By: Katie Hall, Public Information Officer, NC Division of Parks and Recreation
Turning on to “Meat Camp Road” just before getting to Boone makes me think of camping and eating lots of grilled meats, which I would argue are two of the best things in life. Nearly to Boone, I jumped off the highway and was at Elk Knob State Park within 20 minutes. The drive up to the park was lined with Christmas tree farms, rolling green hills and farm houses.
Elk Knob State Park encompasses one of the highest peaks in North Carolina’s high country at 5,520 feet. The trail system in the park has something to offer every visitor. The Beech Tree Trail loops around the picnic area through the park’s American Beech forest at an elevation of 4,500 feet and is great for families. The up-and-coming Maple Run Trail is still under construction and is designed for cross country skiing and hiking. The two-mile Backcountry Trail winds down into the backcountry campsites and showcases the headwaters of the North Fork of the New River and Trout Lilys in spring. One of the parks system’s finest trails was my target for the day: the Summit Trail, which would lead me to spectacular views from Elk Knob.
When I looked up at the winding switchbacks of the Summit Trail, I felt pretty confident. My friendly park ranger and hiking buddy planned to stay with me until about halfway to the summit, and then I would go it alone. I learned that I had a long way to go to be a strong mountain hiker. I had to set our trek at a “piedmont pace,” which is what I’ve decided to call my slow (for now) hiking canter.
Looking up at the steady climb of the trail, the switchbacks didn’t seem steep and in many places they appeared to flatten out. The trail offers full cover from the sun and changing scenery. Still, a steady incline for two miles over stones and tree roots can put you in your place quickly. We stopped regularly to talk about the park, including the incredible group of volunteers who put in thousands of hours of work on the trail without bringing heavy equipment into the park.
Less than halfway up the Summit Trail, there’s a special treat. By that point, you already feel like you earned it. This overlook offers a shaded place to rest off of the trail and a stunning view.
After a rest at the overlook, I felt recharged and ready to get back on the trail. Close to the summit, I met a steeper, stony climb. My ultimate reward arrived as I reached the summit and found two stunning and entirely different views—one toward the north and one toward the south.
One of the best things about being on Elk Knob is the perspective you gain about where you are in the much larger Appalachian system. From the summit, I saw familiar peaks like Three Top, Bluff Mountain, Mount Jefferson, The Peak, Grandfather Mountain, Mount Mitchell, Mount Rogers (Va.). My favorite part of this was seeing Grandfather Mountain from such a great distance, a familiar face (pun intended) of my childhood and a family favorite. The fresh air and cool breeze were welcome rewards for the hike.
The way back down the switchbacks from the summit is mostly a breeze. I sailed down the mountain with a big smile. I don’t mind admitting that I got a little overconfident with the ease of bouncing down the trails and twisted my ankle negotiating a rocky patch a bit carelessly. That brought me back down to Earth but it shook off quickly.
All in all, it took me about 70 minutes to reach the summit—and that’s with several brief stops—and about 30 to get back down. Make sure you have a pack of supplies when you head up to the summit. You will want your camera, plenty of snacks and about twice as much water as you would take on a regular walk or flat hike. Make sure someone knows you’re headed up and when to expect you back down the mountain. Leave yourself plenty of time to hang out on the summit a while.
See you in our parks!
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.