Woods Mountain – Pisgah National Forest, NC

 

View #1 of Armstrong Creek watershed
View #1 of Armstrong Creek watershed

Although sandwiched between the Blue Ridge Parkway and U.S. 221, the Woods Mountain Trail sees few travelers. There are a lot of reasons people skip right by this trail despite being part of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail (MST). Linville Gorge lies to the east while the Black Mountains lie to the west. Both are very popular destinations. The MST follows the Woods Mountain Trail for 6 miles along this east-west massif. Woods Mountain is part of the area that constitutes the first purchase of national forest lands established on the east coast. Even though this was the first tract of Pisgah National Forest, this vast area from Armstrong Creek southwest to Jarrett Creek has largely been neglected by the forest service and hikers over the years. Many of the trails have been abandoned. I’ve hiked trails in the western portion of this region, including Heartbreak Ridge and Snook’s Nose, but this is the first time I’ve explored Woods Mountain. This section has been designated an Inventoried Roadless Area and is also being considered for Wilderness designation. It sure feels like wilderness when you leave the Blue Ridge Parkway on the Mountains-to-Sea Trail and follow the Woods Mountain Trail east. If not for the MST designation and blazes, one could get easily lost in this area since a vast network of forgotten trails crisscross the ridgelines. I knew there was a good view shortly into the hike of the Armstrong Creek watershed, but beyond that I had no clue what I was going to see. Ultimately I wanted to hike the full length of the Woods Mountain Trail and check out the eastern summit which houses the remains of a former fire tower.

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Jacob Fork Rim – South Mountains State Park, NC

 

View south from Upper Falls Trail
View south from Upper Falls Trail

South Mountains State Park is a great area for exploration and gear testing in a relatively calm environment. The trails are immaculate, and are mostly former forest roads built by the Civilian Conservation Corps. There are signs and blazes everywhere, it is impossible to get lost unless you really try. There are frontcountry and backcountry options for hikers of various physical fitness levels. It is also one of my fallback options when the weather doesn’t look so good in the bigger mountains ranges of western North Carolina. The South Mountains lie east of the Blue Ridge Mountains as a smaller, separate mountain range with peaks ranging between 2,000-3,000 feet. The state park is the largest in North Carolina, and that doesn’t include the vast South Mountains Game Land to the west. This is a huge area and much of the interior of this mountain range feels very wild and remote. On my previous two trips (including my recent post about High Shoals Falls) I did smaller loops that didn’t quite reach the state park interior boundary. My goal was to do the full southern perimeter of the state park which included peakbagging Benn Knob, one of the tallest peaks in the South Mountains. Since this hike either follows Jacob Fork or the ridges surrounding the headwaters, I dubbed this hike Jacob Fork Rim. I wasn’t sure what else to call it since I hiked so many different trails on this one big loop.

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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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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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Devil’s Hole Trail – Linville Gorge Wilderness, NC

 

North view from Devil's Hole - Linville River
North view from Devil’s Hole – Linville River

Devil’s Hole lies deep within Linville Gorge, a beautiful stretch along Linville River hemmed in by steep bluffs and soaring cliffs. Most people use the Sitting Bear Trail to access the high points along Jonas Ridge, but you can also venture deep below the east rim on this rugged trail. Devil’s Hole Trail immediately dives off the ridge and traverses a boulder field before following a tiny but beautiful stream as it plunges towards the river. There is an excellent campsite at the end of the trail but to get down to the river you’ll have to boulder down the last 100 feet of the stream. On this beautiful Saturday I decided to tack on Devil’s Hole Trail after my hikes along Jonas Ridge Trail to Hawksbill Mountain and Sitting Bear Mountain, which proved to be more strenuous than I imagined. If you want to visit Devil’s Hole then consider it as part of a trip to Hawksbill Mountain or Sitting Bear Mountain, but maybe not both.

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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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Mountains-to-Sea Trail to Bald Knob – Pisgah National Forest, NC

 

Southern end of the gorge with Shortoff Mountain in focus
Southern end of the gorge with Shortoff Mountain in focus

Bald Knob and Dobson Knob loom large over Marion and the North Fork Catawba River Valley. Standing separate from Linville Gorge, these peaks feel remote despite relatively easy access. The region of the Pisgah National Forest around the North Fork Catawba River Valley is largely unknown to me. If I’m driving in this direction I head to the Linville Gorge Wilderness or go farther towards the Swannanoa River Valley. However, I’ve been hearing a lot about these peaks with incredible views of the gorge and the Black Mountains. I knew I had to check it out, and it would continue my tradition of trying a brand new hike on New Year’s Eve. The plan was pretty simple, find the Mountains-to-Sea Trail crossing over the North Fork Catawba River and take it all the way up to Bald Knob and Dobson Knob. From there I’d hopefully have some awesome views to myself in a little known section of the national forest. I did not quite make it to Dobson Knob because I turned around before the true summit. It is safe to say that the hike to Bald Knob is well worth the effort and the views of Linville Gorge and the North Fork Catawba River Valley are outstanding.

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Pinch In and Rock Jock – Linville Gorge Wilderness, NC

 

View from Pinch In Trail
View from Pinch In Trail

I’ve been looking to do a serious hike in Linville Gorge for a while now. Previously I’ve hiked Shortoff Mountain and the northwest section of the gorge multiple times. The southwest end boasts some serious trails that luckily form a loop. My idea was to start at Pinch In, hike down to the river and go north, then connect back to my starting point using Conley Cove and Rock Jock. In the southwest region I had only hiked Conley Cove once so I did not know what to expect. My friend and frequent hiking buddy Nick wanted to join me for a tough hike. We got a slightly late start to this hike close to noon, and completed the loop in 7.5 hours. This hike is not for the faint-hearted, it is very difficult and boasts serious elevation gain for the mileage. It is one of the hardest hikes I’ve tackled in North Carolina. If you try it you will be rewarded with aching feet but amazing stretches of views into the gorge.

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