Location:Buck Spring Gap Overlook, Blue Ridge Parkway and Pisgah National Forest, NC Distance from Hubs: Asheville (25.9 miles – 41 min) Knoxville (118 miles – 2 hours and 12 min) Charlotte (132 miles – 2 hours and 30 min) Trailhead GPS Coordinates:35.39526, -82.76805Trail Access:From Asheville drive south on the Blue Ridge Parkway. Set your GPS device for Fryingpan Gap at mile 409.6 on the Blue Ridge Parkway. There is no official parking, people park on the shoulders around the gated FR 450. You should be able to see the lookout and communications towers overhead when you park.Hiking Upward link to hikeHiking Trails:FR 450 and Fryingpan TrailHike Configuration: Out-and-backHike Distance:~1.7 miles Elevation Gain: 375 feetHiking Time:50 minutesDate of Hike:02-12-17, Sunday at 1:00 PMTrail Condition: Very Good — You’ll follow a gravel forest road the entire time.Hike Difficulty:Easy — Although the climb is moderate it is a very short hike on a nice road. Isolation:Very Low — This is a very short, popular hike to a lookout tower with great views. Highlights:Great 360º views from the tower, the highlight is the Shining Rock Wilderness. Lowlights:Very crowded, the communications tower blocks an unobstructed view of Mount Pisgah, the top cab is closed preventing better views than from the stairs.Google Photos album link
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.
Location:Buck Spring Gap Overlook, Blue Ridge Parkway and Pisgah National Forest, NC Distance from Hubs: Asheville (24.1 miles – 38 min) Knoxville (118 miles – 2 hours and 9 min) Charlotte (130 miles – 2 hours and 28 min) Trailhead GPS Coordinates:35.41537, -82.74876Trail Access:From Asheville drive south on the Blue Ridge Parkway. Turn left at milepost 407.7 for the Buck Spring Gap Overlook and the Mt. Pisgah Trail. Park at the Buck Spring Gap Overlook or the upper Mount Pisgah Parking Area beside the trail. Hiking Upward link to hikeHiking Trails:Mountains-to-Sea Trail – Mount Pisgah TrailHike Configuration: Out-and-backHike Distance:~2.9 miles Elevation Gain: 890 feetHiking Time:1 hour and 30 minutesDate of Hike:02-12-17, Sunday at 11:20 AMTrail Condition: Above Average — The first half seems to have had recent maintenance. As you start going up the trail is a combination of boulders and rock steps, a hearty floor for all of those hikers.Hike Difficulty:Moderate — Although short, the trail features a stout, continuous climb over many steps to reach the summit. Isolation:Very Low — This is an extremely popular hike, you will likely never be alone. Highlights:Nice trail and I enjoyed the rock steps, great views of the Shining Rock Wilderness. Lowlights:Insanely crowded for mid-February, the TV tower blocks clear views north.Google Photos album link
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.
Location:Buck Creek Gap, Blue Ridge Parkway, NC Distance from Hubs: Asheville (45 miles – 1 hour and 2 min) Charlotte (112 miles – 2 hours and 5 min) Raleigh (229 miles – 3 hours and 43 min) Trailhead GPS Coordinates:35.77032, -82.16414Trail Access:From the U.S. 221/U.S. 70 intersection in Marion, drive west on U.S. 70 for 1.8 miles and turn right onto NC 80. Drive north on NC 80 for 12.1 miles and park at the Singecat Ridge Overlook just below the Blue Ridge Parkway bridge.Hiking Upward link to hikeHiking Trails:Mountains-to-Sea Trail – Woods Mountain TrailHike Configuration: Out and backHike Distance:~12.6 miles Elevation Gain: 3,300 feetHiking Time:6 hoursDate of Hike:03-16-16, Wednesday at 11:00 AMTrail Condition: Very Good — Other than an eroded section near Woods Mountain this trail is in very good condition, likely because the MST has been routed along the massif. Hike Difficulty:Strenuous — A surprising amount of elevation gain for the mileage and elevation of this mountain. It goes up and down ridgelines hundreds of feet at a time. Isolation:Very High — I would be surprised if you see other hikers on this trail Highlights:Great views of the Armstrong Creek watershed, trail is in very good condition Lowlights:Much more difficult than I predicted, not enough views to warrant the long hikeGoogle Photos album link
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.
Location:Bearwallow Gap, Gerton, NC Distance from Hubs: Asheville (19 miles – 33 min) Charlotte (104 miles – 2 hours and 12 min) Raleigh (257 miles – 4 hours and 12 min) Trailhead GPS Coordinates:35.46042, -82.36845Trail Access:From the I-40/I-240/U.S. 74 ALT interchange in Asheville head southeast on U.S. 74 ALT for 12.5 miles. In Gerton, NC turn right onto Bearwallow Mountain Road and drive 2 miles to the crest of the road at Bearwallow Gap. Parking for the trails is on the southern side of the gap.Hiking Upward link to hikeBearwallow Mountain – 2.4 miles, 740 feet elevation gain, 1 hour, moderately easyBlue Ridge Pastures – 4.9 miles, 1,410 feet elevation gain, 2 hours and 30 minutes, moderateCombined:Hiking Trails:Bearwallow Trail – Trombatore TrailHike Configuration: Out and back, twiceHike Distance:~7.3 miles Elevation Gain: 2,150 feetHiking Time:3 hoursDate of Hike:12-20-2015, Sunday at 2:25 PMTrail Condition: Very Good — The Bearwallow Mountain Trail was recently completed and features excellent switchbacks. The Trombatore Trail was also recently completed, and also sometimes follows existing forest roads.Hike Difficulty:Moderate — This is right in the middle in terms of distance and elevation gain. I would not consider this too long or too difficult for the majority of hikers Isolation:Low — Bearwallow Mountain is popular and based on proximity I imagine Blue Ridge Pastures sees a decent amount of hikers as well year-round. Highlights:Awesome views in three directions from Bearwallow Mountain, easy summit trail, eastern view of Hickory Nut Gorge from Blue Ridge Pastures Lowlights:No eastern views from Bearwallow Mountain, communications complex diminishes the scenery, lack of solitude on both trailsGoogle Photos album link
On this bitterly cold day before the winter solstice I left Catawba Falls, grabbed some lunch in Black Mountain, then drove toward my second hike of the day in the Upper Hickory Nut Gorge. Although Hickory Nut Gorge is a popular hiking and tourist destination, I have rarely traveled through the area. It is a longer drive than most hikes in the region due to road access. Every highway through the area is full of switchbacks, single lanes, and generally slow travel for many miles. Other than Chimney Rock I haven’t hiked anywhere else, and on this day it was time for a change. Since I hiked earlier in the day I chose two hikes that were short and relatively popular in order to avoid navigation problems. I drove up to Bearwallow Gap, which has two beautiful hikes that begin at the same spot.
Location:Crabtree Meadows Campground, Blue Ridge Parkway, NC Distance from Hubs: Asheville (50 miles – 1 hour and 5 min) Charlotte (119 miles – 2 hours and 3 min) Raleigh (236 miles – 3 hours and 40 min) Trailhead GPS Coordinates:35.81236, -82.14338Trail Access:Trailhead parking is located at the entrance to the Crabtree Meadows Campground at mile 339.5 of the Blue Ridge Parkway. This is located between the exit for NC 80 to the south and NC 226A to the north.Hiking Upward link to hikeBlue Ridge Parkway – Crabtree Meadows CampgroundHiking Trails:Crabtree Falls Loop TrailHike Configuration: LoopHike Distance:~3.0 miles Elevation Gain: 740 feetHiking Time:1 hour and 20 minutesDate of Hike:03-16-16, Wednesday at 5:15 PMTrail Condition: Very Good — As with most popular Blue Ridge Parkway trails, this is in excellent condition with few spots of significant erosion. Also, there are switchbacks and stairs aplenty. Hike Difficulty:ModeratelyEasy — For most this is an easy hike, barring the climb you’ll face coming out of the gorge. Isolation:Low — Expect a significant amount of people on this trail year-round Highlights:A stunning waterfall, good access from the parkway Lowlights:Since this is only accessible via the Blue Ridge Parkway you cannot drive here in the winterGoogle Photos album link
If you’ve seen a top 10 or top 20 list for waterfalls of North Carolina floating around the internet, I guarantee you Crabtree Falls is on that list 99% of the time. This is an incredible waterfall, and I’ve never had the pleasure of seeing it in person. I decided it was time to change that, and after a surprisingly grueling hike at Woods Mountain I still mustered up the energy to hike to Crabtree Falls that evening. Even though the sun was setting the lighting was perfect on this warm mid-March day. At just under 3 miles this is a great hike for the family. Not too difficult, probably on the moderate side for most. I consider it easy personally. If you huff-and-puff you’ll still leave with a smile because Crabtree Falls is one of the finest waterfalls in the state.
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: Rendezvous Mountain State Educational Forest, Purlear, NC Distance from Hubs:Raleigh (170 miles – 2 hours and 44 minutes) Charlotte (98 miles – 1 hour and 41 minutes) Asheville (109 miles – 2 hours and 8 minutes)Trail Access:From U.S. 421 west of Wilkesboro take NC-16 north for 4.3-mi and turn left onto Charity Church Rd. There should be large brown signs directing you to Rendezvous Mountain State Educational Forest. Drive 1.3-mi and continue slight left onto Shingle Gap Rd. Drive 1.7-mi and then turn right onto Rendezvous Mountain Rd. The main ranger station is 1.8-mi up this steep gravel road. You should see the fire tower just above the ranger station.Directions to the park and trail maps can be found at the parkWEBSITEHiking Trails: Fire Tower Trail – Talking Tree TrailHike Configuration: Out-and-back with 1 small loop Elevation Gain:318 feet Hike Distance:~1.1 miles Hiking Time: 30 minutes Date of Hike: 04-12-15, Sunday at 2:40 PMTrail Condition:Excellent — The Talking Tree Trail was very well-builtHike Difficulty: Moderately Easy — The summit tower is within a few hundred feet of the parking area but the Talking Tree Trail was much steeper and longer than I expected.Isolation: High — I was the only person in the park. I’m not sure how many people even know about this place but the picnic areas might be more popular on summer weekends Highlights:Peakbagging another North Carolina historic lookout tower Lowlights:Limited views from the mountain, not an elaborate trail system to explore Google Photos album link
Since I had a short hike along Mt. Jefferson, I had enough time to check out another short hike in the region. Debating between E.B. Jeffries Park and Rendezvous Mountain, I chose the latter. Rendezvous Mountain State Educational Forest is a small state unit northwest of Wilkesboro, NC. The park contains the namesake Rendezvous Mountain, historically considered a rendezvous point for the Overmountain Men during the Revolutionary War. The Overmountain Victory National Historic Trail traces the march of militiamen southward from East Tennessee who eventually prevailed in the Battle of Kings Mountain. Rendezvous Mountain isn’t on the national historic trail, but it was supposedly a rallying point for the militiamen of Wilkes County to join the larger force. In more recent times the mountain was/is the location of one of the 26 lookout towers listed in Peter Barr’s excellent book Hiking North Carolina’s Lookout Towers. This is why I chose the hike, to check off another lookout tower on the Carolina Mountain Club’s Lookout Tower Challenge list. To summarize, that’s about all this hike amounted to, a check on a list. There’s not much to the park, but I did not have ample time to explore the other trails that caught my eye.