Saturday, June 22, 2013

Blue Ridge Parkway: Craggy Gardens Trail (Blog Hike #279)

Trail: Craggy Gardens Trail
Hike Location: Blue Ridge Parkway, Craggy Gardens Visitor Center
Geographic Location: northeast of AshevilleNC
Length: 2 miles
Difficulty: 5/10 (Moderate)
Last Hiked: May 2009; trailhead pic taken August 2016
Overview: A high-elevation hike featuring a spectacular southern Appalachian bald.

Directions to the trailhead: The trail can be accessed from either the Craggy Gardens Visitor Center or the Craggy Gardens Picnic Area.  The Visitor Center is located on the Blue Ridge Parkway at milepost 364.4.  The spur road to the picnic area leaves the Parkway at milepost 367.6.  The nearest major Parkway crossroad is US 70 at milepost 382.6, roughly 15 miles south of the picnic area.

The hike: The Blue Ridge Parkway heading north out of Asheville can be characterized by three words: up, up, and up.  Indeed, in roughly 15 miles the Parkway gains over 3000 feet of elevation.  In so doing, it leaves behind the warm, potentially muggy air of Asheville for the cool, crisp air of Craggy Mountain.  Appropriate clothing should be worn to adjust for this change.
            The balds of the Great Smoky Mountains get all the press, but this bald atop Craggy Mountain known as Craggy Gardens takes a back seat to no other.  Even better, while many of the balds in the Smokies require lengthy, rocky hikes to reach, this one can be reached by the relatively short Craggy Gardens Trail.  The trail is not particularly steep, but the high altitude will cause you to get winded more quickly than usual.
            Since the trail connects the Visitor Center with the picnic area and both of these points feature large parking lots, you could start at either end.  The Visitor Center is more convenient because it is located directly on the Parkway, but I suggest you start at the picnic area to get the hardest climb over with first.
Trailhead at Craggy Garden Picnic Area
            The trail starts at the picnic area itself where a wooden sign announces “Craggy Gardens Trail.”  The cross-state Mountains-to-Sea Trail runs conjointly with the Craggy Gardens Trail for most of this hike.  The gravel trail immediately begins climbing as it passes picnic tables on either side.  Shortly after exiting the picnic area, the trail turns to dirt as it intersects an access road which enters from the left.
            The wide dirt trail uses a pair of broad switchbacks to gain elevation before tackling the slope head-on.  Just after this second switchback, you begin to see why this area is called the Craggy Gardens: small rock outcrops appear to the right of the trail.  The forest here consists of numerous small hardwoods, many of which you would normally find further north.  Yellow birch, common in northern Michigan, is a prime example.
Rock outcrops along the trail
            At around 0.3 miles, the forest disappears, replaced by a dense thicket of rhododendron.  This transition marks your entrance to the bald.  Balds look barren from a distance, but in fact they are covered with shrubby plants and grasses.  The gardens really show off when the rhododendron blooms in late June.
Craggy Garden Trail entering the bald
            At 0.5 miles, the trail reaches the picnic shelter that marks the highest point on the main trail.  This shelter offers a great view of the mountains to the west, including the steep, rocky south face of Craggy Pinnacle which towers several hundred feet above you to the north.  Before continuing on the main trail, take the narrow, eroded dirt trail which heads right from the picnic shelter.  This trail climbs gradually to the grassy summit of Craggy Knob.  From this point, spectacular views can be had of Black Mountain and points further south and east.
View east from Craggy Gardens
            Back on the main trail, the trail begins descending through a symmetrically round rhododendron tunnel.  You will see some interpretive signs, but those are best saved for the hike back up.  At 0.8 miles, a small spring spills onto the trail, making the treadway wet and potentially slippery.
            At 0.9 miles, the Douglas Falls Trail exits to the left.  The difficult but rewarding 4 mile Douglas Falls Trail descends steeply to its attractive namesake falls.  Our trail flattens as it hugs the steep hillside, which rises to the right and falls to the left.  Due to the thick rhododendron tunnel, no views are available.
            At 1 mile, the trail reaches the stone retaining wall which supports the parking area at Craggy Garden Visitor Center.  The trail ends at the Visitor Center, so unless you have arranged a car shuttle, you will have to retrace your steps back along the trail to the picnic area.  Don’t try to save time by walking along the Parkway: the shoulder is narrow, and it is a much longer and hillier route.  On the bright side, you can read the interpretive signs as you climb back to the shelter, and the last section going down to the picnic area will be much easier this direction than it was coming up.

No comments:

Post a Comment