Old Butt Knob and Shining Creek Trails Loop, Shining Rock Wilderness

Perhaps it seems I’ve been spending quite a bit of time hiking in the eastern section of Shining Rock Wilderness in recent months. I can’t help myself. The terrain is wild, the forests ever-changing, the views exhilarating, and the exercise invigorating. The elevation changes dramatically more than two thousand feet. The air is cool and refreshing even during the summer. It’s enjoyable to follow the wildflower progression from bluets and trillium to catawba rhododendron, to mountain laurel and flame azalea, then white rhododendron, and on to the daisies, bee balm, and lady slippers. The landmarks have names like Old Butt and Dog Loser. These mountains have been here a lot longer than we have, but they keep calling me to explore them. This hike occurred on Thursday, July 7, 2011 beginning at 9:15AM and ending about 3:45PM. Our plan was to start at the Big East Fork parking area, enter Shining Rock Wilderness, and catch the Old Butt Knob Trail up the mountain to Shining Rock Gap. There we would meet the Shining Creek Trail for the return down the mountain to complete the loop.

Hike Length: 7.9 miles Hike Duration: 6.5 hours

Hike Rating: Difficult, strenuous Blaze: No blaze, wilderness

Elevation Gain: 2400 feet Hike Configuration: Loop

Trail Condition: Very good – Old Butt Knob, Rocky – Shining Creek

Starting Point: Big East Fork Trailhead on Hwy. 276

Trail Traffic: We saw three other hikers and one camper.

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. Continue down Hwy. 276 another 2.8 miles to the Big East Fork trailhead on the left side of the road.

View Old Butt Knob and Shining Creek Trails Loop, Shining Rock Wilderness in a larger map

This is a beautiful hike! This is also a very strenuous hike, so you better check your conditioning. The combination of the two made for a day of great fun and enjoyment. The first half mile from Big East Fork is along the East Fork of the Pigeon River. As the trail begins to climb it is important to look for the Old Butt Knob Trail on the right. It is easy to miss. There is a small cairn there to mark the turn, but it is quite easy to walk right on by. Straight ahead takes you on the Shining Creek Trail, the return trail when doing the loop counterclockwise like my friend and I did. Once on the Old Butt Knob Trail, it begins climbing immediately up Chestnut Ridge. It goes up 1500 feet in the next half mile. Pause to ponder that for a moment.

The farther I climbed up Chestnut Ridge, the more amazed I was at how well the Old Butt Knob Trail is maintained. This is a very hard trail. I can’t imagine it gets a whole lot of traffic to keep the pathway clear. So the volunteers who take care of this trail are to be commended. It is not only beautiful, but it is a joy to hike. The lower section is mostly hardwood forest. After about 700 feet of climbing the black balsams begin to appear. If you’ve never been in a black balsam forest, these fir trees are stunning. Almost always full and hearty, they also smell wonderful. It definitely helped take my mind off the burning in my legs and lungs.

Be sure to watch for the occasional small trail off to the left that goes out to a rocky overlook along the ridge. The first is perhaps 1/2 mile up and offers a view of Bearpen Ridge across the way. The trail is a little less steep the rest of the climb, only 700 feet in a mile. We found another side trail that took us to yet another rocky outcropping. There was a great place to have a seat and enjoy our lunch. From here we could see the summit of Old Butt Knob northwesterly to our right, then see the dip into Spanish Oak Gap, and then another steep climb up Dog Loser Knob. I loved the way we could see the upcoming terrain so we would know what to expect. Down below us to the south was the drainage of Daniels Cove, and directly in front of us to the southwest was Bearpen Ridge. It is quite identifiable because of the abrupt cliff that ends the ridge.

Lunch gave us enough energy to get through the next stretch of climbing to the top of Old Butt Knob. Once again the forest changed. The ground was grassy and we were treated to summer thistle alongside the trail. At 5600 feet we reached the summit of Old Butt Knob and began to see campsites and other small clearings. The fir and pine filled the visual and olfactory senses. It seemed as if the forest changed around every corner. We commented to each other several times how beautiful this trail was, and it just kept getting better and better. Despite being really sweaty and breathing very hard from all the climbing, I was thinking more about the abundant beauty that surrounded me that I was about fatigue.

Old Butt Knob SummitAbout the only way to know you’ve reached Old Butt Knob summit is because the trail stops climbing and gets flat for awhile. There really isn’t a viewing area on top, but there are a few terrific wilderness campsites. The trail volunteers have done a great job of removing fire rings, so even the campsites look as natural as can be. There are nice level sites where you can pitch your tent right under a rhododendron or laurel thicket to get shelter from the wind and rain.

The trail actually dips for the next 1/4 mile or so as it drops into Spanish Oak Gap. And yes, the forest changes again to a brotherly mix of oak and pine. They grow side by side and wage friendly battle for the wealth of sunshine that bathes the ridge. It’s not long, though, before the climbing resumes and you have to recover the elevation lost in the gap. The trail enters an immense laurel thicket that helps one understand where this area got its name, Dog Loser Knob. If your dog wandered off into the laurels, you would probably never see it again. Just a word of advice. Do not go off trail in this area.

There is a great reward for the climb. At the summit of Dog Loser Knob there is another of those side trails to the left that opened up the entire expanse of the southerly Shining Rock Wilderness before us. To the southeast we could see the twin peaks of Sam Knob, with Black Balsam Knob just to its left. Straight ahead to the south is Grassy Cove Ridge, talked about in a hike a few weeks ago. Back to the east, on our left, we could see the fire tower on Fryingpan Mountain and Mt. Pisgah beyond. This is simply another fabulous vantage point on this splendid hike.

The rest of the Old Butt Knob Trail to Shining Rock Gap is flat and smooth sailing. We could tell we were getting close to Shining Rock when we began seeing small quartz stones along the side of the trail. Then suddenly the stones became boulders, and there we were. We climbed the Shining Rock Pinnacle again just to see how the foliage had changed since our last visit just a month before. The rhododendron was no longer in bloom and the greens were a darker shade, but it was nice to see The Narrows again and Cold Mountain. I love this area.

Shining CreekAfter scrambling back down off Shining Rock we had to find the Shining Creek Trail for our return hike to Big East Fork. Shining Rock Gap is a major trail junction. The Art Loeb comes here. The Ivestor Gap comes here. And the Old Butt Knob and Shining Creek Trails come here. They all meet in a small clearing with a sort of wagon wheel effect. It’s good to have a compass. Remember there are no trail signs or blaze markings in the wilderness.The Shining Creek Trail goes east. We encountered a lone camper as we started out Shining Creek. He seemed quite wary of us and didn’t have anything to say except to nod at our existence. A couple hundred yards up the trail, it takes a sharp left turn down some small log steps and begins a steep descent. This is another place where it would be easy to get lost. The natural inclination is to go straight, but the Shining Creek Trail drops down to the left.

As good as the Old Butt Knob Trail was, Shining Creek was a rude awakening. Suddenly the trail was very rocky and rooty, and wet. Runoff tends to use the trail, so there were lots of puddles and lots of mud. The trail is considerably narrower as well as curvier. There are a number of switchbacks. I slipped twice and even went down on my butt on one occasion. You could say I had an old butt knob… ok, maybe not. Like the Old Butt Knob Trail, Shining Creek is also a very hard trail, but for an entirely different reason. The good news was we were treated to an eyeful of wildflowers. We saw red, purple and white bee balm. We passed daisies, black-eyed susans and lady slippers.

After the first half mile of very steep descent, the trail picks up Shining Creek and follows it all the way to Big East Fork. The creek takes quite the journey down more than 2000 feet to the Pigeon River. There are a number of small waterfalls along the way. We happened to catch peak white rhododendron bloom time along the creek. There was literally a wall of white flowers that followed the creek the whole way down, quite a remarkable scene. As the creek, and the trail, finally reached flat ground there were a couple of relatively easy creek crossings. Once again, I had to prove I am a Meanderthal. There was a grapevine hanging right over the trail. I tested it for strength, seemed securely fastened up top, and said what the heck. I climbed the hill and swung out over the creek and screamed, “Weeeeee!!!” Yes, I am 58, not 5.

The last mile and a half of the Shining Creek Trail is flat, and as it would turn out, wet. We suddenly got dumped on. We rushed for the nearest rhododendron thicket to get out our rain gear and quickly covered up. The last 20 minutes of our hike was done in a downpour. We met three other hikers in this stretch who were just beginning their climb up into the wilderness for some overnight camping. I’m afraid they were in for a long, wet night. There is one last downhill section just before the trailhead that we had to take quite gingerly to avoid sliding to the car.

Best HikeYou will notice up top that this hike took 6.5 hours to complete despite being less than 8 miles in length. Sure we stopped for lunch, and pictures, but we also stopped for a number of breathers. Simply put, this is a very strenuous hike whether you take the loop counterclockwise as we did, or go the other way. It is going to be hard no matter what. But, it is extremely rewarding. The sense of accomplishment is paramount. The natural beauty of the wilderness is breathtaking. Even though the Shining Creek Trail was a little rough, the Old Butt Knob Trail was in such good shape that it was a total delight to experience. I will definitely do this hike again during a different season. I rate this as a best hike, and highly recommend it to anyone who has the stamina.



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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  1. Eddie Leach

    My buddy, Ken, and I began this hike a couple of years ago up Shining Creek Trail (CCW) and after pushing and pulling our way through many thickets, we reached a rather steep decline to a stream bed below. As we couldn’t see any evidence of previous foot traffic and were already beat, we decided to retreat. We took a game/runnoff trail up and around most of the thick stuff along the river and finally rejoined the main trail for an easier walk back to the car. I’d love to do this loop some day, but time is flying by. Too many trails, not enough time. Also, Ken has pretty much given it up, so I’ve got to break in a new hiking partner.

  2. I’ve been wanting to hike in the Shining Rock Wilderness for a while now, but it’s a bit of a drive for us; do you feel like the views/trail make this hike worth the mileage? I’m always so tempted to default to hiking the Gorge or Blue Ridge Parkway instead. 🙂

    • Hi Lori Beth. This is an outstanding hike. It is one of my new favorites here in the Pisgah National Forest area. The views of the Black Balsam and Graveyard Fields areas are stunning. You can also see Mt. Pisgah and the mountains along the Pisgah Ridge from the other direction. The Old Butt Knob Trail side of the loop is in excellent condition, but is truly a hard, steep climb. The Shining Creek side of the loop is rockier and rootier, but more of a gradual grade.

      I understand about the long drive, but in my opinion, it’s well worth the effort. If you can camp overnight, then you could combine it with another day hike in the Shining Rock Wilderness, and make it definitely worth the drive.

  3. Wmbii8204

    Jeff Clark, thanks for a wonderfully updated description of the Old Butt Knob Trail.  Yes, it is a FAVORITE hike.  I also favor the counterclockwise loop, and have recommended it to others.  It can be hard to hang on to the Shining Creek Trail as the various tributaries peter out going up and the rocky nature makes it hard to follow up.  Route-finding on the way down is much easier.  Appreciated your wildflower assessment!  Was on Old Butt Knob 4 days ago and saw my first fresh bear scat of the season.  

  4. Ward Kellett

    Dang Meanderthal Man,
    You are a great writer! I really enjoyed your take on this trail. I plan on going up Shining Creek and back down Old Butt Knob trails this weekend. I have done Shining Creek but never Old Butt Knob Trail. Our plan is to leave from the parking area Saturday morning and spend the night “on top” and come back down Sunday. I’m a 61 year old codger with not so good knees and ankles. What do you think; taking on too much? My thoughts are we can take it slow, maybe as much as four or more hours on Saturday and the same on Sunday with plenty of rest in between.
    Thanks again for your website, glad I happened across it!
    Ward Kellett, Fountain Inn, SC

    • Thank you for the kind words Ward.

      I am but 2 short years younger than you, so yes, you should be able to handle this hike. Obviously I don’t know anything about your physical conditioning, but you sound like an outdoorsman, so if you pace yourself and respect the mountain and the wilderness you will do fine. Come back here and let us know how your did when you get back.

  5. I agree with one of the other folks who made a comment, you’re an excellent writer and should probably write a book!

    I’ve decided I have to try this trail, I’ll just start early and take my time. My biggest concern is the sketchiness of the Shining Creek section of trail. I do a decent job of identifying what’s a trail and what’s not when the trail isn’t well marked but that’s in my home state of Indiana. Does the trail actually disappear for a time and take some searching around to pick it back up?
    Should I instead to an in and out on the Old Butt Knob section and if I do, will I miss the big trees?

    • Hello Leslie, you’re too kind.

      It isn’t that the Shining Creek Trail is hard to follow, it’s just rockier and rootier than the Old Butt side of the loop. I wouldn’t be concerned with losing the trail, although I highly recommend you have a map and compass. I always recommend that no matter what. There is a lot of beautiful scenery along the creek, including old trees, so don’t deprive yourself of Shining Creek.

      • I tried this hike last week (May 22) and sure enough, passed right by the Old Butt Knob trail. I didn’t think I had the stamina that day to do the whole loop so my plan was to reach Old Butt Knob and then come back down but I ended up on the Shining Creek trail and by the time I realized my mistake I had already hiked a ways so decided to forge ahead.
        Shining Creek is a beautiful trail, lots of wild flowers, several creek crossings and small waterfalls, and the creek, which is on the left most of the way up, has a lot of lovely cascades. Most of the creek crossings were a breeze but there were a couple that I had to take my time picking my way across. I found the trail challenging to follow in places as there were trails leading down to campsites by the creek plus parts of the last third of the trail look like semi-dry stream beds coming down the adjacent slope but it really is the trail. The last third is incredibly steep in most places, too. I had to really watch my footing; I even fell once, flat on my face, from my toe catching a sharp rock.Once at the top, the Shining Creek trail merges with the Art Loeb and heads north for about 30 or 40 yards before entering the clearing or “wagon wheel”. I had planned to hike back down by the Old Butt Knob trail and I’m pretty sure I found it once I hiked past Shining Rock but I wasn’t 100% sure plus I started getting claustrophobic from the thick laurels on either side of the trail and it became cloudy so I knew I wouldn’t be able to see any views from Old Butt Knob so I turned around and went back down the Shining Creek trail. I definitely plan on doing the whole loop at some point, though :)When I got back down I saw where I had made my mistake in passing the Old Butt Knob trail. From the trail head at the Big Fork parking lot, the Shining Creek and Old Butt Knob share about the first 3/4 mile of trail. However, before they actually diverge, there is a split in the trail at about 1/3 mile, one section goes straight and one section heads uphill to the right. I had assumed that this first split was the split between the Shining Creek and Old Butt Knob trails but in fact the Shining Creek and Old Butt Knob are still the same trail until the second split at 3/4 mile; the trail that goes straight at that first split (1/3 mile) is an abandoned trail leading to the Big East Fork trail. At 3/4 mile the Old Butt Knob trail again heads uphill to the right but the Shining Creek is relatively flat and continues straight ahead. I should have realized my mistake more quickly than I did because from all the descriptions I’d read the first 1/2 mile of Old Butt Knob is very steep and while that first right hand uphill divergence was steep, it was no where close to a 1/2 mile in length and didn’t seem as steep as people had described. Oh well, lesson learned and next time I try it I’ll be an expert, lol!

  6. I’ve hiked the Sining Creek section of the trail, but I end up turning around after a couple of hours. It’s definitely a strenuous hike. Today I wanted to hike the Old Butt section, but I missed it again. I scoured the trail on the way back and still couldn’t find it. There is a fork in the trail where I always go right, but this is still Shining Creek trail. It runs right alongside the creek most of the way. What happens if you go left at that fork? Anyway, this is a fabulous description of the hike. I’m going to try again next week and see if I can do the who hike.

    • Brian Welsch

      Early on the trail forks left (about 0.5 miles from parking lot), I believe this goes to Big East Fork Trail. Staying right is the right way. The trail takes a sharp right turn at about 0.7 miles. About 50 yards or so on the right side, just as the trail dips back down briefly, there is a trail heading up. There is a cairn, though it may covered in leaves or toppled over. Good luck! It’s well worth finding. It’s a tough loop coming back down Shining Creek, as Jeff wrote, but it’s a beautiful area.

  7. Great post! We’re thinking about doing this same loop soon. I saw in another post that you have hiked the Art Loeb Trail from Gloucester Gap to Pilot Mountain and then back down on the dirt road. How would you compare that hike in steepness/exertion to this one? I know this one is longer, but it would be nice to know how the 2 compare from a physical fitness standpoint since we did Pilot Mountain but were really out of breath during the climb to the summit and had to take a lot of breaks.

    • Hi Scott. The Pilot Mountain climb is a tough hike, but this one requires even more exertion. Start early and take your time. There are plenty of great spots on the way up to stop for a breather and get a terrific view. The rewards along the way, and at the top are well worth the physical exertion.

      • Thanks for the info Jeff! We’ll be prepared for a Butt (Knob) kicking then. We’ll try to get started early too since it gets dark so early now. Thanks! I’ve hiked the Art Loeb Trail from the Black Balsam parking area up to the Shining Rock summit area so it will be nice to revisit that area via a different trail.

  8. wmbii

    Did this loop again today in 4 hours – a workout. When the leaves are not yet out, it is a treat to be able to see the topography and the beautiful falls. Crossed 42 tributaries to the Shining Creek on the way down. Fantastic and earns the “best hike” moniker!

  9. I took this hike basically two days after I read about it on this great blog and began doing more research. I live up North near Cincinnati but was planning a visit to the area and wanted to get in on some real good hiking. I’d say I’m an intermediate hiker. I’ve backpacked trough some regions in Canada and hiked just about all the parks in southwestern Ohio. This hike was unbelievably gorgeous and extremely challenging – especially since I idiotically brought a heavy pack. None the less, what a beautiful hike. It was very exciting to get up and start seeing beyond the mountain tops to other ranges from the rocky lookouts Jeff describes along Old Butt, which is up up up. By the time I arrived at the trail junction I was so exhausted I only had enough energy and time for lunch and to make it out with daylight. Very rocky coming down Shining Creek, as described. Totally gorgeous though. I wish I had a couple weeks to backpack across the area along some of the other trails. Anyways, this is a very tough hike – there’s no doubt about that, but it’s worth it. Next time I hike the area, I plan on taking my time and possibly doing some camping along the way.

    The whole loop took me 5.5 hours with some rests and lunch

    A couple tips – When hiking in on the trailhead, you see the river to your left. The trailhead takes you away from it, you cross a tiny stream and eventually you can just start to hear the river again. This is about where Old Butt branches off to the right. Right when you begin to hear the river (or creek) again. Old Butt Knob seems find-able if you’re paying attention. Also – I took this hike near Spring which may make a difference.

    At the trail junction at the top, Shining Creek is marked with four wooden log steps right where it joins the area.

    Cheers to all, and happy hiking!

  10. Brad Grant

    Very nice. Love your site. Thanks for the write-ups and pictures and keep up the good work!

  11. SpudX

    Me and the better half did this loop counterclockwise on 10/5/13. Beautiful day, and a beautiful trail. The chestnut leaves were golden and others were beginning to turn. Thanks for providing such a clear description; we would have never picked up cairn for Old Butt or the steps for Shining Creek trails without your guidance. To anyone thinking about taking this route in low light conditions, take care. I imagine it gets dark fairly early in the day down in the Shining Creek gorge during the shorter days of the year.

  12. Michael Marshall

    I definitely agree that this is a Best Hike. Your description of the route and it’s features are spot on. This trail is no doubt one of the most diverse trails I have run across in NC. True it is a great work out but not overwhelming at all. I found the descent to be harder on my legs then the ascent (maybe because the old legs were a bit tired from the ascent?). If it is a stretch to get to the trail, as it is for me, I camped and did another trail the next day. Plenty of awesome trails in all directions from there. I definitely recommend it to anyone who loves to hike! I think this loop has grown in popularity as it is well open and easy to follow. Have fun and enjoy the views and the work out!

  13. Susan

    We did this amazing hike 2 days ago with blue skies for long range views. Trillium, Jack-in-the Pulpits, Dutchman’s Breeches, Bluets, and 3 colors of Violets were some of the numerous spring flowers to brighten our trail. We read through all the helpful description and comments to mentally familiarize ourselves; before heading out to Shining Rock Wilderness, where no colored trail blazes would be to help guide us. The counter clock-wise climb was our choice, to hit the hardest section first. Many small rests were taken to let the heart beat calm down. This was definitely strenuous being rocky, rugged and steep. Views off the side trails were breathtaking and a few bright, white flowering trees stood out across the valley on the far ridge.

    After figuring we passed Old Butt Knob, Dog Loser and Beech Spring Gap, there was a point where we were scratching our heads though, because at least 3 side trails came in and it got a little confusing; despite the use of a compass. We hiked further coming to the shining rock area, which had some of the most beautiful quartz we’d ever seen. After that point there were 2 more side trails on the back left of us….we were beginning to wonder if we were on the correct trail heading down. Shortly after, we saw the sign that pointed to the direction of “Cold Mtn” [the area they call the wagon wheel] and that helped us get our bearings again. I think it is note worthy to also mention that minutes after that sign is a second one that pointed to “Shining Creek Trail” and how far you have left to go to the parking lot. Hiked on a Tuesday and saw no other hikers.

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