidic soil and exposure to the elements.
The Hangover Lead South Trail to Hangover starts at Big Fat Gap, elevation 3,077 feet. It’s 2.8 miles from the parking area to Hangover, and uphill almost every step of the way. The overall elevation gain is 2,172 feet — Hangover is 5,249 feet above sea level — and some pitches along the trail make for slow going. Because the trail is in a wilderness area, there are few trail signs, and the ones that do exist have deteriorated to the point of being practically useless.
This is an out-and-back hike that may feel longer than its 5.8-mile total. On the other hand, it’s one of the most satisfying day hikes you could ever hope for.
The Big Fat Gap parking area is a major access point for hiking into the Joyce Kilmer-Slickrock Wilderness. The Hangover Lead South Trail is the trail to the left of the bulletin board with the log steps. To the right is the Big Fat Branch Trail, which drops into the Slickrock Creek drainage.
From the parking lot the The Hangover Lead South Trail makes a series of switchbacks as the trail follows the ridgeline to the top of Haoe Mountain (a “lead” is what old-timers called a ridgeline that leads up the mountain). The trail is well used, but expect some sections to be overgrown, especially during the summer.
At about 1.5 miles the trail levels out at Grassy Gap. The trees here are mostly yellow birch trees and pines. The ground is covered with cinnamon fern and club moss, and the open understory gives Grassy Gap the classic look of an Appalachian temperate rain forest.
It’s the final stretch of the hike from Grassy Gap to Hangover that makes this a strenuous hike. The trail is uniformly steep, with boulder outcroppings and root steps becoming more frequent as you gain elevation. There are no stream crossings, but the ground in some places is black and muddy due to seeps along the trail.
Just below the top of Haoe Mountain, the trail enters a shrub bald similar to what lies ahead at Hangover. Here, on this exposed flank of the mountain, the trail is smothered by rhododendron, mountain laurel and blueberry. After a short climb the trail intersects the Haoe Lead Trail at the top of the main ridge. Take a left, and the trail dead ends at Hangover after about .25 mile.
The final approach to Hangover leads through a dense thicket of head-high vegetation. After scrambling over several boulder outcroppings, you’ll reach a rocky promontory where the spur ridge comes to an abrupt end. To the northwest is the Citico Creek Wilderness in the Cherokee National Forest, and in the far distance in the same direction is Tellico Lake. Cheoah Lake can be seen to the northeast, and to the southeast is Santeetlah Lake.
This is Hangover, so named because from a distance, the overlook appears as a blue, cresting wave along the mountain skyline.
From Knoxville, take U.S. 129 over the Tail of the Dragon to Deals Gap and Cheoah Dam. From Cheoah Dam, go two miles and turn right at the bridge that crosses the Cheoah River. Follow the gravel road (Forest Service Road 62) for seven miles. The Hangover Lead South trailhead is at Big Fat Gap at the end of the road.