Hiking the Black Mountain Crest Trail

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The Black Mountain range

The Black Mountain Crest Trail is legendary among hikers in the southeast. It is the highest trail east of the Mississippi, as it traverses the summit of several peaks over 6,000 feet. It is also widely acknowledged as one of the most punishing and strenuous hikes you’ll find anywhere. To begin with, the trail immediately ascends over 3,000 feet in just 4 miles up Celo Knob. After a short respite at Horse Rock Meadows, the rest of the trail is a relentless up and down with precious few switchbacks. Several sections are so rugged they require climbing ropes and/or basic rock climbing/bouldering skills. Other sections are narrow and hug cliffs with sheer drop-offs. It’s no wonder the BMCT is nicknamed “The March of Death”!

 

Despite all the blood, sweat, and tears (they’ll be plenty of each on this hike), by completing this trek you’ll be rewarded with perhaps the most amazing scenery and views anywhere. You’ll also have the personal satisfaction of knowing you came, saw, and conquered one of the premier hiking trails in the United States. The entire hike runs above or near 6,000 ft., with the notable exception being the primitive campground at Deep Gap. There are views throughout, as well as alpine wilderness beauty galore. If you’re into peakbagging, there are six recognized SB6K summits along the trail. The SB6K stands for South Beyond 6000, which comprises 40 mountain peaks 6,000’ or higher in the Southern Appalachians as recognized by the Carolina Mountain Club.

When researching this hike, which began over a year ago, I was struck by the relative lack of information regarding it. There are a couple of good, detailed trail reports online, but not much else. My aim in writing this piece is to provide a brief, yet comprehensive trail review and guide to hiking the Black Mountain Crest Trail (BMCT) from Bolens Creek to Mount Mitchell.

The Trailhead. The best way to hike the BMCT is to shuttle it, as it is a tough point-to-point trek. We left a vehicle at Mount Mitchell State Park at the Deep Gap picnic area. Registration is required to leave your vehicle overnight, but it’s free. We loaded all our gear and drove to the Bolens Creek trailhead. I’ve heard some hikers say they paid for a shuttle service to and from, so that is also an option.

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Locked and loaded

Confusion abounds in finding the trailhead proper at Bolens Creek. The first thing you need to know is parking is not allowed at the small cemetery near the trailhead. There are signs posted forbidding parking. Several online sources direct hikers to park their car at the cemetery. Please respect the wishes of the cemetery owner(s) and don’t park there. Just off Highway 19E, look for the Bolens Creek Road Sign. Turn here. After a short drive, you’ll come to a hairpin turn. Just before reaching the turn, there is a sign for WATER SHED RD next to a house upon a hill at the curb.

 

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Even though the sign says this is a private drive, turn here anyway. There is a small, muddy parking area on the right a few yards down the road. There is room for 3-4 vehicles. Park and leave your car here, being mindful not to block any residential driveways. You’ll also see a sign for “Entering Pisgah National Forest” at the far end of the parking area. This begins the hike.

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The Hike. Carry plenty of water. You need to know this up front. There are two main reasons: 1. This is a tough hike, and you’re going to probably drink more water than you normally would; 2. there is only one reliable water source once you leave the Bolens Creek area. If you undertake this hike during a wet season, as we did, you could carry a filtration device as there are a couple of run-off springs on the way up. I don’t drink much during hikes, but I drank almost all the water out of my 3 liter Camelbak bladder, plus a couple of extra bottles I stashed in my pack. There is a small spring off the Colbert Ridge Trail near Deep Gap, but it requires a short hike to reach. By the time you reach Deep Gap, you probably won’t feel much like hiking to find water, though.

Also, begin this hike early in the morning. We started at around 10:00am, and in retrospect, we should’ve started out at 7:00am. Because of the relentless climbing and the slower pace, this would’ve given us more time to explore. Also, we probably could’ve avoided late afternoon thunderstorms that are so common to the Black Mountains, and set up camp earlier at Deep Gap.

After leaving your vehicle, hike past the PNF sign up a once-paved forest service road. 

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Shortly, you’ll see a wand marker on the far side of a rickety bridge letting you know you’re on the correct trail. Cross around an iron gate. The BMCT is blazed in orange triangles, and the trail is well-marked. Bolens Creek cascades pastorally to your right.

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Almost immediately, the trail begins to ascend through a dense hardwood forest. This is a sign of things to come, but thankfully there are switchbacks, so you’re not plowing straight up and down like you’ll be doing later on. We stopped for a breather after every 3-4 switchbacks. The going is slow, but if you hike smart you’ll get through it. Remember, you’ll be gaining over 3,000 feet over the next 4 miles. We joked that the trail should be renamed “Trail False Hope” because several times it seemed the climbing had subsided, only to begin again. For the first 4 miles, there are no views or sights of note, just quad and lung-busting climbing.

 

The trail leaves Bolens Creek after a while, and if you’re following your map, you can gauge your distance based on this. As you reach a couple of thousand feet, the hardwoods start to thin and evergreens start to appear. There is a fairly long, level stretch of trail after you pass another BMCT wand, and a peculiar cairn lodged in a tree trunk. This is a beautiful area and was helpful in allowing our legs and lungs to rest.

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You’ll begin catching small glimpses through the trees and bushes of the Black Mountain ridgeline to your right, but there are no good views. You’ll also intermittently see the shoulder of Celo Knob rising up ahead. The last mile or so of this section is a tough climb, even with switchbacks. I caught a leg cramp here, but thankfully one of my kind hiking partners introduced me to the wonders of Emergen-C for staving off cramps!

 

The trail opens up and levels off noticeably as you enter a high-mountain meadow called Horse Rock Meadows. You will catch amazing views of the entire Black Mountain range and the Cane River Valley here. Be careful of your footing. The trail here is somewhat overgrown, and there are numerous potholes and drop-offs concealed beneath the grass and shrubs. You’ll make your way around the shoulder of Celo Knob enjoying the great views.

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We took a break and had lunch at a trail wand just below the summit. There is an obvious scramble trail to the left that takes you to the true summit of Celo Knob. It’s steep and rugged, but there is a great opening for views about halfway up.

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We spotted Linville Gorge and the iconic summits of Hawksbill and Table Rock mountains from this vantage, even with haze. Further up the trail the summit of Celo Knob (6,327’) is uneventful, being marked only with a couple of pieces of orange tape.

The trail is easy and restful through Horse Rock Meadows. Turk’s Cap lilies were in full bloom everywhere.

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Peaceful and level Horse Rock Meadows

Gibbs Mountain is in front of you. The hike up Gibbs is a foreshadowing of the rest of the Black Mountain Crest Trail: narrow, rocky trail, no real switchbacks, and steep climbs and plunges between peaks. The trail goes beside the summit of Gibbs Mountain (6,224’), which is located just off the trail at the unmarked highest point.

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Horse Rock Meadows with Gibbs Mountain in the distance

 

A fierce thunderstorm blew in bringing rain and fog after we reached the summit of Gibbs. You can count on inclimate weather at some point almost 100% of the time when hiking the Blacks. Pack accordingly. I didn’t get many pictures from this point, as the rain was coming down too hard. The rough weather stayed with us as we crossed over to Winter Star Mountain.

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Thunderstorm bearing down on us at 6,000′

After the grueling climb from Bolens Creek to the summit of Celo Knob, the rain and cooler temps were not unwelcome! Even with the rain and clouds dropping down on us, we could see we were traveling along a narrow, rocky ridgeline with sheer drop-offs. Take caution here. The trail climbs and crosses over the summit of Winter Star (6,212’), where there is a benchmark. There is also at least one campsite.

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The trail looked like this most of the way

Along the way, be sure to look behind you at the peaks you just crossed. You’ll feel amazed, if not accomplished. We descended steeply from Winter Star down to the Deep Creek primitive camping area at around mile 8, still under rain and fog. We were drenched and considered attempting finishing the BMCT, but thought better of it. The storm was beginning to subside, but left high winds in its wake. This helped us dry off somewhat. We pitched our tents and hammocks and enjoyed the sunset and much needed rest at Deep Creek. The four of us were snoozing before the sun had fully set. The temps dropped into the low 40s during the night. It was an uncomfortable night as the temperatures plunged and the air was damp. The wind howled all night long. The rest was welcomed.

 

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We awoke to clear skies with fog and a gentle breeze. After packing up camp, we hit the trail again.

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Headed for the light

After leaving Deep Gap, you’re 4 miles from reaching the end goal of Mount Mitchell. In my opinion, these were the most difficult miles of all. Immediately after leaving Deep Gap, you’ll enter the boundaries of Mount Mitchell State Park. The first ascent is up Potato Hill (6,475’). It’s a long, narrow climb, with great views to the east.

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Juan Carlos being awed and amazed

There are a couple of sections of trail on Potato Hill that are very narrow and skirt sheer cliffs. The summit is located off an obvious short path to the right. Potato Hill, being a sub-peak of Cattail Peak, is no longer a recognized SB6K peak.

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Amazing eastern views

The descent of Potato Hill is rocky, slick, and almost vertical in places. Each time we thought we’d reached the gap below, there was another section of descent. There are no ropes, so use careful footing and take your time.

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The gap between Potato Hill and Cattail Peak is more level, and passes through a dense Tolkienesque, moss-covered spruce-fir forest. Sunlight is almost nonexistent in places here, it’s very dark and damp.

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After a half mile, you’ll pass a wooden sign indicating the summit of Cattail Peak (6,580’). This is not the true summit. You’ll have to hike a little further to the obvious high point to reach the true summit, which is benchmarked. This area also has camping spots.

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The not-really-the-summit-summit-marker

After another half mile or so, the BMCT passes over the summit of Balsam Cone (6,611’). You’ll then begin descending into Big Tom Gap. This section is another long, sharp downhill trek that requires sure footing and a deliberate pace. Just before reaching the gap, there is a junction with the Big Tom Gap Trail, plus a sign marker letting you know the Black Mountain Crest Trail is now called the Deep Gap Trail. I can’t imagine this causing confusion, but it might. Continue straight ahead on the orange-blazed BMCT.

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Profound beauty

Before you is Big Tom (6,579’), named for local bear hunter, tracker, and storyteller Big Tom Wilson. Wilson famously recovered the body of Dr. Elisha Mitchell, who’d fallen to his death while exploring the Black Mountains. In my opinion, this is the toughest section of the entire hike. You’ll be ascending the north face, which is exposed and rugged.

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Whenever you think you’ve reached the top, there’s always more

Thankfully, there are climbing ropes to help with the ascent. Because of the heavy rains the night before, the trail was extra wet and muddy. We began passing other a few other hikers at this point, all of them heading down to Deep Gap. I gathered not too many attempt the route we’d just taken, hiking up from Bolens Creek.

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Grab ya rope!

 

After several steep, rope-assisted sections, the summit of Big Tom is marked with an obvious plaque and geological benchmark. This is a great spot to rest. There is a semi-view here. The area is flat and boggy, and has obvious signs of acid rain and invasive pest decimation.

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The Cane River Valley from atop Big Tom. Notice the map. Always carry one and know how to read it

 

After leaving Big Tom, there is a short descent, then the BMCT begins to ascend Mt. Craig (6,647’), the second highest peak east of the Mississippi. Mt. Craig’s summit is rocky and beautiful, with some of the best views you’ll find anywhere. Be careful to stay on the marked trail, as several rare species of plants grow on Craig’s rocky outcrops.

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The summit of Mt. Craig is marked by a plaque honoring the late Sen. Locke Craig, for whom the mountain is named. After a short ascent through an open meadow, there is an outcropping to the right which is a great place to rest and enjoy the views. It’s one of my favorite places in Pisgah, actually. We talked to several other hikers here who asked about the Black Mountain Crest Trail. You will also begin to notice tourists or leisure hikers who’ve taken the moderate hike from the parking area to this point. This is a great place for pictures.

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The best trail team I could ever ask for

 

The hike from Mt. Craig to the parking area at Deep Gap/Mount Mitchell is around 1.5 mile sin length, and moderate in difficulty. It follows a rocky spine, and has nice views on clear days. The last hurrah before reaching the end of the hike involves climbing several sections of stone steps. 

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Almost as if the BMCT was letting us know she wasn’t quite finished with us

You’ll notice the trail becomes less steep and graded with pebbles. After a short while through another dense section of spruce-fir, the Deep Gap campground comes into view with picnic tables, restrooms, and a paved parking area. Like most any hike that reaches the summit of Mt. Mitchell (6,684’), the whole scene can be anti-climatic.

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We had a small celebration in the parking lot, high-fiving and congratulating each other on accomplishing what is widely regarded as the most grueling, difficult hike on the east coast. We’d just spent two days together climbing, sweating, cramping, and laughing our way up and down the highest mountain range east of the Mississippi. We garnered a few stares, mostly from people who were probably wondering why we were so happy and muddy.       

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See you on the trail!

07/28/2017        

 

If you’ve completed (or survived) the Black Mountain Crest Trail, and would like something to commemorate your accomplishment, I have designed a couple of stickers for purchase. These would look great on your water bottle, car, or anywhere else you can think of. Available for purchase in my online store! See link below.

Carolina Trekker Stickers!

 

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Upper Creek Falls – Pisgah National Forest

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Synopsis: Loop hike down into and back out of scenic Upper Creek Gorge to a beautiful 80-foot waterfall, as well as a couple of smaller ones.

Total Mileage: 1.7 miles (possibly more if you explore).

Blaze Color: Yellow/Orange; Blue/Orange ribbons

Hike Rating: Moderate to Strenuous

The Trailhead: The trailhead is located off the right side of NC Highway 181 if you’re coming from Boone, in the Jonas Ridge community. Look for the sign about 5 miles inside Pisgah National Forest, past the Brown Mountain Overlook, and just across the highway from Linville Gorge. Turn right and pull into the gravel parking area. The trailhead will be obvious. You’ll see signs for both upper and lower falls on each side of the parking area. If you like a more challenging hike, start with the upper trailhead.

The Hike: The first thing I noticed was the amount of litter in the parking area and at both trailheads. It wasn’t excessive, but the fact that it was there at all disgusted me. What part of “Leave No Trace” and “Pack In, Pack Out” don’t you understand? End of mini rant.

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For this hike, to get the full effect, my suggestion would be to start at the upper trailhead and hiking clockwise through the loop. I say this because at the trail at the base of Upper Creek Falls, there are several heard paths that make holding the main trail difficult. I wouldn’t want to get lost in this area of Pisgah (or any), especially so close to Brown Mountain. That place is creepy.

As you start out at the upper trail, you’ll notice it runs parallel to NC 181. You’ll also be struck at just how beautiful the terrain is here, if not somewhat rocky and rooty. You’ll forget you’re near a major highway for the entire hike.

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The blazes are orange and yellow, with the occasional ribbon marker. The trail descends gently down into the gorge. As you near Upper Creek, you’ll come to a wooden bridge and stairs which allows you to survey a smaller waterfall and swimming hole and get the the creek safely.

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After climbing down, the trail continues on the far side of the creek. Rock hopping is the only way to get across unless you wade. In high water, I wouldn’t attempt it. You’ll want to get pics here before continuing. The waterfall is nice, as is the view of the gorge in the opposite direction.

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Please be aware that you are standing directly above a roaring 80-foot waterfall. The rocks are smooth and slick. One slip and there’s no chance you’d live going over the lower falls. Don’t allow children to get too close. People have died here.

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As you ford the creek and climb up the other side of the bank, the trail is obvious. There is a campsite on the left. Continue down the trail ignoring all the steep herd paths off to your right. A switchback will lead you down to the base of the waterfall. It is slightly off the main trail. Again, ignore the herd paths and phantom trails. I thought it’d be relatively easy for an inexperienced hiker to get lost in this area. There are trails everywhere and not many blazes. Stay on the blazed trail and/or the obvious trail.

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Upper Creek Falls is one of the nicest waterfalls I’ve seen. It tumbles vertically over the cliff and sluices through huge boulders and further down into the gorge below. The rocks here are slick with moisture and algae, so use caution. This area makes for a great picnic and rest spot. We hiked here on a Saturday at about 2:30pm and did not encounter another hiker after leaving the smaller upper falls.

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The trail continues up and out of the gorge on the far side of the creek. You’ll either have to wade or rock hop again. In high water, I wouldn’t risk it.

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This part of the trail did not appear to be as heavily used as the upper portion. Maybe because the ascent out seems much longer than a mile.

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Numerous switchbacks will lead you past a huge boulder/overhang where rock climbers had anchored their leads. I stopped and did a little bouldering before continuing on, as a storm was threatening.

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The main trail will also carry you to the top of the boulder where you can get a dizzying winter view of the creek and gorge below.

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Follow the trail back to the parking area to complete this great hike.

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See you on the trail!

02/12/2017

Courthouse Falls

Courthouse Falls is a relatively short and easy/moderate hike off Summey Cove Trail in the Pisgah National Forest near Asheville, North Carolina. This is a great hike for the whole family to a beautiful waterfall.

Courthouse Falls
The trailhead

We drove the Blue Ridge Parkway from Asheville and exited onto NC Highway 215. After driving about 7 miles, we turned left onto Forest Road (FR) 140 directly after crossing the bridge over Courthouse Creek. FR140 is single lane and unpaved and quite bumpy. After driving for 3 miles, cross the bridge and you’ll see an obvious pull-off for parking on the right.
The trailhead is located on the left side of the road. You’ll see a sign that looks like this:
The hike

Even though the hike to Courthouse Falls is relatively short (about .75 miles round trip), it does have several boggy and slick spots, so wear good shoes.

After beginning the hike, you will be on Summey Cove Trail. After hiking through a lush forest alongside Courthouse Creek, you’ll see a sign carved into a downed tree toward the falls:

After hiking a short distance, you’ll come upon a set of wooden stairs. On the day we hiked this trail (November 2013), the stairs were wet and slick and creaky. (I heard they’ve been rebuilt, but I cannot confirm this.) You’ll see the falls on your right, you can’t miss them. There is a nice resting area to take in the beauty of the falls. Courthouse Falls is 45 ft. high with a picturesque pool at its base. Courthouse Creek is known for garnet, and we found several.

Again, even though Courthouse Falls is a shorter hike, use caution on the rocks. The spray off the falls make for slick footing in places. This is a good hike for a beginner, or for families with smaller children, or simply for those who want to see a beautiful waterfall!

There are several other nice falls in the area also.

See you on the trail!

Daniel Ridge / Slick Rock Falls

I was off work this past Saturday, so on the spur my family and I decided to go do a little playing in the Pisgah National Forest. We thought our children (ages 3 and 11) would appreciate a shorter trail with waterfalls, of which Pisgah has plenty.

We settled on Slick Rock Falls and Daniel Ridge Falls. Since both of these are in close proximity, I’m going to include them as one. For fun we also took the kids to see Looking Glass Falls. I used to climb down the then-wooden steps with my son (age 11) and play in the stream at the base of the falls when he was a toddler. It was fun to share this with him again.

SLICK ROCK FALLS

The trailhead.

Enter Pisgah National Forest near Brevard at US Highway 276. Drive until you see the a split in the road at around 5 miles. You’ll veer left towards the Pisgah Center for Wildlife Education and the State Fish Hatchery. This is FR (Forest Road) 475. Immediately after passing the center, you’ll see FR475B on the right. Take this road. It is a one-lane unpaved road. Drive just over a mile and on the right is a pull-off for Slick Rock Falls. There will be a bulletin board and the trailhead for Slick Rock Trail. There is a “can’t miss” sign for the falls.
01The hike to the falls is less than .25 miles.

Slick Rock Falls was partially frozen on the day we visited (January 31). It was still nice. Be careful around the falls, because after all, they don’t call it “slick rock” for nothing.

04On the far side of the falls was an interesting cave. If you wish, you can also take the .75 mile trail up to the base of Slick Rock.

DANIEL RIDGE FALLS

The trail head.

Drive back onto FS475 from FS475B and go right. (If you’re already on 475 simply go straight.) Drive for 2.5 miles until you come to the Cove Creek Group Campground area. The paved road ends here. Drive onto the unpaved road until you pass a one-lane bridge over the Davidson River. There will be a parking area on the right just after the bridge. Park here. The trailhead is at the far end of the parking lot past the brown gate.

The hike.

This is an easy hike on a well-marked trail. The trail itself is a 4+ mile loop. If you hike just to the falls, it’s about .5 miles. One thing to be aware of is Daniel Ridge Loop Trail is popular with mountain bikers. We encountered several groups on our hike, but they were all courteous. You might also find it interesting that Daniel Ridge Falls goes by the names Tom’s Spring Branch Falls and Jackson Falls.

Shortly after beginning the hike, you’ll come upon a nice bridge over the Davidson River. On either side of the bridge are some nice primitive camp sites.

Shortly after the bridge, there will be a sign for the falls on the right. Follow it.

32You will ascend an easily graded trail to the base of the falls. The falls themselves are impressive by height alone at 150 feet. We stopped at the base and the kids threw stones in the creek.

We then hiked back and played and skipped rocks on the pebbled beaches of the Davidson River. The water was crystal clear and cold and we saw several trout swimming by.

Afterwards, we stopped by and checked out Looking Glass Falls (Take a left onto 276 off FS475 – can’t miss it), which is essential if you’re in the area of the Pisgah National Forest!

58Overall, this was an enjoyable little day trip. Not a ton of hardcore hiking, but being able to spend time in nature with my family and simply enjoy it was worth it. Try it sometime.

See you on the trail!