Friday, October 27, 2017

Rattlesnake Lodge

The Blue Ridge Parkway isn’t only about grand views and high elevations; it is also about art & culture (for example the Folk Art Center), and history. In our most recent trip up to the Parkway we explored Rattlesnake Lodge, the ruins of which tell the story of the 20th century retreat that was built by Dr. Chase P. Ambler, a wealthy doctor and conservationist from Asheville. Dr. Ambler was one of the founders of the movement to establish Great Smoky Mountains National Park, led efforts to pass the Weeks Act in 1911 (which eventually led to the creation of Pisgah National Forest), and was chairman of a committee that created the Carolina Mountain Club. The CMC still exists today, and helps maintain the Mountains to Sea Trail which we would be using to reach Rattlesnake Lodge.

From Asheville we headed northeast towards Craggy Gardens, but turned left on Elk Mountain Scenic Highway somewhere past mile marker 376 but before the Tanbark Ridge Tunnel (at milepost 374). A quarter mile later we turned right onto Ox Creek Road, and the parking pull-off for Rattlesnake Ridge was on the right side about 6/10ths of a mile further, at Bull Gap. Several large boulders mark the trailhead, and after hiking in just a hundred feet we hit the Mountains to Sea trail that stretches all the way from Great Smoky Mountains National Park to the Outer Banks. To reach the Lodge we turned east (left) at the intersection; going right would take you down to Ox Creek Road.

The initial climb up Bull Mountain utilizes numerous switchbacks to make its way up, tulip poplars slowly giving way to an oak forest with an understory of mountain laurel. We passed between a couple of enormous boulders, and in places caught glimpses of Tanbark Ridge and Bull Valley across the way. Bull Gap, Mountain and Valley are named for the bull elks that once called the Craggies their home; now the closest place you’ll see one is Cataloochee Valley.

The old road to the lodge is blazed white, with mossy stone retaining walls remaining as a testament to its sturdy construction. The carriage house was located at Bull Gap, and the road to the lodge specially constructed to be too narrow for carriages, as to ensure privacy and seclusion. As we approached the site of the historic lodge we entered a cove, and the towering hardwoods shaded us as we discovered the foundations that mark the first of the ruins of Rattlesnake Lodge – the barn.

Clockwise: barn, tool shed, chimney remains, water reservoir

Soon after the old barn we came upon the swimming pool, at one time fed by mountain water through an underground system of pipes. The neighboring rock wall and open area formed the yard of the lodge, the main building having been just on the other side of the trail. There used to be a bridge extending from the back of the lodge to the tennis court, while just a little further ahead are the remains of the spring house and tool shed. The display & map are severely faded – I found the Rattlesnake Lodge website helpful with maps and descriptions in envisioning the locations of all the outbuildings.

source: Rattlesnake Lodge website

The adjacent spring was our favorite spot within the site. An enormous dead oak tree guards the spring, the giant branches arching over the entrance like a doorway. The boys could have spent the day climbing and exploring… There were supposedly seven springs total on the property.

There are several trails intersecting here, the first of which is a spur trail that descends to the Blue Ridge Parkway at the Tanbark Ridge tunnel. Keep going, and the next intersection is near the foundations of the old tool shed which once housed a hydroelectric generator that powered the lodge. The generator was driven by water from the main reservoir, located higher up in the next drainage; follow the trail to the left (blue blazes) that heads steeply uphill to reach this reservoir. On your way you’ll see remnants of the old terra cotta pipe that supplied the hydroelectric generator with water. Just a tenth of a mile further you’ll find another spring that together with the stream fed the reservoir. Here the trail levels out, and soon ends at the Mountains to Sea trail. Turn right to loop back to the lodge site, and you’ll descend a rocky trail through tunnels of mountain laurel. About 1/10th of a mile from the main lodge are the remains of a chimney, the only ruins still standing from the various structures that once stood here: the old corn crib, a potato house, stables, and the caretaker’s cabin.

The trail is 3.8 miles round-trip. The first portion from Bull Gap to the Lodge climbs 550 feet in elevation, but the ascent up to the second spring ups that by about 500 feet. By not continuing on to the reservoir and spring you would cut 1 mile (and the loop portion) off your hike, and you would eliminate the most challenging portion. The climb isn’t so rough going counter-clockwise around the loop, but then it’s a scramble down the precipitous section between the spring and the reservoir. Another option would be to park at the Tanbark Ridge Tunnel, but although the trail to the lodge is only ½ mile long, it’s a steep climb, and in my opinion isn’t as scenic as coming in on the Mountains to Sea Trail. For a map of the trails, click here.


We hiked to Rattlesnake Lodge as part of the Conserving Carolina fall hike series. You can read more about Conserving Carolina here.

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