By: Katie Hall, Public Information Officer, NC Division of Parks and Recreation
The winding road to Mount Jefferson State Natural Area takes you through the 100-year-old town of West Jefferson, which lies in a valley between Mount Jefferson and Paddy Mountain. I weaved through charming neighborhoods along a road that appears to be tunneled through a forest, but really the old town roads have been there for so long that they became embraced by the trees. There are more kinds of trees than I can recognize while driving, and I find that the green of the summer leaves is almost blinding as the trees seem to usher me toward the entrance of the park.
A series of accessible overlooks as you wind up the mountain are truly breathtaking. It was fun to stop on my way up the mountain to take in the vistas in different directions from Sunrise Overlook, Sunset Overlook, and Jefferson Overlook. In some places, you can hike from one overlook to another via a narrow but well-maintained dirt trail. The cool breeze and low light of the morning were breathtaking as I made my way up and up.
As a state natural area, Mount Jefferson was protected by North Carolina to “preserve and protect scientific, aesthetic, or ecological value.” This means that most of the state’s natural areas have fewer facilities and therefore require less staff and maintenance. Mount Jefferson, which was formerly classified as a state park, is a bit of an exception, as it hosts spectacular, well-maintained trails, water access and bathroom facilities, abundant picnic sites, and a beautiful rustic shelter with a stone fireplace.
When I reached the parking and picnic areas that lead to the upper trails, I found the large shelter in the shade of the trees. It offered views of the valley below and of adjacent mountains and was expansive with several picnic tables and a beautiful view. Open air picnic sites cascaded down the mountain toward the shelter, and I wished I had something more exciting to stop and enjoy there than trailmix and a bottle of water.
As I made my way up to the ridgeline trail, I stopped in my tracks to look around. This place was different. I’ve been on a lot of mountains, but here I felt like I was on another planet. The flora was woody and the undergrowth was sparse. The morning light bounced through the trees at a low angle that created a serene and dreamy atmosphere. I thought, “if I were a skilled photographer I bet I could take some amazing photos right now.” Hopefully at least one of these will do this place justice.
After a short hike up the Summit Trail, I joined the Rhododendron Trail. Particularly in early June, the trail very much lives up to its name with blooming rhododendrons everywhere you look. I learned from George the maintenance man that I just missed the pink lady slippers bloom, which I will try to catch next spring.
This path is considered “strenuous”, but I found it to be more moderate—a bit rocky and rolly (I believe that’s the technical term) in parts but often flat and smooth. A cool breeze across the ridge keeps you comfortable as you hike, and I don’t recall running in to a single insect (good for me, less so for entomologists) save some stunning butterflies. The ridgeline trail allows regular views of the valley below with multiple opportunities to creep to the edge of the trail for a stunning vista. Every step seems to be more beautiful than the last.
I came to a fork in the trail where I could go up to Luther Rock or down to the Lost Province Trail. Feeling torn, I sat on a bench at the fork and wrote for a while. I paused regularly to marvel at the steady cool breeze that seemed to defy the physics of fluid motion by making it deep into the trail despite the trees.
Two families traveling together with young children caught up with me, their bubbling conversations in stark contrast with what had been a nearly silent solo hike. I overheard them chatting about their most loathed kids TV show (Calliou, which I’ve heard many times before) as they meandered along the trail, their daily lives woven in to their nature hike—their indoor and outdoor worlds colliding.
I finally decided to head up to Luther Rock, which turned out to be less than 50 yards up the trail. The families headed back down, leaving me to take photos and spend a luxurious amount of time lying on a bit of bare rock with thousands fewer feet between me and outer space than usual. Words really can’t describe what I observed there, so I’ll just share the subsequent photos. As usual with the photos of a newbie photographer, these photos really don’t do this place justice.
I could have stayed all day. I wanted to stay all day. But alas, I had more parks to see in the area and did not want to run out of daylight. I headed down the south side of the mountain on the return section of the Rhododendron Trail, home to a rare virgin forest of large northern red oaks that looked entirely different from the ridgeline portion of the trail. There were still plenty of rhododendrons to see on the way down, though.
I exited the trail a little bit winded and with a big grin. I stopped to look back where the forest spit me out and thought longingly of all of the spots I must have missed this visit. Until next time, Mount Jefferson! You are an absolute joy.
Katie Hall is the new Public Information Officer for North Carolina Division of Parks and Recreation. A life-long North Carolinian, Katie is on a mission to explore all the State Parks she has missed or hasn’t seen in a decade or more. Her background is in environmental science, management and policy, communications and outreach.