This 9.5 mile hike to Bear Church Rock from Bootens Gap (on Skyline Drive) is a great alternative to the route that begins down in the valley at Graves Mill. While this route doesn’t include the scenic Staunton River or the Jones Mountain Cabin, it crosses some of the deepest, least traveled parts of Shenandoah National Park. And in the end, you reach the same great viewpoint. While this route is a little longer than the alternative, it has less climbing and feels a little more moderate.
Bear Church Rock really impressed us when we hiked it a few years ago, approaching it from Graves Mill. However, we were thinking it would be nice to take a different route that would be more accessible from Skyline Drive. This approach is a mile longer, but it has 400 fewer feet of elevation gain, making this an overall easier climb.
We started off from the Bootens Gap parking lot at Mile Marker 55 on Skyline Drive in the Central District of Shenandoah National Park. We took the Appalachian Trail from the parking lot, heading north. In .4 miles, we reached the junction with the Laurel Prong Trail. We took a right to join this trail. The Laurel Prong Trail ends up going through a relatively steep decline through a loose, rocky section. The trail eventually bottoms out and you reach a junction with the Cat Knob Trail at 1.1 miles. We took the Cat Knob Trail and began a steep incline. The trail hits another junction with the Jones Mountain Trail at 1.8 miles. Take a right on the Jones Mountain Trail. At this point, the trail is relatively flat or downhill for most of the way to Bear Church Rock. At 4.6 miles, we reached a side trail that takes you up a few feet to reach Bear Church Rock. Return the way you came to make this a 9.5 out-and-back.
One thing to note on the trail is you do come across several times where the National Park crosses back and forth across boundary lines with the Rapidan Wildlife Management Area. You may see some US Boundary markers in several places that marks the portion that is under National Park control versus Virginia control.
When we reached the highest point of the Cat Knob Trail, we found the largest concentration of pink lady slippers I have ever seen. Everywhere we turned, we kept seeing more and more and they were at the peak of their bloom. That was such a nice reward by coming this route.
Somewhere along the Jones Mountain Trail as we were making our approach to Bear Church Rock, my knee buckled and gave me a lot of pain for the rest of the day. One hard part about hiking is if you get injured, you don’t have a lot of choice but to keep going. I stopped about .25 mile before we reached the summit and rested. I wasn’t sure if I would be able to make it all the way. Christine went ahead to scout the way and see how much further. Not wanting to be separated too long, I pushed myself onward and found her at the rock overlook. We stayed there to rest for a while and we had the rock all to ourselves. We were joined in about 20 minutes from a man from China who had come up the route from Graves Mill. He didn’t speak English and we heard him on his walkie-talkie talking to someone that we presumed to be his wife. We were guessing she was farther behind and he was assuring her he made it. The climb the other way is quite steep, so I wouldn’t be surprised if she had either turned around or was just taking longer to get to the rock.
The views were spectacular. While we had a bit of a cloudy day, it was nice to see the shadows from the clouds creeping along the mountain ridges in the distance.
We decided to make our way back. I felt like getting to the viewpoint and soaking them in allowed me to heal my knee enough to make the return. I was hobbling along slowly, but I had to keep pushing forward. We got back to the car and I was glad to not have to take any more steps.
It was National Trails Day, the weather was great – and even though neither of us was in the mood to go on a long car ride to a distant trailhead, we had to get out and hike! We settled on the hike from Skyline Drive to Bear Church Rock – mostly because it was close to home, but also because we’d never hiked it before. A few years ago, we hiked from the valley bottom in Graves Mill up to Bear Church Rock. That was a challenging and beautiful hike, so we thought it would be fun to visit the rock from the other approach.
From the parking lot at Bootens Gap, we headed north on the Appalachian Trail, gradually ascending Hazeltop Mountain. I was amazed by how lush and green everything in the park looked. It almost looked as green as the Smokies! Our last hike in the park had been in late April, before the leaves fully emerged. Spring always take a long time to fully arrive in the mountains.
After a short, easy stretch on the AT, we reached the junction with the Laurel Prong Trail. We turned right onto the trail and followed it gently downhill, past several springs. In a saddle between two mountains, we reached the junction with the Cat Knob Trail.
That trail climbed steeply over the knob before reaching the junction with the Jones Mountain Trail. The Jones Mountain trail bears to the right. This section of trail actually departs Shenandoah National Park and enters the Rapidan Wildlife Management Area. You’ll notice park boundary signs and different orange/red blazes (as opposed to Shenandoah’s blue blazes) when you’re on this part of the hike.
This section of trail is incredibly beautiful! We enjoyed the expansive understory of ferns and countless pink lady’s slippers. The mountain laurel was just starting to bloom. The terrain along the Jones Mountain trail was rolling – lots of ups and downs, none of them too steep. This route to Bear Church is probably less popular than the route from Graves Mill, so the trail was narrow and overgrown. Tall grasses brushed our legs all along the way. Adam said, “All I can think of is ticks. I feel like I’m crawling with them!’ Luckily, the permethrin we’ve been using on our clothes and gear really seems to be working. Neither of us found any ticks during a thorough post-hike check.
Around 3.8 miles into the hike, the trail took an incredibly steep downward turn. We lost about 300 feet of elevation in about a quarter mile. We passed a few rocky outcroppings that looked like they might potentially have views, but they all turned out to be obscured by trees. At 4.25 miles, we started watching carefully for the spur trail to Bear Church Rock. It’s not a marked spur, so conceivably, one could miss it. Our guidebook said that outlook was at this point, but all we could see is a trail continuing steeply downhill.
Adam began to wonder if we passed the view or if maybe it had been closed in by trees. I told him that it was a really open, spectacular view and that it had to be nearby. I told him I’d scout ahead and shout back if I found it. I ended up walking almost another half mile before I reached the spur trail! The distances in our guidebook were way off on describing the last mile of the hike to the viewpoint. Other sources I checked afterwards all put the distance between 9.5 and 9.8 (rather than the 8.5 miles indicated by our book).
There was a large hiking group on the rock, so I felt weird about shouting for Adam. They told me they were headed out the way we came and would send Adam down when they passed him. But, just as the final hiker departed, Adam arrived.
We had lunch on the rock and enjoyed the unspoiled, pristine views of the park. One of the nice things about Bear Church is that you really don’t see civilization from the viewpoint. You get great views of Fork Mountain, Cat Knob and the Staunton River Valley – but no roads or houses or farms. It’s beautiful! The mountain laurel around the rocky viewpoint were in full bloom and quite spectacular!
After a nice rest, we hiked back the way we came. Most of the return trip was uphill, but other than a short section of climbing right after leaving Bear Church it was very moderate, gradual climbing. The last little bit along the AT was smooth downhill. We saw a doe and fawn hiding in the ferns right before we got back to the car. Once we were back in the car, we decided to head up to Big Meadows for blackberry milkshakes (yay!) and to say hello to our PATC friends. We were glad to catch up with the pair of PATC volunteers who led our Backpacking 101 course several years ago. Good day!
- Distance – 9.5 miles
- Elevation Change – About 1800 feet
- Difficulty – 3. The climb down and back up are not overly tough, but the distance gives it an average difficulty.
- Trail Conditions – 2.5. The rocky slope climbing down the Laurel Prong trail did have some loose rock. The Jones Mountain Trail was quite overgrown along the way and we were walking through a lot of knee-high grassy areas. Wear bug spray and check for ticks afterwards.
- Views– 4. Great mountain views from Bear Church Rock.
- Streams/Waterfalls – 0. Non-existent.
- Wildlife – 2. We didn’t really see much wildlife on this trail. We thought much of it would be a great place to spot a bear since it is in a very wide part of Shenandoah National Park and not as well-traveled.
- Ease to Navigate – 3. You do take four different trails to get to Bear Church Rock, so pay attention at the junction markers.
- Solitude – 3. Most of the people we saw on the trail were on the Laurel Prong portion (typically making their way to the Rapidan Camp). I would expect that you would see someone at Bear Church Rock.
Directions to trailhead: Follow Skyline Drive to mile marker 55. Park at the Bootens Gap parking area on the east side of the drive. The AT departs from the end of the parking lot.
This 4 mile out-and-back follows beautiful Porter Creek to a small waterfall at Fern Branch. The waterfall itself was barely a trickle when we visited, but the lush Smoky Mountain forest was especially beautiful here. This hike also takes you by a historic barn and an old hiking club cabin.
With our week in the Smokies winding down, we wanted to hike something special and something we had never hiked before. I found myself referring to the ‘Hiking In the Smokys‘ website again. They have a list of their personal top 10 favorite hikes. We didn’t want anything over 10 miles, so that ruled out Gregory Bald, Rocky Top and Mt. Cammerer. We had already hiked six of the others (LeConte, Charlies Bunion, Andrews Bald, Chimney Tops, The Jump Off, and Alum Cave). So that left just one from the favorites list – Porters Creek. It sounded like a lovely trail – old growth forest, streams, a waterfall and lots of history.
Before setting out on our hike, we got donuts from The Donut Friar. This made me exceedingly happy and was the perfect start to the day. There is something magical about their chocolate crullers. After donuts, we were on our way to the Greenbrier section of the Smokies. We’d never hiked anything in that area before, so we were excited to try someplace new.
The road into Greenbrier is mostly gravel, but is well-maintained and easy to drive. It’s also very scenic and follows the Little Pigeon River. The trailhead is about 4 miles down the road. It’s clearly marked and there is plenty of parking.
The trail starts off as a wide, gravel road through the woods. Porters Creek runs along the trail, offering plenty of scenic water views. About .6 of a mile along the way, you’ll see signs of old stone walls and stairs on the right side of the trail. The remnants date back to the early 1900’s when Elbert Cantrell built a farm in this area. Immediately past the farm, you’ll pass the Ownby cemetery. Adam and I walked around the cemetery and noticed that most of the graves belonged to very young children. Sad – it really makes one appreciate modern medicine and vaccinations.
About a mile into the hike, you’ll cross a log footbridge over the creek and come to a Y-junction in the gravel road. The trail to the right goes to more historical structures, but we’ll cover those on the way back. We took the trail to the left and arrived almost immediately to another trail junction – continue bearing left on the Porters Creek Trail. At this point, the gravel road ends and becomes a ‘real’ trail.
This section of the hike is beautiful – lots of big old, trees. It’s so green, shady and peaceful. At 1.6 miles we crossed another log footbridge. This one was much longer and crossed the stream crookedly. From there, the trail ascended gently until we reached Fern Branch falls at 2 miles. The falls are on the left side of the trail and set back a bit in the woods.
When we visited the falls were not flowing very heavily. It was still a beautiful spot – especially with the sunlight filtering into the woods at the crest of the falls. We took some photos and then headed back the way we came.
On the return arm of the trip, we stopped at the Y-junction and visited the John Messer farm site. The cantilevered barn is in excellent condition. Just past the barn, you can visit a springhouse and an old cabin built by the Smoky Mountain Hiking club. Overnight stays at the cabin are no longer permitted.
After visiting the barn and cabin, we made our way back to the car and headed back into town for lunch. We ended up at Hungry Bear Barbecue. It was great and definitely deserves the top ratings it has online.
Porters Creek was definitely beautiful and we would recommend the hike for a low-key, easy day. It would also be our last new hike of our 2014 spring trip. The next day, we chose to re-hike an old favorite – Charlies Bunion.
Staying in Gatlinburg, TN for a few days, we wanted to explore some different sections of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. We decided to check out the Porters Creek after reading about Fern Branch Falls and the wildflowers on the trail. When we got out of our car, we could tell from the wetness of the area and the humidity that it would be a good idea to douse ourselves in bug spray.
We crossed the gate and started along the wide fire road. As Christine mentioned, during the first mile you do get some stream views, ruins of an old farm, and a family cemetery. The trail does ascend, but very slowly, so it is not very challenging.
At the .9 mile mark, there is a small footbridge you can use to cross a small stream (or you can rockhop across). At the 1.0 mile marker, you reach a large junction. There is a side trail to the Messer Barn and hiking club cabin and also a junction with the Brushy Mountain Trail. Take the left Porters Creek Trail. At 1.5 miles, you come to a large footbridge that crosses Porters Creek. This footbridge was much longer and can be a little unsettling since it is fairly high above the creek in some points. The railing for me was also below my hip in some spots, which didn’t give me the feeling that it would protect me if I did slip. After you cross the footbridge, the trail seems to change environments as you walk through a large area of wildflowers and fern. The forest floor was exploding in green! The trail then becomes steeper, narrower, and rocky through this portion until you reach the falls.
As we were walking along, we could hear a waterfall off to our right and got a faint glimpse from a distance, but this was not Fern Branch Falls. Instead, at 1.8 miles, we reached the large waterfall on our left. The trickle from the waterfall wasn’t overly impressive, but it was a nice scenic spot. We made our way back the way we came.
When we returned to the junction with the Brushy Mountain Trail, we took the short side trail that led to the barn. Behind the barn, you cross a small stream and then can find the hiking cabin and springhouse. Both the cabin and barn are open, so we enjoyed exploring the abandoned buildings.
We made our way back to our car and found several cars that were arriving to hike this trail. With the cabin, farm, ruins, and graveyard, this hike really does give you a glimpse into the life and environment of families that lived in this area and used these facilities in the late 1800s through the early 1900s. The hiking cabin actually permitted members to stay here until 1981.
- Distance – 4 miles
- Elevation Change – About 800 ft.
- Difficulty – 2. The climbing is gradual and gentle.
- Trail Conditions – 3.5. The section from the trailhead to the Messer farm is essentially a road. The section from the farm to the falls is trail, but it’s in good shape. The only part that may challenge some hikers are the two log footbridges.
- Views – 0. None
- Streams/Waterfalls – 3.5. Porters Creek is lovely. Fern Branch falls would probably be more impressive in wetter weather. It was fairly small when we visited.
- Wildlife – 3. We saw a couple salamanders and a big black snake. There are bear sightings in all parts of the Smokies.
- Ease to Navigate – 4. Trails are well-marked and easy to follow. You may miss some of the historical remnants if you’re not paying attention.
- Solitude – 3. We hiked on a pretty Thursday in late May and only saw a few other people.
Directions to trailhead: From Gatlinburg, go east on 321 for 6 miles. Take a right at the Greenbrier entrance to GSMNP. The road will turn to gravel. The road will fork at 3.1 miles, but continue straight at the fork to reach the Porters Creek parking area at about 4 miles.
This 8.7 mile loop didn’t offer much in the way of natural scenery – no great views, no plunging waterfalls, but we did see a bear! Apparently, this is a great trail to spot bears, as all ten hikers we spoke to on the loop saw at least one bear over the course of their hike. This trail also passes the historic John Oliver cabin.
The Cades Cove section of Great Smoky Mountains National Park has a lot to offer – camping, drives around the loop to view wildlife, biking (covered in a previous post), and a historic view into the way people lived and farmed in this area. Honestly, I have a little love/hate relationship with this section. The biking and wildlife viewing can’t be beat around this area. However, the traffic is so incredibly slow through this area. Expect people to go WAY below the posted speed limit, so getting to Cades Cove can take a lot longer than expected. I think most of the way traveling from the Sugarlands Visitors Center, multiple people were driving about 10-15 mph for the entire 17 miles, so it was a drag getting there. Christine and I typically like to get out early in the morning to beat traffic and heat through the day, so I would recommend the same if visiting Cades Cove.
Since we had biked the loop and hiked Abrams Falls (also on the Cades Cove loop) before, we looked for some other options for hikes. Our book Day Hikes in the Smokies (by Carson Brewer) had this listed as a nice option for a hike. According to the description, there was a waterfall, some views, and a historic homestead so we felt this would be a nice option to take.
We parked in the lot past the information kiosk as you enter the Cades Cove loop. There was plenty of parking in the lot, as most people either park their car to bike the loop or just ask the rangers at the kiosk some questions about the area. We parked at one of the furthest parking spots and then crossed the road. In a short distance, the trailhead appeared and we started off on the Rich Mountain Loop trail. This trail was relatively flat. It was mostly wooded, but there were a few spots where it opened up to views of meadows. In .5 miles, the trail reached a junction with the Crooked Arm Ridge trail. We took a right here to start the Crooked Arm Ridge trail. At .8 miles, you reach the Crooked Arm Cascade, which was no more than a small trickle when we viewed it. This trail is the steepest section of the hike, as you are climbing up the entire trail gaining close to 1800 feet by the time you reach the end of the trail at mile 2.7. The humidity this day was very high and there was no breeze, so we felt like we were pouring buckets of sweat on our relentless climb through many switchbacks along the trail.
At 2.7 miles, we passed the junction with the Scott Mountain Trail, but the junction wasn’t clearly marked to let you know it was the Scott Mountain Trail (Note: This might be because the Scott Mountain Trail is closed from campsite #6 to Schoolhouse Gap. However, Campsite #6 is still open. Check park information for the latest updates on trail closures.) Staying straight, the trail turns into the Indian Grave Gap Trail. It continues to climb gradually, and there are some occasional obstructed views from the ridge. You finally reach the peak of climbing around mile four, near Cerulean Knob (3686 ft. – no views). We continued walking the ridge for a while, then the trail then starts its descent. At 5.3 miles, the Indian Grave Gap Trail reaches a junction. Continue on the Rich Mountain Loop trail.
The trail continues to descend and you do get some nice views along the way of a branch that leads to Abrams Creek. Around 7.2 miles, the trail leads to the John Oliver Place, a historic cabin. If you are interested in learning more about the Oliver family and life in the 1800′s in Cades Cove, I would recommend checking out the history of the Olivers and the cabin and what pioneer life was like in Cades Cove. We paused to check out the cabin and as you face the house, take the rightmost trail behind the house (there are several small paths here) to continue on to the Rich Mountain Loop. You will have a few stream crossings (minor rock hopping is required) until you reach the first junction you met at mile 8.2. Continue straight to take the Rich Mountain Loop trail to arrive back at your car at mile 8.7.
As mentioned in the short description at the top, we kept coming across people that had seen bears along the trail. Until we started the descent from Cerulean Knob, everyone we crossed told us they had seen various bears across the trail. Of course everyone also said they watched the bears and then they ran off. Always excited to see bears, we felt like everyone else had chased them away. As we were descending we were convinced that we probably wouldn’t see anything, but as soon as we voiced this doubt, Christine spotted a bear right off the side of the trail. The bear just watched us indifferently while it ate some leaves. Then it took a slow walk and then squatted to do what bears do in the woods. As soon as it was done, it shot through the woods at a breakneck pace like its poop had scared him. I guess that is why they call it “bear scat”, because he really did scat after doing his business.
One lesson that I quickly learned on this trail was that humidity is relative. While we were doing the tough climb up to the ridgeline, we came across another couple (who of course were telling us about a bear they saw). Feeling that I was quite the sight from all the sweat coming off my body, I commented on how hot and humid it was. They said, “Wow. We haven’t been sweating at all today.” They then explained they were from Mississippi so they were more accustomed to the heat and humidity and thought it was quite comfortable. Of course this reminded me on some of our trips to Maine and talking to people that couldn’t handle the heat of 85 degrees without humidity and we thought it was quite pleasant.
While we felt the hike wasn’t overly impressive based on the description we originally read, we felt grateful that we saw a bear in the Smokies. If you’re looking for a bit of a challenge and some variety of terrain in this area of the Smokies, this is a hike to consider.
After a third day of shorter, easier hikes, I was finally feeling better and we were on the move from Bryson City to Gatlinburg for the remainder of our week in the Smokies. We decided it was time to hike something a little longer/tougher. We considered a few trails on the northern side of the park, including Gregory Bald, Ramsey Cascades, and Rich Mountain. In the end, we settled on Rich Mountain because our guidebook said it had views, a waterfall and a historic cabin. I like trails with a variety of attractions, so it seemed like the perfect choice for the day.
Another perk of the Rich Mountain loop is that the trailhead can be accessed at the head of Cades Cove, before the start of one-way traffic. The Cades Cove loop is something every GSMNP visitor should drive (or bike) at least once. It’s a great place to spot wildlife and it showcases the park’s fascinating human history. But, if I’m being fully honest, the traffic in Cades Cove can be insufferable when you just want to get to a trailhead and start your hike. On this particular day, I was very happy to be avoiding the gridlock!
We followed the Rich Mountain Loop trail for about half a mile to our first junction. At the marker, we took a right onto the Crooked Arm Ridge Trail. Most people seem to hike the trail clockwise, but we decided to go the other way for to get the climbing done a little earlier and a little faster in the loop.
One of the first landmarks we passed was Crooked Arm Falls, which our hiking guidebook described as ‘not Niagara, but still very nice’. That turned out to be quite the understatement! The ‘waterfall’ was barely a trickle of water over a short rock shelf. Maybe it’s more impressive when there has been a ton of rain!
After passing the waterfall, our climb began in earnest. Neither of us was used to hiking in the heat and humidity. Virginia had been having lots of cool, pleasant days that spring, so it was very tough going. When we got back to the car and had smartphone access again, I checked the temperatures and real feel estimates – it had been about 88 degrees with a real feel of 95. Honestly, that’s kind of the outer limit of heat in which I’m willing to hike.
We slogged along uphill for a couple miles. The air was really still and steamy, with any chance of a breeze blocked by the shoulder of the mountain. The trail was deeply eroded in several sections, with the middle of the footpath looking like a chute in the ground. The views promised by our guidebook were mostly closed in by the leaves on the trees and we started to think we may have picked a dud of a hike. I was feeling really overheated and crabby.
Eventually we reached the junction with the Indian Grave Gap Trail. At this point, the climbing became easier and we felt a breeze across the ridge. We started to see more wildflowers – mountain laurel and flame azalea. We spotted several cute toads hopping across the trail. We stopped for a snack near an opening in the trees. We had a decent view into Cades Cove. Along this section of trail, we passed two other hiking parties – both mentioned that they’d had bear sightings before the junction with the Rich Mountain Loop. One group had spotted an adolescent bear and the other a mother bear with two cubs. Between the breeze, the wildflowers, and the likelihood of a bear spotting; my attitude turned a little more positive. Adam was more skeptical than I was, saying ‘If all these people already saw bears, we’ll probably be the only ones who don’t!’
We walked along, trying to stay quiet for the wildlife. We reached the junction of the Indian Grave Gap Trail and the Rich Mountain Loop Trail without spotting a bear. I figured that we were out of luck, and started chatting with Adam again. As we were descending toward a stream bed, I caught a shuffle of movement through the trees. I stopped abruptly, waved my hand up to stop Adam behind me and whispered ‘BEAR!’ Ten feet from the edge of the trail, we spotted a handsome yearling bear foraging for food. He knew we were there, but continued to move along at a normal pace. Other than once upward glance, he completely ignored us. Suddenly, he broke into a full gallop and went crashing deeper into the woods and out of view. It was a GREAT sighting and made the hike totally worthwhile.
The rest of the hike between the bear and the John Oliver cabin was downhill, steeply at times. For a couple hundred yards, we were followed by a cute yellow warbler. The bird hopped from tree to tree right alongside us before finally flying off. We had a couple easy, shallow stream crossings on the section of trail.
We reached the Oliver cabin and were met with crowds of Cades Cove tourists. Most people visiting the cabin park along the loop road and then walk a short distance up to the house. I think this cabin is the oldest structure in the Cove. After spending a little time exploring the cabin, we headed back onto the Rich Mountain Loop trail.
After the cabin there wasn’t anything remarkable left on the trail to see. I don’t think I took a single photo! It was just an easy walk for about a mile back to our first junction of the day, followed by a half mile stretch back to the parking area on the loop road. It felt great to be back in the air-conditioned car!
On our way out of Cades Cove, we stopped by the snack bar at the campground. I got a gigantic Gatorade and a bag of generic Cheetos. The Gatorade tasted miraculous after miles of drinking lukewarm Camelbak water! About an hour later, we were checking into our hotel in Gatlinburg. After showering, we headed out to the Smoky Mountain Brewery. On the way, we got caught in one of the biggest downpours I’ve ever experienced. We ate dinner soaked, but the beer and steak were so good I didn’t care.
So, I guess in closing… would I recommend the Rich Mountain Loop? Probably – it seems like a great place to hike if you want good odds of seeing a bear in the wild, but don’t go expecting great views and waterfalls.
- Distance – 8.7 miles
- Elevation Change – 1800 ft.
- Difficulty – 3.5 The hike up the Crooked Arm Ridge trail was tough.
- Trail Conditions – 3. The trail was clear, but there were some eroded parts on the climb up the Crooked Arm Ridge Trail. On the hike down, there was some loose rock also.
- Views – 2. There were some obstructed views from the ridgeline.
- Streams/Waterfalls – 2. The Crooked Arm Cascade was a disappointment with little water, but the streams on the back end of the loop were nice.
- Wildlife – 4.5. We did see a bear and it looked and sounded like a lot of bear activity here. We also saw some deer along the way.
- Ease to Navigate – 1.5. Trails were not marked very clearly, especially at junctions. Also, there is confusion around the John Oliver place on which way to go to complete the loop back.
- Solitude – 2.5. Cades Cove is a very popular area. I would expect to see some people on the trail most days, but less in the upper elevations. There will also be lots of people that will park on the main road to check out the John Oliver Place.
Directions to trailhead: From the Sugarlands Visitor Center in GSMNP, follow signs towards Cades Cove. Follow Little River Road for about 17 miles. At the intersection near Townsend, the road will become Laurel Creek Road. Follow Laurel Creek road for 7.4 miles to the parking area at the head of Cades Cove. Park in the lot on the left hand side of the road right before the traffic becomes one way. The trail starts about 25 yards ahead on the opposite side of the road from parking.
This 4 mile out-and-back is an easy hike to one of the Smokies’ lesser visited and under-appreciated waterfalls. The walk begins from the Smokemont Campground and follows a lovely stream and eventually reaches a pretty 25′ waterfall.
For the first few days of our trip, I wasn’t feeling great. Even after easy hiking days on Mt. Pisgah and Wesser Bald, I still wasn’t myself. Mentally, I had big hiking plans for every day of our trip, but in the end, my body dictated that we hike shorter, less strenuous trails.
On our second day in Bryson City, we woke up to lightning, rumbling thunder and torrential downpours. The local weather said that the heavy rain would clear out and leave us with a hazy, mostly cloudy, unsettled day. We decided that an easy waterfall hike would be perfect for those conditions. After breakfast at Mountain Perks (probably my favorite breakfast spot in Bryson City), we drove into the park.
Our hike started at the far end (section D) of the Smokemont Campground. For the first 1.2 miles, we followed the Bradley Fork Trail. It went gently uphill along the stream. The morning rain paired with the emerging sun made for a hot, muggy and buggy hike! Whenever we stopped for photos or to take in the scenery, we were swarmed by gnats and mosquitoes. Nonetheless, the trail was beautiful – so lush and green.
The trail along Bradley Creek is popular with horseback riders. In fact, the National Park Service concessionaire offers a trail ride from Smokemont Stables to the waterfall. I bet it’s a wonderful, scenic ride! The trail is also shared with the Benton MacKaye Trail – a 300 mile trail across the southern Appalachians. Almost 100 miles of the Benton MacKaye Trail passes through the Smokies. MacKaye, a forester from Massachusetts, is noteworthy because he came up with the idea for the Appalachian Trail… what a legacy to leave behind!
At 1.2 miles, the Bradley Fork Trail intersects with the Chasteen Creek Trail. At this junction, take a right and follow the trail toward Chasteen Creek. Almost immediately, on the right, you’ll pass Backcountry Campsite 50. It’s a pretty streamside spot with a fire ring and bear cables. The campsite can only be used if you have secured a paid permit. Evidently, permits in the Smokies can be hard to come by, so plan early!
After the campsite, walk another half mile along the Chasteen Creek Trail. Shortly after crossing a footbridge, you’ll come to a split in the trail. On the left side of the split, you should be able to see a hitching rail and mounting step for horseback riders – go in this direction.
From the clearing for horses, you’ll see a narrow footpath following the creek. In just about a tenth of a mile, you’ll come out at Chasteen Creek Cascade. It’s about a 25 foot waterfall. It’s not the kind of waterfall that plunges dramatically; rather it slides over the rocks into a pretty pool below. We had the waterfall all to ourselves and enjoyed the spot for about twenty minutes. Afterwards, we headed back the way we came and back into Bryson City for lunch at the Bar-B-Que Wagon. They have great Carolina-style barbecue with all the expected sides.
When we talk to people about the Smokies, they seem to be surprised that some of the best highlights of the park are the waterfalls. In talking with the locals of the area, April and May tend to be very rainy seasons for the area. Storms move in and out quickly through the park, but they typically expect a little rain most days during this season. Rainy days are prime days for waterfall viewing and photography.
We started off our hike from the Smokemont Campground in the D section of the campground. In the winter, this may be blocked off and you may have to park and leave from the C section. The trailhead starts from a large gate near the designated parking area at the end of the campground. We doused ourselves with bug spray and moved on.
The trail was gradually uphill, but it mostly felt flat. In fact, we were surprised to see the elevation gain on the hike afterwards. The trail started off on a gravel road alongside Bradley Fork. The forest was lush with green from all of the rain, so it was a pleasant stroll through the woods. Because of the width of the trail, Christine and I could also walk side-by-side along the trail. At 1.1 miles, we crossed a large footbridge and at 1.2 miles we came to the intersection with the Chasteen Creek Trail. We took a right there and continued to walk on a wider trail, passing Campsite 50 at 1.3 miles. At 1.9 miles, we reached the side trail to the left with the horse hitching area. It was a short walk to get to the waterfall from there. We headed back the way we came for an easy, scenic hike.
If you wanted to make this a longer hike, after you visit the waterfall, return back the way you came. You could take a right at the junction with the Bradley Fork trail and connect to the Smokemont Loop Trail. This would make the grand total of distance about 8 miles, but would loop back to a different section of the campground.
You may see people fishing for rainbow trout along the Bradley Fork or Chasteen Creek. I can imagine many campers at the Smokemont Campground spend some time fishing in hopes of cooking some fish from the water.
After the hike, we had lunch then headed into Cherokee to check out the Qualla Arts & Crafts Mutual. Their traditional work is fascinating and beautiful. We always enjoy visiting. After that, we stayed on the reservation and visited Mingo Falls, one of the tallest and most impressive waterfalls in the Appalachians. It was a short walk, but there were many stairs!
Our wrap up for the day was a visit to Nantahala Brewery followed by pizza from Anthony’s. We consider those two stops to be ‘must-do’ in Bryson City! On to Gatlinburg tomorrow!
- Distance – 4 miles
- Elevation Change – 490 ft.
- Difficulty – 1.5. This is an easy walk along a very gently graded trail.
- Trail Conditions – 4.5. The trail is mostly wide and road-like. It’s only narrow and muddy at the base of the falls.
- Views – 0. None.
- Streams/Waterfalls – 4.5. Bradley Fork, Chasteen Creek and the falls are all beautiful!
- Wildlife – 3. We didn’t see anything, but the Smokies have wildlife everywhere!
- Ease to Navigate – 3.5. The trail is easy to follow if you read the junction markers. The shared/intersecting trails might be confusing if you’re not paying attention.
- Solitude – 3. Chasteen Creek Falls is not one of the park’s more popular trails. You may see horses and occasional hikers from the campground, but generally this trail has less foot traffic than many others.
Directions to trailhead: From Newfound Gap Road (Route 441), follow signs to Smokemont Campground. The campground is located 3.5 miles north of the Oconaluftee Visitor Center and 26 miles south of the Sugarlands Visitor Center. Park in the hiker parking area at the end of section D of the campground.
Introductory Guide to Visiting Great Smoky Mountains National Park
(while Wesser Bald is technically outside GSMNP, it’s still part of the greater Smokies region)
This 2.8 mile out-and-back is an easy hike to one of the area’s best viewpoints. The platform atop the defunct firetower on Wesser Bald offers panoramic views of the spectacular Smokies (and all the other mountains in the area).
It is nice when you find a hike that the locals rave about. During our trip to North Carolina, I heard three different people mentioning that we needed to hike Wesser Bald. After getting to the top, I can see why this is so revered.
When we started off in the morning, it had been storming the night before. A fog had settled on the lower elevations. While we were driving, we were curious if we were going to get any views at all. On our drive there, the cloudy conditions gave us great views along the Nantahala River as we passed several scenic spots and chances to catch some roadside waterfalls and rapids. We made our way up Otter Creek Road and parked at Tellico Gap, where the Appalachian Trail crossed the road.
When we first parked, we noticed the sign that designated the start of the trail, but we noticed there was a white-blazed trail and a fire road to the left. We knew our hike was on the white-blazed Appalachian Trail, so we took the trail to the left. The fire road trail to the right also leads to the tower. I’m not sure how the conditions are on it, but it did seem to be shorter, since we found a family with kids that left after us beat us back to the parking lot (and they didn’t seem like fast hikers). The trail passed through a thick brushy area fairly quickly, but most of the trail was in a more opened-up wooded area. The hike was fairly uphill as it skirted the mountainside, but I didn’t find any of the trail to be incredibly steep. Instead, it winds There were a few switchbacks towards the end of the hike where it was a little steeper, but the switchbacks save you from going straight up the mountain.
When we reached the top of the spur trail at 1.3 miles, there was a great viewpoint that gives you a small sample. If you are not willing to climb the fire tower, this would be the best views you would get on this hike. As you reach the top, take a right and you’ll reach the fire tower in a short distance. Make your way back to complete the out-and-back or you could press pass the fire tower to take the fire road back to make it a loop.
When we reached the fire tower, we could hear a couple people at the top of the tower. Christine quickly made her way up. I, on the other hand, needed to psych myself up. As you’ve probably seen in many pictures, I don’t mind getting out on rocks that are on the edge of a huge precipice; however, I don’t trust man-made structures when it comes to heights. I trust nature over man. I went up halfway and then I could start to see the sky through the gaps in the stairs and I just turned back around. But from the bottom, I could hear Christine and the others at the top of how beautiful everything was and I knew I needed to force myself to get up there. So, I took a second attempt and made it up. Christine and the others at the top applauded my efforts for overcoming my fear. I’m so glad I made it to the top, because the scenery was breathtaking and some of the best mountain views I’ve ever seen. We stayed up there a while and talked to a few different groups of people that made it up after we did.
After we made it back, we decided to head to the Nantahala Outdoor Center. We had a nice lunch at the River’s End and then we enjoyed a beer at Big Wesser BBQ & Brew, while watching kayakers and whitewater rafts go down the river. This is always one of our favorite spots while visiting near the Smokies and it is definitely a place you can spend hours during the afternoon. You can also hike from Tellico Gap to the Nantahala Outdoor Center on the Appalachian Trail for a one-way total of 7.5 miles if you want to do a shuttle option.
If you are interested in geocaching, there are three you can find on the trail:
The forecast for our week in the Smokies didn’t look good – stormy, rainy and unsettled every single day from Sunday to the next Saturday. So, when we woke up to dense fog on Monday morning, we weren’t completely surprised. However, the hourly forecast on weather.com made it look like the fog might burn off. We hoped that the odds would be in our favor, and headed off to hike a trail we’d been eying for a while. Wesser Bald is a short, moderate 1.4 mile hike along the AT to an old fire tower overlooking the southern Appalachians. It’s a spectacular view if you’re lucky enough to hit the spot on a clear day.
From Tellico Gap, we followed the AT as it made gradual, sweeping switchbacks through beautiful, lush forest. The trail was lined with wildflowers and blooming azaleas/rhododendron. I think I saw more pink lady slippers on this hike than I’ve ever seen anywhere else. It was gorgeous. The azaleas came in white, pink and orange and the rhododendron bloomed in their classic bright pinkish-purple color. I also spotted wild strawberries and some gorgeous purple spiderwort.
The humidity took some getting used to! Even though it wasn’t particularly hot, the day was windless and the air was completely saturated. By the time we got to the top, I looked like I’d been dunked in a pool! Just before reaching the tower, we passed a nice view looking toward the Smokies and Fontana Dam. Near the overlook, a short spur trail took us to the top of Wesser Bald. This bald is no longer actually a bald – it’s been let go and returned to the natural forest environment. So while the view has closed in from the base of the tower, the view from the two-story viewing platform is superb!
I climbed up to the top and said WOW! Adam didn’t feel comfortable with the open, rattling stairs, so he hung out at the bottom while I chatted with a couple at the top. They had hiked up earlier from the NOC and were waiting to meet up with their son, who was on a solo backpacking trip. They were really fun to talk to – both were veteran AT thru-hikers and REI employees. We talked about favorite spots on the AT and chatted a bit about gear. I always love meeting people like them on the trail!
While we were chatting, Adam mustered the courage to climb to the top of the tower. He was so glad he did, too! The views really blew both of us away! Even though it was hazy, we could still see for miles in every direction. We spent a long while atop the tower, enjoying the views and the fresh mountain air.
After a while, we decided it was time to make our way down and seek out some lunch. One of our repeat stops ever time we visit the Smokies is the Nantahala Outdoor Center. We enjoy lunch at the Riverside Cafe, browsing the nice outdoor gear store, and (of course) drinking a few beers by the river at Big Wesser. It’s so fun to sit at an umbrella table, drink a nice craft beer and watch kayakers shooting through the rapids. It’s also a great place to people-watch in general. While we were sitting and enjoying our drinks, the skies opened up and dumped a huge amount of rain in just a few minutes. I’m sure glad we had the rain at the NOC instead of on top Wesser Bald!
- Distance – 2.8 miles out-and-back
- Elevation Change – 777 feet.
- Difficulty – 2. The trail is mostly uphill, but not too steep.
- Trail Conditions – 4. The trail was in great shape and the footing was fairly solid.
- Views – 5. Absolutely spectacular views from the fire tower and another nice view right before the tower.
- Streams/Waterfalls – 0. Non-existent.
- Wildlife – 1. We only saw some birds along the way.
- Ease to Navigate – 3. The confusion of the fire road at the beginning gives it a lower score, but other than that you should be fine. Follow the white-blazed AT.
- Solitude – 2.5. Popular with locals, but this wouldn’t get the traffic that a hike in the nearby Smokies would.
Directions to trailhead: From Bryson City, follow US 19/74 for 20 miles. Turn left on Wayah Road and follow it for five miles. Turn left on Otter Creek Road and drive 4.1 miles to Tellico Gap. The road is paved for the first 2.8 miles. At the crest of the hill, you will see the AT crossing and several parking spots. Follow the signs to Wesser Bald.
This 3 mile out-and-back leads to the towering (literally) summit of 5,721 ft Mt. Pisgah. Due to the short length and proximity to lodging, a camp store, and a picnic area, this trail is exceedingly popular with families. The summit offers some nice views, but the presence of a huge television tower detracts from the natural beauty of the area.
Our second day in Asheville was just a half day, but we wanted to get a little more hiking in along the Blue Ridge Parkway before making our way down to Bryson City and the Smokies. Breakfast was at the popular Sunny Point Cafe. We got there just a couple minutes before they opened and were able to snag the last open table for two! It’s a very popular spot, so be prepared to get there early or have a long wait.
After breakfast, we headed up to the parkway to climb Mount Pisgah. Our book talked about great views, but described the hike as ‘strenuous’. In fact, there was a warning sign at the trailhead indicating that the hike was tough and steep. It actually only climbs about 700 feet, but it does so in a short distance. I suppose the warning is necessary for novice hikers or people who think they’re just out for a casual stroll.
The hike started out from a parking lot atop the Buck Springs Tunnel. There are actually a couple trailheads in that area – Mt. Pisgah, Shut-In Trail and the Buck Springs Trail. To get to the Pisgah Trail, drive to the far end of the parking lot.
The hike started off gentle and flat – just a pleasant walk through the woods. We could see the conical summit of Pisgah, replete with its television tower, looming through the trees. The trail made a sweeping turn at around .4 miles and began a steady uphill climb. It was rocky and rough at times, but overall a moderate ascent. A couple tenths of a mile before the summit, we came across one nice view across the mountains.
After the nice view, we made the final push to the top. The summit has a wooden viewing platform and a serious eyesore of a television tower. I know they’re necessary, but I wish they could have put it on a less scenic, more remote peak! All that metal really ruins the scenic beauty of such an impressive summit.
We sat on the summit for a while. The views would have been pretty nice, but the day was overcast and hazy, so that took away some of the majesty from the experience. I think we were also the only people on the summit without kids! Mt. Pisgah is clearly a very popular family hike! There were more three-year-olds on that mountain top than any other demographic. I guess it makes sense – the hike is short, moderate and doesn’t have any steep drop-offs — perfect for a family with small children.
We hiked down the way we came, making speedy work of the descent. Now… on to the Smokies!
When we’re on vacation, we like to alternate longer hikes with shorter hikes to make sure we still have energy at the end of our trip. When we were researching different hikes to do near Asheville, NC, we came across Mt. Pisgah. With it being such a short hike and the trailhead being sort of en route to our next town stop, we thought this was a winner. We also read about wonderful views from the top so we figured it would be a high payoff for minimal effort.
The trail started off following a slight incline for the first few tenths of a mile. Then the trail went up more steeply in elevation and can be challenging at times. But, since the hike is pretty short, it is attainable by most people. We saw more families hiking on this trail with little children than anywhere else. While many of the kids were walking the trail in the beginning, we found most of them were being carried by the time they reached the summit.
We arrived at the top in well under an hour. The tower was such an eyesore and we both were thinking this would be so much nicer of a hike without the 339-foot tower there. The wooden platform allowed for about 270-degree views (90 degrees taken up by the tower). While it was hazy, I could tell that on a clear day you would be able to see for quite a distance.
The origin of the name of the mountain comes from the Bible. The Reverend James Hall is attributed to being the first to call this area as “Pisgah”, taken from the biblical reference to the peak where Moses viewed the promised land. The Pisgah National Forest was historically owned by the Vanderbilts (who built the nearby Biltmore House in Asheville). 500,000 acres were sold to the government by the Vanderbilts as an effort to help preserve this land.
If you are interested in geocaching, there are several to find on this trail:
- Tumble Rock
- Gnarly Tree
- My Favorite Hike
- Atypical #29: Carrot Top
- Steep Steps
- Mt. Pisgah
- Mt. Pisgah Too
While this hike does have some nice views from the top, we were a little disappointed by the size of the tower and the popularity of the trail. As Christine mentioned, it would have been nice to have this on a more remote mountain (and also not the namesake for the entire National Forest).
- Distance – 3 miles
- Elevation Change – 700 ft
- Difficulty – 1.5. This trail is short with a moderate ascent.
- Trail Conditions – 4. The trail was generally in good condition.
- Views – 3.5 – Typically views from a peak like this would get higher marks, but the tower is such a distraction.
- Streams/Waterfalls – 0. None
- Wildlife – 1. Maybe some birds and squirrels.
- Ease to Navigate – 5. There is only one trail to the top, and it’s very easy to follow.
- Solitude – 1. This trail is popular and heavily traveled.
Directions to trailhead: From Asheville, take the Blue Ridge Parkway south to the Mount Pisgah Parking Area, on the left, at milepost 407.6. Park at the second parking area.
This 6.6 mile loop offers some of the area’s most amazing high-elevation, Appalachian bald scenery! It was right up there with Roan Mountain. The views are 360 degrees and showcase mountains in every direction. If we were to hike it again, we’d do it as an out-and-back and skip the return arm of the loop along Graveyard Ridge and Mountains to the Sea.
When we were planning our trip to the Smokies, we decided we wanted to spend the first few days near the Asheville, NC area and check out a few hikes along the Blue Ridge Parkway. We had set out in the morning to check out the Graveyard Fields waterfalls. On a trip here many years ago, we remembered how beautiful the series of waterfalls were. We brought a book with a description of the hike that would include a visit to Black Balsam and Tennent Knob on the loop. However, we didn’t have a map of the area other than what our book had provided. After driving along the parkway for some time, we pulled up to where the parking lot would be (mile marker 418.8) and it was all blocked off by fencing. It appears they are doing some major renovations of the parking area and stairs down to the Second Falls. They had blocked off any access to the trail and instead had signs saying that you could access the trail from many miles away. We were very disappointed, but decided to drive up further along the Parkway. We took a right on the gravel road 816 (mile marker 420.2) and followed that until we saw a trail marker to the right that led up to Black Balsam Knob. We were relieved we were going to be able to see the balds and I realized we were picking up our loop trail but just a little differently than we had originally intended.
From the road, you start on the Art Loeb trail. In a few hundred feet, you will see a side trail to the right. This is the Mountains to Sea Trail that will be your return from the loop. Stay straight to continue on the Art Loeb Trail as it ascends past amazing vistas. You will reach the summit of the Black Balsam Knob at .9 miles and will see many campsites at the top. On a clear day from here you will have 360-degree views all around with the Smokies to the west and Mt. Mitchell to the north. The trail took a sharp left at this point as you continue on the Art Loeb trail. On Black Balsam Knob, there are many other trails cut-in over the years along the balds which makes it tricky to know if you are on the right trail. As we left the summit area, we came to a junction between two trails that both looked legitimate. One seemed to go over a hillside and the other went to the left and around. We took the one to the left and saw a very worn sign that read “Art Loeb” so we knew we made the correct choice. The trail wrapped around the hillside and went through a narrow path with waist-high shrubbery growing along the trail. Our legs got a little scratched along the way, but we pressed on. After a while the trail went through a few switchbacks while descending and then flattened out. At this point, we could see Tennent Mountain ahead of us, so we felt comfortable that we were going the right way. Soon, the shrubbery opened up into a clearing and we climbed up the rocky path and reached the summit of Tennent Mountain at 2.5 miles.
The summit of Tennent Mountain was just as scenic with more views in every direction. From here we could also see Looking Glass Rock, one of the most iconic images along the Blue Ridge Parkway, in the distance. We had our lunch on the top of this spot and then made the decision to do the full loop instead of just the out-and-back to the summits. We continued forward on the Art Loeb Trail. From here, there were a few more nice views but then the trail descended into a more wooded trail. The trail passed a few more campsite options before we reached the area known as Ivestor Gap at 3.1 miles. Ivestor Gap is a large open junction point where many trails converge. There was a map that showed where we were, but none of the trails were marked to let us know which was the right one to take. When you reach Ivestor Gap, take the larger trail to the right that looks like an old road. This was the Graveyard Ridge Trail. We were on this for only .3 miles, before passing a small spring in the rocks on the lefthand side of the trail, and took a sharp right to stay on to the Graveyard Ridge Trail, another unmarked junction [staying straight on the trail would begin the Greasy Cove Trail]. The Graveyard Ridge Trail was very rocky and had a lot of water on the trail, so there was some times of rock-hopping and getting your shoes wet. While on this trail, you may have a few glimpses at Tennent Mountain above to see where you came from and there are a couple of spots for viewpoints.
At 5.1 miles, we reached another junction. Deciding to forego the trip to see the waterfalls to Graveyard Fields (which would have probably added another 4.5 miles roundtrip to our hike), we took a sharp right up the Mountains to Sea Trail. This trail was extremely steep and at times felt like a bushwhack as the trail was very overgrown. In about .5 miles, you’ll gain over 500 feet of elevation, so it is a slow effort. Eventually at 5.75 miles, the trail reached the top of the bubble and you got a few more views from a rocky outcropping. Blazes were painted on the rock that led the way as the trail descends below. The trail moves away from the ridgeline before switching back – it feels like the wrong direction, but it’s not. The trail descends for a few hundred feet before climbing up again. You’ll pass over several wooden footbridges along this section of the trail. At about the 6.5 mile mark, the trail goes into a deep wooded area again and you reach the junction again with the Art Loeb Trail. Turn left and you head back to 816 in a short distance.
At the top of Tennent Mountain, there is a plaque on the rocks dedicated to Gaillard Stoney Tennent (1872-1953) who “established organized hiking in North Carolina.” I couldn’t find any more connections or information about Tennent online, but this sounds quite impressive.
If you are interested in Geocaching, there are several you could find along the trail (and it wouldn’t hurt to have a GPS handy):
- Black Balsam Between Branches
- Black Balsam Boardwalk
- Black Balsam Birch Walk
- Black Balsam Babbling Brook Bridge
- Black Balsam Briars
- Black Balsam Bearings
- Black Balsam Benchmark
- Don’t Take Garnet for Granite
- The New Art Loeb Trail Cache
- Black Balsam Bushes
- Black Balsam & Beyond
- Black Balsam Bonu$
- Black Balsam Babbling Brook Bridge
- Black Balsam Birch Bark
- Black Balsam Boardwalk
- Black Balsam Between Branches
While we tried to cover some extra ground on this trail by making it a loop (and leaving the option to inspect the waterfalls), I would recommend doing this trip as an out-and-back to Tennent Mountain. The trail system is very confusing here since trails are rarely marked and junctions are not labeled (we’re a little spoiled here in Virginia). We had to ask several people along the way if we were going in the right direction, so I can imagine a lot of people will feel lost at some point along this trail. All that being said, the views from Black Balsam Knob and Tennent Mountain are breathtaking. On a clear day, you can see for hundreds of miles and can see ridgeline after ridgeline of mountains around you with few glimpses of anything resembling civilization. Don’t miss this one if you are looking for a hike along the Blue Ridge Parkway!
Our first full day in Asheville, we got up early and had an amazing breakfast at Biscuit Head. Seriously – if you’re in Asheville, go eat those biscuits! We had planned a 5.2 mile hike starting near Graveyard Fields on the Blue Ridge Parkway. We drove the hour from Asheville to the trailhead to find the area completely closed off with an 8-foot tall chain link fence and orange plastic mesh. Even the wooden stairs leading to the entire larger trail system were blocked off. So, we grabbed our Falcon Guide for Hiking the Blue Ridge Parkway and started scrambling for alternatives. We settled on a different hike that would still let us see Black Balsam Knob, and give us the option to visit the waterfalls (if we had energy to spare).
The Falcon Guide offered vague (at best) descriptions of the hikes along the parkway, so we weren’t really sure how long the hike would be, what kind of elevation change we’d experience, what the terrain would be like or even the names of all the trails we would traverse. We had a rough map of the area in the book, so we could make some educated guesses, but we definitely went into this hike with a lot less information than we normally do.
We found the trailhead parking area packed – the lot was full and cars lined both sides of the rough, potholed road. We started off on a white blazed trail that climbed gently to sweeping views from bald Black Balsam Knob. The first great views are less than a mile of relatively easy hiking from the trailhead, so we saw tons of people. There were at least 3-4 tents sent up atop the bald. It was gorgeous – but it was a zoo!
From there, the trail got a little confusing. There are so many social paths to campsites worn into the mountain. We had a hard time knowing for sure that we were still on the white-blazed Art Loeb trail. There weren’t any blazes to be seen, and the only sign was so weathered that it looked like a blank piece of wood on a post. We stood pondering our book/map for a few minutes, when a foursome passed and confirmed that they had hiked this area many times and we were indeed on the correct trail. A little later, we passed an actual Art Loeb trail sign.
The trail descended through thick, dense scrub – lots of berry bushes and rhododendron. Eventually the trail opened back up and we began another ascent to the summit of 6,000 ft.+ Tennent Knob. This outlook was even more spectacular than Black Balsam. We could see for miles in every direction. We stopped at this point and had lunch on the trail. I had packed an apple, a Kind bar and some cookies from a bakery in the top of my pack. The strong sunshine had warmed the cookies to the point that they tasted like they had just come out of the oven. So good!
After the summit of Tennent Knob, we descended again before reaching Ivestor Gap. At the Gap, there was a troop of Boy Scouts at the information station. We consulted our map again before heading down another unmarked trail that we believed to be correct.
The trail at this point became wet and streamlike. We came across another hiker and his backpacking beagle! The beagle was really sweet and apparently a good hiker – able to do 12 mile days! The man was filling up his water bottles at a spring along the trail. Right after the spring, the there was a trail junction. We took the sharp hairpin turn onto the unmarked Graveyard Ridge Trail. It was a mostly flat, but very sloppy trail. It was wet and muddy for most of the way.
We eventually reached one of the only marked junctions on the hike, with a sign pointing toward the waterfalls and parkway one way and the Black Balsam Parking area the other way. This is where we picked up the Mountains to the Sea trail. This trail was also white blazed. The trail was more of a bushwack than anything for a while. It was very narrow and overgrown and headed steeply uphill. We soon came to a rocky ledge with more nice views… and no sign of the trail continuing. Again… we got the book out and were getting ready to make another guess. The trail we needed to follow seemed to go in completely the wrong direction. Adam looked at me and said ‘I’m just not confident this is the right trail!’ Fortunately, a couple hikers came up behind us. They told us they were following the same loop we were, had done it before and had gotten lost before! However, this time they were confident and able to point us in the right direction. The trail that looked totally wrong turned out to be exactly correct!
From the ledge, we descended into dark woods, traversed numerous wooden footbridges across swampy areas and made one final ascent back to the parking area along the road. All in all, we hiked 6.6 miles. It was a great hike with spectacular scenery from Black Balsam and Tennent. If I were to recommend the hike to others, I’d also suggest doing it as an out-and-back to see just the two bald summits. The loop option was poorly marked and didn’t offer much in way of scenery.
After our hike, we decided to drive back to Asheville through Waynesville. We heard it was a cute town and that Frog Level Brewing was worth a visit. We were able to easily find the Brewery, and ended up enjoying samples at a nice picnic table by the river. Nice finish to the day!
- Distance – 6.6 miles
- Elevation Change – about 1300 feet
- Difficulty – 3. The real difficulty is the Mountains-to-Sea Trail as it goes brutally up the mountain in some points.
- Trail Conditions – 2. The trail up to Black Balsam was the best maintained. The Art Loeb Trail around Black Balsam to Tennent Mountain was very brushy and overgrown. The Graveyard Ridge Trail had a ton of water on the trail and The Mountains-to-Sea Trail was also very overgrown.
- Views – 5. Amazing views from Black Balsam and Tennent Knob.
- Streams/Waterfalls – 1. Just a couple of small crossings through some water on the trail, but nothing scenic.
- Wildlife – 1. We didn’t see anything other than a few birds on this trail.
- Ease to Navigate – 1. You may often feel unsure if you are going the right way. Trails are not blazed well and junctions are not marked. The connection to the Graveyard Ridge trail is not marked. There are also lots of other trails that have been cut through by hikers, but they aren’t labeled, especially near the top of Black Balsam Knob on the Art Loeb trail.
- Solitude – 2. On a nice day like we had, there were lots of others on the trail.
Directions to trailhead: At Mile Marker 420.3 on the Blue Ridge Parkway, turn onto 816. Stay on that road for about 1 mile. Park on the side of the road and you’ll see the trailhead on the right side of the road.
This 9.1 mile hike is challenging, but offers wonderful view payoffs and a fun rock scramble. There is a shorter option for this hike for people wanting to skip the toughest part of the climb.
Strickler Knob was the second hike we posted on Virginia Trail Guide… way back in May of 2009. In the years since we first did this hike, there was a bad forest fire in the vicinity, the Forest Service painted over the purple/pink blazes to the knob (and then someone put them back), and the trail became vastly more popular.
On this particularly beautiful morning, we were planning a hike in Shenandoah National Park, but at 7:45 a.m. a text popped up on my phone. It was from our friends, Suzanne and Anthony (we met them at PATC’s Backpacking 101 workshop several years ago). They had made a spur of the moment decision to drive down from Maryland to hike Strickler Knob and wondered if we might want to join them. We don’t see them often enough, so the answer was clearly YES!
However, I had a few concerns going into the hike. The first was the possibility of swift/deep streams and run off from the deluge of rain we had received a day earlier. Roads and bridges were washed out all over the area. The second was the fact that the MMT 100 was being run that weekend. I wasn’t sure if the trail would be crowded or have limited access due to the race. We decided to put those concerns aside and go for it.
We met our friends at the defunct Massanutten Visitor’s Center on Rt. 211 near Luray. From there, we proceeded in one car to the Massanutten Trailhead on Crisman Hollow Rd. Right as we arrived, a carload of six was also unloading at the trailhead. We ended up playing leap frog with them along the trail all day long.
The trail initially crossed a flat, open area and a view into the valley. But soon, the trail dropped very steeply downhill on Waterfall Mountain. I’m not really sure why it’s called Waterfall Mountain. We didn’t see any waterfalls along the way – maybe they’re someplace else, or maybe ‘waterfall’ just refers to the extremely quick drop in elevation. Along this section of trail, we all joked about what a tough climb uphill this would be at the end of the day. I enjoyed the flowers blooming along the trail. We spotted mountain laurel starting to bud and even a pink lady’s slipper!
Eventually the trail leveled out near a stream. We passed a large campsite near the water just before coming to our first stream crossing. The water was pretty high and fast, but some well-placed logs made the crossing doable. From there, the trail followed a series of ascents and descents with lots of little stream crossings along the way. Most of the small stream crossings are probably dry under normal circumstances. We soon came to a second large stream crossing. After that crossing, the trail followed the stream – literally. Due to the 4-5 inches of rain the area experienced, the trail was completely underwater. It didn’t even look like a trail, and the only way we were sure it was the trail was the presence of a blaze on a tree about 50 yards ahead. We walked for more than a mile in ankle deep water. It was fun, but it was also wet, sloppy and muddy!
We reached trail junction 408. This is where the folks coming up from Scothorn Gap join the trail. At this point, we turned right and followed the orange-blazed Massanutten Trail uphill in the direction of the Gap Creek Trail. This part of the trail is really easy – wide and very gently graded. There were lots of pink native azaleas on one side of the trail. On the other side, the area burned out by a forest fire stood, charred – but slowly growing back.
When we reached the ridge, there was an obstructed view where the trail continues over the crest and then downhill. If you find yourself going downhill on the orange-blazed trail, you’ve passed the turn to Strickler Knob! At the top of the ridge, look carefully for purple/pink blazes on rocks and a reddish disk stapled to a tree. This is the way to Strickler Knob.
The walk to the knob starts off as a rocky but easily passable trail. But gradually the rocks become bigger, more jagged and trickier to traverse. It’s easy to lose the blazes as you pick your way along the rocks. You’ll come to one stunning viewpoint and think you’ve reached the end, but you still have the most intense part of the scramble to go! There are several steep, tall rock faces to negotiate before you finally come to a collection of towering rock stacks overlooking the Page Valley, Fort Valley and the Shenandoah River. The view from the knob is majestic!
On this particular day, Strickler Knob was packed. There were so many people at the overlook, it was hard to find a spot to sit. I think part of it was because the presence of two hiking clubs. But in addition to the clubs, there were also a number of couples and foursomes. Honestly, I’m shocked that this trail has become so popular! The crowds rivaled what I expect to see on a nice day on trails like Dark Hollow Falls or Hawksbill Mountain (in SNP).
We spent some time at the overlook eating lunch and taking photos. The hike back went really quickly. We walked in the water, we crossed the streams, we did all the little ascents and descents… and then we came to the base of Waterfall Mountain.
That climb was every bit as brutal as we all expected – gaining over 800 feet in about half a mile. The section isn’t climbed with mediating steps or switchbacks – it’s pretty much straight up the mountainside. We were all pretty glad when we got back to the flat, grassy section again!
When we got back to the car, the parking lot was much more crowded than when we had left it. We made the short drive back to the Massanutten Visitor’s Center and bid farewell to Anthony and Suzanne. It was a great hike and great to see them!
Between the two routes to Strickler Knob, I would probably recommend the shorter route from Scothorn Gap to most hikers. You get all of the excellent scenery, and only miss the extremely challenging descent/ascent of Waterfall Mountain. The section on Waterfall Mountain doesn’t really offer any remarkable scenery, but it’s a great training hike if you’re looking for a cardio challenge or practice on elevation change. We probably benefited from the longer, tougher ascent to prepare for our upcoming Smokies Trip.
Normally, when I describe the hike to Strickler Knob, I tell people that it’s an introductory rock-scrambling hike to see if you are ready for Old Rag. While there is not as much rock-scrambling and navigating as Old Rag, there are a few spots towards the summit that will test you enough to see if you can pull yourself up some of the rocks and let you gauge your comfort-level with scrambling over some drops. If you’ve already done Old Rag, this should be easy, but if you are intimidated by Old Rag from stories you’ve heard, try Strickler Knob first. I would agree with Christine that this hike has become more popular over recent years. When we had done the hike five years ago on a beautiful day, we only ran into one other couple on the entire trail; this time, it was crawling with people.
This is also a hike where people often get lost. You won’t find the purple-blazed summit trail on any maps currently, so I would suggest bringing a copy of the map I’ve provided below. I had a co-worker that tried to find the trail a few years ago (possibly when the blazes were still removed) to no luck. We also came across a larger hiking group from Northern Virginia that had missed the trail completely. When we gave them better directions, they turned around to attempt it again. Part of this also has to do with what few blazes are actually on the trail. You’ll know you are on a trail, you may just not be entirely sure which trail.
We started off the hike from the small parking area on Crisman Hollow Road. The orange-blazed Massanutten trail starts off on nice, level terrain through a wooded area. The trail soon opens up to more of a brushy, open field. As the trail winds around through this area, there is even one spot that has a view into the valley below at .2 miles. Shortly after this point as the trail winds around, the trail begins its very steep descent down Waterfall Mountain at .5 miles. The entire time that we were hiking down, I was thinking this was going to be a pain to hike back up at the end of the hike. The trail does have a few switchbacks, but the overall descent is tough on the knees as you descend about 800 feet in that half mile. At the 1.0 mile marker, we finally reached the bottom of the descent and a junction with the Massanutten Connector Trail. Take a left at this junction to stay on the main, orange-blazed Massanutten trail. The trail begins to climb slightly at this point and at 1.2 miles, you will reach a nice back-country campsite along the side of the Big Run stream. You’ll soon cross the stream (usually by balancing yourself along logs that have been laid across) and continue your climb. After the second stream crossing, the trail begins a steeper climb with a large switchback to help ease the elevation gain.
Eventually the trail met the stream again and due to the heavy rains, the trail was completely submerged. We ended up hiking what felt like almost a mile through a submerged trail by rock-hopping or just getting our feet wet and muddy. The trail finally separated from the water and leveled out and we reached the junction with the yellow-blazed Scothorn Gap trail at 3.0 miles. Take a right at this junction to stay on the orange-blazed Massanutten trail. The trail feels more like a fire road at this point, as you’ll climb up slightly. We were able to see a lot of the fire damage to the trees around, so there is little more than some lower brushy, understory on the trail at this point. At 3.6 miles, you reach the crest of the trail and can see some obstructed views straight ahead. At this point, look around to your right. We found a small cairn on the ground and were able to see some red and purple blazes higher than eye-level on a few trees to mark the beginning of the purple-blazed trail to the summit of Strickler Knob. The purple blazes at this point are typically marked on the rocks where you step. The trail is very rocky at this point and you will be walking the ridgeline until you reach the summit. The trail can also be a little hard to follow, but if you keep looking for the blazes and just remember you are walking the crest of the ridge, you should be fine.
At 4.2 miles, you reach a very nice viewpoint where you can get great views to the west. Keep pressing forward and you’ll soon need to climb up a larger rock wall and then pass by a primitive campsite. Just a few 100 feet away, you will reach the larger boulders of Strickler Knob at 4.5 miles. You’ll see a large rock overhang that you’ll climb under. There is a small area to take in a few views to the right. For those that are most adventurous, the best views are to the left where the overhang is. If you feel comfortable, you will need to navigate a crack between the two larger rock formations and hoist yourself up to the top of the rocks. The views from both rock formations are absolutely breathtaking as you have 360-degree views from all around the valley.
After eating a packed lunch, we made our way back the way we came. We did have to face the waterlogged trail again. We came across several groups on our way back that were also looking for directions. One girl asked me if there was any other way back to the car other than going back up Waterfall Mountain. I suggested that they make their way back through Scothorn Gap and then walk Crisman Hollow Road back. We all definitely wished we didn’t have that steep trek back up Waterfall Mountain to do. It is a very steep trail almost straight up the mountain and it takes quite an athlete to do this without taking a breather at some point on the return. When we finally reached the top, we congratulated our success and then made the last .5 miles back to our car.
When we were hiking the trail, I kept thinking about the MMT 100 racers that were running this trail. We had come across one of the race-workers and he told us that most of the fast runners were coming through this area near Waterfall Mountain around 8 p.m. So, if you were a little slower than that you would be running this trail in the dark with a headlamp. I can’t even imagine how tough this would be and how any of them would escape injury from running into a tree, twisting an ankle, or falling down the trail.
I would also recommend for most people to do the hike from Scothorn Gap instead of the route we took. It is a lot of extra effort with nothing overly impressive to see along the way.
It was great to see our friends again. We were all getting ready to head to the Great Smoky Mountains soon, so this was great training before we had to handle some of the tougher terrain that the park had to offer.
- Distance – 9.1 miles
- Elevation Change – About 2250 ft.
- Difficulty – 5. This rating is earned by both the hike length, the scramble to the knob, and the ascent of Waterfall Mountain that comes right at the end of the hike. For an easier version of this hike, start at Scothorn Gap.
- Trail Conditions – 2. No switchbacks, soggy streambeds, a couple crossings that can be challenging in wet weather, and a tough scramble. This is not a beginner’s hike.
- Views – 5. Views from the knob are spectacular.
- Streams/Waterfalls – 2.5. The usually low streams were beautiful and running high when we visited, but they’re probably usually less impressive.
- Wildlife – 0. This trail is popular enough to scare away most wildlife.
- Ease to Navigate – 2. Trails are sporadically blazed and can be hard to follow. The junctions for trails leading to to the knob do not mention Strickler Knob. We suggest bringing a map on this hike.
- Solitude – 2. This trail has become extremely popular!
Directions to trailhead: From I-81, take exit 264 heading east through New Market. Head east on West Old Cross Road for .2 miles. Turn left on to US-11/N. Congress Street. In .3 miles, turn right on to US-211/Lee Highway. Go 3.6 miles and turn left on to Crisman Hollow Road (it is right before the green building on your right that is the Massanutten Visitors Center). Follow Crisman Hollow Road for 2.2 miles (passing by the parking lot for the Massanutten Storybook Trail) until you reach where the orange-blazed Massanutten Mountain Trail crosses the road and the small parking area. Park here, cross the road and start the trail.