This is not what I was expecting to see as I made the curve into the Crabtree Falls area near milepost 339 of the BRP. In all of my 42 years in NC and the last 5 years hiking, never have I stumbled on something like this! I was always told they were up there. There is definitely something exciting and scary at the same time seeing one of these close-up in the wild. Rattlesnakes are right up there with bears, and mountain lions as the top creatures you do not want to run into or stumble upon. This poor guy was injured already, he had a spot by his tail. He was still very dangerous and did not like several of us taking his picture. If anything, this is a reminder that rattlesnakes do exist in the NC mountains and we should be aware of them. I am so glad I saw him first!!!
Beautiful Side View of French Broad Falls and Shoal Creek Falls coming together
It is Tuesday 7/10, a rare week day off for me and I am itching badly to get out and hike to some waterfalls. It is the first day in nearly 2 weeks that the temperatures are not forecast to be near 100, but this comes with a price….50% chance of storms. Me, being a gambling man says go for it, I am not afraid of a little shower. I have a perfect hike planned in the Wilson Creek Wilderness that includes 3 waterfalls that I have never laid eyes on. I am excited. Then, after driving 80 miles to Morganton NC, the bottom drops out, not a small shower but intense thunderstorm with blinding rains. This is a problem, so I stop, have breakfast and review the trusty iPhone weather maps and forecast. A very large, expansive line of storms was over my destination that did not break until middle Tennessee. This means this area was in for a lot of rain for a considerable amount of time. Me, not ready to accept defeat, did notice that the area of NC southwest of Asheville was all dry. Heck, I was this far, I will just change destination and have a great hike somewhere else.
Brevard is the town where my new destination was. This is a town surrounded by crazy waterfalls and mountainous attractions. What became a 50 mile loop on this day started at the intersection in Brevard of HWYs US 64, US 276, and NC 280. Once here, guess what followed me? New developing thunderstorms. What was once dry was now dark, loud, and very wet. At this point I decided that I drove this far, so I am going to see at least 1 waterfall. Luckily, taking US 276 north for about 7 miles brings you to one of the finest waterfalls in NC, a roadside beauty called Looking Glass Falls. The storm broke briefly and I was able to walk down to the base only to find nearly 100 kids waiting to swim. The water was very high, the thunder was very loud, and there were a lot of stupid kids swimming in this dangerously swollen creek in these conditions. For me though, it made for a good picture :).
Notice the idiot under the falls….this water was high and getting higher!!
After this, I was not sure what was next, but there were so many cars trying to park, I could not turn around, so I kept going up US 276, up a steep mountain. There are many things to do on this stretch of highway. I only stopped for Looking Glass Falls, but there are numerous hiking trails to other waterfalls including Moore Cove Falls (nice waterfall, fairly short hike), Twin Falls, Cove Creek Falls, Jackson Falls, and Catheys Creek Falls. I have only hiked to Moore Cove Falls, but not on this day. There is also the favorite of many…Sliding Rock, here as well, where folks slide on their tushis down a 60 foot rock, not on this day though. The trails to Looking Glass Rock, Pink Beds Trail and the Cradle of Forestry are all here on this stretch of US 276 between Brevard and the BRP. It is quite a 20 mile stretch, that includes a very curvy mountain drive and lots of views of the beautiful Davidson River.
Now to the parkway, by now I was slowly outrunning the developing storms but every time I stopped, I could see them coming towards me with a BRP layer of fog moving in ahead of it. Anyone familiar with the famous BRP fog knows what this is and how thick it can be. It did however make for some of the best shots of Looking Glass Rock I have to date.
Looking Glass Rock Just Before The Fog
As the storm was catching up with me, it was time to move on. I was heading South along the Blue Ridge Parkway at this point. I wouldn’t be on it very long, but the stretch I did drive is filled with attractions and things to do. At the intersection with US 276, is an overlook of Cold Mountain, which makes beautiful sunsets. Numerous overlooks of Looking Glass Rock are available here. It is quite an attraction. It is a very popular Rock Climbing destination. It gets its name from the way it look when it gets wet and reflects sunshine. It rises from the valley floor to an elevation of 3969 feet. The trail to hike it has an elevation gain of over 1700 feet which should give an idea of the size of this pluton monolith. From the Looking Glass Rock overlook, there is a trail to Skinny Dip Falls, maybe next time… Shortly down the parkway next, is the hugely famous Graveyard Fields. I have already done a few blogs on this place, it is one of my favorites, with Second Falls, Upper Falls, and Yellowstone Falls. Even with storms all around, the parking lot was jammed packed. People love this place! Next comes the Devils Courthouse, another Giant Rock on a mountain top. It has a 20 minute trail to the top for an outstanding view, but the fog and storm were right on my tail, so not today!
Had time for a few shots of the Devils Courthouse, then I was in the Fog and Thunder again!
I soon came upon an intersection with NC 215. I had never previously traveled this road so I looked on the trusty GPS to see where it went. I noticed it reconnected with 64 just west of Brevard. I was getting pretty tired of trying to stay out of the storms, so I decided it was time to take it and turn back toward home. I wasn’t expecting any more attractions, how naive of me. This trip goes down the mountain as US 276 takes you up it (depending on which way you go). Once I got home, I learned that I passed the road to get to Courthouse Falls, a waterfall I have been wanting to see, now a return trip will happen. I did see a waterfall from the highway out of the corner of my eye and stopped to turn around. It was this large religious retreat center called “Living Waters” I pulled in and asked someone if I could walk down to the waterfall and they were very kind and said of course. I had no idea of the beautiful scenery that was about to present itself to me. I had found myself on the North Fork of the French Broad River, at a confluence with Shoal Creek. Both of these bodies of water fall over the same 20 foot rock shelf to form a truly beautiful setting that you have to see it to truly appreciate it.
French Broad Falls to the Left, Shoal Creek Falls to the Right
Here, a young family stands out in the middle island in river appreciating French Broad Falls
Shoal Creek Falls
Getting a view of both falls here is challenging. Here I was standing in the middle of the river in water about 1 foot deep.
This setting was gorgeous, however there is more. The folks at Living Waters had a trail with some steps and bridges that goes down stream to more cascades and falls. There were 3 cascades that would have names on some creeks but I could find none for these so I will leave them out. At the bottom of the trail is Cathedral Falls. It is a nice 20-25 foot waterfall, but what makes this special is the 150 foot cliff that this waterfall falls into, creating a big pool that rests against the cliff itself. I found some folds fishing down here and even found a good size catfish swimming in a pool in a hole in the rock. It was a difficult waterfall to get a photograph that showed all of the elements here, so I will have to go back and try again…shucks!
Watch out, these rocks are slippery!
Cathedral Falls….close up!
Cathedral Falls, looking down from the top at the pool below at the cliff with a few people fishing in it!
After this, it was time to head on home. When I got to US 64, there I was right at Toxaway Falls, which means Gorges State Park, Panthertown Valley, and Whitewater Falls were not far away. This is a place one could easily spend a week, it made a great afternoon drive avoiding storms!!
After visiting Laurel Ridge this morning, I decided to spend the afternoon exploring the northern section of the Blue Ridge Parkway in North Carolina. My main goal was to see Cascade Falls, but I knew that would only take a short while. I went as far north as the Cumberland Knob, which is just south of the Virginia state line then turned back south and exited at US 421. As expected, the highlight of the drive had to be the Cascade Falls as it was by far the prettiest scene on this trip. The NC section of the Blue Ridge Parkway seems to be divided close to the 421 intersection. South of 421 seems to be the attractions that are 4000 feet and higher in elevation, while north seems to be the 4000 feet and lower, which seems to lead to less dramatic waterfalls and views in my opinion. With this said, it is still very beautiful up here, I would rather be exploring up here than working any day of the week.
Cumberland Knob is the northern most attraction in NC. It has the distinction of being the very first recreation area built on the BRP back in 1937. That being said, it is really nothing more than a very nice picnic area that will support many picnics and parties. There are some open fields for the kids to run and play in. After taking this in, I decided to take the short hike to the Cumberland Knob. It is a very short hike with only a short distance going up hill. Once there, all there is waiting for you a very old shelter with fireplace and a small open field. There were no views of any kind of here. I must admit that I was somewhat disappointed. There was the option of hiking back or continue on down into the Gully Creek Gorge, an additional 2 mile hike. Since I knew nothing about the Gully Creek Gorge, I decided to head back and work my way towards Cascade Falls. There is an overlook just down the road from Cumberland Knob that the name of something to do with Fox Hunting. It had an excellent view and even a good view of distant Pilot Mountain. It was far too hazy to get a picture of that on this day. There is also a short 250 foot trail leading to another view point that is even better, probably the best in this area.
Here above, is what awaits you on the Cumberland Knob
After Cumberland, the parkway winds and goes as it does for about 12 miles or so with not much to see, then it skirts the outside of Stone Mountain State Park. The only access to Stone Mountain State Park is down US 21 from the parkway and there are no signs saying that you are here or how to get inside. I think that this could be done better as Stone Mountain is an excellent state park and one of my favorite places to visit. It has some great hiking up the 600 foot dome, and a number of waterfalls including the 200 foot Stone Mountain Falls. Since the BRP runs along the edge of the park for a good number of miles, and provides several overlooks that show the rock dome below, I would think there would be some signs of how to get inside the park, maybe just an oversight….
Immediately as you exit Stone Mountain State Park, you will enter Doughton Park. This is an excellent area to spend a lot of time. There is the Brinegar Cabin, Bluff Mountain, a large trail system that includes a 20 mile loop that one could spend several days hiking. Down the mountains along the trails are other cabins, smaller waterfalls, and great chances to see wildlife. The Mountains to Sea Trail runs right through this area but stays mainly on the mountain tops. There is a Bluff Mountain Lodge, Bluff Mountain Coffee Shop and Restaurant and Gift Store available. They have all been closed now for 2 years but word is they re-open in 2013. I hope this is true as the best fried chicken the world is served at this restaurant. The Parkway has to make its way through a dramatic part of Bluff Mountain where there is a steep rock cliff to the one side and a steep fall off with a beautiful mountain lake way at the bottom. In the winter, the springs will freeze all over the rocks for an impressive view, sometimes even a small waterfall appears. All is dry in the hot summer months though.
After Doughton, The Northwest Trading Post will be available soon, which is a very unusual and nice Parkway store that has a lot of good to offer. Local products, art and tons of parkway memorabilia are offered here.
The last stop on my trip was EB Jeffress Park. It is about 5 miles from the US 421 intersection at mile marker 272. It is here that the 1/2 mile trail to Cascade Falls begins. The MST runs through here as well. After a short walk with self guided information signs about the plants, the trail begins to drop. It will cross the creek and continue to run along it. There will be an overlook soon, looking straight down it from the very top, a very cool view. The better view though is just down the path, down some steep rock steps that puts you looking up at the falls and down at the falls. This is where you really appreciate the beauty of Cascade Falls as you have great views up the falls and down the falls as it just seems to fall endlessly. The water level was very good on this day as some storms had gone through the night before. I could see this almost drying up in periods of drought though. I was very surprised by this waterfall and enjoyed it tremendously. It is definitely one of the top attractions on the northern NC sector of the BRP.
One of the most popular and one of my favorite Blue Ridge Parkway hiking destinations has to be at milepost 418, Graveyard Fields. Graveyard Fields gets its name from a long time ago when the trees and stumps resembled gravestones in a graveyard. This was all swept away in 1925 by a huge fire.
Have you had the chance to see Crabtree Falls yet? If not, you should certainly plan a trip sometime to see this beauty in person. It is a 70 foot nearly vertical cascade on Crabtree Creek. No waterfall in NC does more with less water as the creek this is on is fairly small. This is yet another gorgeous waterfall offered by the Blue Ridge Parkway, this time at milepost 339.5. If your were to look on a map, and search for the town of Little Switzerland, you would be just about there.
Crabtree Falls is one of the larger attractions on the Blue Ridge Parkway. It gets left out sometimes to its big brother just a few miles to the north Linville Falls. Make no mistake about it though, this is one fine waterfall, I personally prefer it over Linville. This attraction offers a very large campground with ampitheater, a fairly large gift/coffee shop as well. Too bad they are all closed this time of year, a steaming cup of Crabtree java would have hit the spot yesterday!
The trailhead for this is in the back of the campground, there is a parking lot and plenty of signs to get you to the right place. In February, you must park in the front and walk an extra 1/4 mile each way, but all in all it was only a total of 3 miles, and definitely worth it. Getting there is easy, basically 1 mile to the bottom of the falls , all down hill. There are some well placed steps in a few of the steeper areas. Once you get close the roar of the falls is evident, and when you first see it….wow!! Once there, there is a bridge that crosses the creek with a seat built into the middle to view the falls. Good luck getting to sit there in warmer weather. Both banks of the creek are accessible to get close to the falls for great pictures. I prefer the shots from the left side personally. In the summer, your shots might be filled with hikers cooling off in the cool spray put off. Enjoy your time down here, it is a special place.
Then….the fun really begins. The return trip, is where your body will get the workout it needs. The next 1/4 to 1/2 mile is straight up. While down at the falls, look up on the right side at the cliff way above, this is where you will be after many switch backs and steps. I find it best to just look down and climb up, next thing you know, you are there. Once there, an interesting shot of the waterfall from above is present, though it does not compare with the shots from the base. From here, the trail flattens out and follows Crabtree Creek for the next mile or so. There will be a few smaller waterfalls and cascades and a scenic view of the creek from a bridge. It then turns left and eventually joins up with the original trail just below the trailhead. The loop is complete and tired most people are tired and thirsty at this point.
As mentioned earlier, Linville Falls is just to the north, while Mount Mitchell and Craggy Gardens lie just to the south, all with numerous hiking opportunities and must-see attractions.
This is all about a nice short Sunday drive along one of my favorite stretches of the Blue Ridge Parkway. It begins in Asheville, NC where I spent Saturday, and drives up and along the crest of the some of the highest peaks in the east, the Black Mountains. Being Super Bowl Sunday, I normally would have to bypass the short parkway road trip and make it back quickly as not to miss the big game. However I had no real interest in either team this year and the weather conditions were setting up for a memorable drive along the parkway.
This weekend brought an unusual but not rare weather condition set up in western NC. It is known locally as “The Wedge”. It is marked by low clouds, fog, drizzle, and cool air at the lower elevations. Northeasterly winds come off the Atlantic and push all of this mess over us and against the mountains, where it usually can move no further. When this occurs, temps like they were on Sunday were near 40 at the 700 ft level. To escape this, you have to drive up, the further up you go the better it seems. At the 4000 ft level, the sun is breaking out, temps are as high as the low 60’s, and views are tremendous, as all you can see way below is the tops of the clouds that are hovering the over the valleys & lower elevations and the mountains that rise above from them. On a day when most people wouldn’t think to drive up to the mountains to see the parkway, is when some of the most beautiful sights can be found.
The sights are hit or miss though. There were several areas where the fog was very thick. Most of this was in the Craggy Gardens and Mount Mitchell areas where the elevations were at the 6000 feet and above mark. We were very excited to drive up to 6684 feet on the top of Mount Mitchell only to find the fog so thick we could hardly even see each other. Craggy Gardens is a great place to go for beautiful scenery, but today it was all fog and surprisingly strong winds.
Luckily, once past Mount Mitchell and back at the 5000 ft mark, blue skies began mixing again with the fog and some panoramic scenes of the Linville Gorge opened up to the north. This is marked by Table Rock, a trapezoid shaped rock topping the highest peak in the Linville Gorge, and Hawksbill Mountain sits just to its left in the photos. These peaks along with a blanket of low clouds below us made the views breathtaking. Views like this are what keep junkies like me coming back. I didn’t have time to get any hiking done or get a chance to see any real waterfalls, but sometimes a short drive on the parkway can be just enough to enhance your day and tide you over until your next hike. I still made it home in time to see the Giants topple the mighty Tom Brady and his Patriots for the second time in four years.
“Plunge Basin View” of Linville Falls
Blue Ridge Parkway, Mile Post 316.4, is the turn in to the famous Linville Falls. Linville Falls may not be the single most spectacular waterfall in North Carolina, but it is definitely one of the most popular. This is one of the BRP’s top attractions. It was one of the featured waterfalls in the movie “Last of The Mohicans”. The parking lot here is huge, not only for cars, but large buses and campers as well. Between spring and fall, this area receives tons and tons of visitors. It is this reason that usually keeps me away in the prime season. There are just too many people for me to truly enjoy it.
However, in 2012, the winter that wasn’t, the frequently closed off attraction is wide open, the gates are in place but open. The trails are wide open and in good shape, and people, while there are some others thinking just as I am, are so much fewer and far between. This….is the prime time to enjoy this waterfall. I was so surprised while stopping by this place after Elk Knob, that I decided to come back with my girlfriend and her family. There is one thing to keep in mind before coming this time of year. There is a very nice visitor center with a store and informative people to help you on your hike. There are also restrooms. Right now, the restrooms are boarded up and the store is closed until spring. The only resources that will be available to you when you arrive , are an informative map and an occasional drive-thru park ranger. Now to the falls we go…
Once at the visitor center there are 2 options, both leading to spectacular different views of this magnificent waterfall. The more traveled one is to the right or west side of the Linville River. This trail starts off wide and fairly level and will cross the river on a well built bridge. There are three attractions or view points here with the furthest one away being about 0.9 miles away, so plan on about a 2.5 to a 3 mile round trip hike to see all three of these views ( this includes the short side trails and steps at each view).
The first view is fairly easy to get to , the trail is level to this point. What you will see first is the “Upper Falls”. While this is considered part of Linville Falls, it is totally seperate and has a very large pool of its own. This will be on the left when you reach the end. On the right, is something I find to be very enchanting. After the pool, the river winds through this sharp S curve below you and narrows very tightly. The water is rushing at this point. At the very end on the right the water disappears into the rocks and spits out the other side in what we know as “Linville Falls” If you want to see that, you will have to back track and continue up the trail.
Once back on the trail, it will begin to climb, at somewhat of a moderate steepness. It is only about .3 of a mile or so to the next stop, then you will have to go down a few steps….which must be climbed back up of course. There are two views here in the middle. What you see is probably the best and most close-up shot of the entire waterfall, including the upper falls and the main falls. Trees make getting the perfect view and picture a challenge though. Once back on the main trail, it is only about .3 mile or so to “Erwins View” at which point you will be at your highest elevation. It gives a distant but more unobscured view of the entire falls, and also a good look at the famous “Linville Gorge” at this point looking up and down the river from this point.
Now, I will focus on my favorite hike here, on the left side or east side of the river. A trail leads to the left of the visitor center to what is known as the “Plunge Basin View”, and the river bottom. This trail is only about .5 mile from the visitor center but it starts going up and ends going down, somewhat difficult but not too bad. This well designed view is from the side of the waterfall and is my favorite view by far. It is the closest to the waterfall, and there are no trees to deal with, just yourself the large rock cliffs that go way above the waterfall itself, the waterfall, and large pool below. In addition to the most detailed view of the waterfall, you can also get a view up into the rocks, and see the once wide river, rushing through a very tight and narrow chute, falling powerfully and slowly chipping away at this beautiful cliff and rock formation. After enjoying this, head back up the trail and there is a side trail that goes to the river bottom. I caution you, this is steep with some steep steps, roots and rocks to manage in places, but it is well designed and managed, so I consider it safe, just tiring. Once down here, you can rock hop fairly close to the left side of the waterfall but still at a distance. The sound down here really shows off the power of this treat provided by mother nature. It is a very large pool as well, too bad there is no swimming allowed in the parkway waters.
If you have enough time and energy to explore both sides of the river, you will walk away with something close to a 5 to 6 mile hike , seeing this waterfall from numerous viewpoints. It is truly worth the time and energy, and if you are fortunate enough to come when the crowds are low, you are in for a real treat.
Today I begin a new section of my blog, giving some recognition to probably the most important highway in the Appalachian Mountains, the Blue Ridge Parkway or BRP for short. As I hike different sections of this monumental highway, I will simply begin the titles as BRP followed by the number representing the mile marker of the location of interest. The Blue Ridge Parkway winds 469 miles from Waynesboro, VA, to Cherokee, NC. At 45 mph, and even 35 in spots, it is not made to be a travel route for speed, but one to just get out and enjoy the views. It winds mainly along the ridge lines with a few peaks and valleys here and there. The mountains it spans always seem to be gentler on the vehicles than the roads and highways that intersect it. This is a national park, and aside from some specialty shops, cozy restaurants/coffee shots, and dated mountain lodges managed by park service, you will not find commercial signs or gas stations. It is best to have a map or gps, know where the next highway crossing will be and not let your fuel go too far below 1/4 tank. The Parkway is a haven of outlooks that are designed to pull off the road and get out to view. Some require a small hike up or down and most are well worth the time, but many are simply roadside spectacular views to get out and see and stretch the legs. Expect to come across deer, wild turkeys, beavers, foxes, raccoons, and possibly even a rare black bear siting. Living just an hour away from it, I have found over the years to enjoy bits and pieces of it, but have never made the entire trip. There is just too much to see and do. While this is a great adventure in the car, I find the true treasures that are along it, must me reached by hiking!
First off, I should not be allowed to travel freely on the BRP in late January. Being a National Park and not a highway, it does not get plowed in winter and should be snow/ ice covered and closed in many sections. Some places up here receive up to 100 inches of snow in a typical winter. This is not the case this year in 2012, the winter that wasn’t. It is a toasty 60 degrees up here in the delightful mountain resort town of Blowing Rock, NC. I am going to visit the Moses H Cone Memorial Park at BRP Post 294. This is marked by a sign as you leave Blowing Rock and enter the mini-park area. It is a vast 3600 acres covering both sides of the Parkway. Today, I stayed on the side with the Cone Manor.
Moses H Cone, a man that lived a relatively brief 51 years, was a giant in the textile industry, especially denim. His name is large in the triad town of Greensboro NC, having the Hospital and numerous medical facilities named after him, due to his large donations to his communty . I have also read that Mr Cone’s donations were also instrumental in founding Watauga Academy, or what is known today as Appalachian State University….Go Mountaineers!! Somewhere about age of 40, he and his entourage, made their way to the NC mountains and had this incredibly impressive, large, and beautiful mansion built on top of a mountain near Blowing Rock. It goes by Moses Cone Manor, or Flat Top Manor. It’s impressive beauty and size stand out way below looking up. Today it is a craft center and receives 250,000 visitors a year. Another interest Mr Cone had was building “Carriage Roads” or trails wide enough and level enough for the horse and carriage to comfortably pass. There is a network of 25 plus miles of these carriage roads that today make for some of the easiest hiking in our mountains.
After taking some photos and just conversing with a few other hikers, I started my journey along the “Figure 8” trail, which is just a little side trail next to the manor. It is short, with numerous info stations about the plant life that resides here. After this short trek, I began the journey down to “Bass Lake” which can be seen way below from the manor. The trail, or dirt road is nice enough and wide enough for a car, but it is strictly for hikers and horses. It conquers the elevation change by long, and level switchbacks. At about 2.2 miles, I reached the lake, and was amazed by the view from the lake of the mansion way…above it. It was a pretty day, and the blue sky made the scenery even nicer. There is a side trail that goes all around the lake, I did this of course and enjoyed every minute of it, I will note that it was some 10-15 degrees cooler down here surrounded by the cool icy waters. When I came to the point where the main creek enters the lake, I witnessed some very nice Beaver action, viewed a perfectly made Beaver Dam, it was very cool. It was now time to tackle the unavoidable, the hike back up… There were 2 ways back up, one that went through a 2.3 mile crazy route called “The Maze”, and a more direct route. With my hike approaching the 5 mile mark, I decided today to take the more direct option, but I will be back at a later date to tackle “The Maze”. There was one last stop on the way back at the large building known as the “Apple Barn”. While Moses Cone was here, he grew over 75 varieties of apples. Looking at all of the accomplishments this man had, he must have had an incredible “vision”. As I reached the top, I kept thinking, wow that was mild. His Carriage Roads were designed so well that there was never really a spot where it got steep, just a constant slightly uphill climb. It went almost unnoticed. At the end of the mild climb, the famous “Mountains To Sea” Trail joins in the finish the day.
This was a nice break from the trails I have been used to, the ones that are much more narrow, with roots, rocks and tight spaces to navigate. I can see why this place gets so many visitors, which is another reason I have to visit it on a week day in January to really enjoy it, it is just too crowded. Check out my slide show below for some of the photos of the day….