Sunday, June 9, 2013

Ten Hikes for Summer in the North Carolina Mountains (updated)

View from Mt. Mitchell, highest peak in the eastern U.S.
You really can’t beat summertime in the mountains of Western North Carolina. The average highs are in the low-80s at the hottest point of summer. And that’s just our elevation. Drive 20 minutes to the Blue Ridge Parkway and hop on for a scenic drive up to elevations of 5,000+ feet and you’ll often experience high temperatures in the 70s, and sometimes even the 60s, in July and August.

To make the most of your summertime visit to the Inn on Mill Creek, we’ve updated our list of ten hikes for summer in the North Carolina mountains near Black Mountain, Asheville, the Blue Ridge Parkway and Old Fort. Many of these trails will take you to shady spots, while others end at cool (literally and figuratively) waterfalls, and still others bring you to high elevations where the views are spectacular:

Balsam Trail (Mt. Mitchell State Park) - Looping near the 6,684-ft summit of Mt. Mitchell (less than five miles north of the Inn on Mill Creek as the crow flies, but about an hour's scenic drive from the Inn mostly along the Blue Ridge Parkway), the 0.75-mile Balsam Trail is an easy trail and starts at the parking lot just below the observation deck. Mt. Mitchell is part of the Black Mountain Range, which contains six of the ten tallest peaks in the eastern United States. [We have Mt. Mitchell trail maps here at the Inn on Mill Creek for guests who want to take a hike around the highest peak east of the Mississippi.]

Black Rock Nature Trail (Grandfather Mountain) - About 45 minutes northeast of the Inn on Mill Creek, along the Blue Ridge Parkway, is Grandfather Mountain, a state park and globally-recognized nature preserve. It’s a nice summertime spot – the all-time high temperature there is something like 83 degrees – and has several trails. The Black Rock Nature Trail is a moderate trail that heads out from one of Grandfather's parking areas and leads through a forested area [read: shade] to some nice views. Note that there is an admission fee for Grandfather Mountain, but the views are well worth it! For more information on this hike, visit Grandfather Mountain's website.

Catawba Falls (Old Fort) –  A moderate 3-mile roundtrip hike, the Catawba Falls Trail leads you through beautiful forested land, and ends at a 340-foot cascading waterfall near the headwaters of the Catawba River. Catawba Falls has been part of Pisgah National Forest for decades, but thanks to the ongoing efforts of the Foothills Conservancy of North Carolina along with the National Forest Service and McDowell County, the 88 acres providing access to the falls is now held by the National Forest Service as well, allowing for preservation of the land, and for the public to get to the falls much easier. A new parking lot is located right at the trailhead, about 20 minutes from the Inn on Mill Creek.

Craggy Pinnacle Trail (Blue Ridge Parkway) - Craggy Pinnacle Trail, part of the Craggy Gardens area, is a 1.5-mile moderate hike that starts at the Craggy Dome Overlook on the Blue Ridge Parkway (Milepost 364, about 40 minutes from the Inn) and ends at 360-degree views of the mountains. Rhododendron are in abundance in June, while we hear late summer offers the chance to pick wild blueberries. We have Craggy Gardens trail maps at the Inn on Mill Creek for guests.

Deep Gap Trail (Mt. Mitchell State Park) - This trail at Mt. Mitchell State Park crosses Mt. Craig, which is the second-highest peak in the eastern United States. It's a 4.5-mile moderate-to-strenuous hike with spectacular views. RomanticAsheville.com has an excellent description of the first mile of the hike, to Mt. Craig, for those who want to go a shorter distance.

Greybeard Trail (Montreat) -  Greybeard Mountain is accessible by driving through the charming town of Montreat about 15 minutes from the Inn and just north of the town of Black Mountain. There are actually more than 20 trails in Montreat; we have Montreat Trail maps available for guests of the Inn. The trail is considered moderate, but takes 3-4 hours, so it's best to start out early. You'll get to the top of Greybeard after almost 3,000 feet of elevation gain, to the highest point in Montreat at a little over 5,400 feet.

Rainbow Road Trail (Montreat) - Rainbow Road, located off of Lookout Road, is in Montreat, bordering the town of Black Mountain to the north. The trailhead for Rainbow Road is near the Lookout Mountain trailhead, but Rainbow Road starts off in the opposite direction, through rhododendron thickets in the woods. It's a nice and easy, flat trail with shady spots. Along the two-mile trail, you'll see the trailhead for the more strenuous Rainbow Mountain Trail loop, at which point you'll start heading back on Rainbow Road toward Lookout Mountain. That's a good turning around point if you don't want to go the whole way. But if you do, the trail ends at the split of the Old Mitchell Toll Road and the Old Trestle Road.

Roaring Fork Falls (off Highway 80 and the Blue Ridge Parkway) –  Head east from the Inn, through Old Fort, and up scenic Highway 80, crossing over the Blue Ridge Parkway at Milepost 344. Just a few miles north is the trailhead for Roaring Fork Falls, an easy 1.5 mile hike to the bottom of a zig-zag waterfall. For more on this hike, check this earlier blog post of ours.

Mt. Pisgah (Blue Ridge Parkway) - Southwest of Asheville at Milepost 407 off the Blue Ridge Parkway is Mt. Pisgah, standing at over 5,700 feet above sea level. You can hike to the summit on a 3-mile roundtrip moderate trail that starts off from the parking area (where there's also a fantastic restaurant called Pisgah Inn if you plan to be there at lunch or dinner). An interesting fact about Mt. Pisgah: It's named for the mountain in the Bible where Moses first saw the promised land.

Skinny Dip Falls Trail (Blue Ridge Parkway) - The 1.5-mile moderate trail used to be not-so-well known, which may be how it got its name, but due to its rising popularity, bathing suits are now encouraged if hikers want to take a dip in the pools and tiered falls at the end of the trail off the Blue Ridge Parkway at Milepost 417. The water is cold, so a change of clothes is a good idea. For a  description of this hike, see HikeWNC's website.

Finally, a few general tips for hiking in the mountains: Bring plenty of water with you on your hike; even though places like Mt. Mitchell tend to be 15+ degrees cooler than Asheville and Black Mountain, you still need hydration. Don't forget your camera for pictures of wildflowers and possible wildlife (but tread lightly so as to keep the scenery looking nice for others). Keep in mind that cell phone service is spotty in the mountains. Oh, and bug spray is never a bad idea in the summertime. Lastly, be sure to check the weather forecast before you head out for a day of hiking. The weather can be temperamental in the mountains all year long.
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