Exploring the Blue Ridge Mountains- Part One

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So I have wanted to make a blog post about some of the amazing trails and areas I have explored since moving to these wonderful mountains 10 years ago. Upon moving to Asheville I instantly became charmed by the city but once I set foot on the trails there was no looking back. I began to learn the flora and mushrooms, ventured out to many waterfalls and overlooks and simply immersed myself in the ancient Appalachians. In this post I will highlight some great trails, with descriptions of what to expect about the strenuous factor, what you might see and all the highlights!

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My first trail to spot light is the Old GrayBeard Trail in Black mountain. It is 8.9 miles total, out and back takes up to 5 hours round trip. It is a total of 2,180 feet ascent. This trail is a strenuous one, mostly towards the top, up to the waterfall isn’t too terrible. This trail begins in the very back of Montreat college. Black Mountain is a cute, quint little mountain town. I have had the pleasure of vending at the weekly tail gate market in town and have got to know many people who are locals there and they are friendly and warm. In the future if I stay in this part of the world, I’d like to live there, it is the essence of a small mountain town. There are a few trails in Montreat but this is my favorite. Montreat is a private, Christian based college. It was founded in 1916 with many historic buildings from that era. The campus is beautiful to stroll around and if you have kids, their playground is top notch. The road through the college goes straight back along assembly drive which will turn into Gray Beard trail rd. This road will dead end straight into the trail head. Right away you will notice the Birch trees and rushing water that is the Flat Creek. This creek runs the whole way up the trail. These kinds of trails are my favorite, to walk beside the rushing water is a delight. There are two ways to go, first is crossing a bridge onto the main trail or going across the parking lot to the Sanctuary trail that connects to the Gray Bread trail eventually. The Sanctuary trail is a loop, about an hour long and moderate. There are some uphill parts but nothing too bad. There is a small pond at the top of the hill, at the beginning and a gazebo that makes a nice lunch spot.

 

As you go along the Old Gray Beard trail you’ll find it is quite rocky. About 20 mins into it you come to a split with a bridge on the left, which takes you on the loop back to the parking lot or to the right, the long journey. Going right you will begin your climb, it is gradual at first, taking you over four creek crossings before reaching a plateau. Here you will see signs. To the left is the continuing Gray Beard, to the right is the Old Trestle road. You can connect back to the Gray Beard off the Trestle or you can connect to the overlook trail, another highlighted Montreat trail or you can connect to the Old Mitchell toll road that goes up to Mt. Mitchell 13 miles later (I’ll talk about these off shoots later). Oh the choices. Sticking with the Gray Beard trail you will venture on for several miles, winding around the mountain on a series of long switchbacks. A highlight along the way is Walden rock, a nice opening and overlook. Next you will come to Gray Beard falls. A smaller waterfall but every bit pretty. This is a nice spot to catch a rest. From here the journey gets steep. You will be going all uphill, past a shelter called Walkers Knob, here some say are the best views. If you continue on the path narrows and the forest changes. It gets pretty in this section but is a rocky, tougher climb up. Making it to the end is a feat but worth it for a challenge and accomplishment! I did the whole trail this past year for my 41st birthday. I have done sections of it several times and keep going back.

 

I wanted to add a little about the other trails that shoot off Old Gray Beard trail. That being the Trestle road and Old Mitchell Toll road. I have traveled both, the Trestle to completion and Old Mitchell for a little ways. Both trails take you on private property which seems to be owned by a hunting club. During bear hunting season it may be a good idea to avoid these two. However in off season it’s just fine to pass through. That also may be an indicator that there are bears in this area. The Trestle road also connects to Overlook mountain trail, which I only briefly went on but is said to be a nice overlook but is a steeper trail. Trestle is a wide trail that used to be a road, it’s long and not too exciting. Eventually it connects with Old Mitchell and Gray Beard trails. Old Mitchell was interesting to me because it travels all the way to Mt. Mitchell 13 miles later. I haven’t been up for that challenge yet. I did see an old cars remnants, from a crash long ago I learned.  This trail is overgrown in some parts and basically follows a ridge line. It’s a pretty trail being so narrow, it too connects back up to Gray Beard trail.

So on to the next one. Staying in Black Mountain, the next trail takes you to the YMCA Blue Ridge Assembly. This is a conference center slash kids camp. The trails are open to the public and there are several to explore. I myself have tapped into the upper trails and some of the lower ones. To get to the upper trails you have to drive past the main buildings, which are old and historic. Follow Blue Ridge Assembly drive until you come to Gym road on the right, follow that short road up to Cottage circle, another short road which takes you past Lee Hall, there is a parking lot back there and trail signs. It’s a short hike up to the trails, walking past their amphitheater. The trail up to High Windy is a tough one, climbing 2,030 ft and taking you 5.9 miles round trip. It’s a wide trail that climbs uphill the whole way, with stretches of flat hiking along the way. Along the way you come to an old shelter, this is the half way point. The view at the top is okay but not as spectacular as you may hope. I enjoyed hiking this trail because it is well maintained and is pretty forest to walk through.

 

Besides this trail there are many others in the Assembly. For other upper trails, there is a loop that is nice and takes you to a small waterfall, it is an easy hike called the Carolina loop. There is another one that winds around through rhododendron and is relatively easy. There are several lower trails at the beginning of the Assembly and are nice easy walks as well. Trails are well labeled and you can get a free map inside the main  building. It’s a nice area and a cool place for kids to mess around in as well. There is also a disc golf course there to explore if your into that.

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Moving on to Brevard, North Carolina. It is known as the land of waterfalls and lives up to that title. Brevard is a nice, small mountain city. It is home to a great music college and the downtown area is bigger than Black Mountain and quite lively. They have a festival every year called the White Squirrel Festival, named for the famous white squirrels in the area, rumor has it they were from Russia and escaped upon a circus visit to the area, breeding with the squirrels here. I have yet to see one myself. Most of the great places to see waterfalls are along US 276 in Brevard. It is a road that goes deep into the forest with lots of forest roads coming off it for adventuring and camping primitive style, those are my favorite places to go camp. Along this road you will see Looking Glass Falls, a picturesque one for sure, no hike required. Also Moore Cove Falls which is a hike I will highlight. Looking Glass Rock, John Rock, Sliding Rock and Pink Beds are others I will talk about later, all on this road. 276 will take you up to the Blue Ridge Parkway as well. I’ll start with Looking Glass falls, Sliding Rock and Moore Cove falls. These three are back to back to back along the road. Looking Glass and Sliding Rock involve no real hiking as they are right off the road. These two are highly popular spots among visitors because of easy access. I used to swim in Looking Glass when I first moved here and have dipped into Sliding Rock as well, this is some of the coldest, take your breath away water I know. Sliding Rock is literally a natural water slide and many, many people go down every year. It is a fee area of a few dollars but worth the experience.

After these two you will find Moore Cove Falls trail just off the road. This has become one of my absolute favorites to visit anytime of year. Visiting it in the winter is neat as at the base of the falls, ice will build up and make a sculpture. This is one of the first ever places I tried meditation. It is also a place I placed my fathers ashes after he passed away. The hike is easy, totaling one mile. It leads you past some neat rock formations and small running creeks, before reaching the falls. The falls themselves are more of a whispy trickle compared to other waterfalls in the area. You can walk behind them and hike to the top as well. Behind the falls is a cool cave like area that I’m sure was a scared place for the natives. It is a special place and a must see on this road of adventure.

As your going down 276 you’ll come to a split in the road, following the road to the right you go up to Looking Glass Falls, to the left is a side road that takes you to a few forest roads. You’ll see signs for the fish hatchery. As you turn on this route you come immediately to the trail head for Looking Glass Rock on the right. This is a premier hike in the area. The rock itself was formed some 300 million years ago! The rock is made of granite and was formed by volcanic activity. It is referred to as the ‘pluton monolith’. If it hadn’t cooled before reaching the surface, it would still be an active volcano these days! Viewing it from a distance is beautiful and can be viewed well from milepost 417 on the parkway or from the Black Balsam road. However hiking to the summit is the wonder. It is a 6.5 round trip hike that ascends 1,700 feet. It is a trail of switchbacks. I would call it moderate to difficult but if you take your time it’s not terribly tough and the view at the end is simply spectacular. I try to get up there at least once a year. The hike is mostly through the forest with few views until the top, a cool highlight is a helipad near the top. The rock is a rock climbers oasis, many people climb it’s famous face. You can also access the base of the rock from a hike off forest road FS475B. It’s an easy hike and you go through a really neat boulder field as you make it to the rock itself. It’s pretty cool to see it from the bottom.

A neat spot to check out is past the hatchery you come to a forest road, FS475B, mentioned above. This road is full of great primitive camping spots. As you drive on the gravel road, you come to a trail called Slick Rock Falls, it’s a small waterfall but worth the look. It is right at the beginning of the trail. The hike from there is a good ascent and makes for a nice hike but the falls is the highlight.

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At the Fish Hatchery is a learning center. From the parking lot you can access the hike for John Rock. There are a few ways to go but I found Cat Gap loop to be the nicest.  Looking Glass Rocks little brother. This hike is a nice one. You will see a nice waterfall along the way and it goes into some sweet pine forests with small streams running through. The total hike to the summit is a five mile loop and climbs 1,000 feet. It’s gradual and very pretty. The view up top is nice with views of the valleys below and Looking Glass Rock as well. I really like this hike. Especially the small bridges you cross and the many small cascades. The trail links up with the Art Loeb trail, which is a 30 mile trail I will talk about later.

Next up is Pink Beds. This area is full of adventures. It is a pull off, parking area right off 276. It can be a loop of 6 miles but also leads you to an off shoot trail called Barnett Branch which is a 3 mile one way tract. There’s also a few other connecting routes that I personally have not explored. Which is to say follow your trail signs. Pink Beds loop is a very pretty trail with sections that take you over long board walks and short foot bridges. There are sections of rhododendron tunnels and more open piney sections. There are small creeks and streams running all over. Barnett Branch can be a fun off shoot that has a pretty little waterfall as part of the hike. I have camped here several times, it’s a nice camp site near the waterfall. You can also access Barnett Branch from FS1206, that also has nice primitive camping along that road. I really like this area of the forest and have gone back time and time again. In spring and summer you can be treated to the beauty of the rhododendron flowers that dominate this area.

There are many other wonderful trails to explore along US276 in Brevard as well. Moving on but staying around the same region is the extra special experimental forest of Dupont. Dupont is the mecca of waterfalls and big ones at that! There are 5, pretty easy to access waterfalls along one wide gravel roadway. The two big ones are close to each other along short but challenging trails off the main walk way. I say challenging because it’s one steep climb and the other an up and down venture. They are Triple Falls and High Falls and they are the biggest ones. When I first moved here you were allowed to jump in and swim in any of them, climb around on the rocks up and down. These days there are so many people that visit the area that ranger presence is heightened and it’s not allowed as much. Dupont is a very busy destination and that can take away from the experience just a bit. Triple Falls is a short .7 mile hike that is straight uphill, it is an impressive three tiered waterfall that is very powerful when running on full throttle. High Falls is a 1.9 pretty flat stroll along a small river and is equally as strong in flow, there is a side section of this falls that people slide down the rock into a pool of water below. You can view both of these from different places.

From those two you can take the journey to Bridal Veil falls, my personal favorite. The distance is 7.25 miles out to this one, all flat forest road walking. At about 3 miles you come to a covered bridge which is pretty neat. You also pass Lake Dense which is also neat to check out, especially in fall. There is a few off shoot trails, one taking you to a small waterfall called Grassy Creek which is a 1.3 mile hike. You will pass a small horse ranch before getting to Bridal Veil. When you reach the falls you will have to hike up a gradual large rock face and it can be slippery so do so with caution. You can walk behind the falls also with great caution and even go above it. I love these parts of the experience, especially being behind the falls, it’s like no other waterfall venture and is often quite secluded with very little traffic.

On the other side of Dupont is a nice falls called Hooker Falls. It is a short walk, just under a mile to get to Hooker. This is a great swimming spot. Many people jump off the top and the water is pretty deep. It is quite safe to swim here and get under the falling waters. I’m always happy to jump into the water anytime and this waterfall is a good one for that. And that’s a wrap for Dupont.

Sticking with Brevard, I want to highlight another waterfall called Courthouse Falls. This one is off highway 215, down forest rd FR140. It is a 2.7 mile hike in and a little steep in places. The falls themselves are very pretty. The pool at the bottom is a nice swimming hole. Many daring folks go for it and jump from above but I don’t recommend this as it is pretty sketchy.

Going past Brevard you head towards Cashiers, another exciting area to explore. Out this way you’ll find Gorges State park and Panthertown. I’ll start with Panthertown, which is a big area with lots of trails, great camping and some cool highlights. I like to go in off Cold Mountain rd which is off highway 281. This road takes you past Lake Toxaway and puts you on Panthertown rd. From the parking lot you have two trails to pick from, you can go straight into the forest or take an old logging road, they connect either way. The route to School House Falls is 2.3 miles long, is considered easy and takes you over a boardwalk. All around this area and at the falls is camping. School House is a pretty little falls and a great place to post up for the afternoon. There are a few trails branching off in different directions and all provide nice, easy hiking adventures. There is a hike called Little Green which is actually a loop and totals 5 miles. This is a pretty hike and follows a creek. The other adventure I like in Panthertown is to the Great Wall. You have to enter from the other side of the park off US 64 East, from there you get on Ceder Creek rd to Breed Love rd which will dead end, total of 5 miles off 64. The Great Wall hike is a short .25 mile hike on the Salt Rock Gap trail. I will say Panthertown can get confusing as there are many off shoot trails that could take you in various ways. Getting a Panthertown map is a good idea. The Great Wall is a huge granite face and pretty awesome. It is not hard to climb up into it a short ways safely. You can check out views of Big Green mountain and Little Green mountain as well. I keep going back to Panthertown because there is a lot to explore and I have much to experience in there still. There are a few waterfalls within this area, besides School House there is one called Granny Burrell falls, which is a nice one and others I haven’t discovered yet but they are there and on the map! There is also a cool trail that takes you Devils Elbow and here you will find sandy beach like areas to sit by the water and hang out. And one last highlight I’ve been to is a bald, outcropping called Black Rock. You can wonder around on the balds and get some really sweet views. I highly suggest a weekend camping adventure in Panthertown to really explore and soak it up.

To finish this part one I’ll highlight Gorges State Park, Raven Cliff Falls and Paradise Falls. All three of these are wonderfully amazing waterfalls. Starting with Paradise falls, which is tricky to find, my suggestion is to google it as Paradise Falls NC. I will say it’s off 281 north. This is a challenging hike to say the least. It’s not very long at half a mile, but that half mile is straight down! It is tricky and can be slippery in mud if it rains. There are a few ropes to help but go slow. It is worth it however as the base of the falls is a fantastic swimming hole in an emerald green pool. You can get into the kettle, I call it, a round hole in between the huge rock cliffs. You can view the falls from above with caution as a damn runs into the falls and people have died when the damn opens. It’s also a huge drop off if your trying to peek over the edge. Up top is another great swimming spot. It is one of absolute favorite falls around for sure. Some people jump from the high cliffs which is a good forty to fifty feet, I don’t recommend this as it can be dangerous, there are some smaller spots that are much safer to jump in.

Gorges State park is one I haven’t explored too much but really want to. I did spend an afternoon hanging in a hammock near Rainbow falls, which is wonderful. There is a lot to see in the park, a few waterfalls and tons of hiking. It is off 281 in Sapphire. It’s definitely on my list to get back to. Turtle back Falls is a popular one as people slide down the face of the falls. I’ll talk more about this park after I visit again.

Last on my list for this post is Raven Cliff falls. This is right off 276 in SC. The hike is moderate at 4 miles out and back. It is a big one at 420 feet. You come to a foot bridge, it was closed when I went but the trail goes on if it’s open. You come to a bridge that is somewhat over the falls and there’s some small pools to mess around in.

More adventures coming in part two, stay tuned and happy hiking!!

One comment

  1. Writing to Freedom · 29 Days Ago

    Wow! You really have explored the Ashville area. I passed through once and lived there for a month. I could tell I would love all the waterfalls and lush forests, but didn’t explore that much in the short time I was there. Maybe someday.

    Like

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