Nearby Town: Chimney Rock, NC
Elevation (Max): 2,480'
Elevation Gained: ~700'
Trailhead: There is really only one place you can start a hike at Chimney Rock State Park since you have to be shuttled up from the parking lot to where all the trails begin. The park is adjacent to Lake Lure, which is about 40 minutes southeast of Asheville on US-74 Alt E.
Web Site: http://www.chimneyrockpark.com/index.php
E and I have made it a tradition to spend an October weekend in the mountains of western North Carolina, and when we went a couple years ago, we visited Chimney Rock State Park. The drive from Asheville to Chimney Rock is really enjoyable with hairpin turns, apple orchards, and tiny towns perched along a river's edge (including a village called Bat Cave). Chimney Rock is a pretty developed park that attracts a lot of people. The geological features are very interesting, it is perched above the tourist area of Lake Lure, and The Last of the Mohicans was filmed there.
Looking up to Chimney Rock
Emily and I visited on a perfect October day with just a little chill in the air but plenty of warmth to be had in the bright sunshine. We parked our car in the lot and boarded the bus that takes visitors to Chimney Rock (a big, cylindrical monolith). From the lot, we descended a long set of stairs to join the Hickory Nut Falls trail, which is an easy, flat trail that goes out to a small waterfall that drops over a very tall cliff (the falls are 404' tall but the flow rate isn't all that impressive). Though the falls aren't roaring, I would definitely recommend doing this trail because the falls are still very impressive due to their height alone, and it's a good warm up for the more vertical portion of the hike that is to come.
After enjoying the falls, turn around and return to the stairs you started on, but now continue up the stairs above where you began. It won't take long before you realize this hike seems to mostly be stairs. These stairs lead into the Outcroppings Trail which visits interesting features in the rocks such as Moonshiner's Cave which goes about 30 feet into Chimney Rock and Vista Rock which is sort of a mini Chimney Rock located just below Chimney Rock proper. There are other features as well like the Grotto and Subway, but the trails to these areas were closed when we visited. After getting some good exploration under your belt, continue up the trail to Chimney Rock.
Hickory Nut Falls
Looking across Hickory Nut Gorge from the base of the falls
This is a common sight
Once on Chimney Rock, the view opens up in 3 directions, looking up the gorge, across the gorge, and down to where the river below empties into Lake Lure. It's a very enjoyable view, but you will be sharing it with a number of friends, as this is an easily accessible spot (it's even accessible for handicapped folks). The downside of having this be such a crowded spot, besides the lack of solitude, is the fact that it seems to have prompted the people in charge to erect a metal fence along the edge of the rock that can get in the way of photography. After getting your fill of the view, head up a set of stairs to join the Skyline Trail, which will stop by a couple interesting features such as the Opera Box and Devil's Head before reaching its terminus at Exclamation Point, which provides a fantastic view of Hickory Nut Gorge below. This would be a good place to enjoy a snack before returning the way you came on Skyline Trail.
E in the Opera Box
Hickory Nut Gorge
Once you return to Chimney Rock, you have a choice: descend the way you climbed or take the elevator. Yes, I said elevator--I did mention earlier this place is handicapped accessible. We opted for the elevator to take it easy on our knees and just because we were curious. Turns out the elevators aren't exactly high-capacity so we waited in line for a little while (maybe 10 minutes) in the gift shop they have set up around the elevators. The elevator ride itself wasn't really remarkable, but the exit off the elevator was pretty cool. The doors open to a long, dark tunnel carved into the rock that leads to where we began and where the shuttle buses will pick you up to take you back to your car. Sadly, the tunnel was filled with folks (not handicapped) who were waiting for a ride to the top. If you're going to Chimney Rock and are able-bodied, I would strongly encourage hiking to the top so you can enjoy the fresh air, skip the line, check out the neat rock features, and work on your fitness. And when you get the top, it will be that much more enjoyable since it was your feet that got you there. Below is a GPS-generated map of the hike.
Leave me a comment below if you know some good places to visit in the Chimney Rock/Lake Lure area!
Chimney Rock and Lake Lure