There have been times during this past summer when there have been more people on hiking trails than usual. The coronavirus pandemic led to quarantine and isolation, and that led to an explosion of people wanting to get outdoors and into nature.
While that is a good thing, it also led to novices who either walked into the woods and onto the trails with no prior experience and, in some cases; it has produced injuries and even over-crowding in some spots. But our paths and forests and local, state and national parks are for everyone.
So, try and gain knowledge when on the more wilderness trails or before you begin your trek, learn how to deal with the wild animals you may encounter, be prepared in case something goes wrong and help others when possible. When all of that happens, then great times are possible in the wonderful outdoors found here in the beautiful Blue Ridge mountains.
The mountainous region located in and around Boone is called the High Country. Made up of seven counties, this beautiful region of the Blue Ridge Mountains contains the highest peaks east of the Rockies. Among this section of the greater Appalachian Mountains, the second oldest mountain chain on the surface of the earth, are trails that explore the summits, valleys, rivers and multiple gorges that are found here.
Hiking is one of the most sought out activities in and around the towns of Boone, Blowing Rock and Banner Elk, and on the Blue Ridge Parkway that runs through and around those hamlets.
Most of the trails mentioned below can be easily found on GPS, Google Maps and similar apps. For the more secluded trails that need more directions, they will be provided. As always, when you hike in and on these mountains, know your physical limits, be prepared for many scenarios on the trail because mountain weather can change quickly, and learn the simple rules when dealing with wildlife.
One good place to start for the beginner hiker is the Greenway Trail. Built for hikers, walkers and bikers, there are sections of the Greenway Trail located in Blowing Rock, Boone and Banner Elk. Mostly flat and in an urban setting, the exciting news is that a new segment of the Greenway Trail is being constructed that will connect Blowing Rock and Boone. Called the Middle Fork Greenway and built by the Blue Ridge Conservancy, the six-mile long, 10-foot wide trail will be an exciting addition to the region once it is completed.
For those who seek more adventurous hiking, the Elk Knob State Park Trail is a two hour romp up to the summit of Elk Knob Mountain just a short drive from Boone. The trail leads to fabulous views that extend into nearby states with many other peaks visible on the horizon.
For many of the best trails to be found here in the High Country, the Blue Ridge Parkway will be your connection. Traveling from Deep Gap north of Boone and going south, the Blue Ridge Parkway is marked by white posts found on the side of the road that are mile markers used for reference.
At milepost 294 on the Parkway, you will find the Moses Cone Manor. The preserved farm house and 1,000-plus acres of surrounding land was turned into a park many years ago. There you will find a 2.5-mile trail to a climbable fire tower that overlooks Boone.
If you continue driving about a half of a mile further south on the Parkway, you will find the Rte. 221 exit to Blowing Rock. Once you turn onto the exit, you will also see a sign for Shulls Mill Road. If you stay on Shulls Mill Road for about 7/10 of a mile, you will come across a metal fence with a wooden gate beside it by a small parking lot just past the one-way exit road for Trout Lake. This is the awesome Rich Mountain Carriage Trail.
About three miles in length, the Rich Mountain Carriage Trail is a moderate hiking and running trail takes you through a Wizard of Oz-type of forest to the left, then it winds up to the top of the mountain where you will find a more prairie-type of landscape and eventually a wonderful view before you head back down to where the local cows are hanging out trailside. The lower, downhill section of the trail leads to Trout Lake, which features an easy walk at the end that goes back up to your vehicle.
Back on the Parkway heading south, look for the parking lot to the Rough Ridge Trail on your right. This is a very busy trail in the summer months and can be crowded, yet the views are exceptional. But, there is another way to utilize the Rough Ridge Trail for more experienced hikers.
If you park in the Rough Ridge parking lot and then walk along the side of the Parkway for a quarter-of-a-mile to the south, you will find the 301 milepost right before you cross a short section of viaduct. At the end of the viaduct you will see a rock wall on the right. Along the side of the rock wall, there will be a trail that follows the cliff wall up the mountain to the Ship Rock geological formation. You do not need ropes to make this trek. Once you are at the very top of the trail, turn right and that summit trail will eventually head downhill and connect with the Rough Ridge trail, which will return you to the parking lot. The views are fantastic and this route will be a lot less crowded for those willing to get off the easier Rough Ridge trail.
At milepost 305 on the Parkway, you will find the turnoff to another section of Rte. 221 that leads to Grandfather Mountain and Banner Elk. Grandfather Mountain State Park requires an entrance fee to explore the top of the mountain and to walk on the famous Mile High Bridge. But for experienced hikers, there is another demanding yet adventurous uphill trail to that leads to Grandfather Mountain that is free, and that is the Profile Trail.
A couple of years ago, a brand new parking area and building were built for the Profile Trail located on Rte. 105 in Banner Elk. The Profile Trail is marked as strenuous as it will take most of the day to complete, so be sure to research the trail online so you know what to expect. For the experienced hikers, however, it is a great trail to conquer.
For a magnificent hiking side trip, set your GPS for the Carver’s Gap parking lot that is the staging area for the Roan Mountain Grassy Balds Trail. It is located about 20 miles from Grandfather Mountain on the North Carolina-Tennessee border. A part of the Appalachian Trail, the Roan Mountain trails are unique and spectacular, representing the largest stretch of grassy balds to be found in the whole Appalachian Mountain chain. Climbing to more than 6,000 feet, the views and the rare plants and flowers and different terrains found on the path are worth the trip.
If you return to the Parkway at the Grandfather Mountain exit, the first parking lot on your left will be for the Beacon Heights Trail. Considered one of the “coolest Short Trails in the East.” The Beacon Heights Cliff Trail takes only a quarter of a mile of walking to reach the top. You will see signs for two other trails once you are on the trail, so just pay attention to the signs and stay on the Beacon Heights Trail.
Once near the peak, you will find a stone bench. Go straight at the bench for a cool and easy view, but the better vista happens when you take a left at the bench. After turning left, you will hike up a short set of natural rock stairs that will lead to a flat cliff where the views are spectacular. From there you can see Grandfather Mountain to the left, Wilson Creek Gorge in the middle and the dual elbow-shaped mountains to the right known as Hawksbill Mountain and Table Rock Mountains that overlook Linville Gorge.
At milepost 308, there is an easy 30-minute hike on the right known as the Flat Rock Trail. Once you leave the parking lot, the fairly flat trail leads through some wonderfully thick woods and ends up at a view that looks over the valley below. This is also known as the “Sunset Trail” as it is a superb place to watch a sunset, especially if nature is putting on a good show as the sun fades under the horizon.
At milepost 311 on the Parkway, you will take a left turn onto Old Jonas Ridge road, which will take you further into the Wilson Creek Gorge to some challenging yet rewarding trails. Once you turn left onto Old Jonas Ridge road, go two miles until you see a white church on your left at a big curve in the road. Beside the church is a gravel road that goes straight at the turn. That is Forest Road 464, aka Pineola Road. Once on Forest Road 464, you will see the trailhead for Big Lost Cove Cliffs on the left a couple of miles in, and three miles farther you will see a small parking lot on the right for the Little Lost Cove Cliffs trail. The latter is a shorter hike, but both of these moderately difficult trails lead to outstanding cliff-top vistas.
Do some research online and you will find many other trails, waterfalls and more on this same Forest Road 464 road as it goes deeper into the Wilson Creek Gorge area.
Back on the Parkway, within a few short miles you will enter the Linville Gorge and Linville Falls section of the High Country. For an easy and amazing view of Linville Gorge, go to the Rte. 221 exit at the 317 milepost on the BRP. Once exited, turn left onto Rte. 221 and then take another left onto Rte. 183 less than a mile ahead. About 7/10 of a mile on Rte. 183, you will find a gravel road on the right with signs that will lead you to Wiseman’s View and Linville Falls. This will be Rte. 1238, aka Old Route 105. The first parking lot you will see on the left are for two trails that show you different views of Linville Falls.
If you take Rte. 1238 for almost exactly four miles further, however, you will see the sign for the Wiseman’s View parking lot on the left. Turn left there and you will find a short, wheelchair accessible paved walkway that leads to a very special a view of Linville Gorge. The vistas seen there will simply take your breath away.
But, a quick warning: remember that Rte. 1238 to Wiseman’s View is a gravel mountain road, so if you have 4-wheel drive or all-wheel drive vehicle, you should be fine. If you are in a vehicle that is only two-wheel drive, only go on the gravel road if it is completely dry. Watch out for the occasional ruts as you venture forth, otherwise the heart-stopping sights at Wiseman’s View are very much worth the effort.
Here is a more adventurous way to experience the other rim and the summits of Linville Gorge.
Back at milepost 312 on the Parkway, you will see the exit for Rte. 181. Once there, turn south onto Rte. 181 and look for the second right turn onto Ginger Cake Road, which will be across from a big wooden “Ginger Cake Acres” sign on the left. Once on Ginger Cake Road you will quickly turn left onto Table Rock Road, which eventually becomes a gravel road that will lead you to fantastic trails on the east side of Linville Gorge. As you travel along, you will see a parking lot about four miles in for the trail that leads to the summit of Hawksbill Mountain, which is one of the better hikes in the region.
Look for the “Hawksbill Trail” sign on the right at the trailhead. It is only a mile-long hike to the summit of Hawksbill Mountain and your first inclination once at the top will be to veer to the left to get to great views of Linville Gorge. But, remember to also take the summit trail to the right where you will find rock formations and even more sweet access to the gorge.
If you travel four more miles on Table Rock Road past the Hawksbill trailhead, you will find the right turn for Table Rock Mountain Trail, which continues up the mountain. Once you are at the Table Rock parking lot on top, the trail to the right of the parking lot takes you to the summit of Table Rock Mountain overlooking Linville Gorge. The trail on the left side of the parking lot leads to what many consider to be a favorite hike in the area known as the Chimneys Trail.
A much easier rim trail than the summit hikes, the first mile of the Chimneys Trail finds you hiking through exquisite rock formations on the edge of Linville Gorge that are simply sublime. Instead of looking down at Linville Gorge from the Hawksbill Mountain and Table Rock Mountain peaks, on this trail you literally become a part of the Gorge as you walk along the rim. About a mile into the Chimneys Trail, when the rock formations stop and the path turns into woods; simply retrace your steps back to the parking lot.
These hiking hints will keep you occupied for many hours if not days on the trail. Plan your adventures right and you will soon experience why this is one of the best areas for hiking in America.