By Michael Lanza
I’m a hiking snob—I admit it. I want all of the hiking trips I take to feature five-star scenery. And for years, I’ve done most of my dayhiking and backpacking in the American West, with its vast wildernesses and infinite vistas, so I’m a little spoiled. But a weeklong trip to the mountains of western North Carolina upended my snobbery. Exploring the highest peaks east of the Mississippi, I discovered one of America’s richest stashes of stunning waterfalls and most biologically diverse forests, enough ruggedness to inspire a sense of climbing “real” mountains—and some pretty darn big vistas, too.
After considerable field research, I present to you this list of a dozen hikes along North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Parkway, ranging in length from very short and easy to a multi-summit ramble to the crown of the East’s highest summit (which I rank among America’s Best Hard Dayhikes).
A meandering country road snaking for 469 miles along the crest of Blue Ridge Mountains from Great Smoky Mountains National Park in North Carolina to Shenandoah National Park in Virginia, the Blue Ridge Parkway provides access to more than 100 trailheads and over 300 miles of trails. It passes through a range of habitats that support more plant species than any other park in the country: over 4,000 species of plants, 2,000 kinds of fungi, 500 types of mosses and lichens, and the most varieties of salamanders in the world.
The hikes on the list below begin from trailheads on or a short distance off the parkway.
My advice to fellow hiking snobs: Start now planning your trip to western North Carolina, timing it for the peak of fall foliage color in October. If you somehow forget to pack your sense of awe, I promise you will recover it there.
You won’t likely have Crabtree Falls (lead photo at top of story) to yourself—even on a rainy day, as I found. But this one is worth sharing with strangers (or new friends). Reached via a rocky, roughly three-mile loop to one of the most picturesque and famous waterfalls along the Blue Ridge, Crabtree plunges in braids over a 70-foot cliff into a hollow thick with trees, ferns, and wildflowers.
Getting There The trail begins at the entrance to Crabtree Meadows Campground, at mile 339.5 on the Blue Ridge Parkway, about 45 miles north of Asheville.
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Two short trails lead to views of Linville Falls, a powerful, 90-foot waterfall plunging vertically through a notch in a cliff into a gorge flanked by rock walls and a virgin hemlock forest with birch, oak, white pine, and hickory trees.
The Erwins View Trail, a round-trip hike of 1.6 miles, passes by four overlooks, the first of them just a half-mile from the visitor center, at the upper falls. The last one, Erwins View Overlook, offers a commanding view of the Linville Gorge and the upper and lower falls. The Linville Gorge Trail offers two forks, one leading to an overlook of the lower falls and the Chimneys (1.4 miles round-trip), and the other descending through cliffs to Plunge Basin below the lower falls (one mile round-trip). Combine both trails on a four-mile hike.
Getting There The trails begin at the visitor center, at mile 316.4 on the Blue Ridge Parkway, about 66 miles north of Asheville.
Roaring Fork Falls
Unlike the most popular waterfalls and trails along the BRP, Roaring Fork offers the possibility of solitude.
This 100-foot-long cascade on Roaring Fork Creek drops about 50 vertical feet over its course into a calm pool.
Reach it on an easy, half-mile hike up an old forest road.
Catch it during or right after a rainfall; the water level diminishes during dry spells.
Getting There From the BRP, turn onto NC 80 (the Mount Mitchell Scenic Byway) and drive 2.2 miles north. Turn left onto South Toe River Road at a sign for Black Mountain Campground, cross the bridge, and take a left toward Busick Work Center. Park on the left at the gated entrance to the center; a sign marks the trailhead.
Black Mountain Crest Trail to Mount Mitchell
The longest and by far the hardest dayhike on this list—and a footpath that backpackers often take a weekend to hike—the Black Mountain Crest Trail climbs a cumulative 5,000 vertical feet over 11.3 miles from its bottom end to the highest summit east of the Mississippi, 6,684-foot Mount Mitchell. Along the way, it passes over several 6,000-foot summits, following a ridge that mimics an earthen rollercoaster. While mostly in forest, the trail has several overlooks at grassy meadows and ledges of lichen-speckled granite.
For info on hiking it, see my story “Roof of the East: Hiking North Carolina’s Mount Mitchell.”
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Looking Glass Rock
This granite cliff rises hundreds of feet, dominating the landscape for miles around and visible from various summits and points along the BRP. While the wooded, 3,970-foot summit has no views, just beyond it you reach the top of the cliffs, with a sweeping view of the rolling, lushly green mountainsides of western North Carolina, including Black Balsam Knob in the distance. The 6.5-mile round-trip hike, steep in places, ascends and descends 1,700 feet through numerous switchbacks and rhododendron and mountain laurel tunnels. Hike it in early morning for cool shade and a view from the top of sunlight bathing the forest below in golden light.
Getting There From the junction of US 276 and 64 in the town of Brevard (a good base for local hikes), about 45 minutes from Asheville, take US 276 north into the Pisgah National Forest. Follow it 5.3 miles, then turn left at a sign for Pisgah Center for Wildlife Education and the State Fish Hatchery. Another 0.4 mile down the road, park on the right at the Looking Glass Rock trailhead.
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See my story “The 20 Best National Park Dayhikes” for a description of a hike along the Appalachian Trail in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, my feature story “In the Garden of Eden: Backpacking the Great Smoky Mountains” and all of my stories about hiking and backpacking in North Carolina.