Perhaps it seems I’ve been spending quite a bit of time hiking in the eastern section of Shining Rock Wilderness in recent months. I can’t help myself. The terrain is wild, the forests ever-changing, the views exhilarating, and the exercise invigorating. The elevation changes dramatically
— more than two thousand feet. The air is cool and refreshing even during the summer. It’s enjoyable to follow the wildflower progression from bluets and trillium to catawba rhododendron, to mountain laurel and flame azalea, then white rhododendron, and on to the daisies, bee balm, and lady slippers. The landmarks have names like Old Butt and Dog Loser. These mountains have been here a lot longer than we have, but they keep calling me to explore them. This hike occurred on Thursday, July 7, 2011 beginning at 9:15AM and ending about 3:45PM. Our plan was to start at the Big East Fork parking area, enter Shining Rock Wilderness, and catch the Old Butt Knob Trail up the mountain to Shining Rock Gap. There we would meet the Shining Creek Trail for the return down the mountain to complete the loop.
Hike Length: 7.9 miles Hike Duration: 6.5 hours
Hike Rating: Difficult, strenuous Blaze: No blaze, wilderness
Elevation Gain: 2400 feet Hike Configuration: Loop
Trail Condition: Very good – Old Butt Knob, Rocky – Shining Creek
Starting Point: Big East Fork Trailhead on Hwy. 276
Trail Traffic: We saw three other hikers and one camper.
How to Get There: From Brevard, NC take Hwy. 276 into Pisgah National Forest, and all the way to the top at Wagon Road Gap where it meets the Blue Ridge Parkway. Continue down Hwy. 276 another 2.8 miles to the Big East Fork trailhead on the left side of the road.
View Old Butt Knob and Shining Creek Trails Loop, Shining Rock Wilderness in a larger map
This is a beautiful hike! This is also a very strenuous hike, so you better check your conditioning. The combination of the two made for a day of great fun and enjoyment. The first half mile from Big East Fork is along the East Fork of the Pigeon River. As the trail begins to climb it is important to look for the Old Butt Knob Trail on the right. It is easy to miss. There is a small cairn there to mark the turn, but it is quite easy to walk right on by. Straight ahead takes you on the Shining Creek Trail, the return trail when doing the loop counterclockwise like my friend and I did. Once on the Old Butt Knob Trail, it begins climbing immediately up Chestnut Ridge. It goes up 1500 feet in the next half mile. Pause to ponder that for a moment.
The farther I climbed up Chestnut Ridge, the more amazed I was at how well the Old Butt Knob Trail is maintained. This is a very hard trail. I can’t imagine it gets a whole lot of traffic to keep the pathway clear. So the volunteers who take care of this trail are to be commended. It is not only beautiful, but it is a joy to hike. The lower section is mostly hardwood forest. After about 700 feet of climbing the black balsams begin to appear. If you’ve never been in a black balsam forest, these fir trees are stunning. Almost always full and hearty, they also smell wonderful. It definitely helped take my mind off the burning in my legs and lungs.
Be sure to watch for the occasional small trail off to the left that goes out to a rocky overlook along the ridge. The first is perhaps 1/2 mile up and offers a view of Bearpen Ridge across the way. The trail is a little less steep the rest of the climb, only 700 feet in a mile. We found another side trail that took us to yet another rocky outcropping. There was a great place to have a seat and enjoy our lunch. From here we could see the summit of Old Butt Knob northwesterly to our right, then see the dip into Spanish Oak Gap, and then another steep climb up Dog Loser Knob. I loved the way we could see the upcoming terrain so we would know what to expect. Down below us to the south was the drainage of Daniels Cove, and directly in front of us to the southwest was Bearpen Ridge. It is quite identifiable because of the abrupt cliff that ends the ridge.
Lunch gave us enough energy to get through the next stretch of climbing to the top of Old Butt Knob. Once again the forest changed. The ground was grassy and we were treated to summer thistle alongside the trail. At 5600 feet we reached the summit of Old Butt Knob and began to see campsites and other small clearings. The fir and pine filled the visual and olfactory senses. It seemed as if the forest changed around every corner. We commented to each other several times how beautiful this trail was, and it just kept getting better and better. Despite being really sweaty and breathing very hard from all the climbing, I was thinking more about the abundant beauty that surrounded me that I was about fatigue.
About the only way to know you’ve reached Old Butt Knob summit is because the trail stops climbing and gets flat for awhile. There really isn’t a viewing area on top, but there are a few terrific wilderness campsites. The trail volunteers have done a great job of removing fire rings, so even the campsites look as natural as can be. There are nice level sites where you can pitch your tent right under a rhododendron or laurel thicket to get shelter from the wind and rain.
The trail actually dips for the next 1/4 mile or so as it drops into Spanish Oak Gap. And yes, the forest changes again to a brotherly mix of oak and pine. They grow side by side and wage friendly battle for the wealth of sunshine that bathes the ridge. It’s not long, though, before the climbing resumes and you have to recover the elevation lost in the gap. The trail enters an immense laurel thicket that helps one understand where this area got its name, Dog Loser Knob. If your dog wandered off into the laurels, you would probably never see it again. Just a word of advice. Do not go off trail in this area.
There is a great reward for the climb. At the summit of Dog Loser Knob there is another of those side trails to the left that opened up the entire expanse of the southerly Shining Rock Wilderness before us. To the southeast we could see the twin peaks of Sam Knob, with Black Balsam Knob just to its left. Straight ahead to the south is Grassy Cove Ridge, talked about in a hike a few weeks ago. Back to the east, on our left, we could see the fire tower on Fryingpan Mountain and Mt. Pisgah beyond. This is simply another fabulous vantage point on this splendid hike.
The rest of the Old Butt Knob Trail to Shining Rock Gap is flat and smooth sailing. We could tell we were getting close to Shining Rock when we began seeing small quartz stones along the side of the trail. Then suddenly the stones became boulders, and there we were. We climbed the Shining Rock Pinnacle again just to see how the foliage had changed since our last visit just a month before. The rhododendron was no longer in bloom and the greens were a darker shade, but it was nice to see The Narrows again and Cold Mountain. I love this area.
After scrambling back down off Shining Rock we had to find the Shining Creek Trail for our return hike to Big East Fork. Shining Rock Gap is a major trail junction. The Art Loeb comes here. The Ivestor Gap comes here. And the Old Butt Knob and Shining Creek Trails come here. They all meet in a small clearing with a sort of wagon wheel effect. It’s good to have a compass. Remember there are no trail signs or blaze markings in the wilderness.The Shining Creek Trail goes east. We encountered a lone camper as we started out Shining Creek. He seemed quite wary of us and didn’t have anything to say except to nod at our existence. A couple hundred yards up the trail, it takes a sharp left turn down some small log steps and begins a steep descent. This is another place where it would be easy to get lost. The natural inclination is to go straight, but the Shining Creek Trail drops down to the left.
As good as the Old Butt Knob Trail was, Shining Creek was a rude awakening. Suddenly the trail was very rocky and rooty, and wet. Runoff tends to use the trail, so there were lots of puddles and lots of mud. The trail is considerably narrower as well as curvier. There are a number of switchbacks. I slipped twice and even went down on my butt on one occasion. You could say I had an old butt knob… ok, maybe not. Like the Old Butt Knob Trail, Shining Creek is also a very hard trail, but for an entirely different reason. The good news was we were treated to an eyeful of wildflowers. We saw red, purple and white bee balm. We passed daisies, black-eyed susans and lady slippers.
After the first half mile of very steep descent, the trail picks up Shining Creek and follows it all the way to Big East Fork. The creek takes quite the journey down more than 2000 feet to the Pigeon River. There are a number of small waterfalls along the way. We happened to catch peak white rhododendron bloom time along the creek. There was literally a wall of white flowers that followed the creek the whole way down, quite a remarkable scene. As the creek, and the trail, finally reached flat ground there were a couple of relatively easy creek crossings. Once again, I had to prove I am a Meanderthal. There was a grapevine hanging right over the trail. I tested it for strength, seemed securely fastened up top, and said what the heck. I climbed the hill and swung out over the creek and screamed, “Weeeeee!!!” Yes, I am 58, not 5.
The last mile and a half of the Shining Creek Trail is flat, and as it would turn out, wet. We suddenly got dumped on. We rushed for the nearest rhododendron thicket to get out our rain gear and quickly covered up. The last 20 minutes of our hike was done in a downpour. We met three other hikers in this stretch who were just beginning their climb up into the wilderness for some overnight camping. I’m afraid they were in for a long, wet night. There is one last downhill section just before the trailhead that we had to take quite gingerly to avoid sliding to the car.
Best HikeYou will notice up top that this hike took 6.5 hours to complete despite being less than 8 miles in length. Sure we stopped for lunch, and pictures, but we also stopped for a number of breathers. Simply put, this is a very strenuous hike whether you take the loop counterclockwise as we did, or go the other way. It is going to be hard no matter what. But, it is extremely rewarding. The sense of accomplishment is paramount. The natural beauty of the wilderness is breathtaking. Even though the Shining Creek Trail was a little rough, the Old Butt Knob Trail was in such good shape that it was a total delight to experience. I will definitely do this hike again during a different season. I rate this as a best hike, and highly recommend it to anyone who has the stamina.
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