I didn’t have a plan for my hike. It was the day before 4th of July, and I felt like taking the day off and exploring. Unfortunately the forecast was clouds and possibility of storms all afternoon. I set off in the direction of Stone Mountain State Park and had two options in mind – try the Mountains-to-Sea Trail to the Blue Ridge Parkway or do the full Stone Mountain loop. Both hikes are not dependent on clear skies for the views, and they both have creeks and waterfalls. Darkening skies and sprinkles prompted me to try the MST, I knew it was mostly in the forest and there was the shorter bail out option of the Widow’s Creek Trail. Despite the thunder and intermittent rain, I hiked the MST to Devil’s Garden Overlook on the Blue Ridge Parkway and stopped by Widow’s Creek Falls at the end. This is a brutal hike without much to see at the top, the best part is the section along Widow’s Creek.
Stone Mountain State Park is easily accessed off I-77 in the northwest corner of North Carolina. Take U.S. 21 north from Elkin heading towards Roaring Gap. A few miles before the gap a large brown road sign indicates a left turn on Traphill Rd to Stone Mountain State Park. After 4.4-mi, take a right on the John P. Frank Parkway which heads into the park. Pass by the visitor’s center and pick up a free map if you wish. The parkway winds around the north side of the park, paralleling Stone Mountain Creek then the East Prong of the Roaring River. There are many parking areas along this stretch, keep going past the popular lower parking lot and Widow’s Creek Falls. Shortly after the waterfall parking there is the gravel overnight backpacker’s lot on the right. It was empty this day. The trail starts on the right side of the parking lot.
Max elevation: 3737 ft
Min elevation: 1306 ft
Total Time: 05:17:11
The Mountains-to-Sea Trail (white circle blaze) follows the Widow’s Creek Trail (orange square blaze) from the right side of the backpackers parking lot. The trail is a wide gravel road bed and immediately climbs to the top of a ravine above Widow’s Creek. I could clearly hear Widow’s Creek Falls below and many people screaming and laughing, but there is no spur trail to the waterfall from the top of the ravine. I’ll return to that later. Beyond the waterfall the trail slowly meets the creek on the first bridge crossing. After this crossing the trail is level with the creek and soon crosses on a second bridge. On this stretch between the 2nd and 3rd bridge is a truly scenic portion of Widow’s Creek. The water flows gently over smooth rocks through a forest then a green field.
Shortly after the 3rd bridge crossing, the trail comes to a split. The Widow’s Creek Trail continues following the creek towards backcountry campsites on the left. The Mountains-to-Sea Trail veers right. I hadn’t done much climbing to that point, and that changed dramatically. After following a stream for 300 feet, the MST turns left and goes straight uphill. I mean uphill, about 1000 feet per mile uphill. It was grueling. Thankfully the road wasn’t extremely rocky but there were no switchbacks. I loathe steep forest roads and this was arguably the worst grade I’ve experienced in a while. I needed several breaks for water and snacks. During one break after hearing thunder I contemplated giving up and turning around to try the Widow’s Creek Trail. But I decided to push on. After nearly 45 minutes of climbing I came to a spot that leveled out amidst a swath of rosebay rhododendrons. Well, it kept climbing from there. I took another break in a flat forest section then kept climbing.
Thankfully soon after the trail flattened when I passed an intersection at mile 2.8 with a closed trail that went up and left. I presumed this was the original trail up the ridge. The new MST stayed right and dipped into a basin. Next thing you know I was crossing a small tributary to Bullhead Creek and started climbing again. The grade was less steep here, but I was already very tired and any elevation gain added to that. The road was more overgrown with grass, but it looked pretty and the trees opened up a little. I could see sheer rock faces to the south. Around a bend the trail dipped back into an awesome forest filled with very tall trees. These deciduous trees looked to be over 100 feet tall, but were very skinny without any branches on the lower 20-30 feet. They looked young but old. I spotted a deer far up the hill, it was staring at me silently and not intimidated whatsoever.
Continuing another mile, the trail leaves Stone Mountain State Park and enters national park land governed by the Blue Ridge Parkway. The trail didn’t change, still a forest road climbing up. At mile 4.6 there was a collapsed cabin on the left. After this I could hear a creek on the right, the upper reaches of Bullhead Creek according to the topo map. There was a sign directing the MST up and left, leaving the forest road for a single-file path. The scene to the right was quite scenic – an open bowl of forest with little undergrowth surrounding the creek. I spotted an old drum in the creek. Combined with the cabin I figured this could be an old moonshine site. There are numerous old sites in this region hidden in the backcountry, this seemed like a perfect place with running water and manageable terrain.
Although the MST climbed up to the left, it soon took another left turn on another forest road. From here the MST took long, moderate switchbacks up the mountain and I soon heard motorcycles on the Blue Ridge Parkway. I may dislike the noise, but motorcycles are always the best and most consistent indicator you’re getting close to the BRP in these mountains. As the trail leveled out on a ridge the plants suddenly boxed in the trail and I was constantly scraping rhododendrons. In the midst of this narrow section, I came across an open area to the left which looked like a trail or campsite. Directly after there was a trail junction and a large sign describing the reroute of the MST. On the right was a faint trail with a double white circle blaze while the path straight ahead looked more trafficked. I went straight because I stupidly thought the double blaze meant this was a campsite for MST thru hikers, and not the classic use of double blazes indicating a turn in the trail.
The trail started climbing and then I ran into what must have been a giant spiderweb covering the trail. Immediately I saw and felt a giant 3-inch brown spider crawling up my arm. I swatted it off quickly and probably shrieked like a scared little boy and ran away. For the next 5 minutes I kept checking my back making sure it didn’t cling on. After this, I came to another trail T-junction. The trail going left went across flat rocks and looked like it was opening up, so I took it. I spied some faint blue blazes painted on the rocks, and soon came upon a massive concrete foundation in the middle of nowhere. There were some old steel beams as well. It looked like I was at the top of a mountain (3,740 feet) since the trees thinned out, but there were no views. I had no idea what this was since it was so far from the parkway with no obvious road access. Thanks to Tony at HikingUpward – he figured out it is the foundation for an old aerial tramway that ran from Scott Ridge to Mahogany Rock. You can read about the aerial tramway here.
I retraced my steps and took a left along the trail. It kept going downhill and wasn’t blazed, I actually hadn’t seen a white blaze in a while or heard a motorcycle. Suddenly I remembered a double blaze meant turn and not a campsite so I turned around and trudged back towards the MST sign. The MST was very narrow here and descended quickly down the mountain towards the parkway. After 6.6 miles I spilled out onto the Blue Ridge Parkway at Devil’s Garden Overlook (3,428 feet) and was treated to below average views. The main overlook has a view east of the Garden Creek watershed, which is steep but just a typical creek drainage. Across the parkway there is a small window of views to the west of some mountains I couldn’t name. Combined with the overcast skies, this was not a great ending to a long climb. I paced back and forth along the overlook trying to avoid insects while eating lunch.
The trek back down went much faster than the uphill. There was nothing of note for most of the hike. When I passed the old MST junction and the rosebay rhododendron section, my suspicions were confirmed that this trail is really steep. I thought on the uphill I was having a tough time due to not drinking or eating anything prior to my hike. I do this a lot before hikes, so I’m used to having zero energy. But that last mile downhill before meeting Widow’s Creek is ridiculously steep and my feet and knees ached. I was constantly bracing myself with my trekking poles, and the hardest section was the last part. The grade is no joke here, and going downhill is almost as tough physically albeit in an altogether different manner.
At the end of the hike I decided to drive the short distance to Widow’s Creek Falls instead of road walking. It is only 800 feet down the road but oddly there is no connector trail. The waterfall is a short gravel walk from the road, and is quite a waterfall. The creek pours over a sheer rock face dropping 25 feet into a deep pool. Below the pool the creek gently slides over many smooth rocks before sliding into another large pool. You can spend an hour here swimming and sliding down the rocks below the waterfall, a lot of people were doing just that. I took my shoes off and walked into the middle of the creek. The rocks are smooth, flat, but not slick. Some kids were climbing up Widow’s Creek Falls and sliding from halfway. It looked steep and dangerous, but they did not get hurt. My feet felt a lot better after soaking them for 15 minutes.
In conclusion, this trail was not much fun. I was ok with the hike until the steep descent took a toll on my feet. I wasn’t playing soccer that weekend, but still, they were going to ache for a couple of days. The only redeeming qualities of this hike were the section along Widow’s Creek and then the short jaunt to the waterfall at the end. I would suggest trying the full Widow’s Creek Trail and then play in the waterfall after you’re done. The 0.6-mi out-and-back to the aerial tramway from Devil’s Garden Overlook is also an interesting short hike to try.