Fryingpan Mountain – Pisgah National Forest, NC

View north of Mount Pisgah from below the lookout tower

 

Zoomed in view of Mount Pisgah
Zoomed in view of Mount Pisgah

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. 

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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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Little Fall Branch Falls – Pisgah National Forest, NC

 

Little Fall Branch Falls

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 to Max 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.

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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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Black Mountain Crest Trail – Pisgah National Forest, NC

 

North view from Mt. Craig of the jagged crest of the Black Mountains
North view from Mt. Craig of the jagged crest of the Black Mountains

The Black Mountain Crest Trail is one of the most renowned and intimidating hikes in North Carolina. Located in the Appalachian Ranger District of Pisgah National Forest, the trail crosses the crest of the Black Mountains across five 6,000+ foot peaks culminating in the tallest peak east of the Mississippi River, Mt. Mitchell. This trek is on almost every bucket list for hikers who live in North Carolina, but it is very difficult and a logistical challenge. Hiking it in one direction requires a shuttle and is tough. Hiking the trail in both directions is over 24 miles and 8,000 feet elevation gain, which is difficult for even strong hikers. You’ll encounter steep grades, continuous sun and wind exposure at elevations above 6,000 feet, and a lack of water throughout the entire length of the trail. If you try this, be mentally and physically prepared for the challenge. The views from the Black Mountains are spectacular and definitely worth the exhaustion. You can see most of the state’s notable peaks and mountain ranges in every direction on clear days. The Black Mountain Crest Trail is one of my favorite hikes in North Carolina, but it is certainly not for the faint of heart.

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Big Bald – Appalachian Trail, TN

 

Approaching summit of Big Bald through ice, wind, and clouds

My plan was to hike to Big Bald, supposedly one of the finest of all the grassy balds in the southern Appalachian Mountains. If you can get a sunny day in the winter, nothing beats crystal clear views from an open summit. There’s just too much haze in the summer to compare. The forecast started with clouds in the morning, clearing out for sun after noon in the low 40s °F with a light wind. As I drove north on Interstate 26 from Asheville I was beginning to doubt the veracity of the NOAA forecast. Usually they’re spot on, but as I approached Sams Gap on the North Carolina/Tennessee border all I could see was a low cloud ceiling covering every peak. Big Bald, at 5,516 feet, is the tallest summit of the Bald Mountains along the state border and the tallest mountain on the Appalachian Trail for 148 miles. It requires a long hike from either direction. Sams Gap is the typical hike since it is located right off the interstate. I expected beautiful scenery every step of the way, but what I got was an icy wintry wonderland and an unforgettable experience.

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Lane Pinnacle – Pisgah National Forest, NC

 

Beetree Reservoir above the town of Black Mountain, NC

How do you end a hazy bachelor party weekend in Asheville? With a hike of course! It was the first weekend of April, and I was staying in Asheville with my friends Friday through Sunday. We had to vacate the house before noon on Sunday, and everyone was leaving town anyways. The weather was perfect for a hike, sunny with no clouds and cold but no wind. My body and mind weren’t perfect for a hike, but I went ahead with it anyways. I decided to drive northeast on the Blue Ridge Parkway towards Craggy Gardens, a place I never get to because of drive time. I did no research beforehand, and had only brought a couple of maps and books in my car for reference. Unfortunately the parkway was still closed because of Tanbark Ridge Tunnel construction, or because it was still winter at the high elevations. I had a backup in mind, and it fortunately started at the road closure. Here the Mountains-to-Sea Trail (MST) crosses the parkway at the T-junction with the Elk Mountain Scenic Highway. From here my plan was to hike east towards the historic remnants of Rattlesnake Lodge, then ascend a high ridgeline in the western Great Craggy Mountains to Lane Pinnacle at 5,230 feet. This was not a bad backup plan, and I thoroughly enjoyed exploring this section of the MST.

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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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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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Roan Highlands – Appalachian Trail, NC

 

Thru hikers descending Hump Mountain
Thru hikers descending Hump Mountain

There were less than 15 cars parked at Carver’s Gap which I took to be a great sign. Originally I thought there would be more people hiking today. It was beautiful outside and just past 11:00 AM. When I stepped out of my car, I felt a chilling gust and immediately questioned my clothing for the hike. A couple of days prior I had seen the weather should be mid-50s and sunny and failed to check the weather the night before. Even with clear skies it was definitely in the 40s and the wind was blowing steadily. All I had were shorts, T-shirt, long sleeve shirt, pullover fleece, and my hoody I wore in the car. I made the conscious decision to bring all of my layers even though the hoody added a lot of extra weight. This reminded me that even if Spring is here, the wind and elevation can still make a hike quite cold. It had been years since I last visited the Roan Highlands, arguably the crown jewel of the Appalachian Trail in the Southeast. (I would personally claim Mt. Rogers as a solid 2nd place). During my last trip I backpacked to the Overmountain Shelter, day hiked to Hump Mountain, and returned the same day to Carver’s Gap. This time I was essentially doing the same trip, in one day. Not one section of this hike is extremely strenuous or technical, but it still covers more than 19 miles and that is always a tough undertaking no matter what kind of topography you encounter. I think I planned this perfectly excluding my clothing choices. And the thing about the Roan Highlands is they are freakin’ beautiful. Once you are hiking atop these open grass summits you seem to forget how many miles and how much climbing you have done. With these kind of temperatures and the lengthening Spring days it is easy to cover many miles. If you live in the Southeast you have to put this hike on your list, even if you can’t cover everything I did here.

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