If it seems too good to be true, than it probably is. These are wise words to live by, yet we’ve discovered the rare exception to this rule. Here in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Western Carolina, if you know where to look, you can find wild, rolling meadows, exposed peaks of bare rock, and views of heart-melting beauty—and all of them reachable by trails so short you’ll barely break a sweat. This coveted combination of huge payoff and minimal effort might sound too good to be true, but the mountains never lie. Here are seven short hikes with enormous rewards.
1. Devil’s Courthouse
According to Cherokee legend, the sinister, bare-rock profile of Devil’s Courthouse is the dwelling place of Judaculla, the slant-eyed giant that dances in the caves below the summit. And while there’s no telling what sort of apparition you might see lurking in those mysterious hollows of rock, the view from the top is guaranteed to leave you breathless. Four states—Georgia, South Carolina, Tennessee, and North Carolina—unfurl in every direction in a rippling expanse of mountains. The journey to this ominous 5,720-foot peak is a mere half-mile from the parking lot. Remain on the trail to protect the abundance of fragile, high-altitude plants that cling to the rock and ensure that the giant lurking beneath you remains undisturbed.
2. Max Patch
The greatest reward awaiting you from the airy summit of Max Patch is the deepest breath you’ve been able to draw in a long, long time. The feeling of tranquility and expansiveness that this rolling Appalachian meadow will instill in you is similar to that inspired by the ocean. Layer upon layer of mountains unfold into the distance in a 360-degree panorama, and the sky above you is a perfect blue dome. The road to Max Patch is long and winding, but the hike is short and sweet: a half-mile trek to the top, where you’ll find the Appalachian Trail cutting a neat path along the ridge line.
The summit of Waterrock Knob is best enjoyed on the first morning after a rain, when the atmosphere is clean and polished. Waterrock Knob is located in the Plott Balsam Range, the chain of mountains that connects the Smokies to the Great Balsams. From its soaring peak 6,292 feet above sea level, the view stretches for more than 50 miles across Maggie Valley and into the Smokies beyond, including some of the tallest peaks within that range. The trail is just half a mile from the parking area (which also yields extraordinary views, and is a lovely destination if you are not ambulatory.) The trail includes many overlooks and opportunities to wander off and claim a few moments of solitude.
4. Linville Falls
The power of water—ancient, patient, and unyielding—may be the most moving and humbling force on the planet. Linville Falls, a 90-foot cascade that drops into the Linville Gorge, is a spectacular example of such power. From the visitor center, a stair-cut, three-quarter mile trail leads to the base of the falls, where the pounding of whitewater drowns out all other sound, and the riverside boulders beg you to climb and explore. Swimming is not allowed, as the current could quickly sweep you over Lower Falls and into the canyon. The two trails that begin at the visitor center lead to five separate viewpoints, including Plunge Basin Overlook, which allows for a bird’s-eye-view of Lower Falls and The Chimneys.
5. Green Knob Fire Tower
There’s a beatnik romance to fire towers, an undeniable lure to these mountain structures that have become, if not completely anachronistic, then at least an aging relic of Americana. Half a mile on an overgrown and nearly hidden trail will lead you from the Blue Ridge Parkway to the summit of Green Knob Mountain, where the fire tower is perched along the Eastern Continental Divide. Although the cab has recently been closed to visitors, the vista at the top of the staircase is worth the rickety climb. A grab-bag of Carolina’s most impressive peaks, the view includes the Black Mountain Range, Mt. Mitchell, the Great Craggy Mountains, and the distinguished profiles of Table Rock and Grandfather Mountain.
6. Black Balsam Knob
Black Balsam Knob is nothing short of heavenly. This grassy bald lies atop the Great Balsam Mountains, drenched in open sky, with a 360-degree panoramic view. A short, switchbacking trail leads from the parking lot to the summit, where it intersects with the 30-mile Art Loeb Trail. For an easy overnight, settle in at an established campsite on the summit, taking care to Leave No Trace. On a clear evening, you will be treated to a water-color sunset and a dome of shooting stars. Just don’t be surprised if, in the morning, the mountains beckon and you find yourself following the Art Loeb Trail toward the Shining Rock Wilderness. The landscape of high mountain balds is utterly irresistible.
7. Rough Ridge
Life can be exhausting. Some days, you simply need to find the edge of the world, sit with your legs dangling into the ether, and just breathe. Luckily for the explorers of Western Carolina, there is a trail off the Blue Ridge Parkway, just outside of Blowing Rock, where you can do just that. Rough Ridge is a dazzling, one-mile section of both the Tanawha and Mountains-to-Sea trail. The splendor begins only a third of a mile from the parking area, when the boardwalk trail emerges from the forest into an alpine, rock-studded landscape. Continue for another half mile to the 4,773-foot summit, a steep rock fang with views of Grandfather Mountain, Linville Gorge, and the lights of the Piedmont glimmering in the distance. Make sure and scramble to the top of boulders along the way, and savor the dizzying sensations of elevation and exposure.
The only thing to improve a spectacular view is to pair it with an amazing painted sky during a sunrise or sunset:
- If you can manage an early bird schedule, make it a goal to catch a sunrise. Do the math and get up at the appropriate time to get you on location by sunrise.
- An extra early approach will require a headlamp which might seem like you are missing out, but you’ll have plenty of time to enjoy the rest of the scenery on the way back to the car when the sun is up.
- Grab a stove and make some coffee or tea while you wait for the sun to come up. Having something to do will make the wait more interesting. Plus, you’ll have something good to drink!
- If a sunset is more your style, look and see what time the sun is going to set and plan accordingly.
- Check and make sure that there aren’t any gates that close with daylight — you don’t want to get trapped.
- Either way, you’ll probably want to take a jacket. It may seem warm during the day, but temps drop fast in the mountains and you want to be able to enjoy the time sitting and admiring the gorgeous view.
- Make sure you take your phone or camera. These are great opportunities to document what could be a truly amazing experience. You don’t want to miss out on a chance to get some great photography.
Featured image provided by Erich Burton