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:Montreat Conference Center, NC Distance from Hubs: Raleigh (235 miles – 3 hours and 41 min) Charlotte (117 miles – 2 hours) Asheville (19.6 miles – 27 min) Trail Access:From exit 65 on I-40, go north on NC-9 towards Montreat. When you enter the town of Montreat continue on Assembly Drive past Lake Susan and becomes Greybeard Trail. A large pullout parking area on the right appears before the trail head. Click here for information on theMontreat Conference Centerand here fortrail mapsHikingUpward link to hikeHiking Trails:Graybeard Trail – Old Trestle Road – Old Mitchell Toll Road – Pinnacle Trail – Old Mitchell Toll Road – Rocky Knob Trail – Old Mitchell Toll Road – Old Trestle Road – Graybeard Trail – Walker’s Knob Trail – Graybeard TrailHike Configuration: Out and back Elevation Gain: 3.205 feetHike Distance:~16.6 miles Hiking Time: 7 hours and 15 minutes Date of Hike: 12-15-14, Saturday at 11:00 AMTrail Condition: Above Average — Graybeard Trail is rocky along Flat Creek sections but the forest roads are in very good condition. The summit trails to Pinnacle and Rocky Knob are average.Hike Difficulty:Strenuous — Climbs up Pinnacle, Rocky Knob, and Pot Cove Gap are steep but the rest is long, gentle hiking Isolation:High — Once you leave the Montreat area you’ll probably see no one but bear hunters. I saw one group of hikers and 5 trucks of hunters Highlights:Amazing summit views from Pinnacle and Rocky Knob Lowlights:Monotonous journey on the Old Mitchell Toll Road takes some excitement out of the hikeGoogle+ photo album link
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.
Location:YMCA Blue Ridge Assembly, Black Mountain, NC Distance from Triangle: Chapel Hill (208 miles – 3 hours and 6 min) Raleigh (234 miles – 3 hours and 29 min) Park Access:Take exit 64 off I-40 and turn left on NC-9 heading south. In 0.6-mi take a slight right onto Blue Ridge Road. Drive 1.0-mi and take a left onto Blue Ridge Assembly Road. When you enter the assembly park at the lower parking lot above the Blue Ridge Center. Free maps for the grounds and trails are offered inside the building. The trail head begins behind the right side of Lee Hall.Click here for information on theYMCA Blue Ridge Assemblyand here fortrail mapsHikingUpward link to hikeHiking Trails:Steve Franks Memorial Trail – High Top Trail – High Windy Trail – Unmarked forest road – High Windy Trail – High Ridge Trail – Graybeard Connector Trail – bushwhack – Graybeard Connector Trail – High Ridge Trail – High Windy Trail – Steve Franks Memorial TrailHike Configuration: Loop Elevation Gain: 2,870 feetHike Distance:~8.6 miles Hiking Time: 4 hours and 40 minutes Date of Hike: 12-13-14, Saturday at 11:45 AMTrail Condition: Above Average — Other than the High Top Trail most of the trails are on forest roadsHike Difficulty:Moderate — Other than the very difficult hike/climb up the High Top Trail the rest of this hike is relatively easy Isolation:High — I only saw a couple of groups near the assembly grounds but usually the High Windy Trail has more traffic Highlights:Amazing views from the cliffs below High Top, Black Knob and its panoramic views of the Hickory Nut Mountains Lowlights:Not sure who maintains the High Ridge Trail, no clear views on Jesses High Top, steep and rocky descent along Turkey RidgeGoogle+ photo album link
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.
Location: Grandfather Ranger District, Pisgah National Forest, Graphite, NC Distance from Triangle: Chapel Hill (203 miles – 3 hr 12 min) Durham (206 miles – 3 hr 12 min) Raleigh (229 miles – 3 hr 35 min)Trail Access:Exit 73 off I-40 at Old Fort, go north on Catawba Ave, left on W. Main St, right on Old US-70 for 2.4-mi, right on Mill Creek Rd for 2.5-mi, right on Graphite Rd for 0.5-mi and gravel parking will be on left of road. Trail begins at forest road on east side of Graphite Rd just before the parking pull outHiking Trails:Star Gap Trail – Heartbreak Ridge Trail – forest road – Old Mitchell Toll Road – Pinnacle spur trail Hike Configuration:Out and back Hike Distance:~15.5 miles Hiking Time:6.5 hours Date of Hike: 05-27-13, Monday at 11:15 AMTrail Condition:Good — All trails well graded single file paths, forest roads were rockier than normalHike Difficulty:Very Strenuous — Primarily due to length of hike – steep switchbacks on Star Gap Trail, Heartbreak Ridge all uphill with moderate grade, Pinnacle spur short but steep Isolation: Very High — I passed 4 mountain bikers on Heartbreak Ridge Trail Highlights:Views of Seven Sisters and Graybeard Mountain from Heartbreak Ridge, open rocky summit of Pinnacle with amazing 270º views of the Great Craggies and Black Mountains Lowlights: Confusing trail network, lack of signs or blazes to determine correct trails, long stretches of trail without views, forest road network at end of Heartbreak Ridge that leads to more confusion, no markers for Pinnacle Trail head Google+ photo album link
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.