Fryingpan Mountain – Pisgah National Forest, NC

View north of Mount Pisgah from below the lookout tower

 

Zoomed in view of Mount Pisgah
Zoomed in view of Mount Pisgah

After Mount Pisgah I hopped back on the Blue Ridge Parkway south to my next hike of the day, Fryingpan Mountain. This was my second short hike of the day, and is shorter and much easier than Mount Pisgah with very similar views. Fryingpan Mountain is home to the one of the tallest lookout towers in North Carolina at 70 feet. The mountain, at 5,342 feet, is part of the rugged Pisgah Ridge on the eastern front of the Great Balsam Mountains. This short, accessible hike from Fryingpan Gap is suitable for all ages. You can also use a combination of trails emanating from Mount Pisgah Campground or Buck Spring Gap Overlook to create a longer day hike. Although the top cab of the tower is closed, you can still climb the steep stairs to get fantastic views in every direction. You’ll be blown away by the view of the Shining Rock Wilderness to the west, plus the other directions aren’t too shabby. 

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Little Fall Branch Falls – Pisgah National Forest, NC

 

Little Fall Branch Falls

This short hike to Little Fall Branch Falls is worth a quick stop if you are hiking in the Harmon Den Wildlife Management Area of Pisgah National Forest. If you are hiking to Max Patch (like I did after this stop), or having a nice outing at the Cold Springs Picnic Area, then this 30-minute detour will most certainly surprise you. Little Fall Branch is very tiny, and it seems impossible that an impressive waterfall would be located on this watercourse. The waterfall is ~40 feet high and hemmed in by a cove of moss-covered cliffs. It would at its most spectacular in the summer after rain when everything is really green. Although the trail to the waterfall is unofficial, the path is easy and appropriate for any hiker. This waterfall is not listed on any map, I found out about it from the excellent new North Carolina Waterfalls Third Edition book by Kevin Adams. I highly recommend purchasing this book if you love hiking to waterfalls.

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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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Catawba Falls – Pisgah National Forest, NC

 

Upper Catawba Falls
Upper Catawba Falls

If you love waterfalls and want the best bang for your buck, then visiting Catawba Falls should be at the top of your list. Thankfully the Foothills Conservancy and eventually the US Forest Service saved access to these waterfalls from private development. Now, this easy trail is one of the most popular in the region due to its beauty and ease of access beside Interstate 40. There are 3 waterfalls along a short stretch of the Catawba River. Despite being one of the largest rivers in North Carolina, here it is no more than your average mountain creek. The trail follows forest roads that previously provided access to an old hydroelectric facility. It is an easy 3 mile hike (round trip) to see Lower Catawba Falls and the spectacularly high Catawba Falls. At this point most hikers turn around, but a steep, hazardous scramble trail climbs to the top of Catawba Falls providing access to the picturesque Upper Catawba Falls. It is worth the effort if you are sure-footed, otherwise I’m sure you’ll be satisfied with Catawba Falls.

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Rendezvous Mountain State Educational Forest, NC

 

Rendezvous Mountain fire tower
Rendezvous Mountain fire tower

Since I had a short hike along Mt. Jefferson, I had enough time to check out another short hike in the region. Debating between E.B. Jeffries Park and Rendezvous Mountain, I chose the latter. Rendezvous Mountain State Educational Forest is a small state unit northwest of Wilkesboro, NC. The park contains the namesake Rendezvous Mountain, historically considered a rendezvous point for the Overmountain Men during the Revolutionary War. The Overmountain Victory National Historic Trail traces the march of militiamen southward from East Tennessee who eventually prevailed in the Battle of Kings Mountain. Rendezvous Mountain isn’t on the national historic trail, but it was supposedly a rallying point for the militiamen of Wilkes County to join the larger force. In more recent times the mountain was/is the location of one of the 26 lookout towers listed in Peter Barr’s excellent book Hiking North Carolina’s Lookout TowersThis is why I chose the hike, to check off another lookout tower on the Carolina Mountain Club’s Lookout Tower Challenge list. To summarize, that’s about all this hike amounted to, a check on a list. There’s not much to the park, but I did not have ample time to explore the other trails that caught my eye. 

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Mt. Jefferson State Natural Area, NC

 

Northwest view of Phoenix Mountain with Whitetop Mountain and Mt. Rogers behind
Northwest view of Phoenix Mountain with Whitetop Mountain and Mt. Rogers behind

Mount Jefferson State Natural Area is a place I always kept in the back of my mind. It is usually mentioned in North Carolina hiking guides, which generally means it is a worthy hiking destination. However, this park is very small and in the past only offered 2.2 miles of hiking trails. That is typically not enough for me to warrant a full trip. I frequently check the North Carolina State Park website for updates and pictures, and happened to check the trail map for Mt. Jefferson before I planned this hike. To my surprise there were brand new trails, the Mountain Ridge Trail and Track Trail, and they incorporate the park office and two road overlooks. Perfect I thought, here’s a trail that adds length and difficulty to what is otherwise a really easy, short hike. Instead of 2.2 miles, I figured it would be around 7 miles. (The state park map, trail naming, and mileage aren’t clear). It was supposed to be a clear, crisp mid-April Sunday so I was excited to check out a state park unit I’ve never visited. Keep reading to check out the great views in Mt. Jefferson State Natural Area.

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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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Fallingwater Cascades and Flat Top Mountain – Peaks of Otter Recreation Area, VA

 

Fallingwater Cascades
Fallingwater Cascades

It was my birthday, but Duke was playing in the NCAA Round of 32 in the middle of the afternoon and there was no way I’m missing the game. I really wanted to get outside for a birthday hike but had limited options for driving and hiking. I decided on Peaks of Otter Recreation Area, which is under 2.5 hours away and offers multiple short hikes. On my first visit I did a quick hike to Sharp Top Mountain on my way to DC, this time I wanted to park at the trail access to Fallingwater Cascades and Flat Top Mountain. Although Flat Top Mountain can be accessed from a lower trail head at Abbott Lake, this is a steep route. It may be shorter in distance but it will likely take the same time to reach the summit. In addition to the casual long walk to the summit, the upper trail head gives you access to Fallingwater Cascades. My mind was set, a new waterfall and a new summit in 7.7 miles. Fallingwater Cascades is a nice waterfall, well worth the short hike. Flat Top Mountain has multiple cliffs on the summit offering exceptional views west and east. This is a fairly easy hike that was a great half-day choice for my birthday trek along the Blue Ridge Parkway.

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Lower Cascade Falls – Hanging Rock State Park, NC

 

Lower Cascade Falls
Lower Cascade Falls

Hanging Rock State Park is popular for two reasons: views and waterfalls. On my recent adventure to Hanging Rock I took my friends on the Five Peaks Loop, a grand tour of all the best views in the state park. But I also had to show them the park has another superlative, an abundance of waterfalls. There are 5 waterfalls accessible by state park trails, and more via bushwhacking. This is the best location to view waterfalls east of the Blue Ridge Mountains. At the visitor center you can visit Upper Cascade Falls on an easy 0.2-mi hike or travel down the Indian Creek Trail on a slightly more difficult 0.6-mi one-way hike to Hidden Falls and Window Falls. All 3 of these waterfalls are crowded due to their location and ease of access near the visitor center, and not nearly as beautiful as Lower Cascade Falls. We were short on time and had already hiked 10 miles, so I decided that Lower Cascade Falls would be our one waterfall stop. Cascade Creek has much more water here than at Upper Cascade Falls, and the creek plummets ~35 feet into an amphitheater with an overhanging cliff above the waterfall. The setting is dramatic, and personally this is one of my favorite waterfalls in North Carolina. If you are visiting Hanging Rock State Park then plan on taking 45 minutes to see Lower Cascade Falls.

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