Taking the Trail Less Traveled
By Jason Tarr
On your next visit to the Blue Ridge Mountains, take the trails less traveled! While certain trails seem to get all the love, there are other exciting trails (often starting in the same area) that are overlooked. Set your trip apart by exploring these hiking gems hidden in plain sight. And, by exploring these lesser-traveled trails, you'll be helping to support Leave No Trace by taking some pressure off of the fragile ecosystems at popular hiking spots.
Consider this your guide to "if not here, then there." If you show up to a full parking area or see many other hikers on a trail, then check out these alternatives to the big name hikes.
If not Craggy Gardens, then Big Butt Trail or Douglas Falls
Just five miles north of Craggy Gardens, start your hike on the Big Butt Trail from Walker Knob Overlook on the Blue Ridge Parkway. This is a much-less trafficked trail perfect for those looking for more solitude. Hike through a dense, lush forest before reaching a rock outcropping with a view of Mount Mitchell, the highest peak east of the Mississippi River. Or, take the Mountains-to-Sea Trail from Walker Knob in either direction and hike as much or as little as you like through the forest.
From the Craggy Gardens visitor center, hike away from the crowd to a 60-foot waterfall in the Big Ivy area of Pisgah National Forest. It’s a difficult hike to Douglas Falls that is best for experienced hikers, but for those up for the challenge, you’ll be rewarded with a peaceful forest adventure.
For an even quieter experience, hike the Douglas Falls Trail and the Big Butt Trail from the trailheads near the community of Barnardsville.
If not Bearwallow Mountain, then Wildcat Rock Trail
Enjoy great views from the Wildcat Rock Trail just ten minutes from Bearwallow Mountain. Because Wildcat Rock Trail is relatively new, you’re likely to see fewer hikers than at popular Bearwallow. The trail features interesting landmarks as you climb, including a low-flow waterfall, beautiful views from a rock outcropping and a picturesque meadow. Thanks to work of organization Conserving Carolina, the trail now connects to Bearwallow Mountain. The 10-mile roundtrip is like taking the "scenic route" to the summit.
Another alternative is a great trail that leaves from the same parking area as the Bearwallow Mountain Trail. The Trombatore Trail climbs to Blue Ridge Pastures, a grassy mountaintop with views of the mountains.
If not Hooker/High Falls/Triple Falls, then Bridal Veil Falls
DuPont State Forest features incredible natural wonders. On the weekends and other popular times, the trails to the park’s main three waterfalls can get quite crowded. While you’re still likely to see a few people on the trail to Bridal Veil Falls, it’s a nice alternative. This beautiful sloping waterfall also makes a great picnic spot. It’s easy to pair Bridal Veil Falls with a hike to other DuPont State Forest landmarks, including Lake Julia.
If not Max Patch, then Rich Mountain or Lover’s Leap
While Max Patch Mountain is the Appalachian Trail (AT) hike that receives the most attention, a lesser-known AT hike also offers exceptional views. On the other side of Hot Springs, check out the Rich Mountain Fire Tower, a historic fire lookout at 3,600 feet. The US Forest Service built the lookout tower in 1932 and it was actively staffed until the 1990s. The challenging 5-mile roundtrip hike takes you on a steady incline through the forest.
Also in Hot Springs, you'll find the Appalachian Trail hike to Lover's Leap. The 2-mile loop takes you to a rock outcropping with unique views of the twists and turns of the French Broad River.
If not Lookout Mountain, then Graybeard Mountain
The trails in the Montreat area next to the town of Black Mountain, provide access to lush forests and beautiful views. The Graybeard Mountain Trail, while still popular, is a nice alternative to the often-hiked Lookout Mountain Trail. On your way up the trail, check out the cascades of Graybeard Falls and the view from Walkers Knob. Up for making a day out of it? The higher you climb toward Blackrock the fewer hikers you’re likely to see. Graybeard Mountain is one of the Seven Sisters Mountain Peaks, a range that can be seen from a walk around Black Mountain’s Lake Tomahawk.
If not Black Balsam, then Sam Knob or Cold Mountain
Black Balsam is an Asheville classic, but fewer people know of a similarly impressive hike that starts from the same parking area. When the trail to Black Balsam is busy, consider taking the trail to Sam Knob instead. The 2.2-mile roundtrip hike takes you through a beautiful meadow (often filled with wildflowers) up to the 6,045-foot summit of Sam Knob for impressive views.
Or, drive south on the Blue Ridge Parkway and then drive down Highway 215 to reach the trailhead for the trail to Cold Mountain. The nearly 11-mile hike means there are often few people on the trail to this iconic peak.