Hickory Nut Gorge Offers New Hiking Trails

Throughout the last few years, hiking opportunities in the Hickory Nut Gorge area southeast of Asheville, NC have slowly been expanding. While locals have been hiking in the area for decades, there haven’t been a lot of publicly sanctioned trails, except for the few inside the privately owned Chimney Rock Park. But those come with an admission price.

Spurred by the purchase of Chimney Rock Park by the state of North Carolina for the subsequent creation of Chimney Rock State Park as the Gorge’s centerpiece, and aided by other purchases and easements through local land conservation organizations, the amount of space officially open to public recreation in and around the Gorge has increased dramatically over the last decade. And along with new protected lands have come some new trails, which have started to allow people to experience the beauty found in this section of North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Mountains.

Long-range plans for the area include a long-distance trail that encircles the entire perimeter of the gorge. But that trail is being built in smaller pieces, which have their own names. Three of those pieces are now complete and open to the public: the Bearwallow MountainLittle Bearwallow and Trombatore trails. We explored the latter two in December 2014, and below are our trip reports from those hikes.

Bearwallow Mountain: Crown of the Upper Hickory Nut Gorge

Before the trip reports, let’s talk a bit about the first trail to be constructed in the area. Bearwallow Mountain sits near the upper end of the gorge, on its southwest side, and is one of the highest peaks in the area at 4232 ft. in elevation. The Eastern Continental Divide splits the summit, then loops around the upper gorge before connecting to Little Pisgah Mountain on the other (northwest) side. At 4412 ft., Little Pisgah is the higher of the gorge’s two ramparts, but Bearwallow is better known than its higher neighbor because of its accessibility.

Bearwallow Mountain, as seen from the destination on the Trombatore Trail described below.

For years, locals have parked at bottom of the service road that leads to its summit and hiked to the top, where a forest of trees disappears and is replaced by a forest of communications towers. I’ve been visiting it myself with my family as a kid since the early 90’s. Now, with the summit under a conservation easement and an official trail leading to the top, everyone can comfortably enjoy Bearwallow’s open meadows and the splendid views they provide.

The meadow at the top of Bearwallow Mountain, with its cows grazing and communications towers bristling, exemplifies the typical environment in the Hickory Nut Gorge. Rather than having a wilderness or backcountry feel to it, the areas these trails bring you to feel more rural. Pockets of exceptional natural beauty remain, tied together by more developed or disturbed areas in between.

Bearwallow Mountain was the first of the three trail segments to open and we have given it its own trailhead page on HikeWNC.info.

Trip Report 1: Little Bearwallow Trail, from US 74-A to Little Bearwallow Falls

A chunk of conserved land, called the Florence Preserve (which also has its own trailhead page on HikeWNC) sits on the edge of the gorge northeast of Hickory Creek, on a lower ridge of Little Pisgah Mountain. It has its own little trail network inside it, and it is accessed from the new Upper Hickory Nut Gorge parking area along US 74-A.

From the same parking area, you can now access a trail leading in the opposite direction, to a waterfall on the side of Little Bearwallow Mountain. The trail passes over private and conserved lands, and ascends quickly up the slopes of the gorge to the bottom of a cliff band. A tiny stream flows over the cliff to form Little Bearwallow Falls.

On a beautiful warm day in late December, 2014, a group of us hiked the new trail to check it out!

Crossing Hickory Creek at the start of the Little Bearwallow trail.

It was a varied group of hikers, so I’d say the trail up to the falls is accessible to most folks with some hiking experience. It’s about 1.1 miles from the parking area to the falls, with a 650 ft. elevation gain. The newly-rebuilt trail is in great condition and is well constructed, with few obstacles along its first part. The forest is nice, and contains an understory of the less-common rhododendron minus (as opposed to the more typical Catawba and Rosebay rhododendron, some of which grow here also).

After crossing the small stream well below the falls, the trail gets a bit steeper and passes though some rock steps. Still, I wouldn’t call it “rocky” because the steps are quite artfully arranged. I’d rate it moderate overall – everyone in our group was able to keep up.

Little Bearwallow Falls


When you arrive at the falls, you may wonder if you’re actually there. It’s very high (I’d estimate well over 100 ft.), but there is only a tiny drainage area above the cliff, meaning it’ll have to be a rather wet period for there to be any water going over it. It’s scenic when the water is flowing, but that might not be the case for most of the year. Still, the cliff is impressive and worth a look even if it were dry.

From the falls, the trail is still under construction as of January 2015, but it will eventually continue along the bottom of the cliff band, past an overlook called Wildcat Rock (expected late 2015), up to the summit of Little Bearwallow Mountain, and then up Bearwallow Mountain proper. We hiked that bit as well, but I wouldn’t recommend it just yet.

Trip Report 2: The Trombatore Trail, Bearwallow Gap to Blue Ridge Pastures

The Trombatore Trail was the most recent segment of trail to be constructed. At Bearwallow Gap – which is also the starting point for the Bearwallow Mountain trail – there is enough room to park along the road, and that’s where I started a solo hike out to Blue Ridge Pastures. The trail begins on a new set of steps on the northwest side of the gap opposite the Bearwallow Mountain trail, and a sign board is there to give you more information about the trail.

Start of the Trombatore Trail on Bearwallow Mountain Road

The first section of the trail is hand-built tread, and it quickly showcases some of the beautiful work that has been done to make the path complete. The trail approaches some of the impressive cliffs that line this part of Bearwallow Mountain, then swings away through a few switchbacks. Icicles lined the rocks on my hike, and frost heaved the trail surface, which will be common in winter months. Sunlit areas were slick as the melted water collected on top of the frozen ground underneath.

Nice rock work along the first part of the Trombatore Trail.

The trail winds downhill on the northeast slope of the uppermost part of the Brush Creek drainage. The forest is a bit older here than it is further on. You start out right in the transition area between a Northern Hardwood and Cove Hardwood forest, and gradually descend into the Cove Hardwoods. Only a couple of trees of significant size are present, but at least one is quite large and burly. Another curls up from the ground like a pig’s tail.

No water was present in the rocky washes and gullies the trail crosses at first, but as the trail begins a longer northwesterly jaunt, I passed the source of Brush Creek, which I could start to hear off to the right. I’m not sure if it was a spring, but it looked like it from my vantage point on the trail. Past that, the trail took me down into a maze of old logging roads where the forest becomes filled with younger trees.

The trail swings right onto one of the old roads, then climbs uphill through the same drainage, before swinging left across the only real creek crossing on the hike. The water is piped under the road and it’s only a small trickle, so you’ll stay dry. There is obviously a buckeye tree growing here – buckeyes were lying in the stream next to these mossy rocks and I couldn’t resist getting a shot of them.

Buckeyes in the stream beside the Trombatore Trail

Next, the trail started climbing back toward the ridge, which it approaches closely a couple of times. Old logging roads swung off in all directions, but signs kept me on the correct path. I passed a house on the right around the halfway point, then entered a gap about 2.0 miles from the start. Here, a short section of hand-built trail delivers you back onto an old logging road. Follow the signs.

The trail crossed a small flowing spring branch just before arriving at a stone pile on the right, which marks an old home site. The spring was likely the water source for the old homestead. From here, the hand-built trail reappears, which I followed up to the summit & pastures.

Forest choked with invasive vines

The forest in this area is struggling. It’s choked with invasives, and many of the native trees are dead – including what used to be a significant population of Carolina Hemlocks. Native vines have also taken advantage of openings in the forest created by the invasives, and they climb all over each other. I noticed several creepy poison ivy “zombie trees” – dead trunks still standing (usually locust) covered in the noxious vine, which has climbed to the top and spread out its own canopy of branches. Some of the poison ivy vines are so thick and old they’ve died of old age! A few larger “landscape trees” – mostly oaks – poke out of the thickets in places. All in all, this area looks for the most part like reclaimed pasture land.

As you approach the still-maintained pastures, you’ll reach a stile which takes you over the barbed wire fence.

Ladder stile taking the hiker into Blue Ridge Pastures

On the other side, the trail winds through some brambles and young trees before popping out in the grassy area where a magnificent view awaits! The air was fairly clear New Year’s Eve, so I was able to see all the way from Bearwallow Mountain, down the Hickory Nut Gorge to a small sliver of the Piedmont region, across to Little Pisgah and beyond, up to the Craggy and Black Mountains.

Pastures with Little Bearwallow Mountain and Hickory Nut Gorge in the background


Close up view down the Hickory Nut Gorge


Looking back up through the pastures toward the top

At the top of the pasture was a modular pen, but with no animals in it. The grass was trodden down so it looks like they’d been there earlier in the year. It looked kind of neat with the pasture and mountains as a backdrop.


After a satisfying pack lunch in the pasture, I met a couple who rode their horses up from Hickory Nut Gap on US 74-A. Plans for the trail call for its continuation from the pastures down to that point, but that’s currently not an official trail. So, I headed back the way I came to wind up a great hike in Bearwallow Gap where I parked.

While the new trails in Hickory Nut Gorge are not complete, the trail network is coming along beautifully and it now makes a compelling destination – especially for us Ashevillians, considering how close the trailheads are from the city.

We’ll be adding these trails to the HikeWNC site soon, but until then check out these resources to get you to the trailhead and out hiking:

WNC Waterfalls App for Android Released

We’re happy to announce that our new WNC Waterfalls App for Android phones and tablets is ready for download!

WNC Waterfalls App for Android

Starting today, you can visit 50 of the area’s popular waterfalls using this guide on your Android device. It’s packed with the same information we provide here on the web – but with no data connection needed after installation.

Photos are provided to help you decide which of Western North Carolina’s beautiful waterfalls you’d like to visit. Search for waterfalls by name, hike difficulty, and distance from your location.

Each waterfall is described in detail, with comprehensive hike descriptions, along with full driving directions. Several waterfalls in the app are wheelchair accessible, many are family friendly, and others are perfect for adventurers, requiring a longer, more strenuous hike through the backcountry to reach.

Each waterfall also has a detailed topo map that can be used with your device’s GPS to track your location while hiking.

Made to complement our long running waterfall web site, the app represents the next stage in WNCOutdoors.info’s quest to provide comprehensive, guidebook-quality information about the outdoors in Western North Carolina.


Download the app now in the Google Play Store!

The WNC Waterfalls App for Android is compatible with Android devices running version 2.3.3 Gingerbread with 106 MB free space. We hope you enjoy using the app, and look forward to hearing your feedback as you use it during your own waterfall exploration!

If you have an Apple iOS device instead of Android, you may want to check out Todd Ransom’s Waterfalls of Western North Carolina app in the iTunes store.

September 30, 2014Permalink 1 Comment

Courthouse Creek Road closed through the summer

The US Forest Service has announced that Courthouse Creek Road, FS 140, will be closed until late October to replace a low-water crossing. This road has been the subject of extensive damage and repairs in the past thanks to flood events, and the Forest Service aims to build a bridge that can survive such occurrences unscathed. This road provides access to the popular Courthouse Creek Falls (seen below) and points nearby. The road will still be open to non-vehicular traffic, so visiting the falls will be possible – as long as you’re willing to trek a ways further on foot or bike.

For more information, see the official Forest Service press release: Courthouse Creek Road to Close for Construction.

Courthouse Falls will be a little harder to get to this summer with FS 140 closed for construction
April 24, 2014Permalink 2 Comments

Hike in to Graveyard Fields now to avoid the crowds

By now, you’ve probably heard the news that the Graveyard Fields parking area and trailhead along the Blue Ridge Parkway will be closed for the next 11 weeks while the parking area is expanded and restroom facilities are added. It’s been on just about every news outlet repeatedly, which is why we haven’t rushed to post about it here. If you haven’t heard, the official news release from the Blue Ridge Parkway should convey all you need to know about that project.

However, one thing we haven’t seen mentioned is that this gives us a rare opportunity to hike into Graveyard Fields during the warm season without the usual oppressive crowds. The closure only affects the parking area and trailhead on National Park Service land. The trails within the valley itself are all on National Forest property, accessible by a hike even when the Parkway is completely closed (which I frequently recommend during the winter months). This time around, the Parkway itself past the Graveyard Fields valley won’t be closed like it is in winter, but the access point into the National Forest will be.

There are a few good routes hikers can use to get into the area, which is connected to the rest of the trail network in the Pisgah Ranger District via the Mountains to Sea Trail (MST). The shortest route starts at the Looking Glass Rock overlook and heads west on the MST. This hike is about 1.7 miles, past Skinny Dip Falls, and up the ridge to the Second Falls trail connector. From that junction, turn left; it’s about 0.2 miles farther to the steps leading down to the falls, with the rest of the valley’s trails straight ahead. (Continuing straight on the MST at the junction would bring you to the Graveyard Ridge trail in just over 0.4 miles, making loop options possible). This route does involve a fairly stiff climb up from Skinny Dip Falls, which should deter 90% of potential fellow hikers from venturing into the valley with you.

The other option would be to start where the MST crosses Black Balsam Road (FS 816), which turns off the Parkway 3.2 miles south past the Looking Glass Rock overlook mentioned above (or 1.4 miles past the closure at the Graveyard Fields overlook). Follow the MST northeast, over a somewhat rugged but beautiful segment of the path, for about 1.5 miles to the junction with the Graveyard Ridge trail. From there you have two options: turn right onto Graveyard Ridge and go just under a mile on a level route to the Graveyard Ridge Connector which descends into the valley, or go straight on the MST for 1.2 miles to the other end of the Graveyard Ridge trail. (The connector to Second Falls is 0.4 miles ahead from there). There are also numerous loop options if coming from this direction, including ones that take you over Tennent Mountain and Black Balsam Knob if you’re up for a longer hike.

Either route provides its own set of attractions along the MST in addition to the usual goodies in Graveyard fields (like the open areas and waterfalls), so the connections are a great part of the overall experience. Keep in mind that both alternate parking areas can also become very crowded on popular summer weekends, although most people don’t hike very far from their cars.

See the Graveyard Fields Map to explore these options in more detail.

So while everyone else is grousing about the parking area being closed, hike in to Graveyard Fields the proper way and enjoy a (somewhat less) crowded version of this beautiful mountain valley!

Graveyard Fields in spring, as seen from the (now closed) parking area on the Blue Ridge Parkway
Graveyard Fields in spring, as seen from the (now closed) parking area on the Blue Ridge Parkway

Looking for Android Beta Testers

Android users! We’re ready to begin alpha testing of our upcoming North Carolina Waterfalls android app! Being a tester means a few things: early access to the app at the lowest price allowable, the chance to shape new features and provide feedback, and experiencing our bugs in all their glory! (All testers will be upgraded to the release version for free when it comes out).

If you’re interested, head over to our App Testers Google+ Community and request to join!

North Carolina Waterfalls Android App Screenshot
North Carolina Waterfalls Android App Screenshot
January 2, 2014Permalink 2 Comments

New DuPont State Forest Map by Pisgah Map Company

Earlier this year, Pisgah Map Company released another map in the Western North Carolina Trail Guide series, this one of DuPont State (Recreational) Forest. Like the Pisgah Ranger District map published in 2011 (which we also reviewed), this is another fantastic publication made by locals who are not only trail experts, but whose award-winning company is leading the entire industry in the outdoor recreation map space.

Although there isn’t a National Geographic Trails Illustrated map of DuPont like there is of Pisgah, there has been another map of DuPont State Forest available. It’s produced by the Forest Service in conjunction with the Friends of DuPont Forest group, last revised in 2012. While I like both, I think the newer one edges it out when taken head to head. Read on to find out why!

Size & Form Factor

The Trail Guide map is larger, making more room for detail necessary in a dense trail network like this one. Without measuring, I’d say it has more than twice as much area as the smaller one.

Both maps unfolded. The Friends map is on top.

However, it folds up into a narrower size than the older map – which fits better in my packs which tend to have narrower compartments, or even a large pants pocket. The Friends map is more square, while the Trail Guide is shaped more like a tri-fold brochure.

The two maps folded

More than just a map, both publications feature the main map on one side, with a variety of other information and map insets on the reverse.

Detail & Style

Both maps provide adequate detail for navigating Dupont State Forest’s trails, especially since the trails are well-signed on the ground and easy to follow, so it’s hard to miss a turn.

Style wise, I prefer the Trail Guide when considering text, graphics, and symbology. It feels more like a modern digital version of many government maps – like, for instance, the National Park maps – which in turn are inspired by our old go-to recreational maps: the USGS quads. In keeping with the Pisgah Trail Guide, this one also labels each trail with its name directly on the map.

Pisgah Map Company’s Trail Guide map sample

Contours are subtle yet crisp; hill shading is provided to give a slightly 3D appearance. Property boundaries are clearly visible without having a thick, distracting border. This is ultimately easier on the eyes and provides more information in the same space.

Meanwhile, some of the symbols and labels on the Friends map are so large that they sometimes cover up nearby details. The trails – which are now more standard dashed lines on the 2012 edition as opposed to the thick solid lines on the 2008 edition – are color-coded and only numbered on the Friends map. This means you have to cross-reference the index each time to find out a trail’s name.

Friends of DuPont’s map sample. You’ll have to reference the index to know what those trails are called.

The contours stand out a bit more on the Friends map, and the elevation labels are unusually large.

On the other hand, those with difficulty reading fine print or seeing fine detail might choose to opt for the Friends map for the reasons above, since the labels are much larger. The descriptive text is in a somewhat larger font, too – handy for casual reading.

Both maps provide insets showing a close-up of the very popular waterfall areas. But the Friends map’s inset is devoid of topographic info, making it a little harder to judge difficulty of the trails.

Inset in the Friends of DuPont map. It’s a bit devoid of details, but then again, it shows only what you need to get around.

The Trail Guide uses the same styles in its insets as it uses on the main map.

Neither yet shows the new trail completed this year to High Falls, but it’s easy to follow and I suspect future revisions of both maps will include it.


Both maps feature an attractive cover, full-color photographs, and details about area attractions on the reverse. Either map will guide you to all the major attractions – lakes, waterfalls, summits – within DuPont.

But with more space, the Trail Guide is also able to provide several smaller guides highlighting some great popular mountain bike routes within the larger trail network. These include basic stats, GPS coordinates, a turn-by-turn/cue sheet as well as an elevation profile. If you’re from out-of-town and just want to pick up one map before you go out to ride, this makes it pretty compelling and worth the extra price (see below).

Price and Availability

The Friends map is becoming difficult to find in many stores (especially in the Asheville area), while the Trail Guide is now available nearly everywhere. However, the Friends map does run a good bit less than the Trail Guide if you can find it.

At Mast Store – one of the last places that stocks them in Asheville – the Friends map was $8, while the Trail Guide was $14. A portion of the proceeds from both goes toward trail maintenance and other projects in Dupont.

Digital Version

The Trail Guide map is also available in the Avenza PDF Maps Store as a digital download for your iPhone (and soon, Android phones & tablets as well). It’s the same map as the printed version, without the ride guides on the map (and with some collar information rearranged). We’ve been testing the Avenza app beta on Android and it’s very nice, and allows you to track your position on the map in real-time using GPS. It also allows you to add your own annotations and export them as a KML file for sharing. This is a compelling new development, and I think having access to a digital map consistent with the printed version makes the Trail Guide even more attractive.

Keep checking back for more specific reviews of the digital map offerings including this one!

Bottom Line

Both maps are worth the money, and both will get you around just fine within DuPont State Forest. But the WNC Trail Guide has a more comfortable size, nicer style, and a few extras that make it my recommendation if you’re looking to make a choice between the two to buy.

For more information, visit the publisher’s web sites:
Pisgah Map Company
Friends of DuPont Forest

A quick note in the interest of full disclosure: Pisgah Map Company used some of our own photos on the Trail Guide. They were provided free of charge – and anyone else is also welcome to use them as such :)

Crabtree Falls Trail Open, but Campground to Remain Closed

Due to the 5% decrease in the Park Service’s budget this year, the Blue Ridge Parkway’s Crabtree Falls campground near Spruce Pine & Little Switzerland, NC will remain closed throughout the 2013 season. This is in addition to several other closures along the road, and the cancellation of all of the Park’s normal seasonal interpretive programs. The Balsam Mountain campground, as well as Balsam Mountain Road and Heintooga Road near the Great Smoky Mountains, will also remain closed this year.

Visitors can still access the Crabtree Falls trail by parking at the visitor center parking area, and hiking up the road to the trailhead. You can find more information on the Blue Ridge Parkway’s official web site.

Edit: please note that this does not affect Crabtree Falls Campground in Virginia, which is privately owned and still open.

Edit Summer 2014: not only does the campground remain closed this season, but all information about it has been removed from the Parkway’s camping page, and it’s not even mentioned on the 2104 operating schedule announcement. On last year’s announcement (link in original post), the campground remained listed but marked “closed”. We’ve not heard this officially, but does this mean a permanent closure for this once popular recreation area?

March 16, 2013Permalink 8 Comments

Forest Service Trail Strategy Document Completed

The US Forest Service has released the draft final Non-Motorized Trail Strategy document, which is available on their web site for review. The final Trail Strategy collaborative meeting for Pisgah is to be held tomorrow, Thursday Feb. 14, 6:00-8:00 p.m., at the UNCA Sherrill Center, Mountain View Conference Room in Asheville. Agency employees will present key elements of the draft Trail Strategy document during the meeting. I will be attending the meeting to see what they have to say, and I’ll be sure to post any news from that meeting to this blog.

I haven’t had time to review the document, but keep in mind that the Forest Service touts this as an evolving plan that is still subject to change. There is still time for collaboration from the public on the trails on National Forests in NC. As the Forest Service starts the process of revising its Forest Plan, it is expected that the final Trail Strategy will contribute to that analysis as well.

February 13, 2013Permalink Leave a comment

Forest Service Closes Shining Rock to Camping

The National Forests in NC just announced a camping ban, until further notice, in the Shining Rock Wilderness and Graveyard Fields areas, due to bear activity (trying to get food inside campers’ tents). The news release is below:

Date(s): Oct 17, 2012
Pisgah Forest, N.C. — The U.S. Forest Service is closing the Shining Rock Wilderness and Graveyard Fields areas to overnight camping because of ongoing bear encounters with humans.

The areas will be closed to dispersed camping until further notice. The agency will monitor conditions to determine when it is safe to reopen the areas.

On Monday night, a bear damaged a tent and food bag. Two people were in the ent at the time of the encounter, but no injuries were sustained. The encounter is the latest in a series of bear encounters in recent weeks

Questions regarding the camping closure can be directed to the Pisgah Ranger District, 828-877-3265.

October 17, 2012Permalink 2 Comments