(The following was prepared with the special assistance of Ranger James Ledgerwood of Chimney Rock State Park.)
Chimney Rock State Park sprawls partially across Rumbling Bald Mountain, which earned its name because of roaring and crashing sounds which, on rare occasions, seemed to originate in or on it. As early as 1874, residents of Hickory Nut Gorge reported hearing rumbling noises and often suspected earthquakes. Rumblings of this magnitude haven’t been heard for years…until now.
On November 14 at about 9 p.m. during a rainstorm, people in Chimney Rock Village reported a loud rumbling noise. The next day, rangers patrolling the park found the cause – a 2,000-ton rock slab fall 340 feet from an overhanging ledge above the Hickory Nut Falls trail, shattering and continuing down the cliff face. The impact of the rock ruptured the ground’s surface on another ledge, causing the ground to slide, splintering trees, and dislodging more boulders, some of which went airborne and sheared 10-inch diameter trees. Boulders as large as 10 tons continued to roll, bounce and fly down the slope toward the trail. Some boulders came to rest 200 feet below the trail.
The path of destruction included a 230-foot trail bridge and 3,000 cubic yards of loose, unstable deposits of rocks, boulders, soil, broken trees and stumps that remain about 200 feet above the trail. This is a serious safety concern, and the trail remains closed.
Erosion is a powerful natural process, which formed Hickory Nut Gorge and some of its most prominent features such as the Chimney Rock itself. Erosion occurs when soil and rock are removed from the Earth’s surface by wind and/or water and deposited in another location.
It’s likely there will be sporadic rockslides of various sizes in the trail’s future. High winds could dislodge boulders propped against damaged or downed trees. A debris slide could be triggered by heavy or prolonged rainfall. These could be sudden, rapid and without warning. Rock slope failures are very difficult to predict.
Chimney Rock State Park is in the process of determining how to make the Hickory Nut Falls Trail safe and how to proceed with cleanup and repair. Experts from the North Carolina Geological Survey and the DOT have examined the site, and more data is being collected to determine a course of action.
Rangers are directing visitors eager for hiking to other trails including a new East Side Boulder Trail at the Rumbling Bald Climbing Access off Boy’s Camp Road. The trail leads to the base of Rumbling Bald Mountain and the east boulder fields. Here can be seen previous acts of erosion, evident from the large boulders that came rumbling down in 1874 and remain there today.