Monday, October 16, 2017

Craggy Gardens, autumn

We hit the road early one morning and headed north to Asheville where we jumped on the Blue Ridge Parkway headed east. The annual fall color show had started in the upper elevations (see my post on Graveyard Fields), and the ride up US-25 was a vibrant gradient attesting to the descent of fall foliage into the foothills over the past two weeks.

We had intended to visit Craggy Gardens last Sunday, but were sidetracked by Hurricane Nate’s remnants which included tornadoes and severe weather across the Upstate and Asheville area. It was our hope that being among the sections with higher elevations on the Blue Ridge Parkway, the Craggy Gardens area would not yet be past prime; it seems that predictions for an early leaf-peeping season have not been completely on track, and there was plenty of color to be seen on the Parkway between Asheville and Craggy Gardens, with another week or so to come.

The twisted, jagged, rocky “crags” give Craggy Gardens its name, but the high elevation summits are best known for the colorful display of rhododendron that blanket the area in June. However, the fall foliage displays on this section are not to be discounted; the 360° views from the overlooks and trails allow you to see a wide expanse of the Blue Ridge, and the stunted birch trees, mountain ash with their colorful berries, and the heath balds with the various sedges, blueberry and blackberry plants you’ll see on your hikes have their own hues to admire.

Located between milepost 363 and 370, there are three sections to visit: the Craggy Gardens Picnic Area  at milepost 367.6, the Craggy Gardens Visitor Center at the Gap at milepost 364.4, and the Craggy Dome View & Hike to Craggy Pinnacle at milepost 364.1.

source: Virtual Blue Ridge

We started our explorations at the Craggy Gardens Visitor Center. Although the Visitor Center hadn’t opened yet (please see hours here), we wanted to hit the trail first anyways. Being as the majority of the mountain was socked in with thick clouds rolling through, we selected the Craggy Gardens trail for our first hike, knowing that the views from Craggy Pinnacle would be better later in the day after the fog lifted. The trail can be accessed from the south end of the Visitor Center Parking area and leads to the north end of the Picnic Area in Craggy Flats. Just after leaving the parking area the trail intersects with the Mountains to Sea trail: head right and it’s 4 miles to Douglas Falls, keep straight for Craggy Gardens.

We hiked uphill through a forest of stunted, twisted high-elevation mountain ash, birch, and beech trees in a dense mist. Far from being spooky, the effect was mesmerizing; it seemed we were the only people on the trail as sound was muted and visibility reduced. After passing a small spring we soon came to the historic trail shelter. The logs used to build the shelter 100 years ago are the only American chestnuts you’ll find in the area; these magnificent trees were wiped out from the region by the introduced Chestnut blight, much as the hemlocks are currently being decimated by the hemlock woolly adelgid.

From the shelter, you can go left on a side path to explore the "gardens". Grassy meadows are being encroached upon by shrubs and trees without human & natural intervention, and Catawba rhododendron thickets with their twisted trunks are interspersed with mountain laurel, the pink blooms of which bloom soon after the rhododendron in the summer. We paused at the overlook to see if a break in the fog might offer a view of the mountains, and were rewarded with a short glimpse of Craggy Knob before the mist rolled back in.

From the shelter and bald it’s roughly 8/10ths of a mile to the Craggy Gardens picnic area, but that’s mostly downhill; you’ll get a good workout coming back up. We chose to park at the Visitor Center and hike the 0.7 miles to the shelter, bald and observation point, and save the picnic area for lunch – we would drive to it after returning to the parking area. Follow the signs from milepost 367.6, and you’ll find yourself in the Craggy Garden flats; a sheltered area with picnic tables, restrooms and plenty of parking once the smaller lots at the overlook and Visitor Center have filled up.

View of picnic area and parking from trailhead to Craggy Gardens

View of trailhead and our picnic spot in Craggy Gardens picnic area

After emerging from the Gardens we made a stop at the now-open Visitor Center to pick up Jr. Ranger folders for the kids; the Blue Ridge Parkway program offers the badge after completion of the activities on the folder and one worksheet. Each section of the Parkway has its own worksheet, and as the kids complete multiple worksheets they earn additional prizes. Across the road from the Visitor Center is another scenic viewpoint, and during breaks in the fog we had a view of the Craggy Gardens tunnel. We took a deep breath of moist mountain air and then loaded up the car for the very short drive east for our next hike – Craggy Pinnacle.

View of Burnett Reservoir from Craggy Gardens Visitor Center


The Craggy Gardens Visitor Center and trail is on the portion of the Blue Ridge Parkway that stretches from Asheville to Blowing Rock. I cover the western-most section of the Parkway in my post From Pisgah to Cherokee on the Blue Ridge Parkway.

Craggy Pinnacle tunnel

1 comment:

  1. We love the Craggy area ---and have hiked to the Pinnacle several times through the years... We've been there in good weather and NOT SO GOOD... ha ha..... Seems like there is ALWAYS fog/mist at Craggy!!!! haha .... Looks like you all had a good time. Hope the fog lifted before you got to the pinnacle.



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