Blue Ridge Day Hikes - Elk Knob State Park, NC
I'm lucky to live in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina. I have my own place tucked away deep in the forest with no neighbors aside from the furry and elusive kind. I'm also lucky to live near so many amazingly beautiful and protected natural areas. Elk Knob State Park is just a 10 minute drive from my house. I go there often in all four seasons, not only for photography, but for peace and quiet as well.
Elk Knob History
Elk Knob State Park is the newest state park in North Carolina. It was founded in 2003 after conservationists and concerned citizens swooped in to save it from developers who were planning to build housing developments on it; that would have been a sad fate for one of Southern Appalachian's highest peaks and most unique natural areas. The tallest peak at Elk Knob is 5,520 feet above sea level. The views from the summit are spectacular. From the top one can see far into the mountains of Tennessee, Virginia, and North Carolina. These sweeping panoramic vistas attract lots of hikers year-round, but it's never too crowded. Many people don't know about this state park and so they cluster onto better-known trails along the Blue Ridge Parkway, but Elk Knob is definitely one of the N.C. High Country's best natural areas.
Unfortunately, there are no actual elk on Elk Knob. The last one was supposedly killed in the late 1700s according to the NC Parks Service website. The nearest wild, North Carolina elk are a couple hundred miles away. Loads of wildlife still inhabit Elk Knob, including white-tail deer, black bear, owls, woodpeckers, weasels, fox, coyote and many other species. If you're a birder, this is an excellent spot to see bohemian waxwings, nuthatches, and large pileated woodpeckers. I've had several good encounters with deer, owls, and many other species at Elk Knob, but as much as I've hiked there, I've yet to see a bear. Nevertheless, the park service has several signs warning campers to handle and store food properly and even provides "bear boxes" to secure supplies.
Hiking Trails at Elk Knob
There are four trails at Elk Knob varying in difficulty from easy to strenuous. They are accessible year-round as the park is open all year from morning until dusk (check the NC Park Service site for official hours). Getting there in the winter can be difficult even with four wheel drive, but if you can make it, the opportunities for snowshoeing and backcountry skiing are excellent. Always be prepared for snow in the winter. Even if you don't see any on the drive to Elk Knob, there may be up to a few feet near the summit and ice can cover the trails underneath the snow. Crampons are recommended during winter months.
The Beech Tree Trail is the easiest. It's pretty level and short and is designed as a light walk for families with young kids to enjoy. As the name implies, it winds through a thicket of Beech on a well-maintained level trail only 1 mile long. It loops back around to the parking lot/trail head. The Maple Run Trail is the next easiest. It's another loop, but designed to appeal more to cross-country skiers as well as hikers. It's the shortest at only 1/2 mile.
The Backcountry Trail is a moderate hike that I have done several times. It descends from the parking area through thick forest via a wide, gradually sloping path. In 2 miles it leads to the backcountry camp sites (which are available with reservations) and mountain streams with a few cascading waterfalls. These streams start at the headwaters of the north-fork of the New River - one of the world's oldest rivers, if not the oldest, according to geologists. In spring, the forest floor is covered with native Appalachian wildflowers, like trillium and trout lily, which are both perfect photo subjects!
Last, but definitely not least, is the Summit Trail. This is by far the most popular trail year-round because of the spectacular views the summit of Elk Knob offers. It's a strenuous 1.9 mile hike straight up the mountain with lots of switchbacks. For a healthy person in moderately good shape, it's really not that big a deal, however. I've even seen couples in their 70s hike it in winter! It's worth the trek, not only for the views at the top, but for the opportunities for seeing wildlife and the peace of the beautiful forest along the way. From the top you can see Grandfather Mountain and Mount Mitchell in the distance to the south and Peak Mountain (my home base) and Mount Jefferson to the north. Unfortunately for photographers, the park opens after sunrise and closes before sunset most of the year, so there is little chance of shooting during magic hours, but opportunities for great nature photography are still available within the forest.
If you've grown tired of the crowds and traffic on the Blue Ridge Parkway, consider Elk Knob State Park. You won't be disappointed. It's the perfect spot for connecting with nature and renewing your relationship with the Appalachian Mountain's wonders. Take the dogs, the kids, and the grandparents, too! There is lots to do at Elk Knob from hiking, to camping, to snow shoeing, so don't miss this fun and ecologically diverse gem of the Blue Ridge.