Location:Buck Spring Gap Overlook, Blue Ridge Parkway and Pisgah National Forest, NC Distance from Hubs: Asheville (25.9 miles – 41 min) Knoxville (118 miles – 2 hours and 12 min) Charlotte (132 miles – 2 hours and 30 min) Trailhead GPS Coordinates:35.39526, -82.76805Trail Access:From Asheville drive south on the Blue Ridge Parkway. Set your GPS device for Fryingpan Gap at mile 409.6 on the Blue Ridge Parkway. There is no official parking, people park on the shoulders around the gated FR 450. You should be able to see the lookout and communications towers overhead when you park.Hiking Upward link to hikeHiking Trails:FR 450 and Fryingpan TrailHike Configuration: Out-and-backHike Distance:~1.7 miles Elevation Gain: 375 feetHiking Time:50 minutesDate of Hike:02-12-17, Sunday at 1:00 PMTrail Condition: Very Good — You’ll follow a gravel forest road the entire time.Hike Difficulty:Easy — Although the climb is moderate it is a very short hike on a nice road. Isolation:Very Low — This is a very short, popular hike to a lookout tower with great views. Highlights:Great 360º views from the tower, the highlight is the Shining Rock Wilderness. Lowlights:Very crowded, the communications tower blocks an unobstructed view of Mount Pisgah, the top cab is closed preventing better views than from the stairs.Google Photos album link
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.
Location:Brown Gap, Harmon Den Wildlife Management Area, Pisgah National Forest, NC Distance from Hubs: Asheville (48.5 miles – 57 min) Knoxville (75 miles – 1 hour and 17 min) Charlotte (162 miles – 2 hours and 45 min) Trailhead GPS Coordinates:35.75821, -82.97711Trail Access:Take exit 7 on I-40 and follow Cold Springs Creek Rd 3.7 miles. Turn right onto Fall Branch Rd and drive 0.3-mi to the gate. The trail is just beyond the gate on the left.Hiking Upward link to hikeHiking Trails:No official trail, a usage path follows Little Fall Branch to the waterfallHike Distance:~0.6 miles Hike Configuration: Out-and-back Elevation Gain: 135 feetHiking Time:25 minutesDate of Hike:02-19-17, Sunday at 1:40 PMTrail Condition: Good — The usage path is in good shape considering how little traffic it receives.Hike Difficulty:Easy — The trail is almost flat except for a few boulders at the end. Isolation:High — Not many people know about this waterfall. Highlights:A nice, secluded waterfall with colorful cliffs just 10 min from the road. Lowlights:In drought conditions this would not be worth your time.Google Photos album link
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 toMax 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.
Location:Bearwallow Gap, Gerton, NC Distance from Hubs: Asheville (19 miles – 33 min) Charlotte (104 miles – 2 hours and 12 min) Raleigh (257 miles – 4 hours and 12 min) Trailhead GPS Coordinates:35.46042, -82.36845Trail Access:From the I-40/I-240/U.S. 74 ALT interchange in Asheville head southeast on U.S. 74 ALT for 12.5 miles. In Gerton, NC turn right onto Bearwallow Mountain Road and drive 2 miles to the crest of the road at Bearwallow Gap. Parking for the trails is on the southern side of the gap.Hiking Upward link to hikeBearwallow Mountain – 2.4 miles, 740 feet elevation gain, 1 hour, moderately easyBlue Ridge Pastures – 4.9 miles, 1,410 feet elevation gain, 2 hours and 30 minutes, moderateCombined:Hiking Trails:Bearwallow Trail – Trombatore TrailHike Configuration: Out and back, twiceHike Distance:~7.3 miles Elevation Gain: 2,150 feetHiking Time:3 hoursDate of Hike:12-20-2015, Sunday at 2:25 PMTrail Condition: Very Good — The Bearwallow Mountain Trail was recently completed and features excellent switchbacks. The Trombatore Trail was also recently completed, and also sometimes follows existing forest roads.Hike Difficulty:Moderate — This is right in the middle in terms of distance and elevation gain. I would not consider this too long or too difficult for the majority of hikers Isolation:Low — Bearwallow Mountain is popular and based on proximity I imagine Blue Ridge Pastures sees a decent amount of hikers as well year-round. Highlights:Awesome views in three directions from Bearwallow Mountain, easy summit trail, eastern view of Hickory Nut Gorge from Blue Ridge Pastures Lowlights:No eastern views from Bearwallow Mountain, communications complex diminishes the scenery, lack of solitude on both trailsGoogle Photos album link
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.
Location:Crabtree Meadows Campground, Blue Ridge Parkway, NC Distance from Hubs: Asheville (50 miles – 1 hour and 5 min) Charlotte (119 miles – 2 hours and 3 min) Raleigh (236 miles – 3 hours and 40 min) Trailhead GPS Coordinates:35.81236, -82.14338Trail Access:Trailhead parking is located at the entrance to the Crabtree Meadows Campground at mile 339.5 of the Blue Ridge Parkway. This is located between the exit for NC 80 to the south and NC 226A to the north.Hiking Upward link to hikeBlue Ridge Parkway – Crabtree Meadows CampgroundHiking Trails:Crabtree Falls Loop TrailHike Configuration: LoopHike Distance:~3.0 miles Elevation Gain: 740 feetHiking Time:1 hour and 20 minutesDate of Hike:03-16-16, Wednesday at 5:15 PMTrail Condition: Very Good — As with most popular Blue Ridge Parkway trails, this is in excellent condition with few spots of significant erosion. Also, there are switchbacks and stairs aplenty. Hike Difficulty:ModeratelyEasy — For most this is an easy hike, barring the climb you’ll face coming out of the gorge. Isolation:Low — Expect a significant amount of people on this trail year-round Highlights:A stunning waterfall, good access from the parkway Lowlights:Since this is only accessible via the Blue Ridge Parkway you cannot drive here in the winterGoogle Photos album link
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.
Location:Old Fort, Grandfather Ranger District, Pisgah National Forest, NC Distance from Hubs: Asheville (27 miles – 30 min) Charlotte (109 miles – 1 hour and 44 min) Raleigh (226 miles – 3 hours and 21 min) Trailhead GPS Coordinates:35.61324, -82.23087Trail Access:Get off I-40 at exit 73 in Old Fort. If you eastbound turn right before reaching the main road. If you are heading west pass under I-40 and turn right onto the east exit ramp, immediately turn left onto Catawba River Rd. Drive 3.1 miles to the parking lot.Hiking Upward link to hikeHiking Trails:Catawba Falls TrailHike Configuration: Out and backHike Distance:~3.9 miles Elevation Gain: 863 feetHiking Time:2 hours and 35 minutesDate of Hike:12-20-2015, Sunday at 10:30 AMTrail Condition: Very Good — The trail all the way up to Catawba Falls is in excellent shape. Everything beyond that is not a complete trail, and is in bad condition.Hike Difficulty:Easy — The trail is almost flat to Catawba Falls, on a well-graded forest road. Following my full hike is not what I would classify as strenuous, but instead technically difficult. Isolation:Very Low — Consider the location, accessibility, and name recognition of these waterfalls. This had decent crowds mid-winter and I’ve heard it is packed all summer. Highlights:Two easily accessible, beautiful waterfalls and one very difficult-to-reach but amazing waterfall all within a few short miles from the interstate. Lowlights:I’m being picky here, the “trail” to Upper Catawba Falls is dangerous and a spot for terrible erosion. Also the crowds on warmer days. Google Photos album link
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.
Location: Rendezvous Mountain State Educational Forest, Purlear, NC Distance from Hubs:Raleigh (170 miles – 2 hours and 44 minutes) Charlotte (98 miles – 1 hour and 41 minutes) Asheville (109 miles – 2 hours and 8 minutes)Trail Access:From U.S. 421 west of Wilkesboro take NC-16 north for 4.3-mi and turn left onto Charity Church Rd. There should be large brown signs directing you to Rendezvous Mountain State Educational Forest. Drive 1.3-mi and continue slight left onto Shingle Gap Rd. Drive 1.7-mi and then turn right onto Rendezvous Mountain Rd. The main ranger station is 1.8-mi up this steep gravel road. You should see the fire tower just above the ranger station.Directions to the park and trail maps can be found at the parkWEBSITEHiking Trails: Fire Tower Trail – Talking Tree TrailHike Configuration: Out-and-back with 1 small loop Elevation Gain:318 feet Hike Distance:~1.1 miles Hiking Time: 30 minutes Date of Hike: 04-12-15, Sunday at 2:40 PMTrail Condition:Excellent — The Talking Tree Trail was very well-builtHike Difficulty: Moderately Easy — The summit tower is within a few hundred feet of the parking area but the Talking Tree Trail was much steeper and longer than I expected.Isolation: High — I was the only person in the park. I’m not sure how many people even know about this place but the picnic areas might be more popular on summer weekends Highlights:Peakbagging another North Carolina historic lookout tower Lowlights:Limited views from the mountain, not an elaborate trail system to explore Google Photos album link
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 Towers. This 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.
Location: Mount Jefferson State Natural Area, West Jefferson, NC Distance from Hubs:Raleigh (189 miles – 3 hours and 2 minutes) Charlotte (118 miles – 1 hour and 59 minutes) Asheville (110 miles – 2 hours and 15 minutes)Trail Access:On U.S. 221 north 1.3 miles after the intersection with NC 163 turn right onto Mt Jefferson St Park Rd. Drive 2.0 miles to the Sunset Overlook. After you pass the park office the Sunset Overlook is the first large parking area on the left at a U-turn. The Mountain Ridge Trail Extension begins at the end of the parking lot.Directions to the park and trail maps can be found at the parkWEBSITEHikingUpward link to hikeHiking Trails: Mountain Ridge Trail Extension – Mountain Ridge Trail – Mt Jefferson St Park Rd – Summit Trail – Rhododendron Trail – Lost Province Trail – Rhododendron Trail – Summit Trail – Mt Jefferson St Park Rd – Mountain Ridge Trail – Mountain Ridge Trail ExtensionHike Configuration: Out-and-back with 2 small loops Elevation Gain:1,416 feet Hike Distance:~4.3 miles Hiking Time: 2 hours and 15 minutes Date of Hike: 04-12-15, Sunday at 11:10 AMTrail Condition:Excellent and Incomplete — The portions of the Mountain Ridge Trail I hiked were not completed, they were scheduled to be finished by the end of 2015. Otherwise the short trails at the summit are excellent. Hike Difficulty: Moderately Easy — The summit trails are very easy and the incomplete trails require a little moderate climbing but nothing to pant about.Isolation: Below Average — This is a small state park where all the trails are easy and road accessible Highlights:Outstanding views from the two overlooks and Luther Rock Lowlights:Did not feel like a wilderness experience because most of it resembled the worst of state park trails due to proximity to road and picnic areas Google Photos album link
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.
Location:Moses H. Cone Memorial Park, NC Distance from Hubs: Raleigh (195 miles – 3 hours and 4 min) Charlotte (98 miles – 1 hour and 47 min) Asheville (81 miles – 1 hour and 37 min) Trail Access:After crossing U.S. 321 exit to Blowing Rock continue driving south on the Blue Ridge Parkway for 2.1 mi. Turn left at the sign for the Cone Manor parking area. Flat Top Rd begins below the parking area to the left of the manor – where free maps are available. Click here for informationon Moses Cone Memorial ParkHikingUpward link to hikeHiking Trails:Flat Top RoadHike Configuration: Out and back Elevation Gain: 584 feetHike Distance:~5.3 miles Hiking Time: 2 hours and 10 minutes Date of Hike: 03-28-15, Saturday at 11:50 AMTrail Condition: Excellent — This is an excellent trail, which is actually a paved road most of the time Hike Difficulty:Easy — You will follow a mostly flat paved or gravel road. I’m not listing it as incredibly easy because of the total length Isolation:Average — I passed at least 10 people on this snowy, windy day. During the summer this trail is likely crowded at least until the large meadow Highlights:Easy trail, beautiful views from the meadow, panoramas from the fire tower Lowlights:Cone Cemetery was guarded by a huge fence which took away from the overall sceneryGoogle+ photo album link
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.
Location:Flat Top Mountain Overlook, Peaks of Otter Recreation Area, VADistance from Hubs: Raleigh (161 miles – 3 hours and 6 min) Greensboro (125 miles – 2 hours and 23 min) Roanoke (32 miles – 55 min) Trail Access:From Bedford, VA follow VA-43 north for 10.3 mi. When you enter Peaks of Otter Recreation Area turn right on the Blue Ridge Parkway heading north for 2.5 mi. Trail parking is at the Flat Top Mountain Overlook, an alternative start point is 0.3 mi further on the left at the Fallingwater Cascades parking area.Click here for a map provided by the NPSon Peaks of Otter Recreation AreaHikingUpward link to hikeHiking Trails:Fallingwater Cascades Trail – Flat Top Trail (both sections of the Fallingwater – Flat Top National Recreation Trail)Hike Configuration: Loop and out-and-back Elevation Gain: 2,115 feetHike Distance:~7.7 miles Hiking Time: 3 hours and 35 minutes Date of Hike: 03-22-15, Sunday at 9:00 AMTrail Condition: Very Good — As a national recreation trail in the parkway system, this is mostly in very good condition except for some eroded sections near the top of Flat Top MountainHike Difficulty:Moderate — The uphill sections are all moderately graded and never difficult Isolation:Above average — The waterfall and mountain summit draw hikers but nothing like the crowds at Sharp Top Mountain and Abbott Lake Highlights:High flow at Fallingwater Cascades, Easy to reach cliff views on Flat Top Mountain Lowlights:Lack of 360° view on Flat Top Mountain and clear view of Sharp Top Mountain, Fallingwater Cascades is a low flow creek and will be pitiful during droughtsGoogle+ photo album link
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.
Location:Hanging Rock State Park, Danbury, NC Distance from Hubs:Raleigh (124 miles – 2 hours and 14 minutes) Charlotte (110 miles – 1 hour and 55 minutes) Asheville (172 miles – 2 hours and 52 minutes)Trail Access:Follow NC-89 north from U.S. 311 for 10.3-mi passing through Danbury then take a left onto Hanging Rock Park Rd. At the park gate entrance turn right on Moores Spring Rd. In 0.3-mi turn left onto Hall Rd. and the large parking area for Lower Cascades Trail will be on your right in 0.6-mi. Directions to the park and trail maps can be found at the parkWEBSITEHikingUpward link to hikeHiking Trails:Lower Cascades TrailHike Configuration: Out and backTrail Condition: Excellent — Wide gravel path leads to an elaborate wooden staircase down to the falls Hike Distance:~0.9 miles Hiking Time:40 minutesDate of Hike: 01-19-15, Monday at 4:40 PMHike Difficulty: Easy — Flat hiking except for the stair climb on the way outIsolation: Average — The waterfall is popular due to its access and beauty Highlights:Staircase provides safe and easy access, Beautiful waterfall in natural amphitheater Lowlights:Nondescript hike, on weekends can get crowded Google+ photo album link
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.