Yellowstone Prong has some of the most rugged terrain in all of the Pisgah Ranger District. Paralleling the Blue Ridge Parkway from Looking Glass Rock Overlook at milepost 417, and climbing the drainage from Skinny Dip Falls to Yellowstone Falls, this hike in, along, and above Yellowstone Prong may be the most challenging mile I have undertaken. You will scramble over car-size boulders in the prong. You will whack your way through rhododendron thickets and climb over massive hemlock and oak deadfall. Best of all, you will enjoy incredible beauty in the midst of the gorge carved by Yellowstone Prong. Ken and I tackled this one Tuesday, April 11, 2017 beginning at 9:15AM and ending about 1:45PM. Our plan was to climb the Yellowstone Prong drainage from Skinny Dip Falls to Yellowstone Falls. We made it about 90% of the way, but saved the rest for another adventure.
Hike Length: 2.1 miles Hike Duration: 4.5 hours
Hike Rating: Extremely difficult. Rugged terrain; steep climbing; bushwhacking; exposure to injury; all make this hike one that requires constant attention.
Hike Configuration: Up and back Blaze: None, not a designated trail
Elevation Change: 360 feet, gain 490 feet Elevation Start: 4,480 feet
Trail Condition: Off trail. This is not a designated, maintained trail. You will follow the prong over boulders, logs, through thickets, even in the water. Be prepared.
Starting Point: MP 417 on the Blue Ridge Parkway: Looking Glass Overlook.
Trail Traffic: There was 1 other enjoying Yellowstone Prong with us, a fly fisherman.
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 5 miles to the Looking Glass Rock Overlook (milepost 417). The trailhead is across the parkway from the parking area.
Start this hike directly across the road from the Looking Glass Rock Overlook at milepost 417 on the Blue Ridge Parkway. Look for the stone marker with the white blaze mark of the Mountains to Sea Trail. For the first half mile you will follow the MST down into the drainage passing groves of beech trees, hillsides of galax, and a couple of branch crossings along the way. The trail descends about a hundred feet. Keep that in mind. You will have to climb back up when you return.
The U.S. Forest Service has done a lot of work along this section of the trail to improve erosion problems. This short walk to Skinny Dip Falls is extremely popular with the teenagers during warm summer months, and you will undoubtedly notice the many social trails that lead to overnight camping spots. When you reach a wooden stairway at Skinny Dip Falls you have entered Yellowstone Prong.
You may wonder, “what is a prong?” You’ve heard of river, stream, creek, brook, branch, fork. A prong is simply the branch of a stream. In this part of Pisgah National Forest and Shining Rock Wilderness you are in Little Pigeon River country. Because the water tumbles thousands of feet from the myriad sixers that dominate the area, it flows every which way, wherever it can find the quickest way to the bottom. Many of these branches or forks are known as prongs in the Southern Appalachian Mountains.
Cross the wooden foot bridge across Yellowstone Prong just below Skinny Dip Falls. You are now on your own. There are no trail markers to guide you. Head upstream, staying near the water and look for a social trail that heads west up the drainage. It’s not hard to find near the falls, but the farther up the drainage you go, the more a defined trail becomes obscure.
Not far beyond Skinny Dip Falls the forest is carpeted with ephemeral wildflowers in April including spring beauties, trout lilies, various species of violet, bluets, and sedge. Also look for mostly oak, pine and hemlock trees, with an occasional dogwood thrown in for springtime beauty. As you will soon discover, the rhododendron is also everywhere. By the time you have finished this hike you will have a love-hate relationship with rhododendron.
For the first quarter mile, the social trail stays fairly close to the prong and is not too tough to negotiate. As you continue upstream the prong gets rockier and the gorge walls steeper. We encountered a fly fisherman, obviously in fishing nirvana in this stream known for native brook trout.
You must decide whether to proceed in the prong by scrambling over and around the boulders, or to climb higher up the bank hoping for a dry egress. We chose the latter, changing our mind a half hour later.
The social trail seemed to continue up the bank, away from the prong, at least for awhile. It kept going higher, and kept going higher, and then just for good measure it kept going higher. We became stymied from proceeding westward by rhododendron thickets and deadfall. So we kept going higher, hoping for a passage through or around the forest debris. After 30 minutes of searching and continually climbing the ever steeper grade, we were tired, and decided to give the boulder field on the prong a go.
So back down, down, down we went all the while cursing ourselves for thinking this would be the best choice. When we got back to the prong, we paused for a breather and to survey the best approach for crossing the boulders. Reminding each other that boulder scrambling is a great way to turn an ankle, or worse, we began the ascent step by careful step.
Some minutes later we topped the terrace and popped out on a stunning view of a multi-tiered cascade plunging through another massive boulder field. We wondered aloud if this was perhaps Yellowstone Falls. Regardless, it was time for lunch. We found a perfect large, flat boulder to sit on right at the base of a 25 foot cascade. What a wonderful day. The weather was ideal… Carolina blue sky with puffy white clouds and a light breeze generated by the moving water.
The water itself was as refreshing as you can imagine as we each splashed our face with cupped hands. The sights and the sounds were inspiring. This is wilderness at its best. The fisherman we had seen earlier was now high above us standing on a rocky perch casting about into the hidden pools. Apparently he had continued up the prong when we had made the dubious decision to climb the hillside.
By the time we finished lunch, he had descended the cascades and now joined us in tales of adventure. We asked what was up higher around the bend and he said Yellowstone Falls was there, just beyond sight, about another 300 feet above. So, we were not sitting at the base of Yellowstone Falls. Darn.
After chatting with the fisherman for 20 minutes or so, Ken and I queried each other with our eyes about whether we still had it in us to do another boulder field climb. Had it not been for the needless excursion on dry land, perhaps we would have gone for it. As it was, we were already quite fatigued, and decided to save the rest for another day.
Wishing the fisherman adieu, we began our descent back through the boulder field we had previously climbed. Believe me when I tell you it is no easier going downhill. You have to be aware and alert of every step, placing your next one on an even surface where you are not likely to slip.
We reached a point where we could see the social trail on the north bank of the prong, so we scrambled up the side and back onto dry land. Even more wildflowers had popped out in the couple hours since we last passed through. It was delightful.
By the time we got back to Skinny Dip Falls, the crowd had arrived. There were probably two dozen folks there enjoying the cool refreshing mountain water on this exquisite April day. We paused at the top of the wooden stairway for a break, knowing we had that hundred foot climb remaining to get back to the Blue Ridge Parkway. I was huffing and puffing when we finished.
In summary, this is an adventure that is not for everyone. Do not try this one alone! It is too easy to get hurt, and then there would be no one to go for help. This is likely the most difficult 2-mile round trip I have ever tried. It took us four and a half hours to hike just two miles because of all the resting we had to do. The rugged nature of the prong will sap all of your energy. So stay hydrated… stay nourished… and stay safe.