Stone Mountain State Park Winter Hike

Well, if the recent 60’s weren’t enough, today we hit the low 70’s, in February…Crazy! There was no way that I was not going to find a way to get out and enjoy this. My choice today was Stone Mountain State Park. Stone Mountain State Park is one of my favorite places to hike, especially during the week. The location is very close to the triad where I live. The park sits just at the edge of the Blue Ridge escarpment. The elevation at the summit is only 2305, and the temperatures here while a tad cooler than the triad, tend to be similar to that of lower elevations, which makes it a prime hiking spot in the winter. This park was one of the original places that I began hiking so it holds a special place with me. I can not think of another hike that offers more variety in it! Read more

Cascade Falls

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.

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Stone Mountain State Park Winter Hike

Well, if the recent 60’s weren’t enough, today we hit the low 70’s, in February…Crazy! There was no way that I was not going to find a way to get out and enjoy this. My choice today was Stone Mountain State Park. Stone Mountain State Park is one of my favorite places to hike, especially during the week. The location is very close to the triad where I live. The park sits just at the edge of the Blue Ridge escarpment. The elevation at the summit is only 2305, the temperatures here while a a tad cooler than the triad, tend to be similar to that of lower elevations, which makes it a prime hiking spot in the winter. This park was one of the original places that I began hiking so it holds a special place with me. I can not think of another hike that offers more variety in it!

This park has waterfalls, 4 named ones, Stone Mountain Falls, Widow Creek Falls, Middle Falls, and Lower Falls. I would say that only Stone Mountain Falls and Widow Creek Falls are the must see ones. Stone Mountain Falls lies on the loop trail, while Widows Creek Falls is located deeper into the park with its on trail. My trip here usually begins with the drive to the back side of the park to see Widows Creek Falls. It is only a short distance from the road, and a gorgeous 25 footer. It is on a small creek and dry weather, especially in summer can almost dry this up.

The walk here is short, but the best shots require a creek crossing, which can be tricky. The bedrock up here when wet, can be as slippery as ice. Be careful.

The next waterfall is seen while hiking the 4.3 mile Stone Mountain Loop Trail. This waterfall is a 200 foot waterfall, and has taken a number of lives. Fences are up, signs are up to stay off, but for some reason, people continue to fall over. The best place to view this waterfall, is at the bottom, of a 298 step stairway. Yes, 298, a lot of steps, especially if going up.

The other two waterfalls are further downstream from Stone Mountain Falls, and really are hardly worth mentioning. They are good to see once and can be done so by taking a one way spur trail that leads off the Stone Mountain Loop Trail about halfway between the Homestead and Stone Mountain Falls.

One of the treats I get to see most of the time when I come here is deer. For some reason, I see more here than any other place. It is rare that I do not see them. On this day, I was able to count 17 deer in 6 different locations. Usually, they are seen eating the grass along the roadways through the park, but I have been startled a few times on the trail. They tend to not fear humans much which could be a bad thing is they ever got tired of this area and left the protection that the state park offers them.

Now on to the hike, the 4.3 mile loop trail really offers a little bit of everything. There is a summit climb to 2305 ft which can be climbed by a longer, more moderate climb, or a short but steep one. When I began hiking, I used the moderate longer route, I almost always opt for the short and steep one now though. There are two separate access points with large parking lots, restrooms and drinking water sources. There is a long walk through a thick rhododendron forest that comes out at the Hutchinson Homestead. The Homestead is a restored farmsite from the 1800’s that includes the house and a number of barns, blacksmith shop, tobacco barn, meat cooler, laundry site, and spring box. The buildings are open to tour on weekends. All of this sits in the valley with the huge Stone Mountain Dome just in the background. It is quite picturesque, especially when leaves have bright color and they sky is deep blue with a few white puffy clouds. On this day however, all the trees are bare and the sky was more of a haze. No complaints though, it is February and 72 degrees.

After the Homestead, the trail returns to the forest. For the next mile or so, the trail will wander through more rhododendron, cross a small creek a number of times and eventually meet up with Big Sandy Creek. You will know when you reach this stream as it is loud, lots of small cascades and rapids as it rushes its way down the mountain. This reaches a climax at Stone Mountain Falls, a 200 foot waterfall. From there, 298 wooden steps must be climbed. You might be inclined to curse them, but just imagine the climb to the top if they were not there. After a little more uphill past Stone Mountain Falls, an old standing stone chimney sits. This is also the meeting place for the Loop Trail and the upper spur.

It should also be noted, that, just in case 5 miles is not long enough, this hike can be extended to around 8 miles by taking a side trail called Wolf Rock Trail. It will climb a mountain adjacent to Stone Mountain, offer some sensational views, from Wolf Rock and Cedar Rock. It will connect with the Black Jack Ridge Trail and eventually circle back around to the Loop Trail at the Homestead.

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