Mt. Craig

We’ve been lax about posting our hikes here lately, so even though this is a short one we’ll include it so we don’t appear to be dead or abducted by aliens.
The Black Mountain Crest trail is notoriously difficult. While we’ve hiked south from Mt. Mitchell back as far as the Blue Ridge Parkway, we hadn’t gone north on the BMCT yet. Our original intent was to travel several miles out. Upon leaving Mt. Mitchell the trail immediately drops several hundred feet. It then runs along a ridge before ascending up to Mt. Craig – the second highest peak in the Eastern US. This is where a rather sudden thunderstorm caught us. This picture is of the trail itself. Not a creek bed.

black mountain crest trail

 A 6000 foot ridge with sheer cliffs on either side is no place to be in a thunderstorm.   With no better option we spent half an hour or more crouched in a grove of spruce trees.   When the storm passed we were drenched.  Worse than that, the already difficult trail was now slickrock with water streaming down it.  We decided we should at least finish summiting Mt. Craig.     It turns out that just 100 feet up the trail or so was a huge rock overhand that would be useful in future pop-up storms.


The view from Mt. Craig is worth the difficult, if short (1 mile each way) hike.  From the top you can see… well, we could see cloud.   Eventually the clouds cleared long enough for us to snap a few pictures and see the daunting line of thunderstorms across the western horizon making their way towards us.   Reluctantly we decided that it just wasn’t a good day to be hiking on the highest ridge around and we headed back to Mt. Mitchell.   We actually reached the car just seconds before driving rain started again, followed shortly by hail so perhaps that was a good decision.

Mt. Craig


The TurkeyPen trailhead is in the southeastern corner of the Pisgah Ranger District.  It’s got a couple advantages – first there’s a ton of interconnecting trails here so it’s pretty easy to customize a loop of the size you want.   That’s actually a rarity in western NC.     Secondly, many of the trails run along rivers and creeks so it’s a good area when it’s hot out, or when your dog wants to spend all day lying in rivers and creeks.

Mills Crossing

Our dog wanted to spend all day lying about in creeks.   This is the Mills River.  It’s an important feature of the Turkeypen area because several trails cross it.   Most of them literally just run into the river and continue out the other side (see it over there?).   If there’s been a lot of rain recently this can be a very wet proposition.


There is one suspension bridge over the river.   Dogs apparently are not fond of swinging bridges.    There were quite a lot of people in the area during our hike.   Probably more than half of them were fishing along the Mills so we only saw a handful of other people along the trails.


We did come across this snake though.   It’s impossible to tell from this picture but this was actually about a 4 foot long snake.  We think it was a racer and it was probably either pregnant or it had just eaten one of those annoying yap dogs we’d passed earlier.   Kudos to the snake either way.

Big Ridge / SlickRock Trail

This was actually sort of a composite day in the Pisgah Ranger District.   We started out hiking along the MST from Big Ridge Overlook.   It looks pretty impressive and much like most of the overlooks around here.

Big Ridge

After this hike we went down to Slick Rock Falls which is an easily accessible waterfall.  It’s visible from a dirt road in the Looking Glass area.  In fact the trail (which we also hiked) goes up to several of the rock climbing routes on the west side of Looking Glass rock.  

Slick Rock Falls

Brown Gap to Max Patch


Before our hike we spent a little time along Cold Creek in the Harmon Den area. There were hundreds of butterflies drawn to the salt deposits along the road so we have a few dozen pictures that look like this.


Mid-May is a great time to hike in the area because of the wildflowers. We headed north bound on the A.T. from Brown Gap, which starts with a decent climb but is relatively gentle and rolling after that.


The trilliums were particularly abundant.   They’re a bit hard to see in this picture but all those specks of white and pink are trillium.   It was pretty much deserted on this part of the mountain until we reached Max Patch.  We decided not to climb to the top on this particular day.   Instead we let Trout lie in a stream and cool off while we studied the map.  

We decided we could take an alternate route back to Brown Gap.   This started by taking the A.T. southbound for a quarter mile or so to the junction with the Cherry Creek Trail.   We then took the Cherry Creek trail for maybe a half mile or so until it intersected an old forest service road (named 3533 on some maps).  We left Cherry Creek Trail and followed the road along the ridge.  This worked out great for a while at least.  The road was broad and easy to follow and it was paralleling the A.T. about 200 ft below it.  This is how it looked with a dog in the middle:

Forest Road

About halfway back to Brown Gap the road ends. This was not entirely unexpected as our A.T. map also showed the road ending. Our plan was to orienteer from here by following the 4000 ft. contour line around the ridge until it intersected the A.T. which would be descending towards Brown Gap at that point. Even in May the forest was pretty thick and there was a lot of sharp foliage (blackberries in particular). So when we encountered a really old road bed we decided to follow that instead. This road bed was long unusued and had substantial trees growing in it as well as fallen across it. It was quite clear that bears and deer used it though. Melanie’s theory was that it would connect directly into Brown Gap as we had noticed an old road leaving from a campsite there on our way out. In the end, she was right although it’s a bit of a circuitous route it takes to get there. We did it all with the A.T. map, a compass and an altimeter but I think if we did it again, a better topo map might help.   On the other hand, it would be hard to get seriously lost in this area since everything on this side of the Appalachian Trail drains down to Harmon Den Road.

Little River Canyon

Little River Falls

Little River Canyon has two components.  The falls here are sort of in the middle.  The northern section has no road access so we didn’t explore it on this trip.   The southern section has a road running along the west side of the canyon.  Also – we don’t have kids, but if we did, I’m pretty sure we wouldn’t let them stand on the edge of these falls – although they’d be allowed to kayak it if they had a good roll 🙂

Grace’s High Falls

Elsewhere in the canyon are numerous cascades and small waterfalls.   Grace’s High Falls (shown here) are the highest in the canyon.  

Little River Canyon

Little River Canyon has only been part of the National Park system for 8 or 9 years.  Signage is not particularly good.  There are a few overlooks along the canyon and some very select spots where hiking trails descend to the canyon floor.   There’s also about two dozen unmarked pull-outs used by kayakers and climbers.    The only place to get an actual map of the park is at the Canyon Mouth Park which is at the south end.   The road up the rim from Canyon Mouth park is covered in warning signs, but other than being steep and full of switchbacks (as you’d expect), it’s not that bad.

Trout in Little River

From the canyon mouth you can hike up the river.  There’s an assortment of good swimming holes and it was pretty crowded on a Sunday.  About a mile or so upstream we stopped passing other people and eventually spent some time in the river.   Trout in particular was happy to get in the water.

Huntsville, Alabama

Huntsville isn’t really a daytrip from Asheville but it’s an easy weekend trip.   Our primary reason for going was the Whistle Stop Barbeque Competition where we happened to be judging the KCBS event.

Huntsville Depot

This picture is the historic Huntsville Depot where the judging was based.  As BBQ festivals go, this one had a very nice atmosphere with a well-attended amateur division and a busy entertainment schedule.


After the BBQ festival we went up to Monte Sano State Park which overlooks Huntsville and has some nice hiking trails.    It’s a semi-urban setting for a state park, but if you’ve just eaten a pound or so of smoked meat it’s a good place to burn some of it off.

Grassy Ridge in the Roan Highlands

Grassy Ridge is the oft-overlooked third peak over 6000 feet in the Roan Highlands area.  

snow tree

Climbing up from Carver’s Gap one first has to summit Round Bald and Jane Bald. The day before this hike it had been 65 degrees in Asheville, but it was spitting snow by the time we finished the hike. The snow on the west side of the conifers atop the balds was proof that it had been snowing recently as well.  That is Grassy Ridge in the background of the first picture.

Jane Bald

The views along this entire hike are spectacular. The Black Mountains including Mt. Mitchell are clearly visible on the NC side. The city of Roan Mountain, TN and surrounding area including Strawberry Mountain are visible to the west. From Grassy Ridge the ski areas around Boone and Grandfather Mountain are visible (including the horrendous bit of construction atop Sugar Mountain).   Here are Melanie and Trout resting atop Jane Bald.    We had intended to have a bit of a picnic atop Grassy Ridge originally, but once we got there the wind was so intense that we had to hide in the lee of rocks near the summit just to have a conversation.  Three layers of clothing were apparently not enough.

Grassy Ridge Trail

One thing about hiking in the highlands north of Roan is that it isn’t hard to follow the trail. Here it can be seen stretching a mile or more towards Jane Bald (foreground), Round Bald (middle ground), and Roan High Knob (background, and an entirely different hike). We’d recommend this hike on a slightly warmer day.

Congaree National Park

A blog entry for a national park?   Yes, I’m afraid so, although we intend to go back and spend some time on the rivers and make a full web page of it one of these days.   Congaree is a relatively new National Park (previously just a National Swamp before the glorious promotion in 2003).   There is a decent network of hiking trails through one section of the park, although much of it is only accesible by canoe during high water times.  We did a 5 mile loop or so just to visit the park and collect information for a future trip.  Hiking trails here are about as easy as they can get.  There’s no elevation change, an excellent network of bridges over creeks and generally packed solid dirt on the trails.   A few cypress roots are the only difficulty. 
We didn’t see any wildlife (such as otters, mink, raccoons) but then we had a large clumsy dog and the boardwalk sections of the park were actually rather crowded.

BRP in Skyland

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.


Walnut Cove to Chestnut Cove

Shut In Trail Sign

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.

Grassy Knob

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.

BRP French Broad River

The Mountains to Sea Trail crosses the French Broad River on the Blue Ridge Parkway bridge.
French Broad Sign

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.
French Broad River

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). 

Dry Creek / Phillips Hollow

This hike follows the less popular trail from the Margarette Falls trail head near Bethany, Tennessee in Cherokee NF. 

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.

Phillips Hollow

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.

trail crossing

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.

Dry Creek

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 / Pump Gap

Mill Ridge

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.

Mill Ridge Dam

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.

Mill Ridge Cemetery

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.


Craggy Pinnacle

Craggy Trail

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.

Craggy Dome

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:

Craggy Dome Summit

Harmon Den Mountain

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 from 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.

In late April, this highlight of this hike were the wildflowers, particularly trillium which were prolific on the wetter, cooler slopes of the mountains.
Pink Trillium

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. 
Red Trillium

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.

Harmon Den AT

Margarette Falls / Dry Creek

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.  Cathedral Rock

Just upstream from Cathedral Rock is Margarette Falls which is about a 50 foot drop, most of it in a single cascade.
Margarette Falls

There’s a very nice deep hole at the base of the falls.  On our hike this water was far too cold for swimming, unless maybe you’re a dog.Margarette Pool

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

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. 
Bailey Falls

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.

Yellow Creek Gap to Fontana Dam

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.
Dam Through Trees

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.
Dam Sign

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). 

Fontana Dam

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.

Roan Mountain

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.

Roan High Bluff

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.

Roan Benchmark

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.

Roan High Knob