Archive for the ‘Moderate Day Hikes’ Category

When we shared our first experience on Three Top Mountain in July of this year, it was an unfortunately stormy day and we were chased off the summit by wind and lightening far too soon.  But in spite of the storm’s best efforts, we realized that it was a place worth returning to, especially in the fall when the autumn leaves begin their annual transformation that is so irresistibly beautiful.

As we have already shared our previous (and rather rainy) adventure on Three Top with you, the purpose of this post is not to swap trail-tales, but to instead share the autumnal views from the top.  Even though the lens of a camera can never capture what it’s truly like to experience fall in Appalachia, it can perhaps inspire you to lace up your boots and to go hunting for that perfect autumn trail.

(For information on hiking Three Top, please refer to our original post below.)

View toward Creston, NC; Mountain Ash in foreground

Eastern view from summit

Eastern view; Mountain Ash in foreground

At the top, you can follow this rock outcropping toward an "unofficial" (and dangerous) trail that leads to the outermost edges of the peak. I don't advise doing it, but know some that have!

Southern view from summit

View toward Elk Knob & Snake Mtn.

Soapwort (or Appalachian) Gentian found along trail during autumn months

Hike it:  For additional information on hiking Three Top, please visit our original blog post:  Three Top

Entry by Lori Beth

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The Shortoff Trail on the south rim of the Linville Gorge begins just north of Lake James, the placid endpoint of the wild Linville River.

We ascended through brush and scrappy trees just recovering from the 2007 fire that swept across Shortoff Mountain.  While desolate, the landscape is still varied and interesting, and offers a great case study for the aftereffects of a forest fire.  Plenty of pines and a few hardy deciduous trees have broken through the scorched soil to stake their claims.  The trail itself is somewhat eroded, but easily divined.  In the hot, sandy soil, we saw many lizards and toads basking and looking for prey (or waiting to become prey).

Shortoff Mtn. Trail

The initial stages of the trail will give you great views of Lake James to the south; as you ascend you’ll begin to see glimpses of the gorge’s southern end.  It only takes about a mile and a half of fairly easy hiking to reach a point where you can look out to the jagged rock faces that make the Linville Gorge so unique.

View toward Lake James

View toward north end of Gorge (rock on right side is frequented by climbers)

Eventually, we came to a promontory that gave perfect views toward Table Rock and Hawksbill.  This trail offers a unique and seldom-seen perspective on the two great massifs of the Gorge. While the West rim has a dedicated road with trails descending into the gorge, the East rim offers a trail that mostly follows the ridgeline—this gives you the chance to see the gorge from an elevated position.

View north toward Table Rock & Hawksbill

View toward Table Rock

Northward view from trail

Hike it: Like every hike in the Linville Gorge, The Shortoff Mtn. Trail is not easy, but it is still quite accessible and well worth your time.  If you’re up for a multi-day adventure, this trail will eventually take you all the way to Table Rock.

  • Length: 4.4 miles
  • Duration: 3-4 hrs.
  • Difficulty: Moderate-Difficult
  • Hike Configuration: There and back
  • Blaze: Mountains to Sea (white blaze) for first part; no blaze after that
  • Condition: Rugged
  • Trailhead: Small gravel parking area at end of Wolf Pit Rd.
  • Traffic: Light
  • Directions: 1.) From Boone, your best line is to take NC 105 to Linville, then turn onto NC 181 South. 2.) Once you’re down the mountain, look for Rose Creek Road to your right. 3.) Follow Rose Creek until it terminates at Fish Hatchery Road and take a right. 4.) This road will end at NC 126; take a right and follow 126 for about a mile until you see Wolf Pit Road on your right. 5.) Follow this road to its terminus at the trailhead.

From points south (Marion and Morganton), simply connect to NC 126 (if you’re coming from Marion, Wolf Pit Road will be on your left; from the east, you’ll find it on the right).

Additional Resources:  The Linville Gorge & Tips on Linville Gorge

Entry by Charles

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Three Top Mountain is not a place often mentioned in guidebooks for understandable reasons—it’s completely segregated from the common tourist corridors, and even though its paths are well-trodden, its total isolation from humanity can be disconcerting to even seasoned hikers.

From the parking area (see directions below), you’ll have a two mile trek to the summit on a former ATV trail.  In practice, it feels like more than two miles, since you’re walking uphill the entire way.  Most of the trail is obvious, but at some intersections you’ll have to intuit the proper route.  Fortunately, we found this was easily accomplished so long as we kept heading uphill.

Lori Beth and I chose an unfortunately stormy day to hike and as a result, were completely alone on the trail.  Our solitude was welcome as we spotted wildflowers and bright orange lizards, but it became somewhat less welcome when we discovered a substantial bear paw print in the fresh mud. Solitude, however, was what we were looking for and with many a bear-cry (my wife affects this with a piercing “WHOOP!” that can be heard by every bear in a ten-mile radius), we trekked onward and upward.

Above: a comely Carolina Lily

Above: bright red lizard

Above: bear paw print along first part of trail

As you near the top, the trail becomes much thinner, but there is still a well-trodden path to follow.  The summit you reach offers incredible views—some of the best in the High Country.  Unfortunately, a storm was vectored directly toward us from the south, and we could spend only a few minutes at the top.

Above: view toward Creston

Above: view toward Elk Knob–which we stopped to hike on the way home so we could look back toward Three Top!

Hike it:  Three Top is a hike few folks know about.  This alone makes it well worth the visit as it’s isolated and the chances of you hiking alone are fairly good.  If you choose to go during the hunting season, do be sure to wear bright colors and remember that you’re on game lands.  If you visit Three Top during the winter months, an all-wheel drive vehicle is preferable as the road to the top is short, but dodgy.

  • Length: 2.0 miles
  • Duration: 2 hrs.
  • Difficulty: Strenuous due to elevation gain
  • Hike Configuration: up and down
  • Blaze: None
  • Condition: Former ATV trail, well-maintained
  • Trailhead: Small gravel parking area
  • Traffic: Minimal
  • Directions:

From Boone, you have two possible routes: Meat Camp road to Elk Knob, leading down to NC 88 (then turning right). The other (less curvy) option is to take US 421 to Trade, TN, then take TN 67 which becomes NC 88.

  • At Creston, take the aptly named Three Top Road on your right, cross the river on Eller Road, and continue straight on Hidden Valley Road.  You’ll drive through a subdivision which advertises that it’s “PRIVATE PROPERTY.”  However, Three Top Mountain and its environs are owned by the state of North Carolina as a game preserve, so fear not.
  • If you continue driving and following the NC Wildlife signs, they’ll point you in the right direction (the roads look rough, but my wife’s Camry made it there and back with no ill effects).

Additional Resources: SummitPost.org & Dan Weemhoff

Entry by Charles

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Max Patch.  It’s one of those places you learn about, either in backpacking magazines or from AT hikers who talk about how refreshing it is after miles of endless woods to emerge on such a high, windswept plateau where the sun shines and the grass seems to stretch like Kansas prairie.

After about two weeks of deliberation, my husband and I decide that we just can’t wait any longer before hitting the famous Max Patch.  After a three hour drive, we finally land in the parking lot at the base of the mountain’s grassy foot.  Grabbing our sticks and gear, we head up the trail on the north side of the loop that leads to the mountaintop.

The trail is peppered with tangerine-colored azaleas, and I’m delighted that our hike coincides with the annual bloom.

Above: flame azaleas on loop around Max Patch 

At the summit of Max Patch (which is named after the farmer who cleared the mountain for cattle grazing), we feel like we can see the entire world.  Lolling clouds play with the mountains below, casting shadows whimsically in and out of deep valleys.  Birds soar overhead, and I can see why birders enjoy visiting this area as it’s home to Canada Warblers, Chestnut-sided Warblers, and Goldfinches, just to name a few.

Above: views from Max Patch

After some well-deserved gawking, Charles and I leave the loop and head south down the Appalachian Trail toward Brown Gap.

This is classic AT terrain—sylvan glades, decaying trillium, and a well-trodden footpath.  Along the way, we spot a turkey vulture as well as a coopers hawk flying low through the trees.  The presence of the birds makes the woods seem all the more untamed and my only disappointment is that they’re too quick for my camera.

Above: AT south toward Brown Gap

After about 2.5 miles, we begin what feels like a gradual decent down the mountain toward Brown Gap. (I’ll later learn that the ascent does not feel gradual, but more like a full-scale cardio workout.)  I’m glad I have my hiking stick as it helps me keep my footing as we traverse tree roots and packed leaf litter.  Charles and I are alone the entire time we follow the AT and we savor the solitude, especially since we’re on the most popular hiking trail in the east.

Once at Brown Gap, we linger only long enough to snap a picture of the campsite and to eat a snack of trail mix and salty jerky.

Above: campsite at Brown Gap

After finally making our way back to Max Patch, I’m relieved to see the sunshine on the grassy fields once more.  I tell myself the three hour drive was worth it.  The only downside is that we didn’t bring our overnight packs.  Somehow I feel jealous of all those lucky folks who get to sleep along the AT, under the night’s restless stars.

Hike it:  Want to experience Max Patch?  Here’s how to get there:

  • Head toward Hot Springs, turning south on 209 (there will be signs directing you toward Max Patch)
  • From there, turn right on Meadow Fork road
  • Turn right on Little Creek Road and eventually right on Max Patch road

Charles and I hiked south toward Brown Gap (3.5 miles from Max Patch, there’s a campsite at the gap), but hikers more commonly head north toward Roaring Fork and Lemon Gap.  If you’re down for a real hike, you can go all the way to Hot Springs.

There are numerous campsites in either direction and AT hikers commonly crowd the Roaring Fork shelter during the high season, so bring your tent just in case.  Since this is the AT, the trail is conspicuously marked, so it would be hard to get lost.  In terms of difficulty, the hardest part of this hike was coming back out of Brown gap.

From what I’ve heard, there is no camping on Max Patch as it’s extremely exposed.  As someone who shrivels at the thought of a lightning storm, I can’t say this is a bad idea.

For additional insights and information on Max Patch, please visit the following:

If you’re interesting in birding, you won’t be disappointed with what Max Patch has to offer.  Check out the following sight for detailed information on birding in the area: Wildlife South.

Entry by Lori Beth

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