The 12 Best Dayhikes Along North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Parkway
By Michael Lanza
I’m a hiking snob—I admit it. I want all of the hiking trips I take to feature five-star scenery. And for years, I’ve done most of my dayhiking and backpacking in the American West, with its vast wildernesses and infinite vistas, so I’m a little spoiled. But a weeklong trip to the mountains of western North Carolina last fall upended my snobbery. Exploring the highest peaks east of the Mississippi, I discovered one of America’s richest stashes of stunning waterfalls and most biologically diverse forests, enough ruggedness to inspire a sense of climbing “real” mountains—and some pretty darn big vistas, too.
After considerable field research, I present to you this list of a dozen hikes along North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Parkway, ranging in length from very short and easy to a multi-summit ramble to the crown of the East’s highest summit (which I rank among America’s Best Hard Dayhikes).
A meandering country road snaking for 469 miles along the crest of Blue Ridge Mountains from Great Smoky Mountains National Park in North Carolina to Shenandoah National Park in Virginia, the Blue Ridge Parkway provides access to more than 100 trailheads and over 300 miles of trails. It passes through a range of habitats that support more plant species than any other park in the country: over 4,000 species of plants, 2,000 kinds of fungi, 500 types of mosses and lichens, and the most varieties of salamanders in the world.
The hikes on the list below begin from trailheads on or a short distance off the parkway.
My advice to fellow hiking snobs: Start now planning your trip to western North Carolina, timing it for the peak of fall foliage color in October. If you somehow forget to pack your sense of awe, I promise you will recover it there.
You won’t likely have Crabtree Falls (lead photo at top of story, and photo at right) to yourself—even on a rainy day, as I found. But this one is worth sharing with strangers (or new friends). Reached via a rocky, roughly three-mile loop to one of the most picturesque and famous waterfalls along the Blue Ridge, Crabtree plunges in braids over a 70-foot cliff into a hollow thick with trees, ferns, and wildflowers.
Getting There The trail begins at the entrance to Crabtree Meadows Campground, at mile 339.5 on the Blue Ridge Parkway, about 45 miles north of Asheville.
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Two short trails lead to views of Linville Falls, a powerful, 90-foot waterfall plunging vertically through a notch in a cliff into a gorge flanked by rock walls and a virgin hemlock forest with birch, oak, white pine, and hickory trees.
The Erwins View Trail, a round-trip hike of 1.6 miles, passes by four overlooks, the first of them just a half-mile from the visitor center, at the upper falls. The last one, Erwins View Overlook, offers a commanding view of the Linville Gorge and the upper and lower falls. The Linville Gorge Trail offers two forks, one leading to an overlook of the lower falls and the Chimneys (1.4 miles round-trip), and the other descending through cliffs to Plunge Basin below the lower falls (one mile round-trip). Combine both trails on a four-mile hike.
Getting There The trails begin at the visitor center, at mile 316.4 on the Blue Ridge Parkway, about 66 miles north of Asheville.
Be comfortable on your hikes. See my review of “The 5 Best Rain Jackets For the Backcountry.”
Roaring Fork Falls
Unlike the most popular waterfalls and trails along the BRP, Roaring Fork offers the possibility of solitude. This 100-foot-long cascade on Roaring Fork Creek drops about 50 vertical feet over its course into a calm pool. Reach it on an easy, half-mile hike up an old forest road. Catch it during or right after a rainfall; the water level diminishes during dry spells.
Getting There From the BRP, turn onto NC 80 (the Mount Mitchell Scenic Byway) and drive 2.2 miles north. Turn left onto South Toe River Road at a sign for Black Mountain Campground, cross the bridge, and take a left toward Busick Work Center. Park on the left at the gated entrance to the center; a sign marks the trailhead.
Black Mountain Crest Trail to Mount Mitchell
The longest and by far the hardest dayhike on this list—and a footpath that backpackers often take a weekend to hike—the Black Mountain Crest Trail climbs a cumulative 5,000 vertical feet over 11.3 miles from its bottom end to the highest summit east of the Mississippi, 6,684-foot Mount Mitchell. Along the way, it passes over several 6,000-foot summits, following a ridge that mimics an earthen rollercoaster. While mostly in forest, the trail has several overlooks at grassy meadows and ledges of lichen-speckled granite.
For info on hiking it, see my story “Roof of the East: Hiking North Carolina’s Mount Mitchell.”
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Looking Glass Rock
This granite cliff rises hundreds of feet, dominating the landscape for miles around and visible from various summits and points along the BRP. While the wooded, 3,970-foot summit has no views, just beyond it you reach the top of the cliffs, with a sweeping view of the rolling, lushly green mountainsides of western North Carolina, including Black Balsam Knob in the distance. The 6.5-mile round-trip hike, steep in places, ascends and descends 1,700 feet through numerous switchbacks and rhododendron and mountain laurel tunnels. Hike it in early morning for cool shade and a view from the top of sunlight bathing the forest below in golden light.
Getting There From the junction of US 276 and 64 in the town of Brevard (a good base for local hikes), about 45 minutes from Asheville, take US 276 north into the Pisgah National Forest. Follow it 5.3 miles, then turn left at a sign for Pisgah Center for Wildlife Education and the State Fish Hatchery. Another 0.4 mile down the road, park on the right at the Looking Glass Rock trailhead.
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Across the valley from Looking Glass Rock, the ledges of less-well-known John Rock give you a comparable view as Looking Glass, for less effort. Reach those ledges on a five-mile loop that gains about a thousand feet of elevation. Shortly after starting the hike on the Cat Gap Loop Trail, the footpath passes a fenced area protecting some of the region’s last remaining healthy Eastern hemlock trees, known as the “redwood of the East” because they can grow to 150 feet tall with trunk diameters of six feet; but most have been killed by an invasive species called the hemlock woolly adelgid. The small plants covering the ground in many places—and resembling a tiny forest—are Lycopodium, or “ground pine,” one of the oldest known varieties of plants.
When you can hear Cedar Rock Falls, watch for a short side trail (at a campsite) leading to the 16-foot cascading falls. Back on the main trail, follow it until turning onto the Cat Gap Bypass Trail for a more-direct route to the John Rock ledges, where you get one of the area’s best views toward Looking Glass Rock.
Getting There At the junction of US 276 and 64 in Brevard, turn onto US 276 west, following signs for the Pisgah National Forest. Continue 5.2 miles, and then turn left onto FR 475. Go 1.4 miles to the Center for Wildlife Education and Fish Hatchery. Turn left and cross the bridge to the parking lot.
Black Balsam Knob
The first of a series of southern Appalachian “balds,” or open summits above this part of the BRP, 6,214-foot Black Balsam Knob reveals just how expansive—and beautiful—the Appalachian Mountains of western North Carolina are. But after reaching its summit on an easy, half-mile, 400-foot uphill hike, and drinking in the 360-degree panorama from one of the highest points along the BRP, you won’t likely feel like stopping yet. Continue north on the Art Loeb Trail, crossing grassy meadows with uninterrupted views, another half-mile to 6,056-foot Tennent Mountain. Turn it into a moderately difficult, five-mile loop by continuing past Tennent to return via the Ivestor Gap Trail.
There are several trails over these balds, including the Mountains to the Sea Trail, and a side path leading to 6,045-foot Sam Knob. The 30-mile Art Loeb Trail traverses north-south across the Shining Rock Wilderness, offering possibilities for multi-day hikes; its premier stretch, the seven miles from Black Balsam Knob to Deep Gap, crosses several balds.
Getting There Take the BRP to immediately west of mile 420, turn onto Black Balsam Road (FR 816), and follow it 0.8 mile to the Art Loeb Trail parking; a half-mile beyond it, there’s more parking and other trails leading up Black Balsam Knob.
I’m not generally drawn to super short hikes, but this 15-minute, steep uphill walk on a mostly paved path leads to a breathtaking clifftop aerie at over 5,700 feet, with a view as good as from the summits of Black Balsam Knob or Tennent Mountain. The panorama from Devils Courthouse also encompasses four states: North and South Carolina, Tennessee, and Georgia.
Getting There Take the BRP to a trailhead parking lot at mile 422.4.
Walk an easy footpath lined with ferns in quiet forest of maple, oak, tulip poplar, and rosebay rhododendron to its end at a rocky alcove. There, a silky ribbon of water freefalls some 50 feet over the lip of an overhanging cliff. It’s enchanting, especially in the dim shade of early morning or evening; you’d almost expect to see fairies appear. Moore Cove is a 1.4-mile round-trip hike on a good trail that ascends only 160 feet—an easy one for families with young children.
Getting There At the junction of US 276 and 64 in Brevard, turn onto US 276 west and continue 6.6 miles into the Pisgah National Forest. The trailhead parking area is on the right just before the highway crosses the stone bridge over Looking Glass Creek.
I always hike with poles. Read why in my “10 Tricks For Making Hiking and Backpacking Easier.”
Upper Whitewater Falls
You can’t easily—or safely—get close to Upper Whitewater Falls, but even from an observation deck at a distance, a waterfall plunging more than 400 feet is a rare sight. A quarter-mile-long, paved walkway leads to the upper overlook, where you can see the upper falls dropping over stepped ledges into Jocassee Gorge. From there, descend about 150 steep wooden stairs to a better view from a lower platform. When the sunlight hits the mist off the falls at the right angle, a rainbow appears in front of the waterfall.
Getting There From NC 280 in Brevard, turn onto US 64 west. At Sapphire, turn left onto NC 281 south and follow it for about eight miles to the entrance for Whitewater Falls.
Gorges State Park
With an elevation gradient of 2,000 feet within a four-mile radius and 80 inches of rain annually, Gorges State Park, in the Jocassee Gorges south of Brevard, hosts a temperate rainforest and many of the 250 waterfalls located in Transylvania County, North Carolina’s rainiest county. Trails wind through forests of hemlock, white pine, red maple, yellow poplar, oaks and other trees. From the Grassy Ridge Trailhead, the Rainbow Falls Trail leads 1.5 miles to Rainbow Falls (which is actually just outside the park, in the Pisgah National Forest); beyond it, an unmaintained path continues a quarter-mile to Turtleback Falls and the broad swimming hole below it.
Getting There From NC 280 in Brevard, turn onto US 64 west. At Sapphire, turn left onto NC 281 south and follow it for 0.7 mile to the park entrance.
Make every outing successful. See my “10 Tips For Keeping Kids Happy and Safe Outdoors.”
Reaching Soco Falls doesn’t involve a “hike,” really; it’s just a five-minute walk from a small turnout on US 19. But when passing through the area—especially on a weekday, to avoid crowds—you should stop to see this photogenic pair of 50-foot waterfalls, their waters meeting in the stream below. There’s an overlook above the waterfall, and a very steep, short trail leads to the base. Go during or after a recent rain to see it with a higher flow.
Getting There Watch for highway signs for Soco Falls along US 19 between Cherokee and Maggie Valley.
Bonus Hike: Grandfather Mountain
I have to point out the one hike along the BRP that I planned to do but had to skip because of severe rain and gale-force winds: Grandfather Mountain. Rather than the popular Profile Trail on the mountain’s west side, where the limited parking fills up quickly, I had intended to hike roughly 6.5 strenuous miles round-trip to 5,946-foot Calloway Peak, on the northeast side of the mountain, the highest summit of Grandfather Mountain and the highest point on the Blue Ridge.
Start by hiking three miles and 2,000 feet up the Daniel Boone Scout Trail to Calloway Peak, with big views along the way and steep sections where ladders and fixed cables are in place for aid. After backtracking down the Daniel Boone Scout Trail, take the Cragway Trail—also steep and difficult, but featuring abundant panoramas and blueberry and rhododendron patches. At the Nuwati Trail, turn right and descend to rejoin the Daniel Boone Scout Trail, following it a short distance back to the trailhead.
For info, see http://ift.tt/2vCdq95.
Getting There The Daniel Boone Scout Trail begins at the Boone Fork Parking Area at mile 229.9 on the BRP.
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See my story “The 20 Best National Park Dayhikes” for a description of a hike along the Appalachian Trail in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and all of my stories about hiking and backpacking in North Carolina.
Make It Happen
Season Varying with elevation, the prime hiking season in western North Carolina stretches from early spring through late autumn, although mid-summer gets hot and humid, especially at middle to lower elevations. Many trails can be hiked in winter without encountering much snow.
Where to Stay There are numerous lodging options and campgrounds along the Blue Ridge Parkway. For convenience and access to trails, I spent nights in Asheville, Brevard, and in Busick, along NC 80 (the Mount Mitchell Scenic Byway) a couple miles north of the BRP, near Mount Mitchell State Park.
Western North Carolina Trail Guides, $14 each, pisgahmapcompany.com.
Trails Illustrated Pisgah Ranger District no. 780, at rei.com, and Linville Gorge Mount Mitchell no. 779, at rei.com, $11.95 each.
Waterfalls of North Carolina map, $11.95, http://ift.tt/2vjKxU4.
Visit North Carolina, visitnc.com.
Blue Ridge Parkway (National Park Service), http://ift.tt/2vjPGv7.
Blue Ridge Parkway Association, blueridgeparkway.org.
Transylvania County, visitwaterfalls.com.
HikeWNC (Hiking in Western North Carolina), hikewnc.info.
Romantic Asheville, romanticasheville.com.
WNC Waterfalls, http://ift.tt/2vjKzva.
Pisgah National Forest, http://ift.tt/1jPaXf9.
Mount Mitchell State Park, http://ift.tt/2dI6AH2.
Gorges State Park, http://ift.tt/2dI7Zh1.
North Carolina Division of Parks & Recreation, ncparks.gov.
Carolina Mountain Club, carolinamountainclub.org.
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