Andrew Kasper photo
A hiker descends the trail from Waterrock Knob.
Long after the autumn tourists are gone and only the burliest of leaves are still clinging to the trees, lookouts and trails stemming off the Blue Ridge Parkway become a haven for the hearty traveler.
One such winter jaunt is to the top of Waterrock Knob. Located at mile marker 451, about a 45-minute drive west from Asheville, N.C., or a 20-minute drive east from the Smokies, Waterrock Knob makes the perfect half-day trip destination.
The blustery peak awaits those who are daring enough to step out of the comforts of their heated automobiles and ascend the steep trail. The walk to the knob is the last hike before the Parkway ends in Cherokee.
At 6,292 feet in elevation, Waterrock Knob is the tallest peak in the Plott Balsams mountain chain, sandwiched between the Great Smoky Mountains and Great Balsams ranges. It is also the 16th tallest peak in the eastern United States, only about 400 feet lower than Mount Mitchell, the tallest.
Waterrock Knob has something going for it that a fair number of its looming Appalachian counterparts don’t. The journey to the top is not reserved for mountaineers or the best of long-distance hikers—it’s a short, half-mile, partially paved trek from the parking lot to the top, though at times the route devolves into rocky steps and steep footing.
A lot happens in the half-mile hike. From the parking area at 5,820-feet to the summit, the trail crosses the threshold where deciduous trees and thicker soil give way to conifers and rocky crags; it’s where light breezes become weighty gusts and fair-weather tourists are separated from those willing to don an extra jacket to own a mountain for a day.
Known as southern spruce-fir forests, high-elevation Appalachian peaks like Waterrock Knob are home to ecological holdouts of a colder, bygone landscape. Glaciers once brought frigid climates to the North American south and ecosystems similar to modern day Canada. After the ice sheets receded, the conifer woods retreated to only the tops of the coldest peaks.
Once atop Waterrock Knob, one is rewarded with stunning views. To the west is Cherokee, and the southern entrance to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. To the Northeast is Maggie Valley, a homespun tourist town known for its winter ski hill and southern hospitability. On a clear day, hikers might even get a glimpse of mountaintops as far as 50 miles away.
Those not looking for a hike, or who forgot to pack a pair of mittens before heading up to the Parkway for the day, should at least drive up to Waterrock Knob’s parking lot for a quintessential Smokies’ sunset from behind the windshield or bring a thermos of something warm to savor as the solstice sun sets.
Though Waterrock Knob has a visitor center, it’s only open until Nov. 3, making for even more solitude. Parkway-goers need to be aware of one other detail when it comes to winter trips along the national motor road: sometimes sections of the roadway are closed. There’s nothing more disheartening than building up the courage for a winter outing only to find the access road to the Parkway blockaded.
The National Park Service routinely closes the roadway in the winter based on the presence of ice and snow. Although it can be a bummer when snow hits because the road surface isn’t plowed or treated with salt or sand, it’s probably for the best that it’s closed. Check with the park service ahead of time before cruising toward Waterrock Knob or any other destinations along the 469-mile roadway.
While a warm-weather trip to the parkway brings a relaxing pleasure, sunshine, and the warm grace of Mother Nature, there is no soul-quenching equal to the silent nakedness atop an Appalachian peak like Waterrock Knob when the thermometer drops, especially with the knowledge that the descent brings a toasty, scenic car ride home.