By: Katie Hall, Public Information Officer, North Carolina Div. of Parks and Recreation
My memories of Chimney Rock date back 20 years. Following a childhood filled with family reunion vacations to central Mississippi, relaxing in the rocky foothills around Lake Lure nestled at the foot of Chimney Rock Mountain was a new world to me. It really is an unforgettable place. There is nothing like the striking emerald green of the lake, the rocky, colorful face of Rumbling Bald, and the Rocky Broad River scurrying quietly behind Chimney Rock Village where nature and tourists collide.
When I began planning my trip to hike the new Skyline Trail, I thought the magic the area held in my youth would be dampened by all of the inspiring experiences in the natural world I’ve since enjoyed. In fact, I fell more in love with Hickory Nut Gorge than ever before.
If you look at Chimney Rock on a map, you’ll see it’s geographically in the North Carolina foothills. If you study it from an aerial photograph, the area looks like scattered rolling green hills freckled across the landscape. But when you’re there in the heart of the village near the entrance to Chimney Rock State Park, most of us wouldn’t think to use the word “hills.”
Steep cliffs surround you on both sides as you look east and west through the gorge. You are a 10-minute stroll from Lake Lure, within earshot of the extraordinarily beautiful Rocky Broad River, and you can glance up from practically anywhere and see Chimney Rock, tall and proud, waving the American flag.
I look up from the village to the Chimney Rock at the challenge I have ahead, and I take a deep breath. Today, we are heading up. All the way up. Challenge accepted.
Can you fathom 800 stairs? I tried to think of the last time I would’ve climbed anything near that many and thought of climbing to the top of Cape Hatteras Lighthouse. 232 steps. There are 898 steps to the top of the Washington Monument. Uh oh. As it turns out, going up 800 steps is every bit as hard as you imagine. When the new elevator opens this fall, you’ll get to skip the first 500 if you want.
On the way up, it helps tremendously that there is a beautiful view of the gorge at nearly every landing. You’ll peer into caves, duck under overhangs, venture out onto overlooks, and take in stunning views of Chimney Rock along the way. On this mild day with a breeze, it’s certainly more comfortable than roasting inside a lighthouse.
The start of the Skyline Trail is at Exclamation Point, which is at the end of a short trail from the Chimney Rock to Devil’s Head to an elevation of 2,480 feet. There, a smooth expanse of bald rock that is shaded in the morning and an ample overlook area welcome you. Take your time to enjoy the views of the other half of Chimney Rock State Park across the gorge. Don’t miss the up-close view of Devil’s Head, a natural balancing rock with a sinister profile and one of the most exciting features of this hike.
From there, the Skyline Trail takes you to Peregrine’s Point at 2,640 feet, named for the falcons that rule this area. Did you know that Peregrine Falcons can dive at 200 miles per hour, making them the fastest animal in the world? These are the cool things you learn when you hang out with a park ranger. Peregrine’s Point is a great spot to stop, rest, and refuel before tackling the rest of the Skyline Trail. There are picnic tables and room to stretch out, and, of course, a spectacular view.
Finally, the trail leads you down to Hickory Nut Falls at 2,580 feet. The trail from here is under a luxuriously thick and relatively tall canopy, providing much appreciated shade and low light even mid-day that is great for photographs.
Here, at one of the highest points on Chimney Rock Mountain, the soil becomes more acidic and the flora becomes woodier, bursting with Rhododendrons. A rocky creek crossing adds a bit of fun on this last stretch of trail. As you approach the top of Hickory Nut Falls, you know something spectacular is ahead. I look forward to getting back to do the relatively easy trail to the bottom of the falls.
Don’t forget that after hiking up 800 steps, you also must come back down. On our hike, the heavens opened and showered new challenges upon us- 800 wet stairs back to the bottom with rain in our eyes. At this point, we decided it would be helpful to have a waterslide or zipline back to the bottom instead. Don’t get your hopes up—safety first.
Chimney Rock, like Grandfather Mountain, represents the great things that can come out of state partnership with private enterprise. North Carolina State Parks is able to protect precious land around the Chimney Rock from undesirable development and provide access to the natural areas around the rock, while the company that has run the Chimney Rock attraction for decades is able to maintain the local business and boost the economy of this charming area in the rocky foothills.
If you’re up for a real challenge with great rewards, find your way to Chimney Rock State Park this fall and get up to the Skyline Trail. You’ll leave knowing you’ve experienced something truly unique and a sense of accomplishment and confidence that will stick with you.
Katie Hall is the new(ish) 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.