Written by 2019 DBR Ambassador Lyle Mitchell
Western North Carolina, USA, has been my home since 2011. During that time, I’ve been fortunate enough to explore a great deal of what these old mountains have to offer.
There are phenomenal trails to experience in the wild, wild west, but let’s talk about a place you might not be as familiar with. Sure, the mountains here may lack in elevation compared to the western lands, but for good reason. The Appalachian and surrounding mountain chains are some of the oldest mountains in the world, estimated to have originally been up to 30,000 ft high when they first formed, with the highest being Mt. Mitchell at 6,684 ft.
These mountains instead offer an incredible abundance of biodiversity and wisdom. From rocky scrambles to ridgeline runs to beautiful streams carving their way through temperate rainforests, here are three of my favorite runs in this beautiful place I call home. Snook’s Nose and Heartbreak are both featured on the route for the Hellbender 100 miler, which our NC Mountain Trail Runners club puts on.
NC Trail #1: Snook’s Nose
Route Length: 7 or 17 miles
Why it’s a fave: Full value climbing with plenty of rewarding views.
Trail Highlights: Some serious, steep vert
The approach to the Snook’s Nose trailhead will depend on the time of year, since the gate to the Curtis Creek campground is typically closed from January 1 through March 31. Curtis Creek was actually part of the first 8,100 acres purchased as a national forest east of the Mississippi.
Once you hit the trail, Snook’s serves up about 1,200 ft of climbing in the first mile and a half! You’re rewarded with awesome views to the east and to the west from the rocky clearing atop Snook’s Nose. Be warned: there are a few rattlesnakes that frequent this warm, sunny spot.
Once you’ve taken in the view, you’ll continue climbing for a total of 3.4 mi and 1,500 ft more of climbing to the famous Blue Ridge Parkway. You have a couple options from here: turning around for a steep descent back to the campground, or a blast up Green Knob for a fun ~17 mi loop!
The big loop takes you down into the Black Mountain Campground, down South Toe River Rd > Neal’s Creek > Curtis Creek Rd > Leadmine Gap Trail > Hickory Branch Trail and finally back to your car.
NC Trail #2: Shortoff Mountain to Table Rock
Route Length: 16 miles (roundtrip)
Why it’s a fave: Linville Gorge provided me with my first exposure to wilderness, so it holds an especially warm place in my heart
Trail Highlights: Breathtaking running on the eastern ridge of the Linville Gorge with sounds of the Linville River below
Linville Gorge is my favorite place in NC, so it’s only fitting that I include it in my list. While you’ll find beauty either way, your best bet is a pre-dawn start so you can watch the sun illuminate the Gorge as you head north.
Park at the Wolf Pit trailhead, make your way up to the ridge and keep on cruising the ups and downs. You’ll pass a potable spring early on, but plan on taking enough water for the out and back.
You’ll pass the Chimneys around 6.5 mi, which make for some good scrambling. Another 1.5 mi brings you to the summit of Table Rock. You’ll be at no shortage of amazing views on this route, but take a moment and soak this summit up.
If you’re here in mid to late summer, you may find wild mountain blueberries ripe for the picking!
NC Trail #3: Heartbreak Ridge
Route Length: 16 miles
Why it’s a fave: A great go-to training run when prepping for mountain races
Trail highlight: Technical, ridgeline singletrack with great exposure and a fast, flowy downhill on the return
Heartbreak Ridge is both the first climb and the last descent of the Hellbender 100. This route is one of my favorite training runs when preparing for mountain ultras.
Park along Graphite Rd at the Star Gap trailhead and then start your climb. You’ll first cross a set of train tracks, then a creek, before coming to the base of the switchbacks. Keep this section in mind for the end of your descent, as it is quite technical on the downhill!
You’ll hit a saddle at the top of the switchbacks and then continue up the ridge along the Heartbreak trail. Almost four miles of sustained climbing will bring you to a small grassy area, where you’ll bear right to connect with Old Toll Rd. There is usually enough of a trickle off the rocks to be able to filter some water before the turn.
As pictured, there are some creepy trailers that have been there for years, used by hunters during the winter months. Hang a right and then keep your eyes peeled for a blazed trail on your left. If you hit the parkway, you’ve gone too far!
Climb this trail to the rocky outcropping of Blue Ridge Pinnacle and enjoy the 360 degree view! Eat a snack and then saddle up to reverse it all.
A quad-busting descent awaits you as you make your way back down the ridgeline. The rocks and roots up top can be slick with any moisture, so tread carefully. Otherwise, enjoy the ride!
If you have any questions about these three routes, please reach out and I’ll provide what data I can. I love these mountains and hope that you are able to experience them as well. Until then, happy running!