Situated in the far northern reaches of the Panthertown Trail System in Nantahala National Forest, Turkey Knob and Blackrock Mountain offer long distance views of the more well known features of Panthertown Valley. From more than 4000 feet elevation, there are splendid views of Little and Big Green Mountains and The Great Wall. The full expanse of Mac’s Gap lays on the floor of the valley between the cliffs of Blackrock and the Greens. Blackrock Trail also connects with Packs Gap, the western entrance to the trail system. This hike occurred on Thursday, March 8, 2012 from 10:00am to 2:30pm. Usually in this space I detail the planned hike. Unfortunately, the plan and actuality did not match up on a 10 year old map. We planned to hike Buzzards Roost. As the hike turned out, we took Turkey Knob Trail to Blackrock Trail at Power Line Road, then went to the Blackrock Overlook, and finally on to Packs Gap. On the return we took the Blackrock Spur Trail, then returned on Blackrock and Turkey Knob.
Hike Length: 9.4 miles Hike Duration: 4.5 hours Hike Rating: Moderate
Blaze: No blaze, a shortcoming Elevation Gain: 880 feet Hike Configuration: Out and back
Trail Condition: Excellent, wide well-groomed trails.
Starting Point: Turkey Knob trailhead is on Rock Bridge Road (FR 4662).
Trail Traffic: There was no one else on the trails this day.
How to Get There: From Brevard, NC take Hwy 64 to Hwy 281. Turn right on 281 and go past Lake Toxaway. It is 9.1 miles from Hwy 64 to Rock Bridge Road. Turn left on Rock Bridge Road (SR 1140). Bear right on Forest Road 4662. It is 2.4 miles from Hwy 281 to the trailhead. The Turkey Knob trailhead (469) is on the left.
Talk about your Hiking Fiasco! On this hike my friend and I learned a valuable lesson about the importance of maintaining a collection of up-to-date trail maps. From the time our map was published in 2002 until this day, the trail system in this section of Nantahala National Forest has changed completely. It started with the dead-end on Forest Road 4662. There was supposed to be a trailhead for Buzzards Roost and Turkey Knob (447) there. Instead, what we found was a large camping circle, a tenuous log bridge across a creek that wasn’t on the map, and no trailheads at all.
So we returned to the car and back-tracked to where we had seen a trailhead for Turkey Knob, but with a different trail number than what we were expecting (469). We were looking for 447, at least according to our map. Being Meanderthals, we decided to give it a go regardless. Just to top off our confusion, it began to drizzle. Totally not what those liars who report the weather said. Fortunately we both carry rain gear no matter the season or forecast.
Trail 469 begins a moderate, westward uphill climb through a north-facing forest of hardwoods and laurels. About 1/4 mile up the hill, the trail takes a hairpin left to the southeast. It is easy to miss this and follow the false trail straight ahead instead. As you can see from the GPS map above, that’s what we did. The absence of trail blaze markers tripped us up a few times. Once we realized our mistake, we regained the Turkey Knob Trail and continued upward. There is another sharp turn in the trail, this time a right, at the half mile point. This one, however, is well marked with Forest Service signage.
As we approached the summit of Turkey Knob it was quite apparent there had been significant wind in the very recent past. There were several soft evergreens that had snapped 10-30 feet above the ground and fallen across the trail. One cluster of downed trees was particularly difficult to navigate as the thick branches were still green with the fresh scent of pine, and created a barrier on the trail. We surmised this ridge may have been hit by a mini-tornado that stormed through this area earlier in the week when the front ravaged Indiana and Kentucky.
The rest of Trail 469 is a very nice stroll through the woods on a wide, even track with only gradual elevation gain. It crosses Turkey Knob at about 4500 feet. We began to notice a peculiar phenomenon that would continue for the rest of the day. There were quite a number of deformed trees. Some had un-explainable curves in their trunks. Others had very large knobs and growths protruding from the trunks. We wondered aloud what was in the water around here. Weird. Perhaps it isn’t only this area, but we both sure did notice it, a lot.
The Turkey Knob Trail reaches a large swath in the forest where Duke Energy has run a massive power transmission line right through the heart of Panthertown Valley. It’s easy to marvel at the toil and labor expended by those who installed these prodigious towers and wires over such rugged terrain, while still feeling sorrow in the pit of your stomach for the detraction from the natural beauty. What is, is. Nothing can be done about it now.
The trail continues on the other side of the transmission lines until it meets Power Line Road, a gravel surface used by those who maintain the towers. This is 1.7 miles from the beginning of the hike. On the other side of the road is a trail marker for Blackrock Trail (447). Huh? Here is that mysterious trail number 447 we had been looking for all day, but it was named Blackrock, not Turkey Knob. Another example of confusion wrought by an incorrect trail map. At least we were now where we thought we were supposed to be. Or so we believed.
Blackrock Trail follows a ridge on Blackrock Mountain through substantial rhododendron and mountain laurel thickets that frequently form a canopy over the trail. Most of the climbing is done now, it’s easy hiking. About .8 mile from Power Line Rd., the Blackrock Overlook Trail (491) takes off to the left. It is easy to miss because the trail marker has become detached from the ground and is merely leaning against a tree. You definitely don’t want to miss this overlook trail because it is the highlight of the hike, so keep your eyes peeled.
The Overlook Trail starts with a brief climb to the summit of Blackrock Mountain, but then begins a steep descent. It is 1/2 mile from the junction to the overlook. This is the steepest part of the entire hike, though still not too bad simply because it isn’t that long. Whatever you do, don’t let the grade deter you, because the view is definitely worth it.
Since sitting atop the cliffs on Little Green Mountain in Panthertown Valley, I’ve wondered what it looks like from the other side of the valley. As we popped out of the forest onto the granite of the overlook, there was Little Green right in front of me with Cold Mountain behind it. That’s the photo at the top of this post. And hey, over there to the right, that’s Big Green Mountain. And isn’t that creek and meadow down below in Mac’s Gap running between the two? Or so it looked to me. But when studying our trail map, we should have been five miles further north, right?
Regardless, this spot was absolutely beautiful. Too bad the weather got nasty. There was a fierce wind howling through the valley and raindrops from the grey, threatening clouds that draped the granite monoliths. We were sure glad to have our protective gear. We found a spot between some pines that was a break from the wind and enjoyed our lunch. In early March there isn’t much color in the forest below the overlook, but the various shades of brown in the creek-side meadows made a delightful contrast with the stark grey of the rock and sky.
I couldn’t get as many pictures as I wanted because the wind kept whipping the rain onto the camera. Even the lens hood didn’t help much. After finishing lunch, we studied the map once more and concluded that we should reach the connection with Rock Bridge Rd. in less than a mile for the return to the car. So we packed our gear and climbed back up Black Mountain, taking a left turn to continue to the end of trail 447. Along the way we passed by what I thought earlier was Big Green. Now we had a view of the south face. That sure does look like The Great Wall to me. I would find out in a short 20 minutes just how right I was.
The trail was gradually declining now, winding past more of those uncanny deformed trees. We began to see houses through the forest, so we were definitely getting closer to a road, just what we expected. Then sure enough
— after passing another trail we couldn’t find on our map called the Blackrock Spur Trail
— we reached a road. Except it wasn’t “the road,” it was “a road.” This one was partially paved. When we were at the 4662 dead-end in the car earlier, there was no paved road. It was all gravel. Then we saw a National Forest sign for Panthertown Valley. What? We walked around a curve in the road to a gate, and a kiosk with a sign that said Packs Gap. Wait, what? Where in the world are we?
To our good fortune, the kiosk had a very detailed map of Panthertown Valley. We found the “You Are Here” marker and saw that we had somehow come to the western entrance to the valley at Packs Gap. We found the point near Buzzards Roost where we had parked the car and realized we were a good 3-4 miles from where we thought we were. And the only way back was the way we came. At this point we were three hours into our hike and thought we only had 20 minutes left. This was a shock to our senses. We paused to collect ourselves and realize what had happened, then began to take inventory of our water, food, and other supplies. This hike was suddenly a lot longer than planned. Gratefully, we had plenty.
We noticed the other end of the Blackrock Spur Trail was right there beside us, and on the kiosk map we saw that it cut a large curve off the Blackrock Trail. So we headed up. It is definitely steeper than the main trail. That explains the large looping curve in the other trail as it deigns to avoid this steepness. As it turned out, though, I’m really glad we went this way because we got a spectacular view of The Great Wall on Big Green Mountain. So I had been right all along. All those features we saw from the overlook were exactly what they looked like. That WAS Panthertown Valley we were standing over. Well, duh!
Once we reached the top of Blackrock Mountain, the rest of the hike back was a piece of cake. It’s 3.5 miles of mostly flat, or downward grade from Packs Gap to the Turkey Knob trailhead. Despite taking three hours to go the other direction, we made it back in just under 90 minutes. We didn’t go back down to the overlook or stop for lunch, and we didn’t miss a turn and take a false trail, and we didn’t dawdle. Funny how that works when you know where you are.
How to summarize this hike? I haven’t spent a lot of time yet in Nantahala National Forest. I live closer to Pisgah National Forest and have done the majority of my hiking there. But Nantahala has a lot to offer. It is different. It is more remote. Apparently they change their trails, or perhaps the maps still aren’t right ten years later. I will find out because the first thing I did when I got back was order three new maps. Two will replace maps I already have that are showing some age, and the third is a new area I’d like to explore.
Despite the uneasy feeling of not knowing exactly where we were, I enjoyed this hike. The trails are very well maintained, so in that sense I didn’t feel truly lost. The Blackrock Mountain Overlook is a stellar destination. The views of Panthertown Valley are as good, or maybe even better than from Little Green. The view of The Great Wall along the Blackrock Spur Trail is also one not to be missed. I have been wanting to explore Panthertown from the Packs Gap side of the valley. Well, now I have without even intending to do so.
I will be back to this area north of the main valley again some day to check out other trails like Rattlesnake Knob, the Devils Elbow, Lichen Falls and Riding Ford. However, I still don’t know how to get to Buzzards Roost.