Craggy Gardens, Blue Ridge Parkway

June means catawba rhododendron at Craggy Gardens. Located northeast of Asheville on the Blue Ridge Parkway, Craggy Gardens is loaded with the purple and maroon beauties. There are two short, easy trails near the Visitor Center that access mountaintops for spectacular vista views and bunches and bunches of rhodies. Craggy Pinnacle takes you above 5,800 feet for a view of the Parkway below, as well as other famous landmarks like Greybeard Mountain, the Asheville Watershed, and the twin peaks of Linville Gorge. Just the other side of Pinnacle Gap is the Craggy Gardens Trail to the flowerific heath bald at Craggy Flats. I enjoyed these trails and other nearby features on Friday, June 6, 2014 beginning at 9:15AM and ending about 1:30PM. My plan was to take the Craggy Pinnacle and Craggy Gardens trails in search of blossoming catawba rhododendron. The weather changed my plans, for the better.

Hike Length: Craggy Pinnacle 1.5 miles and Craggy Flats 1 mile round trips.

Blaze: White Hike Rating: Easy. Each trail is only 15-20 minutes up.

Elevation Gain: 580 feet combined on both trails.

Hike Configuration: Both are up and back.

Trail Condition: Good. Some exposed roots and rocks, and overhanging rhodo.

Starting Point: Visitor Center at Craggy Gardens milepost 364.5 BRP.

Trail Traffic: Lots and lots, even on a week day.

How to Get There: From any Blue Ridge Parkway access point, head to milepost 364.5. The Craggy Pinnacle Trail is north of the Visitor Center and the Craggy Gardens Trail is south.

For the third year in a row, my venture up to Craggy Gardens in June for rhododendron blooming was met with a cloud. A big cloud. One that had the entire Craggy Gardens area socked in. Three years in a row! Well, this time I was going to wait it out. The fog was bound to lift sooner or later, right?

The Craggy Gardens Picnic Area is a bit lower than the viewing peaks, so I headed there first. The parking lot at the picnic area is surrounded by massive catawba bushes that were probably 75% of peak bloom. It was still foggy, but you don’t need to see far to do closeups of blossoms, so I spent probably a half hour playing among the blooms. The purple ones had opened the most, with the maroon ones still several days away. In the gallery below, these will be the first few photos.

Driving back up the mountain to the Visitor Center, I could see that the cloud was still hanging out, so it was Mt. Mitchell here I come. The tallest point in the eastern half of the U.S. is just 10 miles further northeast on the Blue Ridge Parkway. After half that distance I had dropped far enough in elevation to be below the massive cloud cover, so I found a pullout and got some shots of Burnett Reservoir part of the Asheville Watershed Greybeard Mountain, and the Parkway itself.

Once you reach Mt. Mitchell State Park, it’s back up, up, up into the cloud layer. I didn’t really expect to be able to see much from the Mitchell viewing platform, but at least I was killing time waiting for the sun to burn off the clouds. My expectations were realized as the area was surrounded in every direction by the billowing obscurity. I did take a brief walk on the nature trail near the summit to enjoy the krummholz, and found a delightful little pathway that was covered in bluets.

Well, it was now an hour later and still 30 minutes or so back to Craggy Gardens, so I thought I’d give it a shot. When I reached the parking area for Craggy Pinnacle at milepost 363, I could tell the cloud layer was a bit thinner than before. I threw a sandwich and some water in my bag and headed the short distance to the top.

Greybeard Mountain and Burnett Reservoir

Despite this being a weekday, and despite the fog, there were quite a few hearty souls out doing the same as me. That’s the thing about Craggy Gardens in June. Everybody on the East Coast knows about the rhododendron bloom. I even encountered a couple all the way from Germany. I feel sorry for those who come from out of state, or in this case out of country, and all they find is fog. That’s the nature of the Great Craggy Mountains. They sound a fickle siren song.

The pullout for Craggy Pinnacle is about a half mile northeast of the Visitor Center. You pass under the Pinnacle Gap tunnel to get from one to the other. The Craggy Pinnacle trailhead is adjacent to the parking pullout. It is 0.7 mile to the summit of the pinnacle. Once on the trail, you immediately enter a canopy of mature rhododendron, and pretty much remain there all the way to the top. There are a couple of rock outcroppings, but really not much to see along the trail.

You reach a three-way split in the trail at the half mile point. The right fork goes to an overlook where you can see the Craggy Gardens Picnic Area and Craggy Flats (my destination for later), as well as long distance views to the west and north. The center fork goes to the lower pinnacle overlook, one that doesn’t offer much more than the upper overlook, other than a nice view of the pointy tipped summit of Craggy Pinnacle.

I went to the Upper Overlook first. On the final pull to the top, a couple coming down saw my camera and suggested if I wait, the sun had been making a momentary appearance every ten minutes or so. And so it was. When I first popped out on the pinnacle it was all one massive cloud. So I found a bench out of the wind and enjoyed my sandwich while listening to the other tourists lament their bad fortune with the weather.

About the time I finished eating, sure enough, there was a small patch of blue sky, and I could actually see the Visitor Center down below. So it was for the next 20 minutes as I played leap frog with the clouds as they wafted through Pinnacle Gap. It was actually kinda cool watching the fast moving clouds come up from the valley on the west, hurtling through the gap, and then disappearing back down to Burnett Reservoir eastward.

The layer never did lift enough for me to see all the way to Tablerock and Hawksbill Mountains at Linville Gorge, but I did catch some nice views of the reservoir and Greybeard Mountain standing tall over the little hamlet of Montreat. On the way back down, I stopped at the two lower overlooks, and experienced the same variance of alternating clouds and sun. Perhaps by the time I got to Craggy Flats the sky would be completely clear.

Craggy Pinnacle Lower Overlook

The Craggy Gardens trailhead is on the far southwestern end of the Visitor Center parking area. It heads slightly downhill and behind the stone wall that lines the car park. This trail heads multiple destinations, including Douglas Falls, but if you always take the left fork you will make your way to Craggy Flats, a 10 acre heath bald about half way to the picnic area. This pathway is actually part of the famous Mountains to Sea Trail and bears its white blaze markings.

It is less than half a mile from the trailhead to Craggy Flats. Upon reaching the weather shelter near the top of the hill, you can turn left to enjoy a loop around the heath bald, or you can go through the shelter to continue on to the picnic grounds. Since I had already visited the picnic area earlier in the morning, Craggy Flats was my destination.

I was probably a week early to enjoy the total experience of the catawba rhododendrons in their full majesty. Perhaps 30-40% of the flowers were in bloom, the rest still in bud just waiting for that right moment. Be assured however, that there are plenty of them. So even though I missed the timing by a few days, I still got to enjoy quite a show. They say that the average peak at Craggy Gardens is about June 15, so make your plans accordingly. Also expect there to be massive crowds, the exact reason I went early.

And because of that, I had the heath bald nearly to myself. I didn’t encounter nearly as many others as I had on the Craggy Pinnacle Trail. Keep in mind that these really aren’t hiking trails per se. They are merely a means for the tourist to get out of their car at the Craggy Gardens Visitor Center, and stretch their legs a bit to get to the prime viewing locations. If you want actual hiking, you can continue on the Douglas Falls Trail 10 miles or more into the backcountry. Also, off the road to the picnic area is the Snowball Trail.

As I imagined, the cloud layer had now completely changed. It was high, puffy white clouds, with the Craggy Flats bald totally bathed in sunshine. There is a nice view of both Craggy Pinnacle and Craggy Dome. That’s the picture at the top of this post. I spent a half hour walking around, enjoying the views and the rhododendron, and feeling content that I had decided to stick it out hoping for a change in the weather. As they say, good things come to those who wait.

I did get a little exercise on this day. Counting the mile round trip to the summit of Mt. Mitchell and the nature trail there, the mile and a half round trip for Craggy Pinnacle, and another mile round trip to Craggy Flats, I took a few steps. If you’re a brand new hiker just starting out, this is the kind of thing you can do to begin getting your legs under you. You will see so much more around the Blue Ridge Parkway if you just get out of your car occasionally and go exploring. Look for the trailhead markers.

To summarize, Craggy Gardens is an extremely popular destination on the Blue Ridge Parkway for both tourists and local North Carolinians. Especially in the month of June, the crowds can be quite large, so plan accordingly. Expect there to be fog in the morning. It is the nature of the high country. I’m an early riser, so I tend to get antsy and don’t want to wait until afternoon. But if you do arrive at noon, or later, you are more likely to have a better opportunity at long distance views. Regardless of whether the rhododendron is in bloom, Craggy Gardens is a scenic destination in all seasons except winter.

 

 

Return visit June 8, 2016

 

 

Update February 21, 2017:

It’s rare when you can get to Craggy Gardens in winter. Usually the Blue Ridge Parkway is closed. However, with the mild weather this year, the Parkway has remained open nearly the entire season. If you have ever wondered what Craggy Gardens looks like with the leaves down and the plants wearing brown instead of green, take a look.

 

 

This post was created by Jeff Clark. Please feel free to use the sharing icons below, or add your thoughts to the comments. Pack it in, pack it out. Preserve the past. Respect other hikers. Let nature prevail. Leave no trace.

 

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