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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Old Mitchell Toll Road to Pinnacle & Rocky Knob – Pisgah National Forest, NC


View of Black Mountains from northern cliff on Rocky Knob
View of Black Mountains from northern cliff on Rocky Knob

Sometimes I love peakbagging the hard way. Sometimes this means bushwhacking but on this particular trip it means many, many miles of forest road walking. While this may not be that difficult of a hike, it is tedious and tough on the feet. I’ve hiked in Montreat before and summitted Pinnacle. My goal was to connect the trail system in Montreat to the remote Pinnacle. Although a trail to Pinnacle is located beside the Blue Ridge Parkway this is not part of an official trail system. In the winter the parkway is closed anyways, so the only way to reach Pinnacle is by difficult hikes using Bald Knob Ridge, Heartbreak Ridge, or Old Mitchell Toll Road. Previously I’ve hiked Heartbreak Ridge to Pinnacle which is more than 14 miles. I wanted to try something new, and I especially wanted to check out Rocky Knob which can only be reached using the Old Mitchell Toll Road. I know the “toll road” is a well-graded forest road so the miles would be easy albeit long. My original plan was to tackle Pinnacle and Rocky Knob, then bushwhack to Graybeard Mountain and stopping by Walker’s Knob on the return. I skipped that bushwhack and stopped by Walker’s Knob before sunset. This is a very long hike, but worth it for the views of the Great Craggy and Black Mountains from Pinnacle and Rocky Knob.

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Swannanoa Mountains – YMCA Blue Ridge Assembly, NC


Great Craggies and Black Mountains - from High Top
Great Craggies and Black Mountains – from High Top

Sometimes the best way to hike is try a new place, do some research, then hike in that same place again with more information. This is how my so-so hike from December 2013 transformed into a much better hike in December 2014. The hike is referred to as High Windy by Danny Bernstein’s guide book and various websites (Meanderthals and CMC). High Windy is the tallest mountain on property managed by the historic YMCA Blue Ridge Assembly and one of the high points of the Swannanoa Mountains. The Swannanoa Valley offers a wide variety of hiking options just a short distance from Asheville. Many of these hikes are not on national forest property and thus a little harder to track down in guide books or online.

The YMCA Blue Ridge Assembly in Black Mountain, NC was founded in 1906 by the YMCA as a student conference center and is now listed in the National Register of Historic Places. In addition to viewing beautiful historic buildings the Blue Ridge Assembly maintains a network of trails through the Swannanoa Mountains. The Swannanoa Mountains are a small east-west range in the Blue Ridge Mountains that separate the Hickory Nut Mountains from the Swannanoa Valley. While not impressive in elevation, these mountains rise nearly 2,000 feet above the valley providing striking views of the surrounding area. On my first hike to this area I hiked up the High Windy Trail checking out High Windy, High Top, and Black Knob. I was only impressed with Black Knob which isn’t shown on any maps and I failed to find the cliffs below High Top’s summit. This loop hike starts with the High Top Trail taking you to the high points of the Swannanoa Mountains including a spectacular vista below High Top of the Great Craggy Mountains and Black Mountains.

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Heartbreak Ridge to Pinnacle – Pisgah National Forest, NC


Clouds over the Black Mountains
Clouds over the Black Mountains

This trail is hard. I’ve said this before about other trails, but it is long and difficult at times to navigate. I hiked the Snook’s Nose Trail recently and this trail is in the same vicinity near Old Fort. Short trail descriptions were found on Carolina Mountain Club and Piedmont Hiking and Outing Club websites. It is listed as a mountain biking trail on the Linville Gorge-Mt. Mitchell NatGeo map, and both websites describe this as a longer but gradual climb to the parkway. The trail is located in Graphite beside Mill Creek in the Grandfather Ranger District of Pisgah National Forest, northwest of Old Fort. The Star Gap Trail-Heartbreak Ridge Trail combination ascends to Glass Rock Knob near the Blue Ridge Parkway, then abruptly ends in a clearing. From here forest roads lead to the base of Pinnacle, which can be ascended by multiple unmarked summit trails. I didn’t know what to expect from Pinnacle (5,665 feet), but it intrigued me from the descriptions and it is also the southernmost peak in the Black Mountains. It offers outstanding 270° views of Graybeard Mountain, the Great Craggy Mountains, and the Black Mountains. This is easily one of my favorite summits in North Carolina, but it is a long slog to get there.

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