Last year, one of the local TV channels had a film called, “The Wizard of Oz.”
I’m pretty sure it was a documentary that was meant to point out the dangers of hiking in the rain. Turns out, some people actually melt if they come into contact with water. I did not believe that could happen, but it wouldn’t be on TV if it weren’t true … right?
Almost any time of year, rain can be a factor here in WNC. So, I’m going to throw caution to the wind and talk about finding a trail that might be enjoyable in less than perfect conditions. Keep in mind that if you believe yourself to be a melter, you might want to save this one for a sunny day.
We waited for the weather to close in a bit, which hasn’t been much of a wait in the last few weeks, and headed for the mountains. The goal of this hike was to experience the elements. I chose this trail because I did not want to have to worry about the condition of the trail under my feet or difficulty in staying on course in heavy rain or snow. For this outing I did not concern myself with the possible views that might be gained along the trail. After all, if the goal is rain or snow, you have to expect a little fog to join in.
Flat Top Mountain Trail
Difficulty: Moderate. Some trail guides rate this as an easy trail. If I hike this in the summer, wearing a T-shirt and shorts and carrying only a water bottle, I would also call this an easy hike. In the winter, when I’m about three layers deep in my hiking gear, including a rain covering, I don’t consider a 3-mile uphill jaunt as easy.
Shoes: We experimented on this walk. My wife purchased a new, all-leather boot that proved to be an excellent shoe for moderate to heavy walking and, as advertised, was completely waterproof.
I chose a lightweight trail shoe. It worked well in the snow but was a little damp. Because of the quality of the trail, I think either will work. If you hike this in more moderate weather, no question, a good trail shoe will work just fine.
Time: This is an out-and-back trail. If you want to hike in adverse weather conditions, plan on two to three hours. Another factor to consider in the winter will be your starting point. If the Blue Ridge Parkway is closed, you will need to add another half-mile from parking to trailhead. We hiked in from the closed Parkway gate. Out and back was a little less than three hours.
Distance/Elevation: Total distance out and back is about 6.4 miles. That includes the additional mile of pavement if you have to walk in from the gate. Elevation gain is about 750 feet. At the summit of Flat Top, you will be at 4,469 feet in elevation. That’s not a bad elevation for this side of the country.
Safety: This is a horse trail. There is plenty of room to let them pass. You should not encounter any bikes on the trail.
The route to the fire tower is built for tourists, so it is plenty wide and very safe traveling. I’m sure that if you hike at normal times, you will see lots of people. The solution: Don’t hike at normal times. Do a rain/snow hike.
There are no restrooms, and while the Blue Ridge Parkway is closed, you can’t use facilities at the Moses Cone Park. This trail does not lend itself to a short excursion into the bushes, so be prepared.
There are many coffee shops and restaurants in Blowing Rock, so grab a cup and a pastry and use the facilities before you hike.
Courtesy: We saw two couples on the trail who had also decided to brave the elements. Unfortunately, none of the four spoke English, so I couldn’t get their opinion of the walk. Judging from the looks on their faces and their eagerness to smile and say, “hello,” they were just as happy to be there as were we.
No one was actually masked but most had some type of face covering if needed.
HOW TO GET THERE:
Use your app or map to find Blowing Rock. You will need to approach Moses H. Cone Memorial Park from U.S. 221 out of Blowing Rock. If you use another route and the Parkway is closed, you will have too far to walk just to get to the trail.
Soon after you leave Blowing Rock on 221, you will see plenty of signs pointing to Moses Cone. A right turn takes you from the highway to the Parklway. If the gate is closed, you will see plenty of off-road parking. Count that as your trailhead for this trip.
After about half a mile on the pavement, the road actually crosses over the trail you want. You will see it off to the left. Scurry down the bank to the right and cross under the Parkway and you are on your way.
The first thing you notice is the trail. It is a wide, level (from side to side), pea-gravel trail, just like you would expect inside a park. Greenway quality, just lacking pavement. The trail quality remains the same all the way to the top.
If you get off the Parkway to the right and get down to the trail, look left. You’ll see the arch over the trail. That’s your gateway to this adventure.
The trail signs will point to the tower. Follow the path as you begin the uphill trek. Stop for a second. Enjoy the broad expanses of the open fields. Even if you have rain and fog, you can feel the openness of the terrain and the almost always present stirring of the breeze. You’re already standing at about 3,800 feet. At this height, the air has a bit of a different taste and feel. Hot weather or cold, it just feels good in the lungs.
Now, start your two-and-a-half-mile uphill climb. The rate of ascent is probably greatest at the start. You’re almost always climbing but it is fairly gentle. If you are just beginning your hiking hobby, don’t be afraid, just take your time.
In less than a mile, there is a marker pointing to the left. About a tenth of a mile in that direction is the Cone graveyard. Personally, I don’t visit old graveyards on foggy days. You can never be sure who is coming back with you. That’s your call. I recommend you go straight ahead the 1.7 miles to the tower.
In a short distance, the scenery changes from the broad expanses of the fields to a mountain top forest. Just keep climbing. If you are lucky, you won’t be able to see the tops of the trees, just their ghostly forms disappearing into the gray-white mist.
As you continue to climb, notice how well this trail is engineered. These are some of the easiest and most appropriate switchbacks I have ever hiked. Soon, the final set of turns will be completed, and the tower emerges from the fog. You made it. Just a caution: When you are up in the clouds, the sharp and sudden falls just off the edge of the trail are hidden. My advice is to stay on the trail. If you want, wander to the edge on a clear day.
Now, time for the comfortable downhill walk all the way to the car. Don’t worry about what might be just out of your sight on the other edge of the fog. Just relax and enjoy. Oh, did I forget to mention the bears?