Between North Carolina Scenic Hwy. 276 and the Pisgah Inn is Fryingpan Mountain, one of a series of mountains along the north side of the Blue Ridge Parkway that help form the Pisgah Ridge. It sits at mile 410 on the parkway. A unique feature of Fryingpan is the 1940s era fire tower that affords spectacular views of the surrounding Blue Ridge. The tower is on the National Register of Historic Places. This hike occurred on February 11, 2011 beginning at 10:00AM and ending about 2:00PM. Our goal on this day was to start at the Mt. Pisgah Trail, but take the fork to Flat Laurel Gap and across Big Bald. The trail then meets the parkway at milepost 409.5 where Fryingpan Gap Forest Road 450 takes you to the top. Unfortunately a mix up with the Blue Ridge Parkway infoline caused a slight change in plans.
Hike Length: 6.5 miles Hike Duration: 4 hours
Hike Rating: Easy Blaze: None
Elevation Gain: 1100 feet Hike Configuration: Parkway and Forest Road
Trail Condition: Road Starting Point: Cold Mountain Overlook Parking Area
Trail Traffic: We did not see any other hikers on this trail the entire duration.
How to Get There: From Brevard, NC take Hwy. 276 approximately 10 miles to where it meets the Blue Ridge Parkway at milepost 412. Immediately in front of you is the Cold Mountain Overlook parkway pullout parking area. Park there, then walk north on the parkway.
View Fryingpan Mountain, Blue Ridge Parkway in a larger map
During winter, the Blue Ridge Parkway is frequently closed above 4000 feet elevation. There is a lot of mountain weather. On this day, however, it had been unseasonably warm for a week and we thought we might be able to hike around the parkway. So we called the infoline. We were assured the parkway was open all the way from Hwy. 191 in Asheville to the end in Cherokee, NC. When we got to the parkway following our drive up Hwy. 276 we were therefore surprised to see the gates closed in both directions. Being Meanderthals as we are, we knew a simple gate couldn’t deter us on foot. So we parked at the nearby Cold Mountain Overlook, put on our packs, and started a walk northward on the Blue Ridge Parkway.
It’s 2 1/2 miles from the Hwy. 276 intersection to the Fryingpan Gap forest road. The parkway climbs a little more than 700 feet in that stretch, but it is gradual. The first two overlooks are on the south side and are The Cradle of Forestry and Pink Beds. The area 1600 feet below is a bowl surrounded by mountains. The Cradle of Forestry is a National Historic Site that used the be the first forestry school for the U.S. Forest Service. Pink Beds is another nice hike that I’ll write about another day. There are several sheer cliffs on the north side of the parkway. The drainage over the cliffs was creating spectacularly long icicles, some of which had crashed to the ground from the melting. After 1.5 miles we reached Fryingpan Tunnel, one of 26 tunnels along the Blue Ridge Parkway. All but one are in North Carolina. Fryingpan is at milepost 410, is 275 feet long, and 19 feet 9 inches in height along the divider line.
At mile 409.5 we came to Fryingpan Gap. The forest road to the fire tower is on the left. The gate is always closed, but you can walk around it. If you ever come up here in a vehicle, don’t park in front of the gate, because communications company employees, as well as forest service personnel still use this road. The road climbs 340 feet to the top in 3/4 mile. It was snow covered on this day, but easily navigable. The snow gave it a fresh, crisp look and feel. Along the way we passed an old cabin to the north. On the summit, in addition to the fire tower, there are a number of communications dishes and antennae. From the top of the forest road there is an excellent view of Mt. Pisgah to the east. At 70 feet tall, the Fryingpan Fire Tower is the highest in western North Carolina. It was only decommissioned by the Forest Service in 1995.
If you have a fear of heights like I do, the stairs on the fire tower are a little bit hairy. They are made of a metal grating, so you can see through them. There is some rust, so they are a little bit wobbly. We couldn’t go all the way to the observation deck… it was locked… but we did go to the 5th platform. The views are 360 degrees. Cold Mountain is to the west. That is the photo at the top of this report. Mt. Pisgah is northeast, and a nice view of mile 409 of the parkway is due east. You can see the town of Cruso, NC to the north and the Davidson River Recreation Area south. I did not see any fires on this day. Coming back down the tower stairs I was holding onto the railing pretty tight.
Before heading back down the forest road we enjoyed our lunch. Though a little chilly, it was otherwise a beautiful day. It was on this hike that we inadvertently coined the name of our little hiking cadre, Meanderthals. Simply mispronouncing Neanderthals led to laughing, and a silly realization of the meandering nature to the Neanderthal approach to our hiking. A good example of that approach happened on the way back down the parkway. When we got back to the tunnel, we noticed there had been a trail around the tunnel at one time. So we said, “why the heck not?” Obviously not maintained for a number of years, this non-trail led to a significant amount of bushwhacking through the woods to get to the other side. Meanderthals!