Friday, October 28, 2016

From Pisgah to Cherokee on the Blue Ridge Parkway

The Blue Ridge Parkway stretches for 469 miles through the Appalachians in the states of North Carolina and Virginia, a ribbon of road connecting Shenandoah and Great Smoky Mountains National Parks. Owned and managed by the US Park Service, the Parkway picks up where the Skyline Drive leaves off, ending at GSMNP and the Cherokee Indian Reservation in NC. The common way of referring to a specific area on the Parkway is by milepost, starting at 0 at the northernmost point and increasing as you travel south.

Being in that the southern terminus of the Parkway is only a 2 hour drive from Greenville, that puts about 100 miles of the scenic roadway within easy traveling distance for a weekend trip, or better yet, a long weekend. We’ve explored a good bit of the section between Mt. Mitchell and Balsam, but the very last bit had somehow escaped our wanderings – that is, until our Great Smoky Mountain National Park tour.

After circumnavigating the entire eastern section of GSMNP over a several day period, we spent the night in Cherokee, and fortified by a delicious breakfast of eggs and pancakes at Peter’s Pancakes and Waffles we set off for home. With blue skies above and the whole day ahead we decided to travel a good portion of the way on the Blue Ridge Parkway, exiting at milepost 412.2 and US 276. This would double our travel time, but give us 88 miles on the Parkway and then take us through scenic Pisgah National Forest and the town of Brevard.

Not even 5 miles in and we had pulled off on at least five scenic overlooks; the view from each was better than the last! As it became apparent that we wouldn’t be able to stop at each and every one, we prioritized; here are the highlights of this section of the Parkway.

Waterrock Knob, Milepost (MP) 451.2
With a tiny Visitor Center and pit-toilet facilities, it wasn’t the amenities that drew us to Waterrock – it was the short hike to the summit. The 1.2 mile round-trip hike has an elevation gain of 600 feet, the strenuous uphill climb to the top rewarded with views of Clingmans Dome, Mount LeConte and Mount Guyot, the highest peaks of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The first ¼ of a mile is paved, and as we kept climbing the view opened up, eventually bringing us to a rocky outcrop that featured the best views.

Richland Balsam Overlook, MP 431.4
These dozen miles of the Parkway are the highest, and the very highest point is Richland Balsam at 6,047ft. Although there is a moderate, 1.25-mile loop trail that leaves from this area, we settled for the views off to the south and to the west in addition to a few pictures with the large sign.

Devil’s Courthouse, MP 422.4
According to Cherokee legend, this geological formation was home to the spirit Judaculla. The parking area provides a good view of the bare cliffs, but to reach the top will be a 0.9-mile hike taking you up about 150ft in elevation. The first half of the trail is paved, taking you alongside the Parkway to the ridgeline where the pavement turns to dirt. Soon after you’ll reach the viewing area on the rock outcropping, with 360˚ views of the mountains. On my visit numerous fools had ventured over the wall to take selfies, their foray endangering not only their own lives, but the habitat of the rare peregrine falcons that nest on the cliffs. I enjoyed the markers that helped identify various landmarks in the distance (such as Caesars Head and Sam Knob), but the view was marred by the loud, brightly-clothed selfie-takers in flagrant disregard of the posted placards. I waited for a few clouds to roll in, and then returned to the parking area to rejoin the boys who were roaming the parking lot looking for states they had not yet crossed off on their license plate hunt.

Sam Knob, MP 420
Turn on FR 816 (Black Balsam Road) just past mile marker 420 and park at the end of the road for this 2.2 mile hike that will take you to the top of Sam Knob (elevation 6,045 feet), on the edge of the Shining Rock Wilderness. After climbing 570 ft in elevation you'll find panoramic views from rocky outcrops in the heath balds, gorgeous any time of year! 

Graveyard Fields Overlook, MP 418.8
This area takes its name from the stumps that were left after decades of logging and a couple of intense forest fires, when the charred stumps looked like tombstones. The 2.2 mile Graveyard Fields Loop Trail takes visitors through the mountain laurel and rhododendron, across the expanse of berry bushes and (what in the springtime would be) wildflowers, with spur trails to a couple of waterfalls. The parking lot tends to fill up quickly, and the trial can be crowded in the fall and spring.

Looking Glass Rock Overlook, MP 417
This overlook features a view of the mountain of bare rock that seemingly shines in the sun like a looking glass. An 0.8 mile trail leads to a swimming hole at the base of a waterfall, which over the years has earned the trail the name of “Skinny Dip Falls Trail.” We left this hike for another visit, as we still had creek-exploring session in store for us on the Pisgah, but made a note to return in the future for a summer hike.

We turned off the Parkway at MP 412 onto US-276, the Forest Heritage Scenic Byway. Winding our way through Pisgah National Forest we passed a few of our favorite Pisgah destinations including the Pink Beds Picnic Area, the Cradle of Forestry, Sliding Rock, Moore Cove Falls and Looking Glass Falls. A short distance from the falls we pulled over for lunch, utilizing a picnic table to eat and Looking Glass Creek to pass the time. As the sun slowly sank behind the mountains we continued south through Brevard, crossing into South Carolina and Caesars Head State Park just in time to catch the very last daylight reflecting on Caesar’s Head. And then it was a race against autumn in our descent, the forests becoming greener as we drove down to the Piedmont. However, it wasn’t but another week until fall caught up to us, the brilliant hues of the Blue Ridge Parkway following us home to Greenville.  

North Carolina Blue Ridge Parkway experiences by milepost here.
Blue Ridge Parkway map here

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