A Perfect Week of Hiking in the North Carolina Mountains
By Michael Lanza
Warm rain drums lightly on the lush deciduous forest around me as I walk up a long-abandoned dirt road that has narrowed to a trail with the gradual encroachment of vegetation. The wind assaults the treetops, the outer edge of a hurricane hitting the Southeast coast right now; but here, far from the storm, it sounds like waves rhythmically lapping up onto a beach and retreating. It’s a gray, early evening in mid-October in the basement of a compact valley in the Appalachian Mountains of western North Carolina—a valley that, due to its tight contours, sees precious few hours of direct sunlight at this time of year—and the daylight has filtered down to a soft, dim, tranquil quality.
A bit more than a half-mile up this quiet footpath, I reach my destination—and unconsciously catch my breath at what must be one of the most lovely cascades in a corner of North Carolina spilling over with waterfalls.
Roaring Fork Falls tumbles through a series of a dozen or more steps, each several feet high, before coming to rest briefly in a placid, knee-deep pool at its bottom. Beyond the pool, the stream continues downhill at an angle only somewhat less severe than the cascade above. In sunshine or warmer temperatures, I’d be tempted to wade in and sit in that pool. Now, I just stare at it, all but hypnotized.
I’m on the last, short hike of a day filled with beautiful waterfalls along the Blue Ridge Parkway, in the heart of one of America’s hiking and backpacking meccas: western North Carolina. I’ve come to spend a week chasing waterfalls, fall foliage color, and classic Southern Appalachian views while dayhiking in the mountains surrounding Asheville and backpacking in Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Unlike soaring, jagged Western mountain ranges such as the Tetons, High Sierra, or North Cascades, the Appalachian Mountains are lower and mostly forested from bottom to top, their once-sharper angles of ancient epochs worn rounder and softer by erosion and time. (It happens to all of us.) From a high point like Looking Glass Rock, Black Balsam Knob, or any of numerous turnouts along the Blue Ridge Parkway, the mountains here resemble a roiling, green sea of trees. The West has big vistas; the Appalachians have big vistas, too, but mostly small, more intimate scenery, the kind that you can literally reach out and touch. Here, you don’t just look at the scenery; you’re in it.
In a sense, I went to North Carolina to reconnect with my hiking roots. I became a hiker, backpacker, and climber in the northern reaches of the Appalachian chain—in New Hampshire’s White Mountains and on many other wooded, rocky, rugged, little mountain ranges that pepper the Northeast. I discovered as a young man that I really liked the arduous nature of hiking in the Northeast, the craggy, windblown summits, and the fullness and deep silence of the forest in all seasons.
In North Carolina’s mountains, I rediscovered the pleasure of walking a footpath with last year’s dead leaves crunching underfoot; passing shallow streams that speak in some unknown tongue as they chug over and around stones; standing on summits overlooking seemingly endless rows of green or blue ridges fading to far horizons.
But I also discovered the unique qualities of the Southern Appalachians. They are not as steep and rocky (or as hard on ankles and knees) as their northern cousins. They’re not as crowded as one might be led to believe. They harbor hundreds of waterfalls, possibly the richest stash of falling waters in the country.
And these woods are quite simply a very good place to help a person remember what’s most important in life.
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Looking Glass Rock
The dry, crisp air of early morning raises goosebumps on my bare legs and arms as I start chuffing uphill in the woods of the Pisgah National Forest, a short drive out of the pleasant, small town of Brevard, where I’m spending a couple of nights while exploring the area’s trails. One of western North Carolina’s most recognizable natural landmarks, Looking Glass Rock (lead photo at top of story), leads my list of hikes today, which explains why I’m on the Looking Glass Rock Trail shortly after 7 a.m.
Brevard happens to be the seat of Transylvania County, a place relevant to hikers because the county receives over 90 inches of rain annually—making it the wettest county in North Carolina—and has over 250 waterfalls. I’m visiting several of them on dayhikes this week along the BRP, in the Pisgah, and in Gorges State Park.
The trail rises at a gentle angle at first; but as I climb higher, it grows steeper. In this quiet forest, with little variation in the scenery as I walk uphill, it’s easy to get lost in thoughts; and in a world where we’re almost constantly receiving texts and checking email, getting lost in your thoughts has become a rare joy.
After a few miles of steady uphill climbing, I step out of the forest onto a sloping, sprawling granite slab at the top of Looking Glass Rock—atop the cliffs that millions of tourists photograph from turnouts along the Blue Ridge Parkway every year. The morning sun hasn’t yet reached these slabs, but it throws a warm spotlight on gentle waves of hills rolling out a carpet of dappled green for miles in all directions before me.
If every person could start each day this way, I gotta think the world would be a more peaceful place.
Blue Ridge Parkway
The Blue Ridge Parkway isn’t a highway you take when you want to get somewhere quickly; it exists for just the opposite objective: to get nowhere slowly. A narrow, two-way road snaking along the Blue Ridge from Shenandoah National Park in Virginia to Great Smoky Mountains National Park in western North Carolina, this 469-mile-long corridor through Eastern deciduous forest is, in many respects, America’s country road.
Begun in 1935 and finished more than half a century later with the completion of an engineering marvel, the Linn Cove Viaduct—an S-shaped bridge that hugs the side of North Carolina’s iconic Grandfather Mountain—it ranges in elevation from 600 feet to about 6,000 feet above sea level. From numerous places along it, one overlooks deep valleys in more shades of green than we have names for, steep-walled mountainsides draped in dense forest, and one overlapping mountain ridge after another.
The BRP also spans a wide range of habitats and supports more plant species—over 4,000—than any other park in the country. If you’re into fungi and look really, really hard, you’ll find 2,000 kinds of them, as well as 500 species of mosses and lichens. There are more varieties of salamander than anywhere else in the world. Wet, warm, and fertile, the Southern Appalachians are like a big orgy of photosynthesis that almost shocks the optic nerves, lasting for several months a year. Most of us rarely see such a conspicuous eruption of greenery.
With more than 100 trailheads and over 300 miles of trails scattered along its length, the BRP forms the spine of one gem of a trail system. (See my story “The 12 Best Dayhikes Along North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Parkway.”) That’s why, with a week to play on the trails of western North Carolina, I essentially made the Blue Ridge Parkway my base of operations.
Millions of people live within driving distance of the parks and forests of the Appalachian Mountains. With over 15 million visits annually, the Blue Ridge Parkway ranks number one among all National Park Service sites for visitors, while Great Smoky Mountains National Park occupies the third spot on the list, with nearly 11 million visits a year. Not surprisingly, escaping the throngs in much of the Appalachian Mountains presents a formidable challenge—especially during fall foliage season.
But sometimes you just get lucky.
It’s early evening when I pull into the roadside parking area for Moore Cove, on Route 276 in the Pisgah National Forest. I’ve already hiked about 17 miles today, hitting several peaks and hills along the Blue Ridge Parkway. My original plan was to stop and photograph Looking Glass Falls, a famous roadside waterfall that gets viewed by hundreds of people on a typical day—and where there’s still, even now, a parking lot filled with cars. Seeing all those vehicles, I decide to take the 20-minute hike to Moore Cove instead.
As with the short trail to Roaring Fork Falls, the well-tended footpath to Moore Cove resides at the bottom of a deep Appalachian valley with close mountains on both sides, beneath a canopy of maple, oak, and tulip poplar trees; so even though the sun hasn’t yet set on another day, dusk settled in down here at least an hour ago. Rosebay rhododendron and ferns blanket the ground. For now, anyway, I’m the only person out here.
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Reaching Moore Cove, I stop, and a reflexive smile creeps across my face. Before me, a silvery, 50-foot waterfall plunges in a nearly silent, gossamer column over the lip of a rock alcove.
That’s one of the special aspects of hiking in the Southern Appalachians: These old mountains still conceal little mysteries. They’re not especially tall or grand; they don’t have attractions that will rival the majesty of Yosemite or Yellowstone. But their rumpled contours, incredibly vibrant ecology, and the ingredients for an abundance of waterfalls—steep terrain and buckets and buckets of rain—collaborate to create an almost infinite number of micro-scenes that inspire an awe that’s more subdued with each episode, but cumulatively powerful and enduring. The mountains of western North Carolina constantly surprise you with spots like Moore Cove.
I shoot some photos, and have the place all to myself for maybe 10 minutes. Then a family shows up, and I pack up and depart, leaving them their own little piece of solitude and magic.
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See all of my stories about hiking and backpacking in western North Carolina, including “The 12 Best Dayhikes Along North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Parkway,” “In the Garden of Eden: Backpacking the Great Smoky Mountains,” “Photo Gallery: Waterfalls of the North Carolina Mountains,” “Roof of the East: Hiking North Carolina’s Mount Mitchell,” and “The 20 Best National Park Dayhikes” for a description of a hike along the Appalachian Trail in Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
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