Perhaps the most popular hike in the Pisgah Ranger District of Pisgah National Forest, the Looking Glass Rock Trail is a good 3-mile leg stretcher to the top of the famous pluton. Probably not the most scenic hike is the area, but definitely popular because of ease of access, and a little less difficulty than some of the steeper monoliths. Looking Glass Rock is home to peregrine falcons from spring to fall, and excellent multi-pitch and free-climbing year round. Hiking is also four seasonal, just be sure to watch out for slick ice on the sheer cliff faces in winter. I happen to like this hike in spring when the ample mountain laurel fills the trail with pink and white bursts of floral beauty. This hike occurred on Thursday, May 12, 2011 from 9:00am to about 12:30pm. There are two viewing areas along the trail, the lower cliffs on the west face, and the northern summit. Each have nearly 180
Hike Length: 6.2 miles Hike Duration: 3.5 hours
Hike Rating: Moderate Blaze: Yellow
Elevation Gain: 1649 feet Hike Configuration: Up and back
Trail Condition: Newly rebuilt lower half, roots and rocks upper half
Starting Point: Parking for the trailhead is 0.4 mile up Forest Road 475
Trail Traffic: We encountered trail maintenance workers, but no other hikers
How to Get There: From Brevard, NC get onto Scenic Hwy 276 west into Pisgah National Forest. Go 5.2 miles, then turn left onto Forest Road 475. After four-tenths mile, the trailhead parking is on the right.
Looking Glass Rock is one of those ubiquitous landmarks you can seemingly see from nearly everywhere in Pisgah National Forest. You can see it for 15 miles along the Blue Ridge Parkway from Mt. Pisgah to Black Balsam. You can see it as you climb the Forest Heritage Scenic Byway to the high country, in fact you pass just beneath it to the east. The Art Loeb Trail nearly circles it to the south, west and north. It is visible from Pilot Mountain and Tennent Mountain. Perhaps the best view of all is from Chestnut Bald along the Mountains to the Sea Trail just above milepost 421 of the parkway. So why not climb the rock and see it up close and personal?
Through most of the late winter and spring of 2011 there was a contracted work crew rebuilding the Looking Glass Rock Trail. As with any brand new trail, my thinking was, ugh, they’ve really messed this up. They widened it. They completely skinned it so it gets easily muddy with the slightest rain. They did make it smoother by removing rocks and roots, but that can also make it slick in the right conditions. I have to remind myself that it will eventually recover. Give it 4-5 years of changing seasons to regain the look and feel of a mature trail. For now, be patient and tolerant, not a whining Meanderthal.
Every time I hike this trail I am reminded of the treat within the first 10 minutes. The forest is very thick with the usual western North Carolina hardwoods and hemlock, and the ground is covered with a bed of fern, galax, moss and lichens. It is a verdant sensation! The trail is steadily uphill, though not steep, following Chestnut Creek. As the trail winds its way up the ridge, in and out of several coves, it crosses the creek a few times. All crossings have strategic logs
— no wet shoes here.
After about a mile there is a series of switchbacks and the forest thins somewhat offering a better view of the surrounding topography. In many places you can see both the switchbacks where you have been, and the ones ahead. You may be tempted to shortcut the switchback, but please don’t be one of those people. It’s only a few extra steps, and you enable many future generations to enjoy the same scenic forest as you. Let nature prevail.
As you get higher, the trail begins to steepen. There’s that dreaded word
— steep. Yep, I know. I whine too, but it’s not so bad. The steep is in short stretches. Just pause and rest for 20 seconds when appropriate. If you’re hale and hearty, you can zoom up this trail in just over an hour. I’ve got the hale part down. Sometimes I have to work on hearty. All it takes is reminding myself how fortunate I am to be in the woods doing something I am passionate about. What’s not to like?
The higher you climb, the more you get to enjoy the mountain laurel and rhododendron. The best time of year for flowering laurel is late May through early June, and the rhodos do their bloom thing from early to mid June. This is one of the best trails I’ve been on in WNC for flowering laurels. About 3/4 of the way up the ridge, on the left, the trail encounters the lower cliffs on the western slope of Looking Glass. You will know it by the large, flat area with a big painted “H” on the granite. Yes, believe it or not, this is actually used as a helicopter pad for search and rescue. But don’t stop there. You want to continue walking across the granite in a northwesterly direction to get to the first views of the day.
From the lower cliffs you can see John Rock and Cedar Rock (two other plutons) to the south, that is if they aren’t covered in fog like they were on this morning. To the north is the Pisgah Ridge. That’s the photo at the top of this post. From the cliff’s edge you can just make out the TV tower on Mt. Pisgah. Don’t worry, you’ll get a lot better look at Mt. Pisgah later, higher up the trail. In between is the Blue Ridge Parkway, threading its way from ridge to ridge.
The hardest part of the hike is the final half mile. It is the steepest (there’s that word again), and it is the most rugged. There are more roots in the trail, more rocks to scramble around and over, and more panting. But there is more beauty to help you along too. The mountain laurel and galax are very thick. At the right time of year it’s a floral delight to the visual and olfactory senses. You’ll also begin to notice the conifers changing to gnarly pine, fir and spruce. This is the area of the pluton that is exposed to all the worst of weather. You can tell by the twists in the trunks and branches that wind and ice have been here.
After the final steep stretch, you reach the top of the rock, then have to go downhill a little way to the cliffs on the northwest side of the pluton. Remember at the beginning of this post I said this isn’t the most scenic hike in Pisgah National Forest? After climbing more than 1600 feet, I’m always ready for a great view when I finally pop out on top at the end of the trail. While there is a nice view, it isn’t wide, and it isn’t long. You can see Mt. Pisgah and Fryingpan Mountain with its old fire tower, but you really can’t see beyond the Pisgah Ridge. Because you are down 1000 feet from Pisgah Ridge, you can’t see over it to all the grandeur to its north… like Cold Mountain and the Great Balsams. I know they are there from my experience hiking this area, but there simply isn’t a whole lot to see from the summit of Looking Glass Rock. If this is your first hike in Pisgah National Forest, you will be very impressed. If this is your 20th hike in Pisgah National Forest, you may be disappointed. It is a great spot for lunch.
WARNINGI can’t stress enough how important it is to watch your step near the cliffs on Looking Glass Rock. They are sheer, and they do go down a long way! A fall would certainly be fatal. There is plenty of flat area to rest from your climb and enjoy the scenery and a snack, but stay away from the edges. There is nothing for you to see down there. Beware of wind gusts. If you’re hiking this trail in winter, the granite will be icy. Be prepared for that. Just don’t do anything stupid so you won’t end up a statistic. Perhaps it goes without saying, but this is not a good spot for young children.
Going back down is the same trail as up. Unfortunately this isn’t a loop. It seems like they would make a spur trail to the cliffs on the eastern side. There would be some nice views in that direction of Bennett Gap and Coontree Mountain, and perhaps the Cradle of Forestry in the distance. Maybe the planners in the Forest Service are sharpening their pencils.
I hope I haven’t made this too negative. This is an enjoyable hike, and you can brag to your friends that you were on top of the famous Looking Glass Rock. There are a host of reasons why it is so popular, many of which have to do with ease of access. However, if you’re looking for that grand vista where you can see ridge after ridge of the Appalachians for 50 miles or more, try the Great Balsams instead. Looking Glass is nice for short distance views of other landmarks in the national forest. Because of its popularity, this trail can get a little crowded on weekends spring through fall. Try to hit it on a weekday if you can. The photo gallery below is a mix of this hike in May 2011, and another in June 2009 when the mountain laurel was in peak blooming season. I thought you might enjoy the sensation and be tempted to see for yourself. Happy hiking!
Update May 29, 2014: Time for my traditional May visit to Looking Glass Rock to see the wonderful mountain laurel blossoms, and to see the progress of the new trail. As for the maturing after the trail work, it’s happening, but there’s still lots of opportunity for mud. Fortunately for me, I happened to catch it on a dry day. In 2-3 more years it should be back to normal. The widening work that was done has certainly been helpful.
Spring has been late throughout Western North Carolina this year, so even this last week in May, the laurel was best near the top of the pluton. Caught some in peak full bloom, and others that were still in bud stage. All-in-all, a very nice display.
I still like the lower overlook on the western side at the helicopter pad best. I spent more than an hour there going crazy with the camera, so now you will get overwhelmed with the sights that surround Looking Glass Rock. Enjoy.
Update November 1, 2016: Seemed like it must be time to visit Looking Glass Rock in Fall. After all, there are plenty of deciduous trees growing on everyone’s favorite pluton. Hoping for a color bonanza, Ken and I paid the big rock a visit. Following is what we found.