As one of the most photographed landmarks along North Carolinas' Blue Ridge Parkway, Rough Ridge is a popular day hike for visitors traveling through the region. Having a reputation as one of the best, short distance hikes off the parkway, I made it a priority to stop here on a recent trip to hike the 1.6 miles up the ridge to capture a few of my own photographs from its famous craggy cliffs.
With so many overlooks, waterfalls, and interconnected hiking trails, millions of people make an entire trip out of just visiting the Blue Ridge Parkway each year. On this trip alone, we set out to explore many of the popular hiking destinations in this small corner of North Carolina, which boasts some of the most striking scenery in the country; Grandfather Mountain State Park, Linville Gorge Wilderness, and Pisgah National Forest.
As our first stop, we headed straight for Rough Ridge. Its trailhead is located near the Blue Ridge Parkway Milepost 302.8, in the shadow of Grandfather Mountain State Park. The trailhead parking area was so full that people were chosing to park in the Linn Cove Viaduct and Wilson Creek Areas, and hiking the several mile difference just to reach the ridge. We were able to arrive at just the perfect moment, as another car pulled out right in front of us, we slid right in to take its spot. My first impression of the place was that of AWE. One doesn’t even need to hike up Rough Ridge to enjoy the expansive mountain views, just stand next to your car and open your eyes.
If the mountain views were not enough, the trailhead greets visitors with a majestic roaring waterfall right in the parking area. Walking up the flagstone steps, we began the steep and muddy climb to see the rugged cliffs this area is most known for. What only a few of my fellow visitors might know, is that Rough Ridge is merely a landmark along the much longer Tanawha Trail.
This trail stretches 13.5 miles from Julian Price Park to Beacon Heights, just south of Rough Ridge. Tanawha, the Cherokee word for fabulous hawk or eagle, appropriately reflects the unobstructed views one gets of the Piedmont regions mountains landscape while hiking this trail.
Crossing a small footbridge over a roaring waterfall, the trail immediately turns into a muddy mess. This is one of those trails where Vibram soles and a waterproof boot liner are a must. A light rain was starting to set in, making the rocks and boulders along the route even more slick. Most of this trail involves some form of scrambling with only a few stretches of sloshed up mud to walk on in between, almost like jumping onto marshmallows floating in a cup of hot cocoa.
Making our way through the deep green tunnels of mountain laurel and rhododendrons, surrounded by cascading streams, one can’t imagine this trail getting any better, and then it does. Our path reaches an enormous sloping boulder with a placard, stating the importance of remaining on the trail and not disturbing the fragile mountain ecosystem above. The climb up this steep rock, led up a narrow lane through a dense thicket, and onto the first steps of the Rough Ridge Boardwalk.
This 200-foot boardwalk zigzags through an unusual-low growing and fragile mountain heather ecosystem filled with rare, ancient plants and lichens that thrive in this sun drenched, windy, exposed terrain. Todays forecast has this entire area blanketed by low cloud cover bringing visibility to only a few dozen feet away at times.
Despite the poor conditions, the occasionally gust of wind parts the clouds and allows us a chance to make out the rolling mountainous landscape that seems to stretch into infinity. Looking south, we can see the world famous Linn Cove Viaduct, snaking its way around the base of Grandfather Mountain.
A few openings on the boardwalk allow for visitors to step out onto several southward facing cliffs to enjoy a scenic picture or to just stand there and marvel at the gorgeous landscape. At this point, half of the visitors would more than likely turn around and head back to their cars, but the real view is still another 0.5 mile trek up the craggy hills. We continue along the narrow trail, headed uphill through another section of slippery boulders. Thankfully, a steel wire rope is in place to aid in our climb and help us with our footing.
Making our way through a dense cluster of blueberry bushes flanking both sides of the trail, we suddenly pop out underneath the massive rock promontory most visitors come to photograph. To our delight, we spotted a group in the midst of sitting with their legs dangling over the cliffs edge, which made for a whimsical photo.
After waiting a long queue to access the craggy balds, our patience was rewarded with extraordinary views. Despite having missed the peak of fall colors by two weeks, I still found myself mesmerized by the rolling landscape that unfolded before us.
I took delight in simply sitting over the cliffs edge, watching cars roll along the Blue Ridge Parkway beneath my feet. From here, the Linn Cove Viaduct is even clearer, with its light grey concrete standing out brightly amongst all of the earthy shades of red and orange. Although we decided to turn around and head back to the parking area, plenty of other hikers chose to continue south along the Tanawha Trail to its terminus at Beacon Heights.
In between, they’ll encounter the cascading waters of Wilson Creek, get a chance to hike underneath the Linn Cove Viaduct, climb up to see Stack Rock, and finish off their hike by catching some breathtaking views of Grandmother Mountain from the cliffs of Beacon Heights. Next time you find yourself traveling along the Blue Ridge Parkway, make sure to plan a stop at Rough Ridge, and hike one of the best trails off the parkway! Next up, we plan on pulling off the road to hike the second most popular landmark of the Tanawha Trail, Stack Rock. See y’all on the trails