Named after the Biblical mount where Moses first saw the Promised Land, Mt. Pisgah is the landmark that gave Pisgah National Forest its name. Located on the border of Buncombe and Haywood counties in NC, close to the point where Transylvania and Henderson meet them, the mountain is easily accessible via a hiking trail from the Blue Ridge Parkway. Mt. Pisgah is topped with the Asheville-based broadcaster WLOS-TV tower, so it is always identifiable even from long distances. From the summit spectacular views of the surrounding Blue Ridge Mountains abound, including Cold Mountain directly to the west. This hike occurred on Tuesday, August 28, 2012 from 8:45am to 10:40am. My plan was to climb the Mt. Pisgah Trail from milepost 407.7 on the Blue Ridge Parkway.
Hike Length: 2.7 miles Hike Duration: 2 hours Blaze: None needed
Hike Rating: Moderate, some strenuous Hike Configuration: Up and back
Elevation Gain: 730 feet Trail Condition: Mostly very good. Some slick granite.
Starting Point: Milepost 407.7 on the Blue Ridge Parkway.
Trail Traffic: I encountered five other hikers on the trail.
How to Get There: At milepost 407.7 on the Blue Ridge Parkway follow the signs on the west side of the road to “Mt. Pisgah Parking.” The trailhead is all the way at the top of the paved area past the Buck Springs Overlook.
It’s always enjoyable driving to Mt. Pisgah on the Blue Ridge Parkway, especially early in the morning. The sun does magical things with rays and shadows as you climb the Blue Ridge to the refreshing air of the high country. I’m always tempted to stop at every overlook despite the scores of times I’ve already been there. No matter the season, there are always grand and glorious scenes of the surrounding valleys. I know them by name. I’ve hiked many of them.
The Mt. Pisgah area on the Parkway is a tourist’s delight. There is a large campground and a family picnic area. The Pisgah Inn is an old, rustic lodge that is perched right on the Pisgah Ridge with marvelous views of the Cradle of Forestry in Pisgah National Forest. The restaurant at the inn has an outdoor deck so you can breathe the mountain air while tasting the delicious fare. There is a country store for camping supplies and souvenir reminders of the fun you had in the North Carolina high country. Best of all are the myriad of hiking trails that explore Mt. Pisgah and the various ridges.
When you pull into the Mt. Pisgah parking area you can see your destination. Somewhat intimidating, from a mile away it looks like a pretty steep climb. It is, in parts, but it’s not too difficult with proper pacing. The reward up top is definitely worth any exertion to get there. Besides, it’s great exercise and the trail is stunning.
Stepping onto the Mt. Pisgah Trail is like stepping into some mythical forest. Immediately you are surrounded by gnarly, twisty laurels and hardwoods ravaged by decades of harsh 5000′ winters. There is moss and fungus growing on the bark presenting a Tolkienesque Mirkwood that is beautiful to behold. Expect wildflowers spring, summer, and fall. The yellow coneflowers were in abundance on this late August day.
The trail is fairly wide, but just a single track. It is very mature, easy to follow and well maintained by the Park Service volunteers. The first 1/2 mile is pretty flat as it curls around the ridge that connects Little Pisgah Mountain with it’s taller sibling. The forest is quite dense so there isn’t much to view in the first half mile, but I enjoy studying the hearty old trees that can tell tales of winters past with their scars and arthritic branches.
Once the trail begins climbing, it will stay that way to the top. The trail gets rockier. Granite fins protrude from the ground requiring steps over and around to get by. You will begin to notice many little spur trails that seem to go nowhere. In early spring and late fall you can peer through the bare trees at the ridges in the distance. Just be patient though. Further ahead you will have plenty of opportunity for clear views.
Like one of the switchbacks that has a perfect view to the south at the Pisgah Inn and the valley below. There is an outcropping that is nice to sit a spell and rest for the remaining climb or snap a few pictures. Another outcrop further up looks southwestward at the fire tower on Fryingpan Mountain.
Unfortunately, the higher you get, the steeper the trail. If you’re in great shape it’s a piece of cake. Even if you aren’t you can do it. Just take time to rest and breathe deeply, pace yourself, and know that it isn’t very far. Observe the changes in sights and smells. Enjoy the scent in the forest as you reach the evergreen treeline. Notice that the trail changes from mostly soil to entirely granite. Listen for the birds who do their bird thing at 5000 feet.
Then suddenly, there you are. You will get your first view of the massive TV tower on the summit from about 50 feet below. It’s only two more minutes after that to the clearing on the top. In addition to the WLOS tower, there is a nice observation platform constructed by the Youth Conservation Corps in 1979. There is room for probably 20 people on the summit, and I have been there when it was crowded, but on this day I had the place all to myself. It was grand.
The 350′ tall TV tower is certainly distracting, but I think it is a part of what gives Mt. Pisgah its character. It has been there for decades, so the local community is certainly used to it. Plus, it is a notable landmark that can be seen for miles and miles. You can always get your bearings if you look for the tower-topped Mt. Pisgah. They say this is the highest communications tower east of the Mississippi, as its tip tops 6000 feet.
So try to put the tower out of your thoughts as you survey the absolutely stunning views of Pisgah National Forest and the Shining Rock Wilderness. For me, the most spectacular scene is the one due west. There, all alone, stands 6030′ Cold Mountain six miles away. That’s the photo at the top of this post. Click for a larger view. Cold Mountain is another of the celebrated landmarks around here, not just because of the Charles Frazier novel, but also because of its cone shape and isolated location. It is truly in the wilderness. The only way there is a long hike. The little town of Cruso is in the basin below Cold Mountain.
As you pan to the southwest, the Blue Ridge Parkway hugs the Pisgah Ridge. Fryingpan Mountain is recognizable because of the towers on top, but you also notice Big Bald and Beech Knob as you peer along the ridge. On an especially clear day you can see the plutons, Looking Glass and Cedar Rocks, 7-8 miles distant.
Turning further southward you will see Pisgah Inn, and more to the left, the parking lot at the trailhead. It gives you a good perspective of the path the trail took to get to the summit. Looking way into the distance are the town of Brevard, and eventually the South Carolina upstate. However, don’t expect to be able to see that far on a typically hazy summer day. The best long distance viewing is in colder weather.
To look to the east, I find it best to scramble beneath the tower to get to a small clearing on the east side of the mountain. From there you can see the town of Hendersonville and the I-26 corridor to Asheville. Far in the distance to the northeast are the tall peaks of the Great Craggy Mountains and Black Mountains. Way off to the north is I-40 as it heads west toward Tennessee.
It’s a grand view. The Cherokee called this Elseetoss, and the land around them was rich in game and lush with trees and other plant life. It still is. At one time this land was owned by Thomas Lanier Clingman, the North Carolina Senator and Confederate General. In 1897 he sold his land to George Vanderbilt, the grandson of Cornelius. Mr. Vanderbilt began buying land south of Asheville in 1888, and by the time he finished, he owned about 125,000 acres, including Mt. Pisgah.
Upon Vanderbilt’s death in 1914, the U.S. Forest Service purchased nearly 80,000 acres, including Mt. Pisgah, from Edith Vanderbilt as a part of what is now Pisgah National Forest. The first Pisgah Inn opened in 1918. At the parking area for Mt. Pisgah Trail is another trail to Buck Spring Gap where Vanderbilt had a hunting lodge that stood until 1961. You can still see stone foundations for the well house and underground refrigeration. Are you a history buff?
I hated to leave, but there was a chance for thunderstorms from Hurricane Isaac later and you definitely don’t want to get caught on top of a 5700 foot peak with a steel TV tower. As I made my way down the trail, I finally happened across some other hikers on this usually popular trail. First, a couple of solo hikers like myself, then a young couple with that wide-eyed look on their faces. They said they were first-time visitors to the Blue Ridge Parkway. Good for them getting out of their car to explore the trail on foot. There are no destinations on the Parkway. The joy is in the journey.
When I returned to the car, I continued southwest on the Parkway for another five miles to the Pounding Mill Overlook. Every few weeks I pick up trash there as a Friends of the Blue Ridge Parkway volunteer. The tourists had behaved themselves in the two weeks since I had last been there. A few napkins and cellophane wrappers were mainly what I found, but as usual the biggest cleanup was tossed cigarette butts. It took me less than 30 minutes to finish the cleanup.
The Mt. Pisgah Trail is one of those must stops along the Blue Ridge Parkway. It’s a hike you can do in less than two hours, is doable for the whole family, and will give you fantastic views of the high country in Western North Carolina. Take a little water with you and maybe a snack and plan on spending some time on the platform at the top marveling at the beauty of the Blue Ridge. It’s a good idea to keep an eye to the sky watching for those afternoon thunderstorms, but otherwise enjoy the history, the forest, and the mountain.