An Expert Guide to Hiking in Western North Carolina
Western North Carolina provides a huge variety of trails, views, and options for outdoorsy folks.
Blue Ridge Mountains: the words are enough to make you smile (and possibly start singing John Denver). Sometimes, the Appalachians don’t get the credit they deserve. I get it; if you’re used to the Rockies, the Sierra Nevada, or Southwest Canyon Country, you might hear someone talk about Western North Carolina and think, “Yawn, hiking there is just a green tunnel with the occasional nice views and a lot of humidity.”
However, this doesn’t even begin to do justice to North Carolina’s mountains—although, I will give you the humidity bit. Western North Carolina provides a huge variety of trails, views, and options for outdoorsy folks. Distance views of gorgeous ridges fading into the horizon, the highest concentration of high peaks on the East Coast, and more amazing waterfalls than you could ever hope to visit in a season are some of the draws of Western North Carolina. I’m going to highlight a few of my favorite hiking areas that have trails for all levels of adventure.
Shining Rock Wilderness – Best for High Peaks (and Views)
Shining Rock Wilderness Area and its nearby trailheads provide some of the best opportunities to summit many of North Carolina’s 6,000-foot peaks. Shining Rock, as well as neighboring Middle Prong Wilderness, provides a huge area just off the Blue Ridge Parkway southwest of Asheville, making it easy to access for a quick stop or an extended trip. Throw in some amazing waterfalls and this might just be one of the most picturesque corners of the whole state. Shining Rock and several hikes just outside the wilderness boundary provide great highlights of the best that the Blue Ridge has to offer.
Best Short Hike – Sam Knob Trail
- Location: Sam Knob Trailhead
- Distance: 2.5 miles
- Time to Complete: 1.5 to 2 hours
- Elevation Gain: 630 feet
The Sam Knob Trail hike takes you up to the summit of Sam Knob (6,045 feet) where you can enjoy views of high peaks in all directions. Much of the trail cuts across open fields, so as you approach the summit you can take in the distance views over Middle Prong and Shining Rock Wilderness Areas, including the ridgeline from Black Balsam Knob to Shining Rock that could be your next hike in the area. This hike is short but still gives you a solid climb up to a beautiful peak that will get you excited to explore more of the area right away.
Best Day Hike – Shining Rock via the Art Loeb Trail
- Location: Black Balsam Knob Trailhead
- Distance: 8.9 miles
- Time to Complete: 6 to 8 hours
- Elevation Gain: 2380 feet
Pack some extra snacks for this one, because you’ll be following the Art Loeb Trail up and over four different 6,000-foot peaks before turning around and doing it again. You’ll hit Black Balsam Knob (6,214), Tennent Mountain (6,040), Grassy Cove Top (6,040), and finally Shining Rock (6,040), named for the large, white-quartzite outcrop on its summit. This out-and-back will throw climb after climb at you, but each one rewards you with expansive views over Pisgah National Forest. If you turn this into an overnight trip, camping on Grassy Cove Top, or just before it at Investor Gap, will provide some of the best sunsets and sunrises in Western North Carolina.
Best Multi-Day Hike – Shining Rock Loop
- Location: Big East Fork Trailhead
- Distance: 19.2 miles
- Time to Complete: 2 to 3 days
- Elevation Gain: 4,400 feet
I can’t think of another loop that provides so many classic Blue Ridge highlights like the Shining Rock Loop does, while also fitting perfectly into a weekend. This hike works best if you take two-and-a-half days and start in the afternoon. The Big East Fork Trail follows the East Fork of the Pigeon River, with great campsites along the river for the first few miles hiking in. On day two, you meet up with the Mountains-to-Sea Trail and follow it to Graveyard Fields, where you can stop at a couple of waterfalls along Yellowstone Prong to break up your steady climb. If you have the time, add on 2.2 miles to your day to hit the Upper Falls as well. Otherwise, connect with Graveyard Ridge Trail and continue climbing toward Black Balsam Knob. This is where you get amazing views, as you’ll follow the Art Loeb Trail over Black Balsam Knob, Tennent Mountain, Grassy Cove Top, and finally hit Shining Rock.
It’s best to break this section up by camping at Investor Gap (more popular, but more sheltered from strong winds) or on the summit of Grassy Cove Top (less popular, but a lot windier). On your last day, you’ll summit Shining Rock, and then you have two choices. My preference here is to backtrack a little bit and take Shining Creek Path back to the trailhead. It’s a rough trail but the descent is gentler and gives you a water source. The other option is to continue along the Old Butt Knob Trail (yep, that’s the name), which gives you the incredible chance to brag about hitting the summits of Old Butt Knob AND Dog Loser Knob—truly two of the best-named peaks in North Carolina—before making a steep descent back to the trailhead. If you have an open weekend in Western North Carolina, this is my go-to recommendation.
Great Smoky Mountains – Best for Hikers of All Levels
Great Smoky Mountains National Park (GSMNP) provides exciting opportunities for anyone; whether you’re a new hiker or an ultramarathon runner, the possibilities will impress you. North Carolina’s only national park holds hundreds of miles of trails, including sections of three major long-distance trails: the Appalachian Trail (approximately 2,190 miles between Georgia and Maine), the Mountains-to-Sea Trail (approximately 1,175 miles across North Carolina), and the Benton MacKaye Trail (approximately 300 miles across Georgia, North Carolina, and Tennessee). So whether you’re looking to spend an afternoon hiking with the whole family, or tackle a two-week solo backpacking trip, GSMNP will not disappoint.
Best Short Hike – Andrews Bald
- Location: Clingmans Dome Parking Area
- Distance: 3.4 miles
- Time to Complete: 2 to 3 hours
- Elevation Gain: 820 feet
Clingmans Dome is the highest point in the Smokies at 6,643 feet. After you go up to the peak and stop by the visitor center, you should take the short hike down the Forney Ridge Trail to Andrews Bald. If you’re lucky enough to have clear skies, Andrews Bald has some of the best views over all of the Smokies. If the weather isn’t clear? Well, that’s part of the experience in the Smokies. It is a VERY popular area, so I recommend getting there early or on weekdays to avoid the crowds as much as possible to get the views all to yourself.
Best Day Hike – Gregory Bald
- Location: Gregory Ridge Trailhead
- Distance: 11.6 miles
- Time to Complete: 7 to 10 hours
- Elevation Gain: 3,360 feet
Gregory Bald is on the Tennessee side of the border, but it’s in the Smokies and it’s too good not to talk about, so I included it. Taking the Gregory Ridge Trail, you’ll spend the first part of the climb following Forge Creek before climbing up to the ridgeline. You continue climbing up Gregory Ridge until you meet up with the Gregory Bald Trail right by Little Gregory Bald. Turning right, you’ll finish the climb to the summit of Gregory Bald where you’ll be greeted by an open, grassy summit and panoramic views of the surrounding Smokies.
These views are incredible no matter what time of year you hit the summit, but you should come in mid-to-late June when one of the most impressive displays of wild azaleas anywhere in the world is at its peak bloom. The azaleas on Gregory Bald make it a spectacular hike, but keep in mind that they also make it a popular hike, so an early start is a good idea to avoid the worst of the crowds. Forge Creek Road is closed in the winter, so remember that you’ll need another starting point from November through mid-March.
Best Overnight Hike – Forney Creek Loop
- Location: Clingmans Dome Parking Area
- Distance: 18.6 miles
- Time to Complete: 2 days
- Elevation Gain: 4,580 feet
Starting from Clingmans Dome again, you’ll follow the Forney Ridge Trail to Andrews Bald and then keep going down the ridge. Eventually, this trail becomes the Springhouse Branch Trail as it continues down to the intersection with Forney Creek Trail. You’ll follow Forney Creek Trail back up to Clingmans Dome, stopping at one of the campsites along the way. Don’t forget that all campsites in the park require reservations, so you’ll have to pick out your campsite ahead of time, so keep in mind realistic expectations for days. The Forney Creek Trail has many creek crossings as it climbs its way back up to the ridgeline. A lot of these are shallow, but there’s a good chance you’ll have to get your feet wet at some point in this hike. This trail is inviting as an overnighter since you get to see some of the best views in the park, work hard on a big climb during day two, and enjoy quiet, creekside camping.
Best Multi-Day Hike – BMT/AT North Loop (Great Smoky Mountains Loop)
- Location: Fontana Dam Parking Lot or Big Creek Campground
- Distance: 161 miles
- Time to Complete: 10 to 15 days
- Elevation Gain: 28,000 feet
Maybe you’re poring over the maps of the Smokies and just can’t decide which trail to hike—there are so many highlights you want to hit and trails you want to hike. Why not just hike the whole park? This is a serious undertaking, but if you don’t have the time to tackle the whole Appalachian Trail (AT), you could spend a couple of weeks seeing most of the park. This loop, despite its length, is a pretty simple route: the AT intersects the Benton MacKaye Trail (BMT) at each end of the park, so start at either end and make a big loop using the two trails. In other words, start on either the AT or BMT and return on the other. Seems easy enough, or at least until you remember that this is 161 miles of hiking with lots of climbing up and down ridges. It’s complicated by the fact that you have to have a reservation for each campsite you stay at during the whole trip, so there isn’t much room for falling off schedule during this trip. If you feel up to the physical and logistical challenge of this route, you’ll get an unforgettable adventure in the Smokies.
Linville Gorge – Best for a Challenge
Linville Gorge Wilderness Area protects one of the last old-growth forests in the Blue Ridge Mountains. The long ridges, steep cliffs, and rugged terrain leading down to the Linville River once made the gorge too difficult to ever have industrial logging, and now those same factors make it a great place to play outside and push yourself. That’s not to say there aren’t hikes for the whole family or inexperienced hikers here, but Linville Gorge is not a place to underestimate. Between amazing distance views, options to hike ridgelines or rivers, one of the most memorable sections of the almost 1,200-mile Mountains-to-Sea Trail (MST), and more than a few opportunities to put your outdoors skills to the test, Linville Gorge continues to be one of my absolute favorite places in the state.
Best Short Hike – Table Rock Trail
- Location: Table Rock Trailhead
- Distance: 1.4 miles
- Time to Complete: 1 to 1.5 hours (plus time to enjoy the view)
- Elevation Gain: 540 feet
For this hike, follow the Mountains-to-Sea Trail north for about one-third of a mile before turning right onto the Table Rock Trail and following it the rest of the way to the summit. You’ll come back on the same trail after you’re done enjoying the expansive views over the gorge, seeing Mount Mitchell (the highest point east of the Mississippi) in the distance. While this is a short trail, it has some steep sections, so you do have to work for it, but the views are worth it. The gravel road to the trailhead takes some time to walk, so don’t be afraid to take advantage of great camping sites right by the trailhead parking lot and spend time exploring the other trails nearby.
Best Hike from the Blue Ridge Parkway – Plunge Basin Overlook Trail
- Location: Linville Falls Visitor Center
- Distance: 1.0 mile
- Time to Complete: 45 minutes to 1 hour
- Elevation Gain: 360 feet
Right from the Blue Ridge Parkway you can reach Linville Falls, one of North Carolina’s most famous waterfalls. From the parking lot, follow the Plunge Basin Trail for one-third of a mile, then keep right to head toward Plunge Basin Overlook. The last descent to the overlook is pretty steep and slow, but you’ll find yourself face-to-face with the waterfall that marks the beginning of Linville Gorge. You can head back out the way you came, or there are several other short trails in this area that lead to other overlooks and to the river itself. If you have extra time, explore the other trails around the falls, which lead to other overlooks and down to the river. This is one of my favorite quick stops along the Parkway when I’m with friends or family because you can easily stretch your legs and see one of the state’s most beautiful waterfalls or spend some time enjoying lunch by the river.
Best Day Hike – Shortoff Mountain
- Location: Wolf Pit Trailhead
- Distance: 4.5 miles
- Time to Complete: 3 to 4 hours
- Elevation Gain: 1260 feet
While Linville Falls makes up the north end of the gorge, Shortoff Mountain is the south end. Follow the Wolf Pit Trail until it reaches the Mountains-to-Sea Trail (MST), which you’ll follow north until you reach Shortoff Mountain. It provides open views as well as amazing campsites if you don’t want to stop at one day of adventure. This is where the distance and elevation become a little more relative. If you turn around here you have an awesomely-satisfying 4.5-mile hike, BUT if you’re feeling up to it, you can keep following the MST along the ridgeline to take in the “gorge-ous” views—sorry, I had to get that pun in at least once. If you’re looking for a big day, you can even follow this trail to the Chimneys, a series of cliffs popular for rock climbing, for a total of 12.4 miles on the day. You can also reach these areas from the Table Rock Trailhead, but starting at Wolf Pit gives you most of the uphill on the way there, not the way back.
Best Multi-Day Hike – Linville Gorge Loop
- Location: Table Rock Trailhead
- Distance: 19.4 miles
- Time to Complete: 2 to 4 days
- Elevation Gain: 4,900 feet
The Linville Gorge Loop is the hike that makes Linville Gorge famous (or infamous, depending on your perspective). Head north from the trailhead on the Mountains-to-Sea Trail (MST), but instead of taking the trail on the right to the Table Rock summit, you’ll take a left onto Little Table Rock Trail that runs downhill into Spence Ridge Trail, which you will follow to the river. The Linville River crossings are no joke. Looking up the river levels before your trip is a good idea, since it’s pretty likely you’ll be swimming across.
The Linville Gorge Trail will take you south alongside the river, with plenty of campsites to choose from the whole way. You’ll meet back up with the MST and follow it north as it crosses the river again and starts climbing toward Shortoff Mountain, then continue past the Chimneys to the Table Rock parking lot. There is a lot to this hike: tough climbs, big river crossings, and trails that can be difficult to find and follow. If you ask North Carolina hikers to tell you their craziest stories about their hardest hikes, there’s a good chance they’ll tell you about a time they did this hike. Tackling this trail requires preparation, but the challenge provides a lot of rewards. You can alter this route by following the loop clockwise, starting from Wolf Pit Trailhead, or adding on a summit of Table Rock to cap off your efforts.
One thing you’ll find out when you talk to hikers in North Carolina is that everyone has their favorite hidden gems. Some of my friends might even be disappointed to see their favorites left off my list, but that just highlights how much there is to explore in Western North Carolina. If you go through this list and are hungry for more of the Blue Ridge Mountains, some great spots to check out next are Mount Mitchell State Park, Southern Nantahala Wilderness, Roan Mountain, and Grandfather Mountain State Park. Each of these places has options for an afternoon, a day, or a weekend. Western North Carolina has a lot to offer for any adventurer, so my biggest recommendation is to simply get out there and start exploring the many waterfalls, peaks, rivers, and forests of the North Carolina High Country.
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