Nestled in the beautiful Blue Ridge mountains near Asheville, North Carolina, YMCA Blue Ridge Assembly is a full-service conference center situated on 1,200 acres of woodland beautified by mountain streams, wildflowers, ridges, valleys and spectacular views. What is little known about the property is the extensive hiking trail system. Primary among these is the High Windy Trail, a 1,600 foot climb to scenic views of Black Mountain, Montreat, Greybeard, and Mt. Mitchell. While you’re there, enjoy the rich history of the YMCA Assembly, built in 1906. The Assembly is listed in the National Register of Historic Places. This hike occurred on Tuesday, September 10, 2013 from 9:30am to 1:30pm. Our plan was to take the High Windy Trail up to the overlook on the 4,350′ summit, then return on the Carolina Loop Trail visiting the Mt. Mitchell overlook along the way.
Hike Length: 7.4 miles Hike Duration: 4 hours Blaze: Red, orange, blue
Hike Configuration: Loop Elevation change: 1,830 feet
Hike Rating: Difficult. You will climb 1,600 feet in 2.5 miles.
Trail Condition: Very good; somewhat rocky in places.
Starting Point: Behind Robert E. Lee Hall and past the amphitheater.
Trail Traffic: We did not encounter any other hikers on this day.
How to Get There: From I-40 take exit 64 to Black Mountain and Montreat, turning south on NC Hwy 9. After less than a half mile, continue straight on Blue Ridge Rd. Go 0.9 mile and turn left at the Blue Ridge Assembly sign, continuing into the Assembly grounds. Park in the upper lot above the Blue Ridge Center, then walk up the stairs to Robert E. Lee Hall, and beyond to the trail.
The drive into the grounds of the YMCA Blue Ridge Assembly is a beautiful single lane loop surrounded by overhanging trees and manicured lawns that double as a frisbee golf course. I had no idea this large complex was tucked away in the hills above Black Mountain, NC. At the top of the hill stands the massive Robert E. Lee Hall, an enormous dormitory with massive white columns that were so popular in early 20th century architecture. The entire campus harkens back to a quieter time more than 100 years ago.
Park in the lot above the Blue Ridge Center and below Lee Hall. If you walk into the Center, there is a reception desk that has maps of the property and trails. Remember as you set out on your hike that this is private property, owned by the YMCA. So be on your best behavior. Don’t do anything that would ruin the privilege for future hikers, and of course, practice Leave No Trace.
Climb the stairs to Lee Hall and walk around the building on either side on Cottage Circle to the back of the building. You’ll have a remarkable view of this stately old hall. That’s the photo at the top of this post. From the rear of Lee Hall, the road continues up the hill a couple hundred yards past the amphitheater and on to the trailhead, a well-signed location denoting all the trails found on the mountain above. For this hike, we took the High Windy Trail.
There are several trail junctions along the way. If you continue to bear right, sticking with the High Windy signs and red blaze, you will remain on the outer loop that goes all the way to the top. Some of the inner loops make for nice shorter hikes, but we know you want to see the sights from the summit. 3/4 mile up, for example, is the junction with the west side of the Carolina Loop. That’s the trail you’ll be on later for the east side descent.
Not far past this junction you’ll reach a log storm shelter. It’s the only one I saw, so if you happen to get trapped out in bad weather, hope it’s on this side of the loop. The trail takes another right fork up High Windy at the shelter. From here, it’s a long, hard uphill pull. In winter, when the leaves are down, you would be able to see the surrounding mountains off in the distance as you climb. Not so in the green months.
The higher we got, the more wildflowers we saw. Particularly, periwinkle was out in abundance. There were various shades of blue, white and yellow flowers.
About a half mile from the top we reached one last junction, this one with the road that ascends the summit. Originally used by those who maintained the transmission tower that used to top the summit of High Windy, it only sees the footprints of hikers these days. This will be your only left turn on this hike.
When you reach the summit of High Windy, you’ll see the decommissioned transmission tower on your left. The satellite pods have been removed from the tower and simply laid upon the ground, now surrounded by heavy weeds. The summit is 4,350 feet and is relatively flat. On the eastern end is an old chimney, a remnant of a bygone era.
Beyond the chimney is the overlook, with a view to the east of the community of Black Mountain. There’s a rocky outcropping near the overlook, shaded by the trees, that was an ideal spot for us to enjoy lunch. On this day, High Windy didn’t live up to its name, as there wasn’t even so much as a breeze.
Refreshed from our nourishment, it was time to head back down. There is a trail below the summit that descends the eastern slope, but it is no longer maintained. Since we had never been here before, we decided it best to stick with the trails on our map, so we returned on the service road.
Just as on the way up, the idea on the way down is to take all the right forks to remain on the outer loop. There are also signs pointing to the Blue Ridge Assembly. Follow those and you can’t go wrong. About a mile down from the summit you will reach another overlook, this one with a great view of Montreat and Greybeard Mountain across the valley. We hiked there before.
Just a little beyond this lower overlook we took a detour to another overlook. When we reached the orange-blazed Carolina Loop Trail we turned right, up the hill, on an old dirt road. This winds through a construction area for about half a mile. Whatever construction was considered up here, they changed their mind, because now it’s just a torn up mess. The walk is worth it though, for the view of Mt. Mitchell and Greybeard at the end of the road.
Backtrack down the construction road to the Carolina Loop and resume your descent. You will now follow a stream down the mountain, creating a delightful backdrop to the other mountain sounds. We did not encounter any other hikers, but this stretch on the Carolina Loop is where you would be most likely to meet exercise walkers. It isn’t as steep on this side of the loop, so most of the walkers go up the east side.
Near the bottom, the Carolina Loop joins the blue-blazed Wolfpit Circle Trail and crosses the creek that has been following your descent. You will reach a gate in the road that you walk around, and then you return to paved road. Just a few hundred yards more and you are back to Lee Hall.
From the front of Lee Hall, looking north and east is a stunning view of The Great Craggy Mountains, home to Craggy Gardens on the Blue Ridge Parkway. By now it was early afternoon, and the hustle and bustle at the Blue Ridge Assembly had picked up considerably since our morning departure. I am so excited to find this place. I simply had no clue of its existence.
To summarize, when you come to the YMCA Blue Ridge Assembly, come prepared for a strenuous hike, and a strong sense of history. The old buildings on the campus are remarkable, and the trail to High Windy is quite enjoyable. It was a wonderful way to spend four hours on a late summer day.