Chimney Rock State Park is one of the newest in North Carolina. The state acquired the land from private ownership in 2005, and the Carolina Mountain Land Conservancy continues to obtain additional parcels in the Hickory Nut Gorge to eventually expand the state park. The Rumbling Bald section of the park is separate from the more famous namesake, Chimney Rock. Because this park is new and still in the planning stage, trails are primitive, unnamed, and exciting. Maps are limited. The N.C. Division of Parks and Recreation will eventually develop other areas of the state park with more traditional park facilities and recreation. The beauty of Hickory Nut Gorge rivals anything else in western North Carolina with spectacular views, excellent rock climbing, a 404 foot waterfall, and scenic Lake Lure. The lake, created in the 1920′s by the damming of the Rocky Broad River, is one of the most picturesque in North Carolina. This hike occurred in two phases on Thursday, October 20, 2011 from 10:30am to about 2:30pm. Our plan was to climb to the base of Rumbling Bald from the Rumbling Bald Climbing Access area of Chimney Rock State Park. We knew trails to the cliffs were limited, so we were prepared for bushwhacking. The second phase of the hike would take us to the top of Rumbling Bald Mountain on a different trail, then back down.
Hike Length: 4.2 miles (estimate) Hike Duration: 4 hours
Hike Rating: Difficult, strenuous Blaze: None, some blue boundary paint
Elevation Gain: 400 feet 1st trail, 1570 feet 2nd trail
Hike Configuration: Loop 1st trail, Up and back 2nd trail
Trail Condition: Very rough, bushwhacking 1st trail, ruts and trenches 2nd trail
Starting Point: Parking for the 1st trailhead is at Rumbling Bald Climbing Access in Chimney Rock State Park. Parking for the 2nd trailhead is at Blue Heron Point on Carson’s Way at the water tower.
Trail Traffic: One hiker and his dog on the 1st trail, two hikers on the 2nd trail.
How to Get There: From Hwy 9/64/74 (Memorial Highway) at the far west end of Lake Lure, NC take Boys Camp Rd. to the Chimney Rock State Park parking area for Rumbling Bald Climbing Access. For the 2nd trail, go to the end of Boys Camp Rd., turn left on Carson’s Way and go to the dead end at Blue Heron Point. Bear left up the hill. Park at the water tower.
View Rumbling Bald Trails, Hickory Nut Gorge in a larger map
First, let me warn you that I know next to nothing about this area. I have been to the famous Chimney Rock, back when it was still privately owned, but that is a tourist attraction. Information about Hickory Nut Gorge hiking is very limited at this time. Trail maps are pretty much non-existent… heck, for that matter, trails are pretty much non-existent. I’m sure many of the landmarks have names, but I don’t know what they are. This was my first time exploring the area, so the best I can do is share my observations. If any of the information turns out to be incorrect, or misleading, I will make every effort to correct it as I take future expeditions to Hickory Nut Gorge. The beauty is I’m only a half hour away, so future trips will be easy.
Right from the parking area for the access trail we could see our destination for the day. We were going to start by climbing to the base of the cliffs on Rumbling Bald, then drive a short way to another trail that would take us to the top of the mountain. It was a bright, sunny day with temps in the mid fifties, ideal hiking weather. I was surprised how green the forest still was this third week of October. We were below 1500 feet though. Hickory Nut Gorge is one of the lower areas in western NC as it is east of the Blue Ridge Escarpment. Ten days earlier I encountered brown forest above 5000 feet. Elevation really makes a difference in chlorophyll levels.
The last several hikes I’ve done in Pisgah National Forest the mast has been very scarce. There have been a number of bear warnings in the Blue Ridge and Smoky Mountains because of this. Well, someone forgot to tell the oaks in Hickory Nut that this is a bad year. Acorns were everywhere, and they were huge, some as big as ping pong balls. I couldn’t resist the urge to put a few of the bigger ones in my pocket. I have no idea what I’ll do with them, but they’re now sitting with the buckeyes I collected a few weeks ago. Of course there were also lots of the hickory nuts that gave the gorge its name.
About 1/4 mile up the trail we encountered a gentleman walking his athletic doberman. We queried him for any local knowledge he had of the trail system here, and he told us there really weren’t any trails to the base of the cliffs. Just point yourself up and keep climbing until you see rock was his advice. So that’s what we did. The forest wasn’t especially thick, so bushwhacking wasn’t at all difficult. We managed to stay on what were either game trails, or rudimentary trails trampled by the brave and daring rock climbers who come to Rumbling Bald. Within half an hour we reached the cliffs. This is one massive wall of granite.
From a distance you can see the rock wall is a two pitch face, but from the bottom all we could see was the first edge hundreds of feet above. Looking real closely we noticed assorted climbing nuts, hexes, hooks and cams inserted in several areas along the face of the wall. These rocks are very popular with the winter climbers because of the southerly exposure. I’ll leave that to the young people though. I am a Meanderthal, but I’m definitely too old for that. I kinda like hanging out in the woods, not hanging from a rock wall.
We followed the base of the wall in an easterly direction, toward Lake Lure, hoping for a view. Because this really isn’t trail, it got quite dicey on occasion. We had to scramble up and over, around and between; hopping from boulder to boulder that had fallen from above thousands of years ago. We encountered many cave openings at the base that were only 1-2 feet high. This area is known for the millions of bats that live here. In fact, one of the towns in the west gorge is called Bat Cave. Unfortunately, there has been a recent blight that has killed nearly half the bat population.
Finally we reached a spot where we could see Lake Lure by climbing about 10 feet up the rocks. It must be an amazing view for the pros who scale hundreds of feet up. As I was climbing down from the rocks to firmer ground, I stepped on a pile of the ever-present acorns and suddenly hiking changed to skating. I was going down and there was nothing I could do but brace for the impact. Fortunately for me I landed on my butt and my pack. No harm done. I got up, and looked sheepishly at my buddies as I dusted myself off and made some lame excuse about walking on marbles.
We decided it was probably time to head back downhill and move on to our 2nd hike. As we scanned the area for the best way down we noticed there were grapes all over the place, muscat I assume. There were vines hanging 15-20 feet up in the trees and the fruit was perfectly ripe, and delicious. The next treat we discovered on our hike down the hill was a few walnut trees. Some of the nuts were green and still hanging from the trees in bunches 12 feet above our heads. There were others on the ground the size of billiard balls. This forest was definitely not short on winter food for the hibernating wildlife.
It was a short drive uphill, probably about a mile, to the next trail. This one is not marked in any way, and does not have a name that I can find anywhere on the Internet. The trailhead is at a water tower that stands on a hill above the undeveloped Blue Heron Point subdivision overlooking Lake Lure. We could tell immediately that we were higher because the forest had quite a bit more fall color. The photo at the top of this post was taken just a couple hundred yards up the trail. It continued throughout the hike
— the higher we got the more colorful the forest became
— and we got pretty high as it just kept going up, and up, and up… more than 1500 feet in a mile and a half.
After the first 1/4 mile, the trail makes a sharp left turn and continues up an old rutted road. This road may have been in use 50 or more years ago, but you couldn’t even get a Jeep up it these days. There is a three foot deep trench from drainage on much of the road. We found ourselves walking on both sides of the trench and hopping across it frequently. The higher we got, the rockier it got as well. Rain drainage running down the road has exposed large chunks of granite that would also be murder on any 4×4 vehicle trying to access this road.
We found the proof of that about 3/4 mile up the trail. There was a smashed and beat up pickup truck on the side of the road pinned between trees and rocks on the road’s edge. It looked like someone was coming down the road from the other side of the mountain in this truck, was going too fast, flipped and rolled several times until finally resting upright. There is no getting it out of there without carrying it out piece by piece.
I really got tired on the upper half of this climb. I’ve done steeper. I’ve done longer. There are some days when we just don’t have it. This was apparently one of those days for me. I had to stop frequently for a quick breather. My partners continued on ahead to scout the unknown, while I languished behind huffing and puffing and dragging one leg in front of the other. Around every curve in the trail there was another uphill push. This trail was relentless. Finally, after about and hour and 15 minutes of steady climbing I caught up with my friends at the top. I asked if they were tired at all and they answered very affirmatively. So I guess it wasn’t just me. There was a nice big log at the top that was ideal for a lunch break.
I have to admit after all that climbing I was quite disappointed there wasn’t a nice view at the top. Even though the mountain is named Rumbling Bald, it is definitely not bald at the summit. You really can’t see much through the forest. Perhaps in the winter when the leaves are off the trees there would be better views. The forest was quite colorful though. We probably hit it right at peak autumn leaf peeping. On the way back down we ran into a couple of hikers, who were familiar with the area, who told us we had missed the overlook trails that go to Party Rock and other view points on the cliff edge of Rumbling Bald. Darn it!
The way back is the same trail. It sure was a whole lot easier going down than coming up. I was able to enjoy it more and take quite a few more pictures. There were a few places where I could catch a glimpse of Lake Lure through the trees. Again, I suspect this trail may be more scenic in winter.
I definitely intend to explore more of the new Chimney Rock State Park, the Rumbling Bald area, and Hickory Nut Gorge. I have skipped it so far, even though I only live 12 miles away, because everything I’ve read says it simply isn’t ready yet. Well, that’s true, it isn’t. But if you’re willing to blaze your own trail, and hike on some less than groomed tracks, the topography and geology is quite compelling. This is some of the most dramatic scenery that western North Carolina has to offer.
UpdateNovember 3, 2011: Our curiosity got the best of us, so we went back two weeks later to look for the trail to the cliff’s edge on Rumbling Bald. We found it 45 minutes up on the left not far past the wrecked pickup truck, and by the way, the trail up Rumbling Bald was just as steep as the first time. It’s a tough hike. We popped out on a large outcropping called Party Rock that has a terrific view of Lake Lure, Shumont Mountain, and the rest of the Hickory Nut Gorge. I knew there had to be something more than just the trail to the summit of Rumbling Bald Mountain. I have added a few pictures to the end of the gallery below. Enjoy!
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