Mount Pisgah – Pisgah National Forest, NC

 

View southwest of the Great Balsam Mountains
View southwest of the Great Balsam Mountains

After a full-day hike on Mount LeConte where I had no views and severely irritated my left IT Band, I decided to try some short hikes this Sunday until the pain flared up again. Unlike Saturday, the weather was supposed to be partly sunny with high wind and gusts. My first stop was Mount Pisgah on the Blue Ridge Parkway. The climb to Mount Pisgah is a classic hike southwest of Asheville and is something I’ve been wanting to do for a long time. Mount Pisgah at 5,721 feet is one of the most recognizable peaks in North Carolina with its pyramidal summit and 339-foot television transmission tower. On many of the hikes I do in western North Carolina, I can see that tower from many miles other. This mountain lies in the northeast corner of the Great Balsam Mountains, and has outstanding views from the observation deck at the summit. Although it is a short hike at 2.9 miles round-trip, the climb is steep and relentless. This is a great jumping off point for more exploration, and it should take under 2 hours for most hikers.

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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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Pilot Mountain State Park, NC

 

East view of Big Pinnacle from Little Pinnacle

Pilot Mountain is truly one of the iconic summits in North Carolina. The mountain, a monadnock and the westernmost peak of the ancient Sauratown Mountains, dominates the surrounding Piedmont and can be seen from many landmarks. Due to its ease of access directly off freeway U.S. 52 north of Winston-Salem, this state park is popular and is overcrowded during the summer months. Avoid the crowds and hike this park in the offseason when the leaves are down and the temperatures are milder than the Blue Ridge Mountains. A full loop of the mountain can be achieved using the newly extended Mountain Trail, with the addition a result of a fire break during a forest fire in November 2012. From there use the Grindstone Trail, the only trail leading from the base to the summit area. Once you attain the crest you are in cliff heaven as the trails hug the top and bottom of 100+ foot cliffs crawling with rock climbers. The highlights may be the Ledge Spring Trail, Little Pinnacle, or the Jomeokee Trail, it all depends on your preference. For those in a rush or wanting a shorter hike, you can do the shorter 2.7-mile loop from the upper parking lot. This is a great day hike for anyone who lives in the Triad or Triangle metropolitan areas.    

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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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High Shoals Falls and Shinny Creek – South Mountains State Park, NC

 

Fly fishing on Jacob Fork
Fly fishing on Jacob Fork

What do you do when the forecast is for rain and low-lying clouds all day? If you’re like me, you look for a hike featuring water. Views are secondary to the power and majesty of mountain streams and waterfalls, and no matter what the conditions you’ll be able to see these things up close. I had only visited South Mountains State Park once a few years prior, so I picked this as my destination. On my first foray I did a popular loop that included Chestnut Knob, Shinny Creek, and High Shoals Falls. This time I eliminated Chestnut Knob since it would socked in by clouds, and instead include the central ridges dividing the Jacob Fork River and Shinny Creek watersheds.

 

South Mountains State Park is the largest park in North Carolina and contains a huge variety of trails. The South Mountains are an isolated range with peaks between 2,000 and 3,000 feet. What they lack in height, they compensate with deep gorges and lots of water. This loop is what I would call a frontcountry option since it stays relatively close to the parking area. At 8 miles it is doable in a few hours, and you can easily shorten or lengthen the hike as desired. If you only have an hour or so, you can still enjoy the beautiful High Shoals Falls and many sights along Jacob Fork.

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Birkhead Mountains Wilderness – Uwharrie National Forest, NC

 

Birkhead Mountain Trail
Birkhead Mountain Trail

After a long, tiring Saturday in Great Smoky Mountains National Park I wasn’t up for another big hike on Memorial Day. I simply wanted to rest my feet and kick back, but after I woke up I realized I had little else to do. These are the times when I muster up the energy to explore local parks and forests when I wouldn’t otherwise. Hikes in the Triangle area are typically crowded and they lack the anticipation I feel when I’m planning hikes in the mountains. I always seem to enjoy them though, so I decided to strike out midday towards Uwharrie National Forest to get a quick hike in before the day was wasted. My plan was to hike the bulk of the trails in the Birkhead Mountains Wilderness, which also happens to be the closest section of the national forest. This small wilderness is located in the far northern tip of Uwharrie National Forest just outside of Asheboro and features a central loop with 4 connecting trails. The trail layout is commonly referred to as a hub-and-spoke. I started at the Tot Hill Farm Access for the Birkhead Mountain Trail, and circled back using the Hannahs Creek Trail and Robbins Branch Trail. This is the longest lollipop hike in the wilderness, and although bereft of views the forest is surprisingly scenic and makes for a pleasant walk in the woods.

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Glen Burney Trail – Blowing Rock, NC

 

Glen Burney Falls
Glen Burney Falls

Only hours earlier I had been freezing my *** off scrambling to put on every piece of clothing I carried as I hiked towards Flat Top Tower. Now as I was plodding my way back up New Years Creek Gorge I wondered why I bothered wearing my fleece, so I stripped and donned only a T-shirt as the winter sun beamed down on me. The difference was startling. It had been below 20°F with the wind on the western side of the Blue Ridge Escarpment, now it was nearly 45°F down in the eastern trenches and there was barely a trace of snow. Shortly after eating lunch at Bass Lake I felt I had plenty of afternoon time to tackle a trail I’ve been eyeing for a while. It was the Glen Burney Trail mere blocks away from downtown Blowing Rock in Annie Cannon Park. This trail drops steeply into the New Years Creek Gorge passing by 3 waterfalls in short succession. What more could you ask for?

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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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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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