Quite frequently in winter, the Blue Ridge Parkway will be closed for snow and ice. Not great fun for those who wish to drive along the beautiful ridges. Ah
— but it’s the perfect time for hikers to get out on the trails that parallel the Parkway
— like the Mountains to Sea. Between Pigeon Gap and Bennett Gap at miles 412-414 the Mountains to Sea Trail traverses a ridge that crosses Green Knob, a 5,000 footer that splits Haywood and Transylvania counties. South of Green Knob is the Parkway itself, as well as the Cradle of Forestry and Looking Glass Rock. To the north is the full expanse of Shining Rock Wilderness and the majestic Cold Mountain. The leafless trees of winter enable magnificent views on both sides of the ridge. This hike occurred on Wednesday, January 2, 2013 from 10:00am to 1:05pm. Our plan was to walk the closed Blue Ridge Parkway from Hwy 276 to Pigeon Gap, then hop on the Mountains to Sea Trail up and over Green Knob to Bennett Gap, completing the loop by returning on the Parkway.
Hike Length: 6 miles Hike Duration: 3 hours Blaze: White
Hike Rating: Moderate Hike Configuration: Loop, including the BRP.
Elevation Gain: 915 feet Trail Condition: Excellent; quite scenic.
Starting Point: Cold Mountain Overlook on the Blue Ridge Parkway.
Trail Traffic: We had the trail and the Parkway all to ourselves.
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 at milepost 412. Turn south on the parkway toward Cherokee and go 100 yards to the Cold Mountain Overlook parking area.
It’s fun to walk on the Blue Ridge Parkway knowing there won’t be any cars or motorcycles coming. Not to mention how much quieter it is. On this day my companion and I headed up Hwy 276 to the Pisgah Ridge to do some parkway hiking. The Mountains to Sea Trail follows the Parkway nearly all the way from Great Smoky Mountains National Park to the Asheville corridor and beyond. So you can almost always find a short hike anywhere you are on the Parkway. I encourage the car tourists to get off the road at least once each day and hop on a trail.
We walked about half a mile from the Cold Mountain Overlook at milepost 412 to a spot at Pigeon Gap where the Mountains to Sea Trail (MtS) crosses the Parkway. We entered the trail on the west side, heading in a southerly direction. It was an extremely foggy day, so when we entered the forest it was murky and damp. My friend commented it was like an enchanted forest may be just around the bend past the misty fog.
After a few hundred yards the trail begins a moderate climb up Green Knob. There are switchbacks that wind around rocky outcrops to make the ascent easier. To our right (west) we could hear the far away sound of rushing water from Big East
— the East Fork of Pigeon River
— in the valley below. We knew Cold Mountain stood over there on the other side, but we were shrouded in fog.
The higher we got, though, the clearer it became. We entered a layer between clouds. They were above us, and below us. By the time we reached the top of the ridge 600 feet above where we started, we had a window through which to view the skylines. To the southeast, the sun was creating a sunset-like effect with an orange glow on the horizon. The valley below was completely obscured by clouds, as was the sun by another higher cloud layer.
We continued following the ridge southward until we reached a spur trail that headed to the west. Neither of us had been on this stretch of the MtS before, and this spur isn’t on the map, so we went exploring. We could now see the peak of Cold Mountain in the distance, again between cloud layers. The spur trail followed a game lands boundary, and after a quarter mile actually entered Shining Rock Wilderness. Once the trail began a steep descent toward Big East, we said that was enough and turned back. At one time this was a marked trail because we saw some very old, faint red blaze paint.
Returning to the Mountain to Sea Trail, we resumed the gradual climb to the Green Knob summit. The ridge narrows at the summit, no more than 30 feet wide, so there are picturesque views on each side. On the left (east) is the Cradle of Forestry and Looking Glass Rock (unfortunately covered in clouds for us), and on the right (west) is Shining Rock Wilderness and the Black Balsam area. The sixers at Black Balsam were tall enough to poke above the lower cloud layer.
This looked like a great spot for lunch, so we took off our packs, pulled out soup, sandwich and map, and enjoyed the unusual cloud inversion that we’ve encountered twice in our last three hikes. The map was useful to tell us what we might see on a clear day. We also concluded that winter was a good time to take this trail because the leafless trees enabled long distance views that would not otherwise be available.
We could see the Blue Ridge Parkway directly below us, about 300 feet over the edge, and then heard the sounds of a vehicle. As quiet as it had been that surprised us. Turned out to be a Parkway maintenace pickup truck with a snow plow just scouting the road for any signs of accumulation. As we would discover later, he totally ignored other fallen rock and ice debris.
After a rest and some nourishment we continued along the ridge. The forest on top is simply beautiful, gnarly oaks and beech with lichens growing on the trunks in shades of mint and olive green. That’s the picture at the top of this post. Click on it for a larger image. As you can see, the trail itself is grassy and cushioned, a delightful stroll through the friendly woods. The sun even popped out… but just for a couple minutes.
Not far past the Green Knob summit is an outcrop known as Penny Rock. This is the only clear view, unobstructed by trees, of the scene to the east and south. Hard to know on the day we were there because of the cloud cover, but I suspect there are remarkable long views of the Black Mountains 40 miles east, as well as all the towns and villages between. I know that Looking Glass Rock is there, and Cedar Rock, and Pilot Mountain. The landmarks are numerous.
The descent on the south side of Green Knob is more gradual than the climb. It winds casually through the hardwood with one steep switchback. All the while the Parkway is just to your left, but delightfully quiet in its closed status. The trail spills onto the Parkway at Bennett Gap, milepost 414.5.
It’s all uphill on the Parkway for the next mile and a half until you get to the Pounding Mill Overlook. My hiking companion also rides bicycles on the Parkway and says this incline will test your resolve. There are steeper pulls, but this one just keeps going up and up and up. Because there are no other overlooks before Pounding Mill, this is a stretch of road with views that aren’t normally seen when trapped in a car. Another great reason for walking the Parkway when it’s closed.
As we approached the hairpin curve that is the Pounding Mill Overlook, we could hear loud pops and cracks on the cliff face above. Unsure if it was another maintenance vehicle, wildlife or what, we kept our eyes peeled as we neared the turn. Then we saw why. There were broken off pieces of granite and ice lying in the middle of the road, another reason the Park Service is wise to close this byway under winter conditions.
My hiking friends and I volunteer for the National Park Service in their Adopt an Overlook program. It just so happens that Pounding Mill is ours. Since the maintenance truck we had seen earlier apparently passed right by the fallen rock and ice, or maybe it fell since he went by, we did our volunteer thing and moved all the debris to the side of the road. As we were finishing up our hike a half hour later, we noticed the pickup truck coming back the other direction. Perhaps when he reached Pounding Mill he wondered what in the world happened to that downed rock.
On the north side of the overlook the Parkway begins descending toward Pigeon Gap. As we approached there was a large fog bank wafting through the gap. Just barely peaking out through the fog was the fire tower on top of Fryingpan Mountain. It’s one of those landmarks you come to recognize when you spend a lot of time on this stretch of the Parkway.
As we walked through the gap, there was the entrance to the Mountains to Sea Trail that we took on our way south, and then the final half mile back to the Cold Mountain Overlook. The clouds had cleared just enough to capture one last photo of the peak of Cold Mountain.
If you’re looking for a shortish hike of three hours or less that will give you some exercise and offer exceptional views of the surrounding Blue Ridge and wilderness areas, then this hike on the Mountains to Sea Trail over Green Knob may be just the ticket. Obviously, you don’t have to wait until the Parkway is closed to try it, but there is a certain serenity in the high country without the sound of vehicles. To access the trailhead when the Parkway is open, you can park at the Wagon Road Gap Overlook (milepost 412.2) or Pounding Mill (milepost 413). It’s just a short walk on the side of the road to the trail.
Update May 30, 2016: Memorial Day 2016 offered beautiful weather in the high country. I started the day doing my Blue Ridge Parkway volunteer duty by picking up trash at the Pounding Mill Overlook. Then it was down to Pigeon Gap to hop on the MST for the climb up Green Knob. Arcane wildflowers were in abundance including such esoteric varieties as Canada may flower, speckled wood lily, smooth and false solomon seal, and fly poison. Old favorites mountain laurel and blackberry were also in abundance. Contrast the photos below during green season with the ones above from winter. Hardly seems like the same place.