A Pisgah National Forest Adventure

Fall Color Mountain View

Falls Crowds, Unplanned Adventures in Pisgah National Forest

Last fall I learned that I am not the only one who travels to Smoky Mountains National Park in October in hopes of catching a glimpse of the gorgeous fall colors. Driving through Gatlinburg on a Saturday night the second weekend in October, we learned quickly why the going rate for the Red Roof Inn was an astronomical $150 per night. The fall colors were stunning, but if you’re looking to do some hiking in solitude, October might not be the best time to visit the most popular national park. Right next door to the park are several equally mesmerizing options including Pisgah National Forest and the Blue Ridge Parkway.

Fortunately, due to the hefty hotel prices, we opted for cheaper options in Cherokee, North Carolina the first night, and Asheville, North Carolina the next two nights. We did not deal with nearly as much traffic had we stayed closer to the park entrance.

Our first hike goal was Smoky Mountains well known Charlies Bunion Trail, an 8.1 mile hike with approximately 1640 feet of elevation gain. The hike is known for gorgeous panoramic views and it also travels along the Appalachian Trail, something Sam was looking forward to. Adding some fun to the mix, we thought it would be humorous to do this particular trail as one of my first longer hikes since I had my bunion chopped off earlier in the year.

Shining Rock View 2 - Pisgah National Forest

However, driving through the park Saturday night after arriving at the Nashville International Airport earlier in the day quickly changed our minds. The park was PACKED with cars trying to leave the park. I pulled up reviews of the trails and the consensus was the same….start very early or expect a lot of people.

The Pisgah National Forest Adventure Begins:

Naturally, I did not want to get up before the crack of dawn on vacation so I told Sam I would pick an equally challenging hike in the much more remote Pisgah National Forest. Using the AllTrails App, I found a trail rated as ‘hard’ with recent comments – Shining Rock via Old Butt Knob Trail and Shining Rock Trail. This trail is approximately 8.3 miles (although my Garmin watch clocked just over 9 miles) and over 3300 feet of elevation gain. And boy do you feel the elevation gain, considering much of the gain is in the first mile and a half!!

This trail was certainly a challenge and saying it was hard is an understatement. For the first two miles I was stopping every .05 of a mile to catch my breath and give my butt a chance to de-cramp. I didn’t think we’d ever make it to the top. But the outcroppings for viewpoints were STUNNING! The ripples of mountains combined with the red, orange, and yellows of the fall colors were absolutely breathtaking. It (almost) made the unbelievable incline worth it.

Blue Ridge Mountains - Pisgah National Forest

Shining Rock itself was beautiful. It was incredible to see such a large quartz rock formation in the middle of trees. It’s as if the rock did not belong which made the space even more magical. If we wouldn’t have been in a rush to get off the trail before dark it would be the perfect place to relax and enjoy a lunch break.

Shining Rock - Pisgah National Forest - Pisgah Adventure
Shining Rock - View From Trail - Pisgah National Forest

Thankfully, I told Sam before we left that we needed lots of snacks. We started the hike late morning and Sam was confident we would be done well before dark. Based on reviews of the trail I had read, I had a good idea the hike would take quite a long time. Before we started the hike we stopped at a local grocery store and picked up deli turkey, cheese, Nature Valley Bars, a blue Powerade, and I packed along two La Croix sparkling waters.

When we finally made it to the top I was thinking ‘whew, the tough part is over and I’m never trying to show Sam I can pick a hard trail again!’, but nope! Going down was unbelievably difficult as well. As if my feet were not already sore, and my legs didn’t feel like Jell-O, the number of rocks and roots the entire way down made me want to scream.

Shining Rock Stream - Pisgah National Forest

There were a number of stream crossings and going fast was simply not an option if we wanted to make it down safely. We knew we had about two miles left and it started to get dark. I was freaking out as there was no cell phone reception and we were not prepared to spend the night outdoors in the cold. I was trusting Sam knew the way as you never want to trust me with directions, but I could tell at times even he was not confident in himself. He kept trying to reassure me by telling me the next turn was the right one. I heard this at least 10 times.

When we finally recognized the last turn of the trail, I gave Sam the biggest hug and we walk-jogged to get to back to our car as fast as possible.

Sam & Lily - Shining Rock - Pisgah National Forest

Lessons Learned:

While it was a grueling hike and I would never have admitted this on the trail, I loved every second of it! Pisgah National Forest is beautiful and there is so much to explore. We saw maybe five people the entire six hours we were hiking, I had hours to talk to Sam and tell him my crazy goals and dreams, and I got to explore a place I had never set foot in before.

Happy Hiking!


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