Thursday, May 12, 2016

South Mountains State Park: Chestnut Knob Trail (Blog Hike #570)

Trail: Chestnut Knob Trail
Hike Location: South Mountains State Park
Geographic Location: south of Morganton, NC
Length: 4.2 miles
Difficulty: 9/10 (Difficult)
Last Hiked: May 2016
Overview: An out-and-back, steep for about half of its distance, to two overlooks of Jacob Fork Gorge.

Directions to the trailhead: Take I-40 to SR 18 (exit 105).  Exit and go south on SR 18.  Take SR 18 9 miles to Sugarloaf Road and turn right on Sugarloaf Rd.  Take Sugarloaf Rd. to Old SR 18 and turn left on Old SR 18.  Drive Old SR 18 4 miles to Ward’s Gap Road and turn right on Ward’s Gap Rd.  Take Ward’s Gap Rd. 1.4 miles to South Mountains Park Ave. and take a very soft right onto South Mountains Park Ave.  This road becomes the main park road at the park entrance.  Drive the main park road to its very end and park in the large paved Jacob Fork Parking Area.

The hike: For my introduction to South Mountains State Park, see my blog entry for the High Shoals Falls Loop, which is this park’s signature hike.  Built in the mid 1990’s, the Chestnut Knob Trail described here is one of the park’s newest trails.  The trail takes you to a pair of scenic overlooks located high above Jacob Fork.  While some hikers are deterred by the relative steepness and occasional rockiness of this trail, conditioned and prepared hikers will enjoy getting away from the crowds that can plague the Jacob Fork section of the park.  I passed only four other people on this trail during my hike on a warm mid-May afternoon.
            Of the two trailheads at the rear of the main parking area, choose the one on the right.  A sign for High Shoals Falls Loop Trail and Chestnut Knob, among other destinations, sits at this trailhead.  The wide trail starts as blacktop and then turns to dirt and gravel as it joins an old road on a westward course.
            At 0.2 miles, you reach the start of the Chestnut Knob Trail, which exits right.  As directed by a trail sign, turn right to begin the climb to Chestnut Knob.  The Chestnut Knob Trail is marked with white plastic diamonds nailed to trees.  The markers are plenteous, making it very hard to get lost.
The Chestnut Knob Trail is the most direct route out of Jacob Fork Gorge, and soon you start to see the price of the directness.  Over the next 0.7 miles the trail gains over 500 feet of elevation as it climbs out of the gorge.  The route is steep, but the trail is well-built with good grading, switchbacks, and wooden steps/waterbars.  Therefore, this climb is not as rough as it could be.  As I entered the higher elevations, mountain laurel lining the trail was in the late stages of its bloom cycle, and a nice breeze moved the air around me.
Mountain laurel along the trail
            At 0.9 miles, you reach a signed trail intersection at the top of a steep set of wooden steps.  The main trail turns left here to continue toward Chestnut Knob.  We will eventually go that way, but first turn right to hike the 250-foot long spur trail to Jacob Fork River Gorge Overlook, the first of two overlooks on this hike.  A short but fairly steep climb brings you to a single bench that sits at the south-facing vista.  This view may be my favorite one on this hike: High Shoals Falls appears as a white splotch on the otherwise solid green mountainside.  You can even hear the waterfall all of the way across the gorge.
Jacob Fork River Gorge Overlook
            Back on the main trail, the trail continues climbing but at a much more gradual rate.  At 1.3 miles, you briefly trace the upper reaches of a rhododendron-choked ravine before curving sharply left to continue the gradual climb.  The rhododendron was just getting ready to flower on my visit.  Soon the trail reaches a saddle in the ridge where it temporarily levels out.  Mixed pine and oak forest dominates at this elevation.
Climbing toward Chestnut Knob
            A brief steep climb brings you to another signed trail intersection at 1.9 miles.  A nice bench sits at this intersection.  The official Chestnut Knob Trail turns right here and leads another 0.2 miles to its upper terminus at the Sawtooth Trail.  To reach the Chestnut Knob Overlook, you need to turn left on a wide trail that also permits horse travel. 
After descending gently to pass through a high saddle, a brief gradual climb leads to the highest elevation of this hike.  A hitching bar to the right can be used to tie horses, which are not allowed on the final steep and rocky descent to the overlook.  The overlook is basically a small rough rock outcrop with no amenities such as benches or protection railings, so take care where you step up here.  This overlook gives a nice view of the Shinny Creek portion of the Jacob Fork Gorge.
Chestnut Knob Overlook
The Mathprofhiker at Chestnut Knob Overlook
The trail ends at the overlook.  Some long loop options involving the Sawtooth Trail are possible, but most hikers simply retrace their steps back down the Chestnut Knob Trail to return to the parking area.  As another scenic add-on, energetic hikers could also hike the High Shoals Falls Loop, which starts at this same trailhead and is described elsewhere in this blog.

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