Craggy Gardens Trail | 1.9 Miles
Craggy Gardens Location | Google Maps
If you have ever visited Craggy Gardens, chances are you’ve done so by first stopping at the Craggy Gardens Visitors Center. With 80,000 visitors annually, this small ranger station swells to accommodate as many people as some of the smaller mountain towns in the area. While a few of the trails in Craggy Gardens such as Craggy Pinnacle Trail and Craggy Dome have their own separate trailheads, most of the other trails in the area begin here. Located on milepost 364.5 of the Blue Ridge Parkway, Craggy Gardens has been greeting onlookers eager to catch a glimpse of the stunning landscape long before the creation of the parkway. In the 1920’s, at the behest of locals who wanted an easier way to reach the flower covered mountains, a Civilian Conservation Corps camp based in Dillingham, built a narrow road through the Pisgah National Forest up to the base of Craggy Knob.
This helped commercialize one of the biggest Rhododendron Festivals in the country, held right here at Craggy Gardens from the late 1920’s-1940. People would come from all over the country for the week long event in mid June, to witness Catawba rhododendrons put on a breathtaking display throughout the Great Craggy Mountains. Some of the first trails in the area were built during that time to guide visitors through the gardens of blooming wildflowers and bushes. This is where the origins of the Craggy Gardens Trail began. Though this trail starts at the Visitors Center and ends at the Picnic Area, everyone comes to see everything that lays in between.
Its early fall and the rhododendrons have long since lost their flowering blooms. Mountain ash takes its turn in the spotlight by lighting up the forest with its bright red clusters of berries. They’re everywhere and the contrast between the berries and the various greens and browns along the trail is beautiful in its own way. The first 0.35 miles of the Craggy Gardens Trail passes through the gnarled and twisted tunnel of ancient rhododendrons that have called this place home for millennia.
Their mangled appearance is due to the harsh climate of this mountain range which is known for its strong winds, ice storms, and short growing season. Add to that a constant covering of fog and you have the perfect recipe for what could be a Halloween haunted trail.
The sun is beginning its descent below the horizon, which is perfect because we’re here to witness a glorious Craggy Gardens sunset. Following the stone lined path of the Craggy Gardens Trail as it ascends up towards Craggy Flats, we reach the Douglas Falls Trail intersection. Here, hikers can chose to turn right onto the 8.0 mile roundtrip to the 70 foot tall Douglas Falls. This trail is a crowd favorite, but unless you’re prepared for a strenuous hike that could last up to 4 hours, I suggest you come back when you have the extra time. Veering LEFT at the intersection, we begin the approach to the historic trail shelter along a small section of the Mountains To Sea Trail.
This simple, yet elegant post and beam shelter is an original structure built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930’s. As of this year, it’ll be close to celebrating a hundred years of welcoming guests to the sprawling gardens of Craggy Flats. Surrounded by groves of rhododendrons, towering ash trees, blazing foliage of blueberry bushes, the delicate structure of buckeye trees and grasses swaying in the wind, it really does look like a fancy garden shed.
The term “garden” used to describe this place was first coined due to the ecologically diverse range of plants found here. Some of the smallest gardens themselves are hidden away on the bald crags spread out among this range. Tucked in between slivers of rocks are tiny plants known as “alpine relics”, remnants of the flora that existed during the last ice age.
As glaciers retreated northward, the plants remained trapped on the high elevation peaks of the Southern Appalachians, eventually evolving into distinct species unique to the area. With the growing popularity of Craggy Gardens in the last few decades, these endangered plants have seen a 63% decline, which has caused irreparable damage to the fragile ecosystem of the area. To protect these miniature ecosystems, it’s important to stay off the rock outcroppings found along the summits and overlooking the deep valleys of Craggy Gardens.
While the main Craggy Gardens Trail continues past the trail shelter through a tunnel of trees, those interested in wandering the gardens should veer off the main trail to the higher slopes. Wether you chose to walk through the trail shelter or up the slope in front of it, doesn’t make a difference as it all leads to the same place.
Craggy Flats is quite a deceptive name as there is nothing flat about this area. In fact, we are actually walking along an elongated slope like that of the roof of an “A” frame house. Winding paths criss cross up the slope towards the manicured islands of rhododendrons, with the real view being right behind you. In between stretches of dense fog, framed views of the Mineral Creek Valley open up as far as the eye can see.
With sunset approaching fast, the sky began its dramatic show of vibrant shades of orange, pink, and purple. There is just enough light to cast high contrasting shadows upon the various ridges off in the distance, making the whole scene appear like a work of art. This is a popular spot for locals to come and witness such a spectacle.
Looking all around, I can spot couples sitting in the fields under a warm blanket, enjoying the time honored tradition of spending a romantic evening here. Of all the gorgeous places throughout the Blue Ridge Parkway, Craggy Flats gets the most requests for wedding permits. While the garden area and the trail shelter are typically the go-to spots, Craggy Knob is a close third. Following the deeply cut paths up towards the top of the hill, we finally reach the small overlook with the Burnett Reservoir in view just below us.
Standing atop the summit of Craggy Knob (5,526’), one gets a birds eye view of the sprawling town of Black Mountain off in the distance. Though one can see the lights of homes dotted all across the landscape, the peaks surrounding Craggy Gardens are known for their excellent star gazing. Captivated by the scenery, it took the sudden cover of fog rolling in to snap me out of my daze and miss my opportunity to take a picture. It seems that some things are better experienced in person.
WIth dusk fully set in, it takes the use of a flash light to make my way back to the trail shelter and onto the Craggy Gardens Trail towards the Visitors Center. Up next, I’ll be traveling due west through Western North Carolina to explore the states newest project, Gorges State Park. Known for its sheer cliffs and roaring waterfalls, Gorges State Park is located atop the Jocassee Gorges escarpment, leading down to the Piedmont region of South Carolina. Stay tuned for our upcoming article on exploring Rainbow Falls, Turtle Falls, Drift Falls, and Bearwallow Falls. Until next time, see y’all on the trails!