Friday, June 28, 2013

Pisgah National Forest: Devil’s Courthouse Loop (Blog Hike #394)

Trails: Devil’s Courthouse, Mountains-to-Sea, Flat Laurel Creek, and Little Sam Knob Trails
Hike Location: Pisgah National Forest: Devil’s Courthouse
Geographic Location: southeast of WaynesvilleNC
Length: 6.9 miles
Difficulty: 8/10 (Moderate/Difficult)
Last Hiked: August 2012
Overview: A high-elevation backcountry semi-loop featuring spectacular views from Devil’s Courthouse.

Directions to the trailhead: The trailhead is located on the Blue Ridge Parkway at the Devil’s Courthouse parking area, mile marker 422.4.  This mile marker is located 0.9 miles north of SR 215 in North Carolina.

The hike: Located on the Blue Ridge Parkway about an hour south of Asheville, Devil’s Courthouse is a large, dark rock outcrop that towers more than 250 feet above the Parkway.  The rock’s dark, sinister appearance gave rise to the legend that the devil holds court inside the rock, hence the outcrop’s name.  In spite of the name, the outcrop is also an object of beauty, as some people think the view from the top of Devil’s Courthouse is the best view on the entire Parkway.  You will have to climb to the top to see if you agree.
            The overlook atop the rock is reached by a fairly steep 0.8-mile trail.  The trail to the overlook is paved with blacktop or gravel for its entire length, and it receives fairly heavy traffic even on weekdays.  To get away from the crowds and have more of a true hiking experience, I recommend combining the overlook trail with an adjoining 6.1 mile loop in Pisgah National Forest as described here.  Parts of this route use very narrow trail, so I recommend pants instead of shorts for this hike.  Also, keep in mind that this entire hike is above 5000 feet in elevation.  The elevation keeps this area cool even in the summer, but you may find yourself getting winded more quickly than usual.  It took me a shade over 5 hours to complete this hike.
            The views begin at the parking area, where an eastward-looking viewpoint gives views as far as South Carolina.  Devil’s Courthouse towers above you to the left, and you can see the overlook at the top of the rock.  To reach the overlook, pick up the signed asphalt trail that heads north parallel to the Parkway.
Devil's Courthouse, as seen from parking area
            The trail climbs very gradually until it curves right to leave the Parkway’s shoulder and begin the climb in earnest.  Notice the Parkway tunnel just past this point and keep it in mind for later in the hike.  The asphalt trail now climbs steeply with some waterbars built into the pavement.  Benches placed beside the trail allow opportunity to catch your breath, if needed.
            At 0.2 miles, the trail curves sharply right where the pavement ends.  The narrow gravel trail exiting left here leads to the loop portion of this hike, but for now turn right to remain on the wide trail to the overlook.  The trail continues climbing, sometimes on graded gravel path and sometimes on stone steps.
            At 0.4 miles, you reach the overlook atop Devil’s Courthouse.  On a clear day, this is a four-state view.  You can see Snowbird Mountain in Tennessee to the northwest, Rabun Bald in Georgia to the southwest, Caesars Head in South Carolina to the southeast, and many closer mountains in North Carolina.  Interpretive plaques help you identify significant peaks.  At just over 5700 feet, Devil’s Courthouse is the highest point on this hike, so take some time to enjoy the view in all directions.
View south from Devil's Courthouse
            After you have savored the view, reverse course down the overlook trail.  Where the blacktop trail exits to the left for the parking area, continue straight to leave the congested overlook trail and begin a much less-used spur of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail.  The narrow trail crosses the Parkway tunnel you saw earlier and descends slightly to intersect the Mountains-to-Sea Trail 0.7 miles into the hike.  This intersection forms the loop portion of this hike.  To hike the steeper sections downhill, this description will turn left here and use the right trail as the return route.
            At nearly 1000 miles long, the Mountains-to-Sea Trail is North Carolina’s primary east-west footpath.  The trail starts at Great Smoky Mountains National Park in the west, roughly follows the Parkway northeast to Virginia, then turns right to head through the Greensboro and Raleigh-Durham areas before concluding at Jockey Ridge State Park on Cape Hatteras in the east.  Many sections of the trail in the central part of the state follow rural roads, but most national forest sections use single-track dirt paths.  New trail sections get built regularly, so keep an eye on the Friends of the Mountains to Sea Trail website for updates.
Intersecting the Mountains-to-Sea Trail
            For the next mile the narrow trail undulates gently as it heads west and crosses some wet areas on wooden beams built into the trail.  Trees normally found at much higher latitudes such as yellow birch and fir grow abundantly here, but their height is limited by the shallow soil.  The scenery alternates between grassy/shrubby areas and dense pine/birch forest.  Near 0.9 miles, you pass through the upper end of what appears to be a pine planting.
1.2 miles into the hike, your first view west emerges as you cross the top of a rocky outcrop.  The ribbon of asphalt you see curving below is SR 215, the ultimate destination of this trail segment.  Past the lookout, the descent steepens as you pass around a grey rock outcrop.  Notice the lichens living on the side of the rock here.
Lichens on rock outcrop
            The descent continues, and at 1.5 miles you reach a small creek.  Pine trees of various types grow abundantly around this creek.  A rickety bridge consisting of two logs and a handrail crosses the creek, but it might be easier to rockhop the creek just below the bridge.  Across the creek, the trail curves right and heads steeply downhill into a dense mountain laurel grove while paralleling the creek.  The white paint blazes of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail come in handy here, as several wild trails exit in other directions.
Log bridge over creek
            At 1.9 miles, the Mountains-to-Sea Trail intersects paved SR 215.  The Mountains-to-Sea Trail crosses the road and continues west to the Smoky Mountains, but this hike turns right to begin the 0.3 mile road walk required to reach the Flat Laurel Creek Trail.  This road receives rather light traffic due to its location in a rugged mountain area.  Nevertheless, on all road walks you should walk on the left side of the road, facing traffic.
2.2 miles into the hike, the Flat Laurel Creek Trail exits SR 215 on the right as a two-track gravel road.  Turn right to begin the Flat Laurel Creek Trail.  The trail descends to pass a campsite and then curves right to pass a carsonite post that marks the trailhead for this trail.  Some rocks near the campsite make nice but sunny places to sit and rest near the midpoint of this hike.
Past the campsite, the trail descends slightly more before crossing Spring Branch.  A log placed across the 10-foot-wide stream might provide a way across, but on my visit in late summer the stream could be rock-hopped easily.  This creek crossing is the lowest elevation on this hike, and on the opposite side the wide single-track gravel trail begins a long, gradual climb that will comprise the next 2 miles of the hike.
Flat Laurel Creek Trail crossing Spring Branch
            At 2.5 miles, the trail crosses a small stream just below a nice cascading waterfall.  The waterfall is only about 10 feet high, but it makes a nice sound as it splashes over the rocks.  3 miles into the hike, the trail crosses a larger stream on a concrete bridge that looks out of place in the middle of the woods.  On the bright side, a tall waterslide about 30-40 feet high lies just upstream, and the bridge gives the perfect vantage point to view the waterslide.
Tall waterslide beside trail
            Past the waterslide, the trail continues climbing, but the grade is never too steep.  As you gain elevation, some views of the mountains to the west open up on the left.  The trail soon begins curving right and heading for a gap between Sam Knob on the left and Little Sam Knob on the right.  Notice the steep, rocky south face of Sam Knob.  About this time Flat Laurel Creek (for which this trail is named) becomes audible downhill to the left.  The creek contains some large cascades, but they are not clearly visible from the trail, and a steep scramble will be required to get a good view.
At 4.9 miles, the Sam Knob Trail exits left to ford Flat Laurel Creek, which is now only a few feet below the trail.  Continue straight to stay on the Flat Laurel Creek Trail.  The now narrower trail still climbs gradually with the creek to the left.
Beginning of Little Sam Knob Trail
5.4 miles into the hike, the Little Sam Knob Trail, our route back to Devil’s Courthouse, exits to the right.  This intersection is marked by a brown carsonite post.  Take a sharp right to begin the final segment of this hike.  After negotiating a couple of wet areas, the narrow trail continues the long gradual climb.  Thick steel cables buried in this trail and the Flat Laurel Creek Trail indicate that these routes have been used by loggers in the past.
At 5.9 miles, the trail reaches the first of several small streams, all of which must be crossed without the aid of bridges.  The largest of these streams is the first one, but it can be rock-hopped under normal water levels.  After climbing the steep south side of the ravine, the narrow trail turns right where some wild trails continue straight.  No blazes can be seen in this area, so take care not to miss this turn.
Creek crossing on Little Sam Knob Trail
            The trail crosses several more shallow ravines with very steep sides.  Careful stepping is required as you descend to and ascend from each of these creek crossings.  On the ridges in between the crossings, views of Devil’s Courthouse straight ahead open up through gaps in the trees.  At 6.4 miles, the trail passes through an established backcountry campsite.  Continue straight on the now overgrown trail, and in short order reach the end of the Little Sam Knob Trail at its intersection with the Mountains-to-Sea Trail.  Turn right on the Mountains-to-Sea Trail.
The Mountains-to-Sea Trail descends gradually through high-elevation pine forest and crosses a couple of wet areas on more wooden beams built into the trail.  6.6 miles into the hike, you close the loop as you reach the spur trail back to Devil’s Courthouse.  A left turn on the spur trail and then a right turn on the paved trail will return you to the parking lot and complete the hike.

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