I recommend starting clockwise on the Long Branch Trail, to avoid the brutal northbound ascents up to the Albert Fire Tower and the Standing Indian summit. The LBT begins directly across from the Back Country Info Center (basically, a bulletin board) at the Standing Indian Campground.
Thanks to the hard work of the Nantahala Hiking Club, both the Kimsey Creek and Long Branch connector trails are in excellent condition - well-blazed with single blue bars and no major blow-downs to maneuver.
The AT section of this loop is nestled primarily in the Southern Nantahala Wilderness - 90% of which was affected by the fires from the Fall. Fortunately, it was a beneficial burn, clearing out much of the underbrush and leaves......and revealing many food and fuel cans "lost" on the trail over the decades!
The fire tower is by far the panoramic highlight of the trek, although there's some nice ridge walking in parts that benefit from the leaves being down.
These days, any loop incorporating the AT means you'll have plenty of opportunities to bump into other folks. Even in February, on a drizzly, foggy weekend, the shelters and major camping spots were packed!
A well-marked and idiot-proof loop.
did the section from blue ridge gap to rich knob. this is a fantastic trail in the georgia southern nantahala wilderness. i climbed a few hundred feet out of the gap and then the trail leveled off and followed a nice ridge past wheeler knob. the trail was dry with great footing as opposed to the muddy mess around the blood mountain area. rich cove gap was a great place to take a lunch break. i encountered more than a dozen happy hikers headed north.
I hiked this section in 2002 during my thru-hike and have been back numerous times since. My last hike was with a novice backpacker. It was still a challenging section for me at the age of 65. Buzzard Knob is straight up without any switchbacks. Nice section of the AT in the fall for the colors or in the winter for the awesome views.
Beautiful section. It's surprising how drastically the landscape changes through this section. You know when you're at Bly Gap (the GA/NC border) when you see the curved, gnarled oak in the middle of the trail. Plumorchard Gap Shelter was one of the nicer shelters I've used though there were the normal mice. If you don't want mice running across your face sleep in a tent. I also saw lots of places where wild pig had been rutting.