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WNC Afield: There's history in every step on the South Toe

WNC Afield: There's history in every step on the South Toe

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There is a Mitchell County legend that tells of a time before white settlers when the area was inhabited by two native tribes, the Cherokee, who lived among the foothills of the Unaka Mountains, and the Catawba, who were primarily to the east beyond the Blue Ridge.

There are numerous accounts, true and folklore, about the enmity between the two tribes. We have previously discussed the tale of a battle atop Roan Mountain that caused the rhododendron to be forever colored crimson from the blood of the battle.

As all good stories go, there was a beautiful daughter of the Catawba chief. Her name was Estatoe, and among other talents, she was a crafter of beaded jewelry. One day when the beautiful princess was alone by the river admiring her beadwork in the reflection of a small pool, she was surprised by a Cherokee warrior who had gotten separated from his hunting party.

It didn’t take very long before the two enemies had fallen into a forbidden love affair. When the Catawba chief learned of a Cherokee warrior trespassing on Catawba land, he set in motion a plan to catch and kill him. When the princess learned of the plot, she found her lover to warn him and run away with him to a neutral land where they could be together.

However, before they could escape, the warriors from the Catawba tribe found the couple and chased them to the edge of a high cliff over a rushing river. Her lover tried to save her, but the princess took his hand and together they plunged into the raging waters below.

When her father, the chief, walked to where his daughter had been and looked at the river below, he raised his hands to the heavens and committed her soul to the Great Spirit. He then proclaimed that the river that had enfolded his daughter in death would forever be called the Estatoe.

The obvious moral to this story is: Be careful where you get your beadwork.

Years have passed and the name of the river has been shortened to the Toe, and now it is further labeled as the North Toe and the South Toe. All of this just to provide us with another great hike.

South Toe River Loop Trail

Difficulty: Moderate. If you follow my recommendation, the initial climb will be steep but once it’s over, the trail is fairly easy.

Shoes: There was a variety of boots and shoes in our group. No one had any complaints. I think almost anything with structure will work well.

Time: Two to three hours seems to be common. That will give you some stopping time. The river might tempt you to stay a little longer.

Distance: Our GPS reported 4.07 miles for the loop. We did not leave the main trail to explore so that is a pretty accurate estimate. From the parking lot to the high point was an elevation gain of 459 feet. Like most mountain trails, you will climb and descend, then climb again so your actual climbing will be more than 1500 feet.

Safety: The initial climb is steep with plenty of rocks and roots. Careful foot placement will be required.

No bikes or horses are allowed on the initial portion of the hike but the last half mile or so transitions onto a trail that allows bikes. That trail is wide and flat. A passing biker will not be a problem.

From the parking area, you can cross the road to the Black Mountain campground. There are excellent restroom facilities there.

Our group wore hiking shorts and came home with a few bug bites. You can minimize that problem with long pants or repellent, but no need to be too concerned.

How to get there

This location is easy to find on several apps and on Google maps. Query ‘Black Mountain campground.’ This trail parking is across from the campground entrance.

We chose N.C. 80 from Marion to the Blue Ridge Parkway. Continue under the parkway toward Mt. Mitchell Golf Course. Just before the golf course, turn left on S. Toe River Road. Stay on this road until the pavement ends. About two more miles of gravel will get you to the signs for the campground. When you find the campground, the trail parking is on the left and is an obvious, paved, parking area. Estimated driving time, one way, is less than 45 minutes.

The trail

At the parking area there is a nice kiosk type signboard. Look just to the right and you will see the trail markers for this trail and a couple others. That’s your starting point. For the entire hike, follow the yellow diamond blazes. The trail is very well marked. From here, you will be hiking the loop in a clockwise direction. I recommend this route because it completes the hard climbing first and gives you a very relaxing cool-down at the end. This is the direction most of the trail apps will track you.

Like so many trails in WNC, this one takes you immediately uphill. The climb goes from moderate to steep, but it is not impossible. You’re just out of the car and don’t have time to work into it. Stop occasionally to admire the nature around you. This trail is lush with vegetation and beautiful trees.

After a bit of climbing, the Mountains to Sea Trail, designated by the white circle blaze, will leave to the left. Now it’s just the yellow and white diamonds to follow. More climbing, and the Green Knob Trail heads up and to the left. Now you have only the yellow blaze to follow. It is at this point that the trail begins to show a little mercy. It will still roll up and down but with moderation. The hard part is over.

I did not see any view that I thought was noteworthy but the prolific foliage on this trail will make you stop and admire nature and possibly get a few pictures. It’s like hiking through a garden store. Just no shopping allowed. My wife has an app on her phone that allows her to take pictures of the plants. Then the app will identify the species. That app was very much in use on this adventure.

The trail narrows with a precipitous drop off on the right, but it remains generally level until it makes a definite downward turn to the right. In a moment, you will see the service road ahead.

Turn left on the gravel road and cross the South Toe River on a well-constructed vehicle bridge. There is ample room here for a break and a snack.

Just past the bridge, you will see the markers on the right side of the road that put you back on the trail and head back into the woods. At this point, the path is noticeably gentler. It’s not a stroll, but you will be relaxed enough to smell the abundant laurel and see signs of the forthcoming rhododendron. The river now bubbles along on your right.

My advice is to walk slowly and quietly through this area. Look high up the hillside on your left and you might get a glimpse of a bear or two. We were not that lucky on this hike, but I know from experience that the bears frequent this area so keep your eyes open.

The dirt trail will take you into the back of the Black Mountain Campground. There is another restroom building on the left and noticeable wide camping areas.

Very quickly, the trail changes to a wide, flat, fine gravel path. You’re in the park from here to the car. Although this path will take you through the camping areas, don’t miss the plants and the river as you stroll out to, and across the road to the parking area. There are several trail intersections along the last half mile. Take note and research these trails for future adventures.

The mountains in western North Carolina are rich with real history and, perhaps more enticing, mountain stories and folklore. I know many ghost stories, gold stories, war stories, and Native American stories and I have only scratched the surface. If you have something to share, send me an email, but most of all, don’t just explore the trail, explore your heritage.

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