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Dolly Sods – Rohrbaugh Plains to Red Creek

October 9, 2016

This 10 mile (round-trip) hike takes you past some of Dolly Sods most beautiful scenery.  The dense rhododendron thickets, unblazed trails, and rugged terrain will have you feeling like you’re truly in the wild.  Camping along Red Creek is popular and can be crowded with weekend backpackers, but it’s still one of West Virginia’s most spectacular places.

View the Full Album of Photos From This Hike

Beautiful Red Creek

Beautiful Red Creek was our destination for this short overnighter. Below: Our excellent hiking crew (Maia the dog not included in the photo!);  Making our way onto the Rohrbaugh Plains Trail; The trail is only lightly maintained so you have to climb blowdowns and navigate without the help of blazes.

Our Hiking Crew Start of the Rohrbaugh Plains Trai Rohrbaugh Plains Trail

Day One…

Back in early June, we were at happy hour with our friends Christy and Brian.  Over beers, we cooked up a vague plan for a weekend backpacking trip in late July.  In the weeks to come, we added our mutual friend, Kris, into the mix and settled on a route.  The plan was to take two cars, and do a trans-navigation of Dolly Sods starting at the picnic area and ending at Bear Rocks.  It was about a 16 mile route with tons of camping options along Red Creek.

As it turned out, a heat wave settled over the mid-Atlantic that weekend.  It was the hottest, most humid weekend of the summer.  We still thought we could make the full 16 miles, so we met at Bear Rocks and shuttled in our car to the start point at the Dolly Sods Picnic area.  On the ride, we learned that you really can fit five adults, five big backpacks, and one German Shepherd in a Subaru Forester. It was like a clown car!

We parked at a small pullout near the picnic area, and picked up the Rohrbaugh Plains Trail on the opposite side of the road.  The trail meandered through dense rhododendron forest.  A lot of the rhododendron was Rosebay near the peak of its bloom.  So pretty! The air was thick, still, and heavy with humidity. It felt like walking through the jungle.  At one point, Kris said, “I feel like we might see monkeys!’

Meadows on the Rohrbaugh Trail

Walking through meadows. Below: Maia enjoys a shady pool under the rhododendrons; Walking across Rohrbaugh Cliffs; A nice spot for lunch!

Maia Enjoys a Shady Pool Arriving at Rohrbaugh Cliffs Lunch Stop

The trails in Dolly Sods are well-traveled but very lightly maintained.  There are no blazes.  The only wayfinding signs are at trail junctions.  There are lots of rocks, blowdowns, and mud pits to navigate. Even though the area is complete wilderness, the high traffic through the area keeps the trails apparent and fairly easy to follow.

We walked the Rohrbaugh Plains trail for about 2.5 miles before reaching the spectacular viewpoint off Rohrbaugh Cliffs.  The area is near and dear to my heart because it was one of the first places I ever camped in the backcountry. The cliffs offer great views across the valley to the Lions Head (another popular rocky outcropping in Dolly Sods) and down into the Red Creek basin.  Just past the cliffs, there is a patch of open forest with space for many tents.  It’s still one of the most beautiful campsites I’ve ever had the pleasure of staying at.

We decided to take a lunch break at the cliffs.  At first, the breeze across the open terrain felt nice.  Maybe the heat wasn’t so bad?  But after a few minutes of sitting in the direct sun, we were all pretty hot.  I could feel my shoulders starting to burn.  After lunch, we packed up and continued another .6 mile down the Rohrbaugh Plains Trail.  At 3.1 miles, we passed the junction with the Wildlife Trail.  We stayed to the left, continuing on the Rohrbaugh Plains trail.

We passed a small (mostly dry) waterfall and crossed over some extremely rocky footing. At 3.5 miles the Rohrbaugh Trail meets the Fisher Spring Run Trail.  We followed the Fisher Spring Trail to the left, beginning to descend for 1.2 miles.  At first the descent is smooth a gradual, but it becomes steeper and follows a couple switchbacks down to a rocky crossing of Fisher Spring Run.

Setting Up Camp

We set up camp at a large site along Red Creek. Below: Most of the trails in Dolly Sods are rocky; Crossing Fisher Springs Run before arriving at camp; Our campsite had a private swimming hole nearby.

Rocky Trail Crossing Fisher Spring Run Our Private Swimming Hole

After the crossing , the trail follows the stream on high ground.  There are several nice campsites at the bottom of extremely steep spur trails.  A few sections of this trail are quite eroded, leaving the trail narrow and precipitous.  Take your time and watch your footing, especially if you’re carrying a heavy pack.

At 4.7 miles the Fisher Spring Run Trail ends at the Red Creek Trail.  We took a right, following the trail down toward Red Creek.  In about three tenths of a mile, we passed the first of many stellar campsites.  At the very first one, I thought to myself, “That’s a really sweet campsite.  I wouldn’t mind sleeping here!’

Our group decided to take a break and discuss camping plans and how much of the route we wanted to cover on day one of our trip.  We all agreed that we were pretty hot, the campsite was ideal, and Red Creek looked really inviting.  We figured on day two, we could either hike 11 miles or hike out the way we came in and make our trip a short 10-mile out-and-back.

Adam and I explored several more campsites along the stream before agreeing that the very first site was the prettiest and most private.  There was easily space for four tents.  The ground was flat and clear.  We had easy access to water.  We even had a large fire pit with a stone couch someone had constructed. We all unpacked and set up camp. Maia, our friends’ German Shepherd, supervised the operations.  She was on her first backpacking trip ever, and she took to it like a pro!

Red Creek

Red Creek is a beautiful place to camp and swim.  Below:  Fun in the water and fun at camp!

Swimming in Red Creek Swimming in Red Creek Swimming in Red Creek
Swimming in Red Creek Enjoying Red Creek red creek 18

It was only around 2:30, so most of us spent the entire afternoon swimming and playing in Red Creek. The water was so cold and refreshing. The small rapids and waterfalls felt like hydrotherapy for our hot, tired muscles. Adam opted to restock everyone’s water and read a book at camp, but even he enjoyed splashing in the cold water near camp.

Around 5:00 we decided to get dinner started.  Everyone brought their own dinner, but Christy and Brian brought a shared dessert – Rocky Road pudding.  Kris contributed a two-bottle capacity bag of wine to the feast.  After dinner we played cards and sat around our campfire.  Even at 9:00 p.m., it was still 75 degrees.  That’s unusually warm for Dolly Sods at night!

Around 10:00 we let the fire die down, and everyone started retreating to their tents.  Adam and I opted to leave the rain fly off in hopes that it would keep us cooler.  Honestly, it didn’t really cool off until sometime around 3:00 a.m.  It was a steamy night and I was very glad to have left my sleeping bag home in favor of a light summer quilt.  I enjoyed falling asleep to the sound of the running stream.  Any time I woke up during the night, I took a moment to marvel at the brilliance and magnitude of the stars in the sky.  It’s such a gift to be able to visit places like this and have good friends to share the experience. I felt so fortunate that night in my tent.

Day Two…

The next morning we awoke at daybreak.  We thought Maia would have woken up the group, but she was a perfect camp companion and let us get up when we wanted.  We enjoyed some of Christine’s homemade granola with Nido and then made our way back to the car.  With a warm night and temperatures climbing quickly in the morning, we decided to get an early start to get back to our cars before the temperatures peaked in the afternoon.  It is always uncomfortable when you feel like you never had a chance to cool down, so everyone felt hot within a few minutes back on the trail.

Camp Dog

Maia did great on her first backpacking trip. Below: Hiking back out the way we came in!

Hiking Out Hot and Humid More Rocks to Cross

We climbed back up the steep Red Creek Trail and Fisher Spring Run trail very slowly as we were all quickly drenched with sweat.  We got back to the junction with the Rohrbaugh Trail in about 1.5 miles and we knew our toughest work was behind us.  In another .4 miles, we reached the junction with the Wildlife Trail and took a right to make our way to the Rohrbaugh Cliffs again.  We paused for a snack and some more pictures from Rohrbaugh Cliffs, which is probably my favorite spot in Dolly Sods.  Looking over the creek and seeing nothing but mountains around you is a scene that begs you to pause and appreciate nature.

Rohrbaugh Cliffs

Taking in the view from Rohrbaugh Cliffs. Below: The small waterfall along the Rohrbaugh Trail was running very low; Climbing on the rocks of Rohrbaugh Cliffs; Back to the Forest Road.

Small Waterfall Rohrbaugh Cliffs The End

With the strong sun beating down, we decided to press on and continue our journey back to the car.  We made our way back fairly quickly, passing by a group of about 10 women that were enjoying the weekend as well.  We got back to our car just a bit before lunch and carpooled Christy, Brian, and Maia back to their car.  We had a great adventure together and we were really glad to share this amazing piece of wilderness.  We parted ways with Christy and Brian, and Christine, Kris, and I headed to Lost River Brewing Company in Wardensville, WV for some celebratory beers and food.  It was a great trip, but we vowed to return when it isn’t the hottest weekend of the year to do the traverse across Dolly Sods like we originally planned.

If you are looking for a hike or overnight trip that combines majestic views, creeks with a waterfall and swimming possibilities, and great overnight camping, this may be a perfect one to experience.

Trail Notes

  • Distance – 10 miles
    (Check out the stats from Map My Hike [Day One] [Day Two])*
  • Elevation Change –  1480 feet
  • Difficulty – 3.  The elevation gain/loss is moderate, but the rugged nature of the footing adds difficulty to this route.
  • Trail Conditions –  2.  Trails are unblazed.  Be prepared for mud, blowdowns, and lots of rocks.
  • Views – 5.  The view from Rohrbaugh Cliffs is pretty spectacular!
  • Waterfalls/streams – 5.  You will want to spend all day enjoying the beautiful rapids and waterfalls along Red Creek.  This is some of the best stream swimming in West Virginia.
  • Wildlife – 2.  We saw a white tail doe with two fawns on the drive in, but generally the woods were quiet and we didn’t feel like there was much wildlife in the camping area.
  • Ease to Navigate – 2.  There are no blazes, but junctions were marked, and the trail was generally easy to follow.  Navigation gets trickier near Red Creek where you depend on cairns to mark stream crossings.
  • Solitude – 3.  This is tough to call!  We saw almost nobody on the trail when we were hiking, but there were many people camped along Red Creek.

MapMyHike is not necessarily accurate, as the GPS signal fades in and out – but it still provides some fun and interesting information.

Download a trail map (PDF)

Directions to trailhead:  GPS Coordinates for Parking are 38.962019, -79.355024. From Seneca Rocks, go North on WV 28 for 12 miles.  Take a left on Jordan Run Road.  Go one mile up Jordan Run Road and take a left on to Forest Road 19.  In 6 miles, Forest Road 19 comes to a T on to Forest Road 75.  Take a right, heading north on Forest Road 75.  Drive for about eight miles until you reach the Dolly Sods Picnic Area. The Rohrbaugh Plains Trailhead will be across the road from the picnic area.

Hidden Rocks

September 5, 2016

This 2.5 mile hike passes a small waterfall and two beautiful rock crags.  The views are pretty limited, but it’s still a worthwhile hike in the vicinity of Hone Quarry.  If you visit in early July, the blooming Rosebay rhododendron is impressive!

View the Full Album of Photos From This Hike

Hidden Rocks View

Tony and Adam launched a drone from the top of Hidden Rocks. Below: Adam crosses Rocky Run – a small stream on the hike; The trail splits and makes a lariat loop near this pretty small waterfall; Blooming Rosebay Rhododendron.

Crossing Rocky Run Small Waterfall and Pool on Rocky Run Blooming Rosebay Rhododendron

Adam Says…

Hidden Rocks was truly trying to stay hidden from us.  It took a while for us to find the location of this hike from another website, it was steering us about 35 minutes off course.  We ultimately arrived at the correct parking area and met up with Tony and Linda from Hiking Upward to start our hike for the day.  This hike is relatively easy and if you want to just do a quick, out-and-back hike to the main rock outcropping, you would be looking at around a two mile hike.  We decided to make a loop out of this hike and at the time, there wasn’t a lot of information about this hike.

The hike started from the right of the parking area.  The yellow-blazed trail starts fairly easily and consists of a few ups and downs, reminiscent of a roller coaster before finally descending down to Rocky Run which you will reach at .65 miles.  Crossing the stream, you can see there is a smaller trail that branches to the right, but stick to the left.  You will quickly come into a thick tunnel of rhododendron.  You cross Rocky Run a couple of more times before reaching a small, scenic waterfall at .9 miles.  Here, the trail splits as you will see yellow blazes that go to the left and right of the waterfall.  Take the trail to the right of the waterfall (the left trail will be how you return on the loop) that leads steeply above the waterfall area.

Rock Climber at Hidden Rocks

A rock climber descending Hidden Rocks. Below: Christine and Adam atop Hidden Rocks; Ripening blueberries at the top of the crag; A sideview of Hidden Rocks.

Christine & Adam Atop the Crag Ripening Blueberries Side View of Hidden Rocks

In a short distance, we arrived at the base of the Hidden Rocks face where we came across a man rock climbing and rappelling off the structure.  The trail skirts along the left of the rock base and then climbs steeply up some rocky steps.  At the top of the trail, the trail splits.  Head up to the right on some wooden steps to reach the top of the Hidden Rocks structure that you saw from the base a few moments ago.  There was a campsite at the top and a couple of ledges that you could enjoy the view.

Tony set up his drone to take pictures and video of the area around us.  We were hoping to get some shots of the rock climber, but he had just switched spots on where he wanted to climb, so it took him a long time to position ropes to start his rappel.  Tony let me even steer the drone a bit which was a blast.  Christine and I posed for a high elevation selfie before we packed up the drone and continued our hike.

We went back to where the trail split leading us to the rock outcropping and then continued on the trail.  This part of the trail was less-traveled and narrow.  After skirting along another large rock face, I found a break between two large rock areas and decided to explore.  I had to climb by holding onto rocks and roots, making it not an easily accessible sidetrip that should only be done if you feel capable. I ventured out to the right and left areas of the rock.  The rock to the right led to precarious footing and fearing I was going to look for a handhold and upset a timber rattler, I decided to not go any further on that rock.  On the left rock, I found a way to climb to the very top and found a very small perch to enjoy some views that I thought were better than those on Hidden Rocks.  I called back down to the rest of the group and Tony and Christine decided to climb up also.  We then made our way down the steep decline and joined Linda back on the trail.

The trail descends rather steeply after this point, causing us to take our time make sure we had good footing.  We reached another stream crossing at 1.4 miles and at 1.6 miles we were back at the small waterfall, completing the small lollipop loop of this hike.  We retraced our steps and made it back to our car at 2.5 miles.

Christine Says…

We were thrilled to see Tony and Linda again for the second time in the span of just a few weeks! We were also pleased to have cooler, less humid weather for this hike (compared to the sauna-like conditions we had for our hike at Shrine Mont). The morning started off with a bit of chaos related to bad directions. We originally found the Hidden Rocks hike outlined on the Virginia Wilderness Committee website.  Their write-up included GPS coordinates that took us to some random road – in the middle of nowhere – about 30 minutes from the actual trailhead.  We arrived at their designated coordinates and found ourselves in the totally wrong place with no cell phone service.  Fortunately, Tony and Linda were also running a few minutes late, and we all arrived at the trailhead parking around the same time.

The hike started off over a mini ‘roller coaster’ – with the trail steeply ascending and descending over a series of gullies and washes.  Eventually, we descended a gentle hill down to Rocky Run – a shallow, winding stream.  The trail was shaded by a tunnel of Rosebay Rhododendron that was just starting to bloom.  At about a mile in, the route got a bit confusing when we reached a split in the trail near a small waterfall.  The Virginia Wilderness directions said there was a loop trail, but added that the loop route was not on their map (it’s on ours – see below).  We took a guess and headed steeply uphill on the trail on the right side of the split.  In just a couple tenths of a mile, we arrived at the bottom of a towering rock wall – Hidden Rocks.  There was a local guy rock climbing.  He had a beautiful Vizsla dog – she barked a lot, but was very friendly and hung out with us the entire time we visited the rock.

Hidden Cracks

The second crag on the hikes is known locally as Hidden Cracks. Below: The view from the top of Hidden Cracks; Christine scrambles down Hidden Cracks; We enjoyed beers and Grillizza Pizza after the hike.

The Top of Hidden Cracks Descending Hidden Cracks Grillizza Pizza

To reach the summit of Hidden Rocks, we followed the trail along the left side of the crag, eventually climbing steeply to the top via a small set of constructed stairs.  The top of Hidden Rocks has two outcroppings and a spacious campsite with a fire ring.  The views are limited – all you really see is another hillside of trees across the ravine.  If you’re looking for expansive views of mountains, distant valleys, or the lake in Hone Quarry – this is not the hike for you!  Fortunately, the outcropping still gave Tony enough room to launch his drone.  He was able to get a few cool shots looking back at Hidden Rocks.

From Hidden Rocks, we came back down the stairs and continued following the trail across the ridge.  We passed another towering cliffside on the right – this one called Hidden Cracks.  Adam found a split in the rocks with a jumble of boulders.  We were able to climb to the top and get another view – this one included an obstructed peek at some distant mountains.  Soon after Hidden Cracks, the trail descended, crossed the stream again. We arrived back to the split in the trail that made the loop, passing the small waterfall once again.  From there, we retraced our steps back to the parking area.

After our hike, we headed back into Harrisonburg so that we could take Tony and Linda on a tour of Harrisonburg’s craft beer scene.  We started off at Wolfe Street, then proceeded to Billy Jack’s for lunch.  The day rounded out with stops at Pale Fire and Brothers (with dinner from the Grillizza food truck).  It was a fun day and we really enjoyed exploring this little gem of a hike!

Trail Notes

  • Distance – 2.5 miles
    (Check out the stats from Map My Hike)*
  • Elevation Change –  390 feet
  • Difficulty –  2.  This is doable by most people.  If you do the entire loop, be careful climbing up to the top of the other rock outcropping.  That short climb feels more like a 4-4.5.
  • Trail Conditions –  3.5.  Overall the trail was in great condition, but the lollipop loop part of the trail was not as maintained.
  • Views –  2.5.  The views were nice, but not as expansive as I would have liked since most of your views are blocked by the mountain directly in front.  
  • Waterfalls/streams   2.  Rocky Run was pretty with rhododendron nearby.  The small waterfall creates a peaceful setting.
  • Wildlife – 0.  We didn’t see anything. 
  • Ease to Navigate – 2.5.  There weren’t any signs for junctions which caused us to get confused about which way to go when we first crossed Rocky Run and again at the waterfall junction.
  • Solitude – 4.  This isn’t heavily used, but you may see some people at the top of Hidden Rocks or rock climbing. 

Download a trail map (PDF)

Directions to trailhead: GPS Coordinates for this hike are 38.44813, -79.12205.

MapMyHike is not necessarily accurate, as the GPS signal fades in and out – but it still provides some fun and interesting information.

 

Dragons Tooth

August 29, 2016

This five mile loop features a fun rock scramble and a view from atop one of Virginia’s most interesting rock formations.  It’s considered part of the ‘Triple Crown’ of Virginia hiking that also includes McAfee Knob and Tinker Cliffs.

View the Full Album of Photos From This Hike

Atop the Dragons Tooth

Adam climbs on Dragons Tooth. Below: Trail signage; The trail starts off as a wide, gentle path; Most of the climb to the junction with the AT is moderate.

Dragons Tooth Signage Dragons Tooth Trail Dragons Tooth Trail Stream Crossing

Christine Says…

When Adam proposed doing Dragons Tooth, I had mixed feelings. On one hand, I eventually want to hike every bit of the Appalachian Trail – especially the most famous and scenic parts. But, I’m a bit fearful on rock scrambles and precipitous drops. From reputation, Dragons Tooth is called by some ‘the toughest mile’ of AT south of Mahoosuc Notch. The section includes slick stone slabs, narrow ledges, and even iron rungs affixed to the rocks to aid with the traverse.  With my come-and-go vertigo, terrain like that typically isn’t my cup of tea. I also heard the trail was extremely crowded and nothing feels worse that freaking out on a rock scramble with a huge crowd of people watching you and waiting to traverse behind you.  In the end, I psyched myself up and we chose a quiet cloudy Wednesday to visit this well-known landmark.

We got an early start and arrived at the parking lot around 9:00 a.m.  It was practically empty, just a couple cars and a forest service truck.  We started up the blue-blazed Dragons Tooth Trail.  About a quarter mile in, we passed the junction with the Boy Scout Trail.  Bearing right, we continued a 1.2 mile moderate ascent of the Dragons Tooth Trail.

When we gained the ridge, we found ourselves at a beautiful, large (dry) campsite at Lost Spectacles Gap.  This is where the Dragons Tooth Trail meets up with the Appalachian Trail.  We turned right and continued south on the Appalachian Trail.   We soon passed a sign warning ‘CAUTION: The next mile of trail is rocky and steep’.

Adam Negotiates the Rock Scramble

The climb to Dragons Tooth has quite a bit of rock scrambling. Below: The campsite at Lost Spectacles Gap (right before the scramble begins); A warning sign about the terrain; Christine scrambles.

Campsite at Lost Spectacles Gap Warning - Rocks Ahead Hmmm...

They were not kidding!  Almost immediately, we found ourselves climbing stone stairs and clambering over roots.  As we climbed, the rocks turned to boulders and the hike turned to a scramble.  White blazes and directional arrows were painted onto the rocks to direct your route through the jumble.  Every now and then, we would get a nice view of the valley through the trees.  We came to one spot that was basically a sheer 20 foot cliff-face to climb.  There were ledges, each several inches wide, that traversed the cliff and could be used as toe holds. (see a detailed shot of this cliff – notice the arrow pointing straight up!)  I definitely panicked and hyperventilated a little bit at this pass, but I made it through with minimal drama.

After the cliff face, there were lots more rocks and a couple sections with iron rungs fastened to the rocks, but nothing as fear-inducing as that cliff.  Finally we made it to the top of Cove Mountain and were just a short easy stroll from the actual Dragons Tooth.

The ‘Tooth’ is an impressive quartzite monolith that juts from a clearing in the woods.  The views from the bottom are nice, but to enjoy Dragons Tooth in all its glory, you need to climb to the top.  Of course, if you don’t feel physically able or have a fear of heights, it’s probably better to skip the crawl to the top.  But, I thought the climb was easier than it looked, and was glad I did it.

Rocks with Rungs

Some of the rocks had iron rungs to help with climbing. Below: Scenery along the scramble.

Stairs in the Rock Views Along the Scramble Another Set of Rungs

To get to the top, look for a footpath that circles behind the Tooth.  There is a large crack in the middle that allows you to make your way up a fin of rock that leads up the backside of the Tooth.  You’ll duck under a boulder that’s wedged in the crack and then pull yourself up to the top.  Once at the top, we enjoyed magnificent views!  The nice thing about hiking it on a weekday was that we had the entire place to ourselves.  We saw very few people the entire day and sat atop Dragons Tooth alone for almost half an hour.

After we sufficiently enjoyed the view, we made our way back down.  At first, the hike back follows the same route.  This meant doing the entire rock scramble again!  Going down, I felt much more confident and didn’t have any problems.   However, not everyone was feeling as secure and happy as me.  Near the top of the scramble, we came across a mother/daughter pair of section hikers.  They had started in Georgia and were aiming to make it to Pennsylvania.  The mother had suffered a bad fall with injuries earlier on the trail, and was paralyzed with fear on the first set of iron rungs.  I’ll let Adam share the story in his write-up, but I will say that he played the role of a true Trail Angel for them that day.

Arriving at Dragons Tooth

The tooth sits like a solitary fang rising from the ground. Below: The path leads behind the Tooth and to a crack in the rock; An opening in the rocks on the climb up Dragons Tooth; A boulder to cli,b under.

Go This Way Scrambling to the Top of Dragons Tooth Ducking Under the Suspended Boulder

We eventually arrived back at Lost Spectacles Gap. Instead of taking the Dragons Tooth Trail back down to the parking lot, we continued north on the Appalachian Trail.  This involved a little more climbing, but gave us access to several more beautiful views. We followed the AT for almost a mile until it met up with the yellow-blazed Boy Scout Trail.  We took a left onto the Boy Scout Trail and followed it for about a quarter mile where it crossed the blue-blazed Dragons Tooth trail.  It was just another quarter mile back to the parking area.  What a great hike!  Even though I’m not a fan of rock scrambles, I thought this hike was fun and very rewarding.

Adam Says…

Well, Christine has pointed out some of the rough parts and why this hike may be scary for some people.  Part of the reason that we both do write-ups for each post is because we have different perspectives.  I would probably put Dragons Tooth in my Top 10 Favorite View Hikes in Virginia That Everyone Should Do.  What else makes that list (in no particular order), you ask?  Mt. Rogers, Old Rag, Three Ridges, The Priest, Sharp Top, McAfee Knob, Mary’s Rock, Strickler Knob, and Big Schloss.  I remember hiking Dragons Tooth when I was in my later high school years and I have been bugging Christine to do it for years.  Christine has some real vertigo issues and nobody likes to see their spouse go through fearful moments, but I knew she could get through this.  We had planned to do a week of AT hiking in June, but our dogs have been getting older and leaving them behind for a week is getting harder and harder to do.  So, I did a stay-cation that week at home and Christine took a day off work to join me for this day hike, we drove down in the morning and were back home in time for dinner.

For our plans for a week on the AT, we had thought about hiking the section that included Virginia’s Triple Crown, which includes Dragons Tooth, Tinker Cliffs, and McAfee Knob.  Since we changed our plans, we picked out this loop which provided us with Dragons Tooth, but also gave us some time to try out a few of the side trails that connect close to the summit of Dragons Tooth.

The View From Dragons Tooth

Nice views from the top of Dragons Tooth. Below: More scenes from the top of Dragons Tooth.

Dragons Tooth Dragons Tooth Dragons Tooth

We arrived before 9AM and during the week, so I’m sure this parking lot gets packed on beautiful weekends.  We made a pit stop at the toilets located at the elevated section above the parking lot and then proceeded to the trailhead, located by a kiosk at the back end of the parking lot.  The beginning of this blue-blazed section of trail is very level and flat.  At .25 miles, we crossed a small bridge and came to an intersection with the Boy Scout Trail (your return trip on the loop).  We noticed a few nice spots for camping on this section of trail.  You cross the creek bed a few times, but the next 1.4 mile section is a very gradual, uphill climb.  At 1.65 miles, you reach the Lost Spectacles campsite and the junction with the white-blazed Appalachian Trail .  Take a right (heading south on the AT) to start your climb up to the top.  Christine talked a lot about this terrain.  I agree that it is an extremely tough stretch of trail.  You will find yourself watching where you place every foot and it will be slow-going as you have to scramble up a few rocky sections.  The roughest spot was the one Christine mentioned where you have to zigzag up a cliff-face on rock that is only as wide as your feet.  You have to be very careful through navigating these rocks at times, so if you are not comfortable with this type of terrain this may not be the best choice of hike for you.

Eventually we got to the top of the ridge around 2.25 miles up.  There is a nice viewpoint a few feet to the right of the trail, but you will head left to take the side summit trail to reach Dragons Tooth.  There are a few side trails to the left that lead to other views, but the best view is at Dragons Tooth.  At 2.4 miles, you reach Dragons Tooth.  You will see a cleared-out area and a small view between Dragons Tooth and a lesser tooth.  There aren’t any good signs pointing how to climb up to the top, but if you head to the right side, you will see a small trail that leads to the base on the right side of the tooth.  The fun part for me was trying to figure out how to climb up this.  At 45, I am not the most flexible of human beings and I tried climbing up other ways, feeling like I needed to do the splits to get up one way.  I then ducked under the small rock “pedal” Christine is pictured under below.  Ducking under that, I was then able to stand up and using rock holds, pull myself up to the top.  The views from the summit were phenomenal.  I told Christine I could help her figure out how to navigate and I am proud of her for summoning the courage to do it.  We took some pictures from the top and enjoyed the views for a few minutes before climbing down.  We found it hard to believe we had this Virginia treasure all to ourselves.  We climbed down and ate a snack at the area between the two teeth and enjoyed the views from a less precarious spot.  Another couple arrived at the summit and we made our way back down to allow them the privacy we enjoyed.

Boulder Lodged in Tooth

To climb up and down, you have to duck under this boulder. Below: Scenery at the base of Dragons Tooth; Views near the top; Adam carries an extra pack.

View From the Bottom of Dragons Tooth Views Near the Top An Extra Backpack

As soon as we were descending down from the ridge at the AT junction, we came across a thru-hiking mother and daughter.  They were incredibly cautious on the trail and after talking to them a bit, the mother told us about how she had fallen in Tennessee and this terrain was making her terrified.  They had to take a few weeks off for her to recover.  The mother had talked about quitting the trail, but they decided to press on.  The mother developed the trailname of “Bad Ass” after her ability to keep fighting.  After seeing Bad Ass’ apprehension and tears on the easier parts of the hike down from Dragons Tooth, we began to wonder how she would get through the next .7 miles.  I turned around and did the only thing I could think of and offered to carry her pack down to the Lost Spectacles camp.  I can understand this terrain would be scary with a lot of extra weight.  She eventually agreed this was a good idea, so I hoisted on her backpack (probably about 35 pounds) and then wore my backpack on my chest, making it a little difficult to see over the top where my feet were at all times. I pressed on quickly while Christine stayed with them for a while on the trail.  There were a few times I struggled as well with both packs on, but I was able to keep my feet under me and navigate through some of the tough sections.  I arrived at the Lost Spectacles camping area at 3.3 miles and waited.  Christine came down about 15 minutes later and it was probably another 15-20 minutes before Bad Ass and her daughter met up.  They thanked me profusely, but I was just glad to help out.  We all have to lift each other up when we have down times, so hopefully I was able to give them a bright spot in a tough day.

From the Lost Spectacles site, we continued along the Appalachian Trail heading north.  This section started off steep as well and did have just a couple small scrambles around some more rocky sections.  But there were several nice views along this section of the AT and I’m so glad we did this as a loop instead of an out-and-back hike.  This section of the AT, walks along a ridge and descends slightly, but you will have several opportunities to take in more views.  Eventually the trail descends into the woods.  At around 4.3 miles, we arrived at a junction with the Boy Scout Trail.  We took this yellow-blazed trail and found it very steep as you are basically going straight down without any switchbacks.  The trail didn’t have anything overly scenic on it worth mentioning, but it provided a quick return to the Dragons Tooth trail at 4.7 miles.  We took a right at the junction and were back at our car around 5 miles.

View from the Appalachian Trail

There are several more nice views along the Appalachian Trail portion of the hike. Below: Following the AT north; Climbing some of the rock slabs on the Appalachian Trail; Berries

Trail Junction Appalachian Trail Blueberries

Once we got back to our car, we got on the interstate and headed north.  We had heard about Three Li’l Pigs Barbecue in Daleville, VA as being a favorite spot for thru-hikers so we decided to check it out.  The food there was magnificent and we saw a couple of thru-hikers there enjoying the big quantities of food.  After stuffing my face, I was tempted into also ordering some banana pudding for dessert but I found a way to fit it all in.  As we were leaving, we quickly saw some fast-moving thunderstorms moving in quickly.  Near Three Li’l Pigs in the same shopping center we stopped in Outdoor Trails – an outdoor outfitter store.  This shopping center had the bulk of what every thru-hiker would need for a zero day (a day where they would do zero miles).  A barbecue spot, an outfitter, a grocery store, a coffee shop, and a hotel directly across the street.  If you’re doing a section of the Appalachian Trail, Daleville would be a great place to stop and resupply.

We got stuck in terrible thunderstorms on our drive home. We were thankful that we did the hike earlier and weren’t stuck in the deluge.  While some of the hiking was a bit frightening for Christine, we ultimately had a wonderful day on the hike!  If you are comfortable with rock scrambles and open ledges and haven’t done this hike yet, put it on your must-do list and it may make your top 10 list for Virginia as well.

Appalachian Trail

This section of Appalachian Trail has such varied terrain. Below: More views along the AT; The Boy Scout Trail; Three Li’l Pigs BBQ.

More Views The Boy Scout Trail Three Li'l Pigs BBQ

Trail Notes

  • Distance – 5 miles
    Check out the stats from Map My Hike*
  • Elevation Change – 1215 ft.
  • Difficulty –  3.5.  The rock scramble provides a bit of challenge on an otherwise solidly moderate hike. 
  • Trail Conditions – 2.  The scramble is mostly sandstone, so it can be slick with grit/sand.  It’s also very slippery when there’s been recent rain.
  • Views  5.  There are viewpoints all along the hike and you can’t beat the view from the top of the tooth!
  • Streams/Waterfalls – 1.  There is a small stream that could be used as a water source near the trailhead.
  • Wildlife – 1.  The trail is heavily traveled and wildlife seems to steer mostly clear of the area.
  • Ease to Navigate – 4.  The trail signs are easy to follow and blazes are abundant.
  • Solitude – 1.  We hiked this early on an overcast weekday morning, so we enjoyed quite a bit of solitude.  However, expect crowds and significant trail traffic at more popular times.

MapMyHike is not necessarily accurate, as the GPS signal fades in and out – but it still provides some fun and interesting information.

Download a Trail Map (PDF)

Directions to trailhead:  GPS coordinates for the parking area are: 37°22’44.5″N 80°09’22.1″W.  From I-81, take exit 141.  Turn left onto VA-419 N.  Follow for .4 mile.  Turn right onto VA-311 N.  Follow for 9.5 miles.  The parking area will be on the left.

Stairway to Heaven – Shrine Mont to North Mountain Rocks

August 7, 2016

This 5.6 mile hike offers a great scenic viewpoint, a cool rock formation to explore, and a chance to stroll around historic Shrine Mont.  While the hike is generally moderate, almost 1,150 feet of the the ascent occurs in just over a mile of trail.

View the Full Album of Photos From This Hike

Download a Map of All Trails Around Shrine Mont

Rocks on Great North Mountain

The rocky outcropping on Great North Mountain offered spectacular views. Below: Orkney Springs – water pours from the rocks; The Shrine at Shrine Mont – a beautiful outdoor chapel; The Cross Trail included the Stations of the Cross.

Orkney Springs The Shrine at Shrine Mont Stations of the Cross on the Cross Trail

Adam Says…

Tony and Linda from Hiking Upward had suggested we tackle this hike together from Shrine Mont.  We met up on the porch of the Virginia House.  Since Christine and I got there a little early, we went inside this main lodge building and found a copy of their trail map at the front lobby.  Most of the people there were there for a church retreat.  When we got together, we walked down the road and found a sign directing us to the shrine.  We walked up to the shrine, which was a cute outdoor chapel made of stone, reminding me of an old historical spanish mission church where the congregation would meet up in an outdoor location to worship.

At the shrine, you will see a kiosk and sign pointing to the cross and north mountain, which will start the main hike.  Along this part of the trail, you will pass by signs along the way that depict the Stations of the Cross.  The trail leads along a side of a large hill.  Once the trail switches back, you arrive at the large cross and Cross Observation Deck at 1.1 miles.  You can climb up a few flights to an observation deck.  We were hoping for a nice view at the top – maybe there was at one time, but the overgrown trees have taken away most of the view.

The Cross Tower at Shrine Mont

Shrine Mont has a large cross built atop an observation deck. Below: Views from the deck; The cross; Seventeen year cicadas were everywhere on the day we hiked.

View from Shrine Mont Cross The Shrine Mont Cross Seventeen Year Cicada

Continuing along, the trail walked a ridgeline for a short time before descending again.  At 1.75 miles, we reached a junction and took a left to start the trail up North Mountain.  You quickly pass a forest road and at 1.85 miles, you will arrive at another junction (the Bradford Trail branches off to the left).  Stay straight on the North Mountain Trail, which follows a gravel road for a short distance, before turning left to stay on the trail.  The trail is a constant uphill from this point, with some of the trail being quite rocky and steep.  Around the 2.6 mile mark, we reached a large cliff.  I decided to explore a little further and found on the left side of the cliff, there was a way up that allowed me to walk along the shelf of the cliff as the rock sloped upward.  Of course, I wasn’t the first to get this idea as I found a fire ring and lots of graffiti on the cliff shelf.  I could see this being an interesting spot for rock climbers.

We jumped back on the trail and continued our climb up.  The trail was very steep and rocky in some of these next sections, making for a slow pace to the summit.  Eventually, you will skirt an edge where you get some obstructed views along the way and you won’t have much further.  We eventually made it at 3.3 miles to a campsite and the summit.  When you arrive, you will be at the back side of the views.  Go around to the right of the rocks and you will find some rocky ledges that you can climb up about 15 feet to get to the shelf of rocks for an outstanding view.  This climb up the rocks should only be done if you feel comfortable and I wouldn’t recommend this for families.  Once you climb over the top, you are on a sloping downward piece of rock covered with some slippery lichen.  There is a small area that you can sit and enjoy the views, but could be hard to accomplish if a lot of people are at the top at once.

Tony had brought along his drone to try and get some good photos of the scenery around us.  I helped him launch it and it got some great shots of us and the views all around.  When Tony was bringing it back in, he mixed up the controls and it came crashing down on the rockface and into the trees below.  We both made a path along the side of the rockface and scrambled through a ton of briars to retrieve the drone.  It turned out that it was still operational and we enjoyed watching the video of the crash and retrieval.

We made our way back down retracing our steps for most of the hike.  At 4.85 miles, when we reached the junction that would have led us back to the Cross Observation Deck, we instead stayed straight and followed the signs back to Shrine Mont.  The trail winds back down the mountain and goes behind some of the cabins of Shrine Mont.  We got back to the main road and the parking area at 5.6 miles.  We took a few minutes to explore the Shrine Mont area before making our way on to Woodstock Brewery for some food and drinks.

Adam on the Rock Formation

This rock formation was huge! Adam enjoyed climbing on it. Below: The hike had a few shallow, easy stream crossings; The trail was very rocky in many places; A nice campsite next to the summit.

Shallow Stream Crossing Rocky Shrine Mont Trail Summit Campsite

Christine Says…

We always enjoy a chance to meet up with our friends from Hiking Upward.  Tony and Linda suggested meeting at Shrine Mont and hiking to a rocky outcropping on Great North Mountain.

We thought we were doing an easy 3-4 mile hike, but it turned out to be a bit longer and much more challenging than expected. I think most of the challenge was due to two factors: 1) the heat/humidity and 2) most of the ascent was stacked into just a mile and a half of the hike.

I got my first hint that I wasn’t going to have an easy day on the trail when we started climbing to the Cross Observation Tower.  The trail to the cross is short but fairly steep.  I trudged along, thinking to myself ‘I feel really hot. I’m sort of lightheaded. I hope I don’t barf!’  By the time we got to the cross, I had to sit down and cool off. This was one of the first really hot and sunny days we hiked this summer and I just wasn’t used to it.  It didn’t help that my Camelbak was full of <gag> tepid tap water. 

For a while after the tower, the way was easy going. The trail was moss-covered and followed a gentle grade. We heard millions of cicadas singing in the trees.  It was a constant, other-worldly static sound.  We saw a few of the large insects clinging to branches, dead on the ground, or buzzing lazily around in the air. One of them even flew right into my face and bounced off my forehead. I was too hot to care. I didn’t even manage a half-hearted swat.

Adam Launching the Drone

Adam Launching the drone. Below: A look back at our group from Tony’s drone; Views from the rocks

View from the Drone North Mountain Rocks View North Mountain Rocks View

Eventually the Ridge Trail intersected with the North Link Trail.  We followed that for a short distance to the North Mountain Trail.  At first the North Mountain trail was deceptively easy.  I was feeling better and cooling off.  Then the trail started getting rockier.  We had to constantly watch our footing on the shifty rocks beneath our feet. After a couple tenths of a mile, the trail started to climb rather steeply uphill through stands of dense mountain laurel and rhododendron.  It felt close – the air was sweltering with no hint of a breeze. I started to feel woozy again.  Eventually, we reached the towering cliffside/cave in the middle of the woods.  We all took a break, cooled off, and some time to explore the rock formation.

After the break, the climbing got even steeper.  I’d hike a quarter mile and then need to rest.  I almost never take breaks unless there is something interesting to see.  In this case, I just thought it would be interesting not to pass out.  I found myself sitting on the ground with my head between my knees. I was so hot – I felt like a furnace was stoked up in the core of my body. The lukewarm water in my pack wasn’t doing anything to cool me off.  So, I took lots of breaks and trudged until we finally reached the ridgeline. At that point, the climbing moderated and we only had a few more tenths of a mile to go. But, we were also in more direct sun, so it was even hotter.  Adam was really the only one of us hiking at a quick pace. Tony and Linda were behind me a bit, and I kept watching the space between Adam and I get bigger and bigger.  I started seeing stars, and proclaimed to nobody in particular ‘I NEED TO SIT DOWN NOW OR I WILL PASS OUT!’  In a minute or two, Tony and Linda caught up and Linda poured ice water on my neck and head.  They were both hiking with frozen bottles of water and Gatorade.

After another rest, I was able to make the final push to the summit and its rocky outcropping.  I scrambled to the top of the rock and found a nice breezy spot to lie down and enjoy the magnificent view.  I ate a Larabar and watched Adam and Tony play with (and crash!) the drone.  After a pleasant stay at the top, we made our way down. The downhill hike was much faster and easier, and I felt completely normal again.  I’m not sure why I struggled so much with this hike.  Yes – it was hot and the climbing was stacked into one small section, but I’ve certainly done harder hikes on hotter days.  The only thing I can guess is that I was fatigued from doing a lot of hiking in the days leading up to the Shrine Mont hike.  I’d done a 16 mile, a 4 mile, and an 8 mile hike and was already pretty depleted.  In the hikes since this one, I’ve started making gigantic ice cubes for my Camelbak.  I have plastic mason jars that I fill and freeze.  The jars are just small enough that they just fit through the circular opening in the bladder, but they’re big enough to not melt quickly.

The Virginia House at Shrine Mont

The Virginia House at Shrine Mont. Below: Vegetation around the trail was dense; A nice place to sit by the Shrine Mont Pond; Post-hike goodness at Woodstock Brew House.

Dense Vegetation Shrine Mont Pond Woodstock Brew House

Our hike down followed the same route we came up for most of the way.  We were planning on turning onto the Bradford Trail, which would have added another mile or two to our hike.  But everyone was hot, tired, and thinking about beer – so we opted to follow the much shorter route down the North Link Trail back to Shrine Mont.

We got back to the cars, cleaned up, and made our way for an afternoon at Woodstock Brewery.  They had excellent barbecue and we all enjoyed their vanilla porter.

Trail Notes

  • Distance – 5.6 miles
    Check out the stats from Map My Hike*
  • Elevation Change – 1545 ft.
  • Difficulty –  4.  Some of this trail is quite rocky and steep making for a hard climb at the end.
  • Trail Conditions – 3.5.  The trail was well-maintained and traveled with very few blow-downs, but the rocky terrain makes for some tough steps.
  • Views  4.   If you aren’t bold enough to climb up the rock outcropping, this score would be a lot lower.  You are treated with a nice panoramic view if you do.
  • Streams/Waterfalls – 1.  There are some small stream views, but nothing substantial. 
  • Wildlife – 1.  This is a popular trail, so wildlife tends to stay away.
  • Ease to Navigate – 2.5.  The trail system is tricky.  Some of the junctions are not well-marked and labeled on the printed map.  Download both of the maps from this page and you should be fine.  On our way back, there were several options leading down to Shrine Mont, which could bring some confusion as well.
  • Solitude – 3.  We ran into some people that were staying for a retreat as well as locals. 

MapMyHike is not necessarily accurate, as the GPS signal fades in and out – but it still provides some fun and interesting information.

Download a Trail Map (PDF)

Directions to trailhead: Coordinates for parking are 38.795500, -78.815932

From Woodstock, VA, head southwest on VA-42 for 13.8 miles.  Turn right on State Route 720 and in .7 miles, stay straight to join State Route 721.  Go 1.5 miles and then stay straight (right fork) to join State Route 722.  Go .5 miles and turn right on to VA-263West.  Follow this for 3.7 miles and it will lead to Shrine Mont.  Park in the parking lot behind the pavilion and the main Virginia house.  Walking from the parking lot, take a left at the main road walking in front of the Virginia house and follow the road until you see signs directing you to the Shrine.

Mouse Creek Falls & Midnight Hole

July 17, 2016

Special: Smokies Edition

Introductory Guide to Visiting Great Smoky Mountains National Park Area

This is an easy 4.25 mile hike that take you to visit two special spots – a beautiful waterfall and one of the most popular swimming holes in the Smokies.

View the Full Album of Photos From This Hike

Mouse Creek Falls

Mouse Creek Falls may not be the largest or most impressive of the waterfalls in the Smokies, but it is still a beautiful spot.

Christine Says…

On our third day of the trip, we decided to head into the national park and explore an area we hadn’t visited before – Big Creek in Cataloochee.  This area is known for its population of elk, and for being much quieter than other parts of the park, like Cades Cove or Clingmans Dome.

The drive was  a bit further than our previous two hike, but we had heard that Mouse Creek Falls and Midnight Hole were both beautiful, worthwhile destinations.   As usual, we got an early start and beat the crowds to the trailhead.

Families Hike Up Big Creek

Easy terrain makes this a popular family hike. Below: Trailhead sign for Mouse Creek Falls; Adam standing along the stream; Horse hitch near the falls.

Trailhead Sign for Mouse Creek Falls Adam Stands Along Big Creek Horse Hitch Near Mouse Creek Falls

The hike up Big Creek really couldn’t be much simpler or easier.  It follows a wide, old road bed the entire way.  At first, you can hear the rushing sounds of the creek in the distance, but within several tenths of a mile, the trail begins to closely follow the water.

Like most creeks in the Smokies, Big Creek is a jumble of big boulders that create lots of cascading rapids and small waterfalls – so beautiful!  We saw a serious photographer hiking back from the falls with a large pack of gear and a heavy tripod.  He visited the falls on a perfect day for waterfall photography.  It was overcast and windless, which allows the opportunity for long exposure images.  I always love the silky misty effect a slow shutter speed lends to the water, and I was pretty happy with the shots I got on this hike!

On the hike up, we skipped Midnight Hole.  We figured we’d see the waterfall first, and then stop at other pretty spots on the hike back.  The falls were indeed lovely, though the mosquitoes and biting flies were abundant and aggressive!  This was the first and only time on the trip that I had to use bug spray.  We took tons of waterfall photos, and then made our way back down the trail.

Christine Enjoys the Rocks Around Mouse Creek Falls

Christine enjoys Mouse Creek Falls. Below: Pretty stream scenery along Big Creek.  Mouse Creek Falls are formed where smaller Mouse Creek pours into Big Creek.

Big Creek Big Creek Scenery Big Creek Scenery

On the way back, there were many more people out and about.  Lots of them were dressed in swimsuits and had water-wings and innertubes.  Apparently, this creek is one of the areas favorites for mountain swimming.  When we reached Midnight Hole, there was a family of five there.  The two youngest sons were taking turns plunging off rocks into the pool below.  It was a cool, cloudy day, so they squealed each time they hit the icy water.  The pool itself is deep and brilliant green – really an idyllic spot for a swim.

After leaving Midnight Hole, we stopped at a couple more pretty rapids along the stream for more photos.  When we were on the trail, we jogged to outrun the mosquito assault!  It was so buggy!

After this hike, we decided to drive into Asheville (yes… filthy and covered with bug spray) so we could visit a few breweries and get some lunch.  We also managed stops at Vortex Donuts and French Broad Chocolates.

Adam Says…

Mouse Creek Falls is an easy family hike that everyone can enjoy.  With the distance being only a little over two miles to the waterfall and very little change in elevation, it is a hike that even small kids won’t complain too much to do.

We started off early and had most of the trail to ourselves.  We saw there were lots of places to step off the side of the trail to get views of rocky rapids down Mouse Creek, but we decided to make a beeline for the main waterfall.  The trail had a slight incline, but never felt like a steep walk.  We arrived at Mouse Creek Falls and made a climb down to near the base of the falls to get some photos of the stream and the falls together.  If you don’t feel like climbing to the base, you can still get a distant, yet unobstructed view of the falls from the top.  When another family arrived, we decided to leave to give them the solitude that we enjoyed, but we were equally pressured by all the mosquitoes at the water.  We didn’t feel a ton of mosquitoes on the way up, but the entire trip back we were swarmed.

Midnight Hole

Midnight Hole is a popular swimming spot in the Smokies. Below: The water in Midnight Hole is clear and reflects the green of the trees around it; There is a picnic area along this lovely spot on Big Creek.

Midnight Hole Picnic Area Bridge

About .5 miles back on our return trip, we stopped to enjoy Midnight Hole.  A pond is created here by two small waterfalls that dump water into this serene swimming hole.  We lingered a bit at this spot before making our way back to our car, chased by a cloud of mosquitoes who seemed to not mind the bug spray we used.  We made it back to our car quickly at a little over four miles and saw many people making their way up.  I’m sure this is an extremely popular hike and swimming hole spot for many people.  If you want to miss the crowds, go as early as possible.

On our way out, we passed by several buses that were unloading people for whitewater rafting along the Pigeon River.  We saw probably a hundred people on the river in rafts and it looked like a great way to spend the day.  We headed into Asheville, NC from our hike to sample some beers.  It was Asheville Beer Week, so all of the breweries in the area were doing special events.  We started off with lunch at Wicked Weed, where we enjoy the food as much as the beverages.  From there, we stopped by a few more breweries to try one small sample at each – Green Man, Burial, and Hi-Wire.  While we were there, there was a disc golf competition where event organizers moved a portable basket and the competitors threw their discs down the streets and alleyways as they moved from one brewery to the next.  Luckily, the competitors were very accurate and I didn’t see any spectators beamed in the head.

Trail Notes

  • Distance – 4.25 miles
    (Check out the stats from Map My Hike)*
  • Elevation Change – 635 ft.
  • Difficulty – 1.5.  This is an easy walk along a gradually climbing path.
  • Trail Conditions – 4.5.  The path is wide and well-graded.
  • Views  0.  This is a waterfall walk, there are no views along the way.
  • Streams/Waterfalls – 4.5.  The falls are small but pretty.  Big Creek and Midnight Hole are also lovely.
  • Wildlife –3.5.  People regularly see elk and bears in the area.  We didn’t see any on our hike.
  • Ease to Navigate – 5.  You really can’t go wrong on this hike.  It’s a straight shot up the path.
  • Solitude – 1.  This area is popular with swimmers and families.  Expect lots of people.

Download a Trail Map (PDF)

Directions to trailhead:  GPS coordinates for this trailhead are 35.751094, -83.109993.  From Asheville, NC take I-40 West for 46 miles before taking exit 451 toward Waterville Road.  Turn left onto Green Corner Road at the end of the exit ramp which merges onto Tobes Creek Road. Take the first left to cross a bridge and stay on Tobes Creek Road.  Once you cross the bridge, take the first left onto Waterville Road.  Follow this for two miles and you will then enter the Big Creek Entrance Road.  Follow this for about a mile and you will reach the Big Creek Campground.  You will find a large parking lot on the right and just before entering the parking lot, you will pass the trailhead for the Big Creek Trail, which is your starting point.  This parking lot fills up quickly, so you may have to park along the roadside.

Wayah Bald

July 7, 2016

Special: Smokies Edition

Introductory Guide to Visiting Great Smoky Mountains National Park Area

Hiking from Wayah Gap to Wayah Bald is a fun, moderate 8.5 mile hike.  The view from a top the stone observation tower has to be among the best in the area.

View the Full Album of Photos From This Hike

The View from Wayah Bald

The view from Wayah Bald is majestic! Below: The Appalachian Trail cuts like a ribbon through the green of the forest; Adam looks at the rhododendron tunnel; Stairs climb back up to the trail after crossing a forest road.

Walking the Appalachian Trail Tunnel of Rhododendron Stairs on the AT

Adam Says…

This hike was a true gem!  When you are just reading text about a hike, you can’t get a great idea of how wonderful a hike will be (hopefully this write-up and pictures will help).  What we couldn’t believe through the day was how uncrowded this trail was, especially at the fire tower.  We went on a perfect weekend day and you can even drive up to the very top if you want to skip the hike but still get the views.  Having a spot like this to yourself just doesn’t seem right.

“Wayah” comes from the Cherokee word for “wolf”, since red wolves were once part of this area.  The tower was built in 1937 by the Civilian Conservation Corps and used as a lookout for fires in the area.

As we were driving on Wayah Road making our way to the top, we were both thankful that the drive up would take a lot of feet off the elevation.  The road winds around the mountain as it is taking many switchbacks to get up to the top.  At the crest was the sign for the Wayah Bald Fire Tower and a small parking lot to the side.   We started on the white-blazed Appalachian Trail going north (the same side as the sign and the parking lot).  You climb up a few water-bar stairs and then come to a sign for Wayah Gap.  The trail runs parallel to a national forest road on the left for the first portion of the trail (this is the same forest road you can drive to get to the top without hiking).

Red Trillum

There were many wildflowers and blooming trees along the trail. We enjoyed seeing red trillium, even though they were fading. Below: Flame azalea; Mountain Laurel; Something white?

Flame Azalea Mountain Laurel White Flower

The trail was filled with wildflowers and greenery everywhere you looked and overall the uphill climb was quite manageable.  At 1.75 miles, you make a steeper climb up to a forest road (the same forest road leading to the top).  The trail picks up on the other side, but there is a spring to the right of the trail if you need to refill water.  Crossing the road, you head up some stairs and up a steeper section looking down on the fire road, before it resumes the gradual climb.

At 2.15 and 2.35 miles, you will see junctions with the yellow-blazed Bartram Trail (a 110 mile trail that goes from Northern Georgia into Southwest North Carolina) and a forest road on the left side.  This trail loops around for an extra 5.4 miles, but stay on the main white-blazed Appalachian Trail.  Since the Bartram Trail joins the AT through this section, you will often see yellow and white blazes together.  At 2.5 miles the trail levels out and then starts to descend.

Bartram - AT Share a Course

The Bartram Trail shares course with the Appalachian Trail for a while. We though the joint blazes looked like a beer with a foamy head. Below: The junction of the AT and the Bartram Trail; There is a nice campsite near the junction; Views from the trail from an old burn.

Bartram Junction Campsite Log Views from the Trail

Descending through the forest, the trail then begins to skirt along the mountainside.  The trail became narrow and overgrown as you walk through some high grass and brush.  But, you do get some more open, yet obstructed views of the valley between the mountains.  At 3.5 miles, the trail reaches its bottom and then begins to ascend again.  At 3.8 miles, you cross the forest road again and at 4.15 miles, you reach the final junction with the paved forest road.  Going to the right leads to a picnic area with nice views (and a bathroom if you need it).  Heading to the left from the junction, leads to the Wayah Bald fire tower which we reached around 4.3 miles.

The views from the fire tower were amazing!  Some fire towers are rickety and you wonder if all the bolts have been screwed and tightened in the last few decades.  This structure was a nice stone fire tower with a few steps to the top.  From the top of the tower are maps that will help you identify the mountains in the ranges around you.  If you go on a clear day, you should be able to see for quite a distance.

We stayed at the top for quite a while and this was definitely my top hike from this trip.  We ate our packed lunch and talked to the few people we saw at the top, but it was hard to pull me away from the stunning landscape around me.  If you aren’t capable of doing the hike, this is still a place to visit on a trip in North Carolina.

Christine Says…

This was another hike I mapped out using my AWOL Guide for the Appalachian Trail.  You can practically drive up to the tower, but we wanted to put in longer trail miles, so we opted to start at Wayah Gap, about four miles south of Wayah Bald.

It turned out to be a beautiful hike!  There were tons of blooming wildflowers, a crisp breeze, abundant sunshine, and pleasant temperatures.  I was thrilled to see the last few red trillium blooms and the first of the flame azaleas lighting up the forest. The hike was perfectly timed to see lots of wildflowers.

View From the Wayah Bald Tower

The view from the Wayah Bald Tower is almost 360. Below: The views are also nice from the Wayah Picnic Area; The tower; Inside the Wayah Tower.

View from Wayah Picnic Area Wayah Tower Inside Wayah Tower

We started early and had most of the trail to ourselves.  Just a few tenths of a mile after starting, we passed a very early-season southbound thru-hiker.  I didn’t know it at the time, but we learned later that he was Mountain Man – possibly the oldest person to ever complete a winter thru-hike.  He finished about ten days after our paths crossed.

The terrain on the way to Wayah Bald was pretty gentle – moderate climbs and descents and lots of easy walking.  We passed several really nice campsites along the way, with the largest and nicest being located at the junction of the AT and the Bartram Trail.

We walked through an area that was recently burned, leaving behind some open views and lots of fast-growing tall grass to wade through.  Most of the sunny spots on the trail were pretty overgrown.

When we arrived at Wayah Bald, we took a wrong turn and ended up walking up to the picnic area.  It was a lucky mistake, because the picnic area offers a second beautiful vista.  Once we realized we were in the wrong place, we turned around an walked the opposite way up to the tower.

Layers of Mountains

We never get tired of looking at our beautiful, velvety rolling mountains. Below: No idea why there were so many worms/grubs in a pile. It was gross and fascinating; We liked this lone tree in a small meadow we passed; Post-hike lunch at Big Wesser Brew & BBQ at the Nantahala Outdoor Center – one of our favorite riverside lunch stops.

Worms Meadow and Tree Lunch at Nantahala Outdoor Center

There were only three or four other people at the tower, despite it being a beautiful holiday weekend.  We climbed to the top and ate a snack. We loved looking at and identifying the other mountains that made up the panoramic vista.  One of the most recognizable was Siler Bald – identified by the wide grassy swath leading to the summit. We spent a bit more time enjoying the spectacular view before making our way back.

After the hike, we decided to go to one of our favorite places – the Nantahala Outdoor Center. The place was hopping with Memorial Day activities, but we were still able to find a parking spot and a table at Big Wesser Brew & BBQ.

Trail Notes

  • Distance – 8.5 miles
    (Check out the stats from Map My Hike)*
  • Elevation Change – 1613  ft.
  • Difficulty – 3.  The length makes this rated a 3, but the overall climb was manageable.
  • Trail Conditions – 3.  The trail was well-maintained, but very overgrown from the junction with the Bartram Trail leading up to the summit.  There weren’t many rocky sections, so it made for nice footing most of the trail.
  • Views  5.  Panoramic, 360-degree views from the Fire Tower on a clear day.
  • Streams/Waterfalls – 1.  There were two adequate springs to use as water sources along the way.
  • Wildlife – 2.  Nothing spotted on this trail.
  • Ease to Navigate – 4.0. As long as you follow the white blazes for the Appalachian Trail, you should be in good shape. 
  • Solitude – 4.  Maybe we hit this on an odd day, but we had a lot of solitude on a “should have been busy” day and even had the fire tower to ourselves for about 15 minutes. 

Download a Trail Map (PDF)

Directions to trailhead:  GPS coordinates for this trailhead are 35.153662, -83.580462. From Highway 74 in North Carolina (near Cherokee/Bryson City) take the US23 S/US 441 S exit for Dillsboro/Franklin/Atlanta. Follow this road for 20.4 miles to the junction with US64 W.  Follow 64W for 3.7 miles.  Take a right on Patton Road.  Follow Patton for .3 of a mile and then turn left on Wayah Road.  Follow Wayah Road for 9 miles until you reach the well-marked trail crossing.  Follow the Appalachian Trail north from this point.

Standing Indian Mountain

July 4, 2016

Special: Smokies Edition

Introductory Guide to Visiting Great Smoky Mountains National Park Area

Standing Indian is a pleasant five mile (round trip) hike along the Appalachian Trail in North Carolina’s Southern Nantahala Wilderness.  There is plenty of camping and a beautiful viewpoint at the summit.

View the Full Album of Photos From This Hike

The View from Standing Indian Mountain

The view from Standing Indian was almost completely socked in by fog. We did get a couple moments of partial clearing that let us enjoy the view. Below: Camping along the road crossing is closed in Deep Gap, but signs point to nearby sites; Camping around the shelter has also been closed to allow reforestation; Adam makes his way up the Appalachian Trail. This was all before the downpour started.

Standing Indian Designated Campsites No Camping Restoration Standing Indian Before the Rain Started

Christine Says…

When we visited the Smokies this year, we decided to spend the entire trip – an unfortunately short four days – on the southern side of the park.  On our last few trips to the area, we enjoyed exploring the Appalachian Trail corridor just before it enters GSMNP.  We thought Wesser Bald and Siler Bald were both fun hikes with spectacular views, so before we traveled, I spent some time perusing my AWOL Guide to see if there were other nice view hikes close to easily accessible road crossings. One of the hikes I came up with was Standing Indian Mountain.

By the miles, the drive to the trailhead was pretty short, but the last six miles to get to Deep Gap were along a narrow, steep, and winding forest/logging road. It took about 25 minutes to reach the road’s dead-end at Deep Gap Primitive Campground.  There were some really nice campsites available, but the largest and flattest of the sites was closed for reforestation/restoration.  Quite a few of the overused backcountry tent sites in this area have been closed to allow them to return to their natural state.

Standing Indian Shelter

Standing Indian Shelter – there were tent sites behind the shelter. Below: The Appalachian Trail winds through the ferns; We saw dozens of these snails; Signage for the Southern Nantahala Wilderness.

Tons of Ferns Along the AT Snail on Standing Indian Southern Nantahala

We picked up the northbound Appalachian Trail at the end of the road. It was sunny and humid when we started hiking.  The trail climbed steadily and gently the whole way on this hike. Just under a half mile into the hike, we passed a piped spring coming out of the mountainside.  We passed a couple more closed campsites before arriving at the spur trail to Standing Indian Shelter at 1.1 miles.  The shelter is barely a tenth of a mile off the trail.  It had room for about eight people and was equipped with benches and a large fire pit.  There were lots of flat, grassy tent sites behind the shelter.  Supposedly there is a stream/water source 70 yards downhill of the shelter, but we didn’t take the time to explore.  We signed the shelter log and continued our hike up the mountain.

Shortly after the shelter, sun gave way to fog.  We figured it was just leftover moisture from storms the night before or a passing cloud.  At 5,499′, Standing Indian is the tallest peak along the Nantahala River and often gets different weather than the valley below.  We hiked on and the fog gave way to occasional raindrops.  We assured one another it was just a passing shower and pressed on.  By the time we reached a tunnel of rhododendron, the light shower had become a downpour.  Adam wanted to put on our rain gear and stay sheltered under the canopy of rhododendron, but I was getting cold and wanted to push on.  In the end, we decided to wait a little bit; hoping the storm would pass and allow us to enjoy the view that was to be the main point of the hike.

Bluets on Standing Indian

We saw lots of bluets on the hike up. Below: The forest was lush with ferns; A tunnel of mountain laurel gave us a little shelter from the rain; The trail soon was flowing like a stream.

Lush Ferns on Standing Indian Rain and Rhododendrons on Standing Indian Rain on the Appalachian Trail

After about 20 minutes, the rain still hadn’t slowed so I suggested we hike back to the shelter and wait a bit there.  On our way down, the rain stopped, so we turned around and climbed back up. It started pouring again almost immediately after we turned around, so we admitted defeat and decided to just roll with whatever nature threw our way.

So, we hiked to the summit of Standing Indian in a deluge! The summit was completely socked it, but after waiting about ten minutes the fog moved enough to give us a cloudy, misty view of the mountains beyond.  We enjoyed every second of the three minute vista before the fog fell back around.  The hike back was really quick – all downhill over easy terrain.  And wouldn’t you know it… the sun came back out as soon as we got to the parking lot!

Adam Says…

As Christine mentioned, this may not have been the best day for this hike.  The weather forecast predicted some late afternoon storms, so we really thought we could get in a hike before things turned for the worse. It was quite humid from the recent rain.  After we left the shelter, we noticed the clouds were getting thicker, but we pressed on hoping we could beat any rain. We made it to a large rhododendron tunnel and what started off as sprinkling rain quickly became a downpour.  The rain was unrelenting.  We talked about going to the top, but with all the rain, we didn’t think we would see anything, so we decided to turn around before reaching the summit.

As we made our way down, we came across a Appalachian Trail thru-hiker.  She looked college-aged and was carrying a pack that looked like it weighed 60 pounds.  The rain had soaked a bandana she was wearing as headband and the dye from the fabric was bleeding blue streaks all down her face.

The trail heading back was more like walking through a small stream in some spots as the heavy rain looked for a place to escape the steep slope of the mountain.  The rocks on the trail were slippery from the rain.  After making it back about halfway to the shelter, the rain slowed considerably so we changed our mind and decided to give the summit another go.

Campsite on Standing Indian Summit

What a great campsite on the summit of Standing Indian. Below: Standing Indian summit marker; Rhododendrons blooming near the summit; Christine checks out a cool, gnarled, old tree.

Standing Indian Summit Marker Rhododendron Blooming on Standing Indian Summit Big Gnarled Tree

At 2.45 miles, the trail comes to a junction with the Lower Ridge trail.  You will see a sign for Standing Indian Mountain.  Take a right off the Appalachian Trail to follow a path through a campsite area which leads to the summit of Standing Indian Mountain in just a tenth of a mile.  There was a large fire pit at the top and a small nook to catch a view of the mountains around you.  When we arrived, we were able to catch a quick view before the fog and clouds enveloped everything in a sea of gray.  We were at least thankful to be up there to appreciate the view for a few minutes.

The name “Standing Indian Mountain” comes from Cherokee myth.  An Indian warrior had been sent to the summit to watch for a winged monster that came from the sky and stole children.  The monster was captured and destroyed with thunder and lightning from the Great Spirit.  The Cherokee warrior had become afraid and ran away from his post and was turned into stone for his cowardice.  The Cherokee referred to Standing Indian Mountain as “Yunwitsule-nunyi”, meaning “where the man stood”.

Fog and Rain Along the Appalachian Trail on Standing Indian

Fog and rain along the Appalachian Trail on Standing Indian Mountain. Below:  A Blue Ridge two-lined salamander (we think); A black-chinned red salamander (we think): Post-hike beers at The Lazy Hiker (we know for sure!)

Blue-Ridge Two-Lined Salamander Black Chinned Red Salamander Lazy Hiker Brewery

The rain continued for most of the hike down.  But one treat the rain provided was the chance to see several salamanders hanging out on the trail.   We first spotted a Blue Ridge two-lined salamander, but the real treat was seeing a black-chinned red salamander.  The Great Smoky Mountains are known as the “Salamander Capital of the World”, so we were glad to catch a few species on this hike.  We have yet to spot a hellbender salamander (which range from 12-29 inches long) in the wild there, but maybe one day we will.

After we made it back to the car, we decided to drive over to Franklin, NC for the afternoon.  We stopped in a wonderful outfitter store called Outdoor 76.  When we had stopped to take pictures of the salamanders, I realized my backpack was completely soaked inside which ruined our copy of our AWOL guide.  So we purchased those as well as a couple of Pelican cases for our phones.  They even have several beers on tap at the back of the store.  It wasn’t until later that I thought about how my daypack has a built-in rain cover – ugh.  We then went to grab some lunch at Motor Company Grill (just an average 50s-style burger and sandwich place) and then went to the Lazy Hiker Brewing Company.  Since a lot of AT thru-hikers will spend a day off the trail to eat and resupply in Franklin, this place is a popular spot.  They had great trail and hiking information posted inside and had some of the coolest hiking-related pint glasses I have seen.   It is definitely worth a stop if you are in the area.

Trail Notes

  • Distance – 5 miles
    (Check out the stats from Map My Hike)*
  • Elevation Change – 1300 ft.
  • Difficulty – 2.5.  The climbing on this trail is all very gradual and well-graded. We were surprised it even came out to 1300 feet!
  • Trail Conditions – 4.   The local chapter of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy is working hard on restoration projects in this area and their work was definitely evident.
  • Views  4.  We are giving this the score it deserves on a nice day with good visibility.  We still had a pretty view, but it could have been much nicer if the rain had held off.
  • Streams/Waterfalls – 1.  There were a couple small springs (at least one was piped) that could be used as a water source.
  • Wildlife – 3. We saw a couple unique salamanders along the trail in the rain. They were both species we hadn’t seen before.
  • Ease to Navigate – 3. The trail is well blazed.  The view at the top is hidden behind a spur trail through a bunch of campsites.  If you don’t know to cut through the campsites, you would miss the view completely.
  • Solitude – 3.  There were a ton of cars parked at Deep Gap, but we only saw a handful of people on the trail – probably because it was *pouring*!

Download a Trail Map (PDF)

Directions to trailhead:  GPS coordinates for this trailhead are 35.039847, -83.552506. From Highway 74 in North Carolina (near Cherokee/Bryson City) take the US23 S/US 441 S exit for Dillsboro/Franklin/Atlanta. Follow this road for 20.4 miles to the junction with US64 W.  Follow 64W for 14.5 miles.  Take a left on Deep Gap Road.  It will become a gravel forest service road almost immediately.  Follow the forest road for almost 6 miles until you reach Deep Gap.  Follow the Appalachian Trail north from this point.