Monday, February 15, 2016

Chimney Rock State Park

Our arrival to the Broad River Valley was preceded with a scenic drive through North Carolina’s apple country. We passed the turnoff to the long, winding road that would take us to the popular Sky Top Orchard, but soon orchards and roadside stands were crowding Highway 64, and continued to line the road all the way to Bat Cave, NC. From there it was a short drive east to Chimney Rock, the town that sprung up around the iconic landmark of the same name. The 315 foot spire was first incorporated into a park in 1902, when Dr. Lucius Morse from St. Louis purchased 64 acres on Chimney Rock Mountain for development into a park. The Morse family remained owners until 2007, when the parcel – which had by then grown to include some 1,000 acres – was sold to the state of North Carolina. 

Today the mountain is part of Chimney Rock State Park, which will eventually be combined with an additional 6,000+ state-owned acres in the Hickory Nut Gorge area (although currently Chimney Rock is one of only two parts open to the public). My last visit was some 12 years ago when Roberts first moved to the area (and the park was still private), and although I vaguely remembered the view, this experience was mostly novel. Wasn’t I lucky to be revisiting the same spot with my Valentine of a dozen years in a row?

View from Chimney Rock towards Lake Lure

Turning onto the park road from Main Street in Chimney Rock, we passed through the gate and over the Broad River before proceeding about 1 mile up steep switchbacks to reach the park ticket plaza. Make sure to check the website for deals and promotions, and free tickets for kids are often part of special programs (such as successfully completed TRACK Trails). Our arrival coincided with lunchtime, and so we bypassed the Meadows for one of the picnic areas located on the main road snaking up to the main parking lot. The day was cold, and after bundling up and wolfing down a quick lunch, we continued up to the Outcroppings Trail.

View of Chimney Rock from upper parking lot

There are five main trails in this section of the park: Great Woodland Adventure and Four Seasons Trail (both departing from The Meadows), Hickory Nut Falls Trail (leading from the upper parking lot to the waterfall and picking up the other end of Four Seasons Trail on the way), The Outcroppings (which climbs stairs from the top parking lot all the way up to the peak of Chimney Rock), and Exclamation Point Trail (which continues on to the highest point in the park). Since the elevator is out of commission until further notice we started up The Outcroppings, which is actually several loops and spur trails leading to all the natural attractions. Vista Rock was our first scenic viewpoint, after which we climbed up Pulpit Rock before climbing the stairs to Chimney Rock, elevation 2,280’.

The day was windy and cold, the flag snapping overhead as we admired the view of Lake Lure and the gorge. We didn’t linger long; our little hikers were protesting, their exposed cheeks rosy from the chill. We continued up Exclamation Point Trail to Opera Box and Devil’s Head, where Vilis was released from the confines of the backpack carrier and allowed to explore. Sheltered from the wind, we enjoyed the scenery and sunshine and then headed back down, as the rest of the trail was closed due to treacherous conditions.

Taking a breather (and a hot chocolate) in the Sky Lounge, we headed back down an alternate loop, passing through the Subway (a low-clearance passage) and past the Grotto back to the base of the trail. Here we explored The Birdhouse (an educational area concerning all the regional birds) and Gneiss Cave. The fissure cave was formed when an enormous chunk of mountain slid down and formed a cavern; although the main portion is closed due to the threat of White Nose Syndrome, visitors can climb a dozen steps down to an overlook.

The Subway

Gneiss Cave

Outcroppings Trail summary: 499 stairs, 315 feet. More if you head up Exclamation Point trail! Not for the faint of heart, but unquestionably worth the effort for the spectacular views… Budget yourself at least two hours, to explore not only the various natural features, but also stop for a cup of hot chocolate and truly appreciate the stunning scenery!

View of Lake Lure from Vista Rock
Next on the list would have been the Hickory Nut Falls Trail, but it wasn’t meant to be; just as on the Exclamation Point Trail, ice and treacherous conditions were behind trail closures. A 1.5 mile round-trip takes you to the foot of a 404ft waterfall, famous from the film “Last of the Mohicans.” The view from the viewing platform can be seen here. (As far as movies go, the park was also featured in the 1984 thriller “Firestarter” based on a book by Stephen King and the 1984 drama “A Breed Apart.”)

We drove back down the mountain to The Meadows and parked near the entrance of the Great Woodland Adventure. The 0.6 mile loop is geared towards families, with sculptures and educational signs introducing the animals that live in the forests of Hickory Nut Gorge. The Woodland Adventure is also a TRACK Trail, and we explored the 12 discovery stations, crawling into a turtle’s shell, jumping alongside a jumping spider and examining giant acorns from a squirrel’s point of view.

One last stop - Grady’s Animal Discovery Den, home to a few mammals that were burrowed away to hide from the cold, and amphibians and reptiles in a heated shelter. The boys could finally see what an owl pellet looks like (up until this point had provided some rather heated discussion on the trail), and check off a few more discoveries in their TRACK Trails booklets. Finally we jumped back into the car, shedding hats and gloves and snow pants and bumping the heat up, headed yet even further down the mountain to Lake Lure, the blue jewel sparkling at the depths of the Hickory Nut Gorge.

View from the Opera Box

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