Max Patch via Brown Gap – Pisgah National Forest, NC

 

Southeast view of the Newfound Mountains from Max Patch
Southeast view of the Newfound Mountains from Max Patch

It had been an unseasonably warm February, and the weather on Sunday, Feb 19th looked perfect for a hike with big views. Surprisingly I’ve never been to Max Patch Mountain. Despite its fame, it is really out of the way for me unless I’m staying in the Asheville area. After two hikes earlier in the day to Chambers Mountain and Little Fall Branch Falls, I decided to cap the day off with a nice hike on the Appalachian Trail to Max Patch. Many people drive close to the summit on the long, gravel SR 1182. If you do this, the hike is around 2 miles total which is far shorter than I prefer. I chose to begin deep in the Harmon Den Wildlife Management Area of Pisgah National Forest, taking the Appalachian Trail north from Brown Gap. This is a pleasant hike through deciduous hardwood forests along ~4,000-foot ridges and at 7.1-miles round-trip is manageable for many types of hikers. The weather was in the mid-50s °F with bright sun and little wind. I’ve seen so many pictures of Max Patch but I was still blown away by the views from the summit. You are surrounded and dwarfed by some of the tallest peaks in the Appalachian Mountain. It is truly an awesome feeling. I highly recommend a trip to Max Patch, it is one of the best grassy balds in North Carolina.

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Black Mountain Crest Trail – Pisgah National Forest, NC

 

North view from Mt. Craig of the jagged crest of the Black Mountains
North view from Mt. Craig of the jagged crest of the Black Mountains

The Black Mountain Crest Trail is one of the most renowned and intimidating hikes in North Carolina. Located in the Appalachian Ranger District of Pisgah National Forest, the trail crosses the crest of the Black Mountains across five 6,000+ foot peaks culminating in the tallest peak east of the Mississippi River, Mt. Mitchell. This trek is on almost every bucket list for hikers who live in North Carolina, but it is very difficult and a logistical challenge. Hiking it in one direction requires a shuttle and is tough. Hiking the trail in both directions is over 24 miles and 8,000 feet elevation gain, which is difficult for even strong hikers. You’ll encounter steep grades, continuous sun and wind exposure at elevations above 6,000 feet, and a lack of water throughout the entire length of the trail. If you try this, be mentally and physically prepared for the challenge. The views from the Black Mountains are spectacular and definitely worth the exhaustion. You can see most of the state’s notable peaks and mountain ranges in every direction on clear days. The Black Mountain Crest Trail is one of my favorite hikes in North Carolina, but it is certainly not for the faint of heart.

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Bearwallow Mountain and Blue Ridge Pastures, NC

 

North view from Bearwallow Mountain
North view from Bearwallow Mountain

On this bitterly cold day before the winter solstice I left Catawba Falls, grabbed some lunch in Black Mountain, then drove toward my second hike of the day in the Upper Hickory Nut Gorge. Although Hickory Nut Gorge is a popular hiking and tourist destination, I have rarely traveled through the area. It is a longer drive than most hikes in the region due to road access. Every highway through the area is full of switchbacks, single lanes, and generally slow travel for many miles. Other than Chimney Rock I haven’t hiked anywhere else, and on this day it was time for a change. Since I hiked earlier in the day I chose two hikes that were short and relatively popular in order to avoid navigation problems. I drove up to Bearwallow Gap, which has two beautiful hikes that begin at the same spot.

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Crabtree Falls – Blue Ridge Parkway, NC

 

Crabtree Falls
Crabtree Falls

If you’ve seen a top 10 or top 20 list for waterfalls of North Carolina floating around the internet, I guarantee you Crabtree Falls is on that list 99% of the time. This is an incredible waterfall, and I’ve never had the pleasure of seeing it in person. I decided it was time to change that, and after a surprisingly grueling hike at Woods Mountain I still mustered up the energy to hike to Crabtree Falls that evening. Even though the sun was setting the lighting was perfect on this warm mid-March day. At just under 3 miles this is a great hike for the family. Not too difficult, probably on the moderate side for most. I consider it easy personally. If you huff-and-puff you’ll still leave with a smile because Crabtree Falls is one of the finest waterfalls in the state.

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Roan Highlands – Appalachian Trail, NC

 

Thru hikers descending Hump Mountain
Thru hikers descending Hump Mountain

There were less than 15 cars parked at Carver’s Gap which I took to be a great sign. Originally I thought there would be more people hiking today. It was beautiful outside and just past 11:00 AM. When I stepped out of my car, I felt a chilling gust and immediately questioned my clothing for the hike. A couple of days prior I had seen the weather should be mid-50s and sunny and failed to check the weather the night before. Even with clear skies it was definitely in the 40s and the wind was blowing steadily. All I had were shorts, T-shirt, long sleeve shirt, pullover fleece, and my hoody I wore in the car. I made the conscious decision to bring all of my layers even though the hoody added a lot of extra weight. This reminded me that even if Spring is here, the wind and elevation can still make a hike quite cold. It had been years since I last visited the Roan Highlands, arguably the crown jewel of the Appalachian Trail in the Southeast. (I would personally claim Mt. Rogers as a solid 2nd place). During my last trip I backpacked to the Overmountain Shelter, day hiked to Hump Mountain, and returned the same day to Carver’s Gap. This time I was essentially doing the same trip, in one day. Not one section of this hike is extremely strenuous or technical, but it still covers more than 19 miles and that is always a tough undertaking no matter what kind of topography you encounter. I think I planned this perfectly excluding my clothing choices. And the thing about the Roan Highlands is they are freakin’ beautiful. Once you are hiking atop these open grass summits you seem to forget how many miles and how much climbing you have done. With these kind of temperatures and the lengthening Spring days it is easy to cover many miles. If you live in the Southeast you have to put this hike on your list, even if you can’t cover everything I did here.

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Flat Top Tower – Moses Cone Memorial Park, NC

 

Grandfather Mountain from the large meadow
Grandfather Mountain from the large meadow

As I passed through the tunnel under the Blue Ridge Parkway a cold gust of wind hit me in the face chilling me to the bone. At this moment I realized I was woefully unprepared for this hike, the weather conditions were much more brutal than I remembered from the NOAA forecast. Initially I wasn’t planning on this hike in Moses H. Cone Memorial Park to Flat Top Tower, but as I was driving towards the mountains the sky was crystal clear and snow blanketed the high peaks. It was late March, I did not expect the snow but I welcomed it. The views would be spectacular anywhere I went, but I chose to forego my initial plan of chasing waterfalls and head for a hike with far-reaching views. Scrambling to put on gloves to get some feeling back in my hands while draping on anything I had in my pack: mid-layer fleece, beanie, neck gaiter, sunglasses, and rain jacket – I wondered why I always choose new destinations on a whim.

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Upper Creek Falls – Pisgah National Forest, NC

 

Upper Creek Falls
Upper Creek Falls

Upper Creek constitutes the western boundary of the massive Wilson Creek drainage in Pisgah National Forest. I drive by here a lot on NC-181, which climbs up the western ridges of the drainage on its way to Linville Gorge. There’s a sign for Upper Creek Falls on the highway, and I have never turned off. It didn’t seem like a destination to me – easy highway access + short trail to a waterfall = crowds and disappointment. Let me correct that wrong right now, it is a spectacular destination. Although it is likely popular with swimmers during the summer, Upper Creek Falls is one of the best waterfalls I’ve seen in North Carolina. There are taller waterfalls, and more powerful waterfalls, but this has the best attributes of both worlds in my opinion With easy access from the highway and a manageable trail you have to see this waterfall.

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Hawksbill Mountain and Sitting Bear Mountain – Linville Gorge Wilderness, NC

 

South view from Hawksbill Mountain
South view from Hawksbill Mountain

While most of the trails on the west side of Linville Gorge drop deep into the canyon and eventually end up near Linville River, the east rim of the gorge features spectacular trails that lead to cliffs and mountain summits. For this hike my plan was to explore Hawksbill Mountain and Sitting Bear Mountain in the northeast region. Both of these peaks feature short but steep trails from Table Rock Rd. In addition to these peaks I wanted to explore the area north of Sitting Bear Mountain. I had no definite plan and ended up exploring the Jonas Ridge Trail and stopping by Celestial Point. For the mileage and difficulty, this might be one of the most enjoyable hikes in the mountains of North Carolina. Hawksbill Mountain is an outstanding, exposed summit with 360° views while Sitting Bear Mountain offers countless side trails to lonely cliffs with eye-popping views of the gorge and Grandfather Mountain. This is one of those trips where you can have a lot of fun exploring the area without hours of endless hiking through forest. If you have enough time after you can always do more and explore Devil’s Hole Trail or Upper Creek Falls.

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Five Peaks Loop – Hanging Rock State Park, NC

 

Northwest view from Moore's Knob
Northwest view from Moore’s Knob

One of my favorite hikes in North Carolina is the Five Peaks Loop which takes you on the grand tour of Hanging Rock State Park. If I have friends who want advice on a good day hike not too far from the Triangle, usually this is my first suggestion. Hanging Rock State Park encompasses the bulk of the Sauratown Mountains – a small, ancient range running east-west in the Piedmont of North Carolina. Although the tallest of the Sauratown Mountains, Moore’s Knob, only reaches 2,579 feet these mountains rise over 1,000 feet above the surrounding countryside. This hike is nicknamed the Five Peaks Loop because it crosses all five named rocks and mountains with fantastic views in the central district of the park. Starting from the visitor center, you can take this hike clockwise or counterclockwise. I chose to head to Hanging Rock first, the most popular view in the park. From there the trail heads west towards Wolf Rock and then a short out-and-back to House Rock and Cook’s Wall. The loop continues north ascending steeply up Huckleberry Ridge to the phenomenal views from the Moore’s Knob observation tower, before the finish wrapping around Hanging Rock Lake on your return to the visitor center.

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Crabtree Falls to Spy Rock – George Washington National Forest, VA

 

East view of The Priest from Spy Rock
East view of The Priest from Spy Rock

I don’t get to Virginia enough. From afar I look down on it but when I hike there I enjoy it just as much as North Carolina. After 3 hikes I’ve come to love the mountains around VA-56. The Tye River crashes through a narrow gorge which highway 56 follows through the Blue Ridge Mountains on its way to the foothills. Around this area the Appalachian Trail crosses dramatic peaks through The Priest Wilderness and Three Ridges Wilderness, and other trails follow steep water drainages to popular or secluded waterfalls. There’s a lot to see, and trail access is easy. Crabtree Falls is billed as the highest waterfall on the East Coast. This is decidedly untrue because Crabtree Falls is actually 3 or 5 waterfalls (depending on your source), and when combined would become the tallest waterfall in the East. However, it is still an incredible series of falls that in my opinion is unrivaled in the Southeast. Beyond the top of the waterfall you can continue up a rare hanging valley to meet the Appalachian Trail. During my previous visit to the area, I hiked north to The Priest. My plan on this day was to hike south on the Appalachian Trail to Spy Rock, an incredible rock dome with 360° views. You can easily be satisfied with a short hike to either Crabtree Falls or Spy Rock but I love combining trails for a long day. If you are looking for a hike in this area of Virginia, Crabtree Falls is the place you should start.

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