The Devils Courthouse Overlook located on milepost 422.4 of the Blue Ridge Parkway is one of the must see stops along this scenic highway. At just a 1 mile roundtrip, hikers can summit this 5,720’ ft peak to an observation deck with sweeping views stretching across four states. Though this trail ascends nearly 300 feet of elevation, its mostly paved surface makes it easy for visitors of all skill levels to traverse. Not just a pretty place to visit, this forested outcropping is also home to a variety of endangered plant and animal species including several nesting pairs of Peregrine Falcons. Steeped in Native American lore, the Cherokee People believed an inaccessible cave located just below the peak was once the home of a mythical slant-eyed giant and a dance hall for the devil himself.
Devils Courthouse Trail | 0.8 Mile Out & Back
Devils Courthouse Trail Map | Alltrails
Devils Courthouse Location | Google Maps
Having just spent an entire day hiking the Art Loeb Trail and summiting Sam Knob along the Blue Ridge Parkway, I thought it pertinent to sneak a quick visit to see Devils Courthouse. Just a stones throw away from the Black Balsam Knob Trailhead Area, it took no more than a few minutes to reach the Devils Courthouse Overlook on milepost 422.4, traveling south just past the Devils Courthouse Tunnel. On a typical weekend, this overlook is known to be fairly crowded with visitors as the area also contains an unbelievable display of blooming rhododendrons and wildflowers each late June through early July. Coming here on a late weekday evening shortly before sunset during peak fall foliage, I have this peak practically to myself.
Even on a cloudy day, the imposing peak of Devils Courthouse stands out against the rest of the Great Balsam Mountain Range. The dark mass of exposed rock piercing out over the ridge has an eerie look, especially with the streaks of bright red streaming down the face of the cliff, giving it the appearance that the rock is bleeding. The effect is caused by stone containing minerals made up of iron and oxide, which when exposed to oxygen, begin to rust over and turn a reddish brown color. This overlook is a favorite of photographers, whom are known to spend countless hours here waiting to catch a sunrise and sunset photo of the peak. After waiting a few minutes for the low hanging clouds to disperse, I was able to snap a scene of the sky opening up and letting enough light through to highlight some of the gorgeous fall foliage in the surrounding forest.
Though hard to tell from the overlook at street level, there is a large observation deck at the top of Devils Courthouse reached vie a short 0.5 mile trail. To reach the trailhead, follow the sidewalk heading towards Devils Courthouse Tunnel along the Blue Ridge Parkway. Just before the tunnel entrance, the sidewalk turns right into the dark balsam fir forest at the base of the cliff to begin the hike. This trail is quite steep, gaining 300 feet of elevation that requires one to walk leaning forward for the first half of it. In order to make things a little less strenuous, the path is paved for most of the duration. One unintended consequence of this is that run off from the upper ridges flows down this very path, making it terrifyingly slick, especially after a period of prolonged rain. This is where having some good quality boots, preferably with an aggressive sole, comes in handy.
The halfway point for this climb, reached once you ascend to the ridge that eventually juts out to the observation deck, is marked by a spur trail connecting Devils Courthouse to the Mountains To Sea Trail. This is a particularly scenic section of the 1,1175 mile long Mountains To Sea Trail that’s used to summit Mount Hardy and enter the Middle Prong Wilderness. All along the way are signs reminding visitors that off-trail exploration is prohibited to protect the fragile habitat surrounding this peak. Plants that have survived throughout the exposed summits of the Great Black Balsam Mountains can trace their heritage all the way back to the last Ice Age. As glaciers retreated northward into Canada, some of these early alpine species remained trapped in the cooler environment of the high summits. Growing in the tiny nooks and crevices of rock scattered throughout the area, most visitors hardly realize that the plants they are trampling are endangered.
From here, the paved path turns to dirt as it navigates under several downed trees until reaching the last scramble to the top. A wood railing aids this final ascent towards the Civilian Conservation Corps built observation deck at the far end of the peak. The near 360 degree views from atop Devils Courthouse are striking. Looming straight ahead is the 6,110 foot summit of Mount Hardy in the Middle Prong Wilderness. Facing south, Courthouse Valley swoops down into the mountainous vista that stretches into the horizon. The farthest peaks visible while looking in this direction are actually located in South Carolina and Georgia.
While most visitors can claim that they’ve summited this peak, the observation deck is nearly a dozen feet below the top of this peak. The true summit is located behind the observation deck atop the exposed crags, but is prohibited due to the fragile ecology of the area. Several species of rare and endangered birds nest in the small alcoves of weathered rock along the southeast rim of the peak that is off limits. On most days hawks, eagles, and once endangered peregrine falcons can be seen soaring overhead, using the warm air currents traveling up from Courthouse Valley to effortlessly glide through the area.
Accounts of people visiting Devils Courthouse go back before European settlers ever even stepped foot in North Carolina. In some of the earliest oral traditions of the Cherokee can be found a legend depicting this peaks sinister past. According to the myth, a cave located beneath the summit was once the home of a powerful, one-eyed, mountain giant named Judaculla. It was believed that if you roamed close enough to the peak, one could hear the faint sound of music emanating from an underground dance hall where the devil himself held court. While tough to tell how much of that myth is based on fanciful stories or fact, it’s a fun piece of history to share with curious children to peak their interest about this natural formation.
Another interesting aspect of this overlook, not found in many other sites along the parkway, are the National Park Service plaques embedded onto the retaining walls. These copper plaques, weathered to a striking iridescent green, points the way to the two ends of the Blue Ridge Parkway. One hand points towards the eastern gateway into the Smoky Mountain National Park in the town of Cherokee 47 miles away, while the other hand points to Shenandoah National Park 423 miles in the opposite direction. Wether this is a planned stop along a sightseeing trip of Western North Carolina or somewhere to get out just to stretch your legs, you won’t soon forget the magnificent views found from the Devils Courthouse Overlook.
Up next, we’ll be hitting the road several miles north along the Blue Ridge Parkway to visit another popular hiking destination called Graveyard Fields. Deriving its name from the areas appearance after a hellacious wind storm felled hundreds of spruce trees, Graveyard Fields is known for its numerous mountain waterfalls including the Upper and Lower Falls of the Yellowstone Prong. Filled with a gorgeous display of fall foliage and criss crossed by an intricate hiking trail system, its one of the more fun places to visit on the lower stretch of the parkway. Stay tuned for this upcoming adventure and as always, see y’all on the trails!