On a clear and crisp October Sunday a few years ago, I climbed the Clingmans Dome observation tower in the middle of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park at the end of a backpacking trip.
The tower was so busy that, to get to the railing to take in the view to the north, I had to wait in line behind three or four people. Then I had to repeat the process three times to gaze east, south and west. Not even the, er, aroma generated by a sweaty week in the woods yielded a clear path.
Somewhat similar experiences may be in store for people visiting the Blue Ridge Parkway, parts of the Smokies and other prime spots for fall color over the next few weeks. Many parks, overlooks, waterfalls and trails in Western North Carolina have been exceptionally busy since the coronavirus pandemic began: The number of recreational visitors to the Smokies for June, July and August was up 6.9% over the same months in 2019, according to preliminary park figures, and were the highest recorded in at least 41 years.
Odds are that WNC’s wild areas will also be busy in October, already one of the most popular times to visit the region.
The following suggestions for short hikes with a view should improve your chances of getting a little elbow room while leaf looking. Don’t expect to have any of them all to yourself — in these days of social media and high visitation, few places on maintained trails haven’t been “discovered” by someone. But expanding your horizons to some lesser-known places might reduce the need to mingle with the masses and lessen the strain on some of WNC’s most popular outdoor spots.
This loop hike in Pisgah National Forest northeast of Brevard takes you across a rounded rock face, similar to the better-known Looking Glass Rock and John Rock but smaller and less visited. From the top of the rock, you can see a hardwood cove below you and much of the south side of the Pisgah Ledge. The two other hikers who were there when I visited pointed out that no man-made structures are visible other than a few transmission line towers in the distance and a bit of the Blue Ridge Parkway
The drive: From the U.S. Forest Service’s North Mills River Recreation Area in northern Henderson County, stay straight on Yellow Mountain Road (F.S. 1206), which turns to gravel just past the campground. The road is a beauty, and like all those mentioned in this article, easily passable for a standard passenger car if you slow down for potholes. The trailhead is on your right at 6.6 miles, immediately before a small concrete bridge. A small trail sign reads “Slate Rock Pilot Cove.”
The walk: Walk past the sign, then take Pilot Cove Loop Trail, which veers uphill and to the right after about 0.1 miles. The trail has no sign, but yellow blazes and the path itself make the turn obvious.
The rock face is on the left, about a mile from the trail junction, and the trail briefly runs atop its highest edge. To complete the loop, continue for another mile, then bear left at a T intersection onto Slate Rock Creek Trail. Descend sharply at first, then walk through a beautiful, nearly flat hardwood cove with an understory of ferns to the starting point.
- Distance: 3.4 miles.
- Starting elevation: 3,115 feet.
- Viewpoint elevation: 3,720 feet.
- Maps: National Geographic Trails Illustrated Pisgah Ranger District map or Pisgah Map Company’s Pisgah Ranger District map.
In the neighborhood: The hike from Gloucester Gap, a few miles’ drive west of John Rock, to Pilot Mountain is steep but offers great views.
This outcropping on Snowball Trail has outstanding views to the west and southwest that reach to the eastern edge of the Smokies. Don’t be fooled by the similar starting and viewpoint elevations — you’ll climb Snowball Mountain, elevation 5,335 feet, in between.
The drive: Between Blue Ridge Parkway mileposts 368 and 367 northeast of Asheville, turn onto the access road for the Craggy Gardens picnic area. Park at the three-way intersection in Bee Tree Gap at 0.3 miles.
The walk: Take the Mountains-to-Sea Trail, marked with a white-dot blaze, to the west (left as you come from the parkway.) Turn right onto Snowball Trail at 0.1 miles. After ascending, then descending, Snowball Mountain, you’ll start climbing again. Hawkbill lies at the top of this short climb, helpfully marked by a new sign. Return the way you came.
- Distance: 3 miles round trip.
- Starting elevation: 4,880 feet.
- Viewpoint elevation: 4,918 feet.
- Map: Pisgah Map Co.’s Grandfather Ranger District map.
In the neighborhood: Continuing on the MST from the Snowball Trail intersection will bring you to rock outcroppings overlooking the Swannanoa Valley in 2 miles. You’ll have a little less climbing but more company.
This hike is particularly well suited for families with kids. The grade is gentle, there are no cliffs to fall from, and the large pasture at the top provides plenty of room to run around and socially distance. The pasture is in use, so keep dogs on a leash — and watch for cow pies.
The drive: Starting on Asheville’s east side, take U.S. 74A about 12.5 miles east from Interstate 40 through Fairview to Gerton, turn right (south) onto Bearwallow Mountain Road and park after 2 miles, where the road turns from gravel back to pavement. The trail begins on the left.
The hike: The trail exists because of the kindness of the Lyda family, which owns the property, and Conserving Carolina, the Hendersonville-based nonprofit that secured a conservation easement for the land. It winds up through open woods to the pasture, where you can see Hickory Nut Gorge, much of Henderson County and southern Buncombe County and peaks beyond. Return via the gravel road that runs through the pasture.
- Distance: 2 miles.
- Starting elevation: 3,660 feet.
- Viewpoint elevation: 4,230 feet.
- Map: Online at avl.mx/8dp.
In the neighborhood: The Trombatore Trail, another Conserving Carolina project described on the nonprofit’s website, begins across the road from the start of Bearwallow Mountain Trail and leads 2.4 miles one way to a mountaintop field with good views.
DuPont State Recreational Forest boasts much more than waterfalls. You can see much of the forest from its highest point.
The drive: Take DuPont Road south for 0.8 miles from its intersection with Crab Creek Road between Hendersonville and Brevard, then turn left onto Sky Valley Road. A small parking area is on the left at about 3 miles, or 1.4 miles past the Guion Farm parking lot.
The hike: Located in one of DuPont’s quieter corners, the hike has a Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde character. From the parking lot, take Rocky Ridge Trail, a broad, gentle path cushioned by sand and pine needles, for 0.4 miles, then go right for 0.2 miles on Stone Mountain Trail. Turn left at the intersection with Switchback Trail, where Mr. Hyde takes over. The rocky and eroded Stone Mountain Trail travels very steeply 0.7 miles from here to the top, which features several viewpoints. Return the way you came.
- Distance: 2.6 miles total.
- Starting elevation: 2,970 feet.
- Viewpoint elevation: 3,600 feet.
- Maps: Both National Geographic Trails Illustrated and Pisgah Map Co. sell good DuPont maps.
In the neighborhood: The hike over Cedar Rock on DuPont’s western side is a good alternative if Stone Mountain sounds too tough: It’s prettier and less steep, but also busier. From the Corn Mill Shoals parking lot about 0.5 miles south of the Staton Road/Cascade Lake Road intersection, cross the road and walk 0.1 miles on Corn Mill Shoals Trail. Then bear left on Big Rock Trail, right on Cedar Rock Trail, right on Little River Trail and right on Corn Mill Shoals Trail for a 2.8-mile loop. A collapsed bridge on Little River Trail may require you to wade a small stream, or you can return the way you came instead of crossing.
- Starting elevation: 2,720 ft.
- Viewpoint elevation: 3,060 ft.