North Carolinas “High Country” is known for its charming mountain towns and abundance of high peaks, the tallest east of the Mississippi River. For over a decade, the region has been a home away from home for me, providing a refuge from which to explore the many great state parks in the area. One of the lesser known parks, with the most spectacular, unobstructed views of the surrounding Blue Ridge Mountains is Mount Jefferson State Natural Area.
With several miles of hiking trails, scenic overlooks, updated facilities, and plenty of space to enjoy a picnic, its a great place to spend an afternoon exploring. Rising 1,600 feet above the towns of Jefferson and West Jefferson, most visitors get their first view of this mountain from the nearby Blue Ridge Parkway. The 1,154 acre park encompasses the entire area surrounding the solitary peak. Driving here is quite easy considering theres only one road leading in or out of the park.
Pulling into the rangers station, just past the front gate, we grabbed a map and headed off on our trek towards the summit of Mount Jefferson. Driving up the mountain, our first stop was along the pull off to view Sunset Overlook. On a clear day, you can peer all the way into Tennessee and Virginia from here. Spreading out from southwest to southeast, you can see the peaks of; Mulatto Mtn, Grandfather Mtn, Laurel Mtn, Bald Mtn, the Bluff Range, The Peak (5,180 ft), Paddy Mtn, and Three Top Range. If the vista here isn’t enough to convince you to continue towards the peak, then I don’t know what is. Visit early in the evening to gawk at the sun setting just beyond the mountains.
If you want to begin you’re hiking from this point, the 0.5 mile Spur Trail starts here. This trail consists of an uphill climb towards Sunrise Overlook, which connects to the 2 mile Mountain Ridge Trail. Having been spared logging, this peak contains one of the best examples of a southeastern oak forest in the region. During early summer the blooming rhododendrons, mountain laurel, and flame azaleas put on a spectacular show of colors, rivaled only by its fall foliage. If you don’t want to hike just yet, get back in your car and drive up to Sunrise Overlook.
Although this peak has only been an official state park since the late 1950’s, Mount Jeffersons history reaches far back to the founding of our nation. Thomas Jefferson, for which the mountain was named, spent part of his childhood exploring this valley with his father Peter, a land surveyor on the Virginia frontier. Its thought that his ideas for westward expansion and a nation spreading from “sea to shining sea”, were born from his exploration in this area of the Blue Ridge Mountains.
From this overlook its possible to see the sun rise just beyond the mountain ridge spanning the horizon. The views here face the New River Valley, with the New River State Park lying just to the north of this location. Flowing from the headwaters of the Blue Ridge Mountains, the New River is thought to be one of the oldest rivers in the world. Though there is no evidence of permanent Native American settlement here, wild game was plentiful and both the Cherokee and Shawnee claimed this valley as a hunting ground.
Continuing the drive towards the summit, the last overlook reachable by car is the famous Jefferson Overlook. In 1827, Dr. Elisha Mitchell,on his way to discovering that Mt. Mitchell was the highest peak east of the Mississippi, climbed this peak and exclaimed, “I have never seen anything more beautiful than the view from the big rocks near the top of the mountain.” Heck, I think he was putting it mildly. From this point of view you can see the highest peaks in the state of Virginia, Whitetop Mtn (5,344 ft) and Mt. Rogers (5729 ft), some 30 miles away. There were even small plumes of clouds floating just a few feet from us. You don’t see that everyday!
Driving the last mile towards the summit parking area, we get our gear ready as the rest of the trip will be by foot. This is the main recreation area, with a dozen picnic areas spread out throughout the forested hillside surrounding the large rustic shelter. In all of my travels through dozens of state parks and national parks, this is by far one of the most charming recreation areas I’ve ever visited. A small trail leads to a rustic, arts and craft styled water fountain. Even the original camp style restroom, which looks like a small cottage, had modern amenities.
From here the 0.3 mile Summit Trail takes you on a gentle climb to the actual peak of Mount Jefferson. Even with day temperatures reaching into the mid 90’s, the dense canopy keeps the ground below moist, creating the perfect habitat for shade loving wildflowers to bloom. Along the path to the summit, dense colonies of beech fern intermingle with scarlet catchfly, around the base of mountain laurel bushes the size of small trees. On the summit of Mount Jefferson, you’ll find a victorious placard stating the elevation, right beside a small National Weather Service station.
A dirt path right behind the weather station leads to a small overlook, but for the most part its really hard to get a good view from here. Thankfully, there are several more trails that lead to summit overlooks worth hiking to. Hop right onto the 1.1 mile Rhododendron Trail just past the large cave like, stone shelter. This trail follows the ridge line that creates the backbone to this mountain.
One of the things that make Mount Jefferson so special and worth saving are the rare plant communities found here. This part of the mountain contains a large stand of big toothed aspen, a northern tree usually found growing in the Rocky Mountain Range. Before the chestnut blight wiped out most of the American chestnut trees, it was the primary canopy tree here, providing food for the red squirrels that inhabit the forest. If you stand quietly still for a few moments, you might even get a glimpse of one, roaming amongst the large boulders along the trail.
After a bit more hiking we reached our destination, Luther Rock. From this stone outcropping, we could see all the way back to the weather station atop the summit of Mount Jefferson. Looking east, we could see the town of Orion, along the southern fork of the New River. If you’re disappointed by the views atop the summit, the scenic views from luther rock will make it up to you. Aside from hiking in Virginias, Grayson Highlands State Park, I can’t think of anywhere else in the southeast where the mountain views get any better than this
If you ever find yourself in North Carolinas high country, make sure to put this place on your itinerary. Its convenient location a few miles from the Blue Ridge Parkway, make it a convenient stop along the drive. The town of Jefferson can also be used as a hub for your very own mountain exploration. Its central location is less than an hour away from several incredible parks; Stone Mountain State Park, New River State Park, Grandfather Mountain State Park, Bluff Mountain Preserve, Grayson Highlands State Park (Virginia), and Mount Rogers (Virginia). Stay tuned for our upcoming adventures in Virginia, until then see y’all on the trails!