The first hike of the year, most of the Blue Ridge Parkway was still closed due to recent snows so we just went to the section of the Mountains to Sea Trail that parallels the Blue Ridge Parkway through Asheville. This section, from I-26 to US 25 is not exactly wilderness but it’s very close to town. It’s 3.5 miles between the two big roads but it’s such easy hiking that it seems substantially shorter.
The Shut-In Trail (from the Biltmore Estate to Mt. Pisgah) and the Mountains to Sea Trail run together along the Blue Ridge Parkway west of Asheville. This is the Sleepy Gap parking area. From here it’s about a mile west to Chestnut Cove, not the most scenic hike but there are some camping areas near Truckwheel Knob and those are rare things along the Blue Ridge Parkway trails.
East from Sleepy Gap the trail goes out and around the north side of Grassy Knob where these cliffs are. The parkways tunnels under the far side of the mountain so this section is peaceful and relatively quiet. There are also a couple unofficial trails from here that lead down into the Bent Creek bike trail system although we saw no evidence of mountain bike usage on the MST.
For the most part this is only a good hike if you happen to live in or near Asheville and don’t decide to go for a hike until 3 hours before sunset. Or if you happen to be section hiking the Mountains to Sea Trail. Or if you like the sound of hordes of motorcycles on the Blue Ridge parkway during fall foliage season.
This last picture is apparently some sort of gentian. We spent quite a while trying to convince Melanie’s camera to focus on it before we gave up and continued on.
The Shut-In trail also crosses here on it’s way from the Biltmore Estate to Mount Pisgah. This section of the MST in general is pretty easy hiking and it parallels the parkway closely. In fact, from Asheville this is probably one of the most accessible areas for trail running as long as you don’t mind out and back runs.
The MST website recommends parking at the French Broad overlook for hiking on this section, but unless you’re a big fan of crossing road bridges it’s probably easier to park on the east side of the river at the pull out where the MST heads back into the forest.
This frog (and a garter snake) are about all the wildlife we saw between the French Broad River and the I-26 bridge (bikers don’t technically count). So it’s not exactly much of a quiet wilderness experience but it’s very close to Asheville (and our house) so it’s good for a quick hike. It’s also a good rehab hike (which we seem to be specializing in the last few years).
The half mile gravel road that leads in from the parking lot to the trailheads has a high salt content in places and attracts butterflies. These are pipevine swallowtails.
The Phillips Hollow trail is dark blue blazed and leads across dry creek and up along the north bank. Ultimately, this trail leads all the way up to the A.T. at the top of the ridge which is a very strenuous hike. In the lower portions, to say that there are a few waterfalls might be an understatement.
At the first major stream crossing, a light blue blazed trail leads south across the stream and then winds up the valley with Dry Creek. This would be the same Dry Creek (still poorly named) that Margarette Falls in on, although a different branch. This trail is not listed on our map of Cherokee National Forest and the Cherokee NF website is more or less useless when it comes to trail identification. Instead your best bet are some rocks at the trail junction which have been painted with names and arrows. The trail up Dry Creek is identified on the rocks as Shoot Creek for reasons we can’t possibly explain. Either way the further you go up this trail, the more impressive the waterfalls get and the more difficult the path becomes. About 0.3 miles in, the trail crosses Dry Creek between ledge falls.
There are plenty of good swimming holes along the way. In fact, in several places it’s a lot easier to walk up the stream than it is to follow the trail over and around rhododendrons. Somewhere along the way is Spruce Thicket Falls, which seems to be the only named falls. We’re not sure which one it is but there is a 35 foot series of cascades about .6 miles in. Above this, it becomes really difficult to travel further upstream.
Melanie became fascinated with the wide range of mushrooms along the way and might eventually put up a gallery of images on the site. In the meantime, we’re mostly certain (after some time with the mushroom field guide) that this is a Yellow Patches. If it isn’t, some mycologist out there can correct us.
Mill Ridge was a small farming community located on the east bank of the French Broad River just up from the town of Hot Springs. Nowadays there are a couple of forest roads, a lot of mountain biking trails and a few foundations remaining. The large open areas up here were once tobacco fields.
The AT leads southbound up into the Mill Ridge area from Tanyard Gap (US 25/70 outside of Hot Springs). There’s also a forest road that leads up to a parking area for the bike trails. Where the AT leads back down into the forest there’s an old dam with a large pond above it. We followed the AT as far as the Pump Gap loop trail which makes a circle with the AT.
Along with the dam and some building foundations, the old Mill Ridge Cemetery is located just a little ways off the Pump Gap trail. Most of the stones have fallen over or been broken but it’s still a curious thing to find out in the middle of the forest.
Overall this is a fairly easy hike of about 5 to 6 miles. It’s probably more difficult if done from Hot Springs due to the elevation gain. We did come across a couple of salamanders, but they refused to hold still for photographs, so we have to include this fungus instead.
With mom recovering from back problems, naturally we dragged her up a reasonably large mountain. Actually, we’d never been up Craggy Pinnacle before but it was reportedly an easy hike with a good view. Unfortunately the rhododendrons were not blooming yet. The hike is about 3/4 of a mile, fairly steep. I’m told that if you’re recovering from back problems it is quite challenging.
The summit of Craggy Pinnacle has several observation decks with good views in all directions along the Blue Ridge Parkway and back towards Asheville. The Craggy Mountains are a small sub-range of the Blue Ridge which feature Craggy Pinnacle (we’re standing on it in this picture), Craggy Dome (that’s it across the parking lot from here), and Craggy Mountain (behind us). Besides being creatively named, these peaks are all near 6000 ft although only Craggy Dome (the lump out there) is over 6000 ft. We hiked it previously for the South Beyond 6000. It looks gentle from here but there’s no real trail to the top so it involves foraging through blackberries and rhododendrons. The summit does not have much of a view. In fact, it looked vaguely like this up there when we previously visited:
Harmon Den is a mountain along the NC/TN border just south of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. It actually has its own exit off of I-40, which is just a gravel road that leads down the valley towards Max Patch. We hiked fromÂ Brown Gap (accessible via a rough road up from Harmon Den) to Deep Gap at the base of Snowbird Mountain and then back along the Appalachian Trail.
The top of Harmon Den Mountain, a spot also known as Hawk’s Roost in some AT guides is not as impressive as nearby mountains such as Max Patch and Snowbird. Even without leaves on the trees, the views are good but not fantastic. The Smokies, Newfound and Snowbird mountains surround Harmon Den.
From Harmon Den it’s a steady long descent to Deep Gap (one of dozens of gaps with the same creative name in and around the Smokies). Deep Gap itself is a nice shaded campsite. An old abandoned logging road led up to the gap from the Tennessee side so sections are nicely graded. Groundhog Creek flows into North Carolina from the gap and the Groundhog Creek AT shelter is just a quarter mile east of the gap.
The trailhead for this hike is in the vicinity of Greystone, TN. It’s not the easiest place to find but there is a big parking lot once you arrive. A gravel road leads about a half mile through a private land easement into Cherokee National Forest where trails split off in all directions. Several of these trails go up to the AT near Camp Creek Bald. For Margarette Falls, basically follow the main stream of water, although the trail itself is blue-blazed and mostly easy to follow. There are at least 4 stream fordings along the way and numerous small waterfalls. There are also a couple decent pools for swimming if you’re so inclined. About .6 miles up from the trail junctions the canyon will narrow and there is an enormous rock spire on the south bank called Cathedral Rock.
The trail ends at Margarette Falls but our hike did not. To continue upstream of Margarette the easiest path is to scramble up the hillside on the north bank of the creek, cross the rock outcropping, and come back down the hill to the creek upstream of the falls. (Usual Warning: The top of the falls is slick and very dangerous, you should give it a wide berth if you are hiking further upstream.) Once above the falls, it’s easiest to ford back across to the south bank and bushwhack your way along the banks. Why would you do this? About a tenth of a mile upstream the two branches of Dry Creek come together. Here you’ll find the 8 foot Glen Falls which is pretty but not spectacular.
Glen Falls is nice but not really a reason by itself to deal with circumventing Margarette Falls. The reason for that is another 0.1 miles up the stream. If you’re standing at Glen Falls, that would be the branch on the left (i.e. the one that isn’t a waterfall). There is no way up but by canyoneering – walking, climbing, and swimming directly up the stream. On our trip there were several pools that were 4 to 6 feet deep. The rock walls of the canyon lend themselves nicely to traversing if you have even the most basic rock climbing or bouldering skills (or want to start). In warmer weather, it wouldn’t be an issue to just swim the pools. Not far upstream by distance (but a decent amount of effort) is the 45 foot high Bailey Falls which has at least three drops before pouring into the narrow canyon shown here. Note that this would be a very bad place to be if a flash flood were possible.
If you happen to do this hike with a dog make sure he can swim. I ended up lifting Trout up over several of the steeper ledges anyway.
This hike is just slightly under 8 miles in length. We did it by shuttle with help from the friendly folks at the Hike Inn in Fontana. We parked the car at the Fontana Dam, they shuttled us (and our dog) back around to Yellow Creek Gap and we started from there.
About a mile in is Cable Gap Shelter which is practically right on the trail and has a nice little stream running past it. After Cable Gap there’s a long climb through a series of knolls. Most of this section runs parallel to Fontana Lake and offers nice views. This picture shows a section of the lake and the dam.
Somewhere along here is Walker Gap where the Yellow Creek Mountain trail comes in. This does not appear to be a well marked trail but we’ll save that for some future hike. From Walker Gap to the road at Fontana is an endless series of steep descending switchbacks (unless you happen to be hiking up / south / towards the NOC). There are several nice water sources through here and it ends at the road / marina / shuttle pick up for the Fontana Village (which also has restrooms). From there, the AT continues up and over a knoll along Fontana Lake before descending to the assorted parking areas.
Note that post 9/11 – this section of the trail will be closed during “security threats”. There is an alternate path through Fontana Village and into the Great Smokies downstream of the dam. Just off to the right of this picture is the Fontana AT Shelter which is better known as the Fontana Hilton (because of its relative size for a shelter).
The interior of the dam is now closed to visitors although the overlooks are impressive. On the far side is the boundary of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park where the AT begins a grueling ascent to Clingman’s Dome (30-some miles away by trail). The dam is probably more impressive when the spillways are open into the Little Tennessee River below.
There are several ways up Roan Mountain by trail and one by road. The AT ascends to Toll House Gap from both north and south. From the north (near the town of Buladean) is a rugged 2000 ft climb over about 3 miles. The AT intersects the road in Toll House Gap which was once the site of the Cloudland Hotel. Now it’s just a nice grassy bald with great views into both Tennessee and North Carolina.
From here there is a spur trail that leads along the ridge, parallel to the road out to Roan High Bluff. This is a particularly worthwhile hike in shoulder seasons (like March) because the road up isn’t open yet so the top of Roan is almost certainly going to be deserted. The view from Roan High Bluff is also fantastic.
From Toll House Gap to the north along the AT is a more popular hike down to Carvers Gap which has a large parking area. Along the way is the highest shelter on the AT at a slight side trail to Roan High Knob.
At 6285 and 6267, both Roan High Knob and Roan High Bluff qualify among the 40 peaks that make up the South Beyond 6000 challenge sponsered by the Carolina and Tennnessee Eastman Hiking Clubs. In fact, these are two of the easier peaks to get to (no bushwhacking). The Knob is marked by a USGS benchmark and is a basically a rock outcrop just past the shelter.