Thursday, May 7, 2015

Stone Mountain State Park: Stone Mountain Loop and Middle Falls/Lower Falls Trail (Blog Hike #514)

Trails: Stone Mountain Loop and Middle Falls/Lower Falls Trail
Hike Location: Stone Mountain State Park
Geographic Location: northwest of Elkin, NC
Length: 6.3 miles
Difficulty: 9/10 (Difficult)
Last Hiked: April 2015
Overview: A fantastic semi-loop featuring views from Stone Mountain, 3 waterfalls, and a restored homestead.

Directions to the trailhead: 23 miles south of the Virginia state line, take I-77 to US 21 (exit 83).  Exit and enter north on US 21.  Drive US 21 10.7 miles to Traphill Road; there is a brown state park sign at this intersection.  Turn left on Traphill Rd.  Drive Traphill Rd. 4.4 miles to John P. Frank Parkway and turn right on John P. Frank Parkway, which leads into the park.  Park in the signed Lower Trailhead Parking Area, which is located on the left 5.3 miles after turning onto John P. Frank Parkway.

The hike: Far more natural and serene than its more famous touristy cousin in Georgia, North Carolina’s Stone Mountain State Park protects 14,200 acres on and around its namesake mountain.  The park’s centerpiece is its large granite dome that rises 600 feet above the surrounding land.  Geologists call this landform a pluton, or a block of igneous rock that hardened underground and then rose to the surface due to erosion of the surrounding dirt and rock.  Truth be told, there are many plutons on the eastern slopes of the Appalachians, but Stone Mountain is larger than most.  Looking Glass Rock 150 miles southwest of here is another famous pluton.
            Since its establishment in 1969, Stone Mountain State Park has become a major destination in North Carolina’s state park system.  The park boasts a 90-site campground, a 75-site picnic area, 3 picnic shelters, and more than 20 miles of designated trout streams.  Rock climbing and rappelling are also allowed at various points on the mountain.
            With over 18 miles of trails, hikers have plenty of options to choose from at Stone Mountain State Park.  Most experts believe the park’s best trail to be the 4.5 mile Stone Mountain Loop, a difficult loop that leads up and across the park’s famous granite dome, down beside 200-foot Stone Mountain Falls, and then past the restored Hutchinson Homestead.  Two other waterfalls are accessed via the 0.9-mile one way Middle Falls/Lower Falls Trail, an out-and-back that can only be accessed from the Stone Mountain Loop.  Thus, this route combines the Stone Mountain Loop with the Middle Falls/Lower Falls Trail to form a fantastic 3-waterfall 6.3 mile hike.
Trailhead at Lower Parking Area
            Two parking areas serve the Stone Mountain Loop: the Lower Parking Area on the west side of the mountain and the Upper Parking Area on the east side.  To get the big climb over with first, this hike starts at the Lower Parking Area and hikes the loop clockwise.  Begin at the signed trailhead located to the right of the restroom building.  The gravel Stone Mountain Loop climbs gradually with a small cascading stream to the right.
            Less than 500 feet from the trailhead, the trail splits to form its loop.  To hike the loop clockwise, angle left and use the trail going right as the return route.  After rising over a few steps and switchbacking left, the trail crosses the gravel road that provides vehicle access to Hutchinson Homestead.  Look across the road for the orange plastic circles that mark the trail on the other side.
            The trail continues climbing via switchbacks and occasional sets of wooden steps.  White pines and maples are the most common trees in the mountainside forest.  At 0.6 miles, the trail briefly exits the forest and enters the bare granite rock.  Thick wire cables have been installed to provide a handhold on the steep slope.  Some partially obstructed views can be had to the right and left across the rock.
Climbing along wire cables
            At 0.7 miles, you top the last wooden staircase and the last wire-cabled section of bare rock to reach the first truly spectacular view on this hike.  Located at the top of the bare granite, this area gives a 180-degree view to the west, so the foothills leading up to the Blue Ridge Parkway are in full view.  Wolf Rock and Cedar Rock, two other worthy destinations in Stone Mountain State Park, can be seen below you to the south.
View west from Stone Mountain
            Past the first viewpoint, the trail continues climbing but at a more gradual rate.  Orange dots painted on the granite mark the way.  0.9 miles into the hike, you reach the signed summit of Stone Mountain.  The main overlook here points south, so Wolf Rock and Cedar Rock take center stage.  Take care if you decide to explore off trail up here: the slope gets progressively steeper as you go further from the summit, and it is possible to get stranded at a point on the cliffs from which you can go neither down nor up.
View south from summit
            Continue east across the summit area through more white pine and maple forest.  The flatness of the summit is amazing compared to the steep areas that surround it.  The wide two-track dirt/gravel trail soon begins descending the east side of Stone Mountain via a set of switchbacks.  This trail features excellent construction including some recently installed wooden waterbars and some rock cribbing that undergirds the switchbacks.
            As you continue descending, a few more areas of bare rock are crossed.  The views south from these areas would seem fantastic were it not for the ones you got at the summit.  More easy downhill cruising brings you to the signed spur trail for the Upper Parking Area, which exits left 2 miles into the hike.  Continue straight to remain on the Stone Mountain Loop, but look left to notice the stone chimney, which appears to predate the park.
Stone chimney
            At 2.3 miles, you reach Big Sandy Creek and the top of Stone Mountain Falls.  But for the rolling hills in the background, water would appear to flow off the edge of the earth.  A long set of wooden steps takes you down the west side of the waterfall to two more viewing platforms, a middle view and a base view.  Though nearly 200 feet tall, Stone Mountain Falls is more of a waterslide, as water flows down the bare granite for most of its height.
Stone Mountain Falls, base view
            Past the base of the falls, the trail descends a few more wooden steps to continue heading downstream along cascading Big Sandy Creek.  The hike now takes on a creekside feel with a dense understory of mountain laurel and only minor undulations.  Soon Big Sandy Creek makes a sharp left turn, but the trail continues west to begin heading upstream beside a smaller unnamed tributary.
Creekside hiking
            2.8 miles into the hike, you reach the signed Middle Falls/Lower Falls Trail, which exits sharply to the left.  The Middle Falls/Lower Falls Trail is an out-and-back, so you have to decide whether you want to add it or not.  If you are getting tired or sunset is approaching, then you can reduce the total mileage of this hike to 4.5 miles by continuing straight and skipping the other two waterfalls.  This description turns left to visit Middle Falls and Lower Falls.
            The Middle Falls/Lower Falls Trail is far more rustic than the well-trodden and well-engineered Stone Mountain Loop.  Three unbridged creek crossings must be negotiated to reach Lower Falls, and at least one of them will require either a difficult rock hop or a wade.  Stated another way, if there is not enough water to require wading, then there will not be enough water to make the waterfalls worth viewing either.
            You encounter the first creek crossing almost immediately, but this one is the easiest of the three because it crosses the small unnamed tributary rather than the main creek.  The wide two-track dirt trail descends on a gradual to moderate grade as Big Sandy Creek again comes into view on the left.  At 3.1 miles, the signed spur trail to Middle Falls exits right.  Turn right to hike the narrow spur trail, which arrives at the top of Middle Falls 700 feet later.  Middle Falls looks similar to Stone Mountain Falls, but it has less height and a larger plunge pool.  Unfortunately, there is no easy access to the base of Middle Falls.
Top-down view of Middle Falls
            Retrace your steps back to the Middle Falls/Lower Falls Trail and turn right to head for Lower Falls.  The second creek crossing, this one across the much larger Big Sandy Creek, is quickly reached.  I chose to wade through the 5-inch deep water, but a more nimble person might be able to cross just downstream via a difficult rock-hop.
            The trail climbs briefly then descends on a moderate to slightly steep grade to reach the creek again, this time below Middle Falls.  Cross the creek a third time.  There are some small rocks in the creek here, but they do not go all the way across.  After a brief level section, you reach a sign that abruptly says “Falls Trail Ends” just before the trail heads onto private land.  Lower Falls sits in the creek to the left at this point.  Lower Falls is another waterslide-type waterfall, and there is no easy access to the base of this one either.
Upper part of Lower Falls
            Because the Middle Falls/Lower Falls Trail ends at Lower Falls, your only option is to retrace your steps back to the Stone Mountain Loop at 4.6 miles.  Turn left to continue the Stone Mountain Loop.  Some large patches of crested dwarf iris were in bloom on the afternoon of my visit.
            The gravel and dirt trail passes back and forth across the creek using nice wooden bridges as it climbs gradually.  At 5.3 miles, ignore an unmarked trail that exits right and provides rock climbers access to the base of Stone Mountain.  500 feet later, the signed trail to Wolf Rock and Cedar Rock exits at a sharp angle left.  Stay right to remain on the Stone Mountain Loop.
South face of Stone Mountain
            A little more gradual climbing brings you to a grassy clearing that provides a fantastic view of Stone Mountain’s south face.  Several benches allow you to savor the view.  The trail heads slightly downhill and reenters the woods before reaching the spur trail to Hutchinson Homestead, which exits right.  This short spur trail provides your only chance to see the homestead on this hike, so turn right to cross a wooden bridge and enter the restored homestead.
Hutchinson Homestead consists of several log buildings including a log cabin, barn, blacksmith shop, corncrib, and meat house.  The buildings date to the mid 1800’s, but the restoration happened in 1998.  Stone Mountain, which looms large in the background, makes a dramatic setting for this restored homestead.
Hutchinson Homestead
Back on the main trail, embark on a moderate downhill cruise that crosses and re-crosses a small creek numerous times, all on wooden bridges.  At 6.1 miles, the other end of the Wolf Rock Trail enters from the left.  After dipping to cross the creek one final time, a short climb brings you to the close of the Stone Mountain Loop.  Continue straight another 500 feet to return to the parking lot and complete the hike.


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