By Bill Poteat firstname.lastname@example.org
For several decades, one of the primary attractions at Chimney Rock Park in Rutherford County was the loop formed high atop the mountain ridge on the west flank of the Hickory Nut Gorge by the Cliffside Trail and the Skyline Trail.
This loop took hikers across perilously narrow rock ledges and over the flowing waters of Falls Creek, just above the precipitous 400-foot drop of Hickory Nut Falls. The dramatic scenery provided the backdrop for the climatic fight scene in the 1992 film, “Last of the Mohicans.”
The loop was also the scene of tragedy, however, as a 9-year-old girl slipped around a barricade and fell to her death in August of 1994, and a 2-year-old boy plunged to his death off a cliff in May of 2008.
Shortly after the latter accident, which occurred soon after Chimney Rock was incorporated into the North Carolina State Parks system, the park decided to close the loop until a safer, more pedestrian-friendly route could be established.
Nearly 10 years have passed since that closure but earlier this autumn a new Skyline Trial was opened at the park — a trail which safely takes hikers to the park’s highest elevation, Peregrine’s Point, and to the upper cascades of Hickory Nut Falls.
Ready to climb?
Anyone wanting to hike this new trail must be warned that just getting to the trailhead is quite the endeavor. The elevator from the main parking area to the park’s namesake feature is closed for repairs. When in commission, which park officials hope it will be again early in 2018, the elevator provides a 26-story climb through a shaft surrounded by solid rock.
With the elevator closed, however, just getting to the start of the trail via the Outcropping Trail and the Exclamation Point Trail is a climb of 838 steps.
It was after climbing those same 838 steps, during a visit to the old trail in 2005, that my bride threatened me with divorce, demolishment, and dismemberment if we did not soon find level ground.
Of course, the views grow increasingly better with each step climbed, and the view from Chimney Rock itself (elevation 2,280 feet) is one of the most memorable in all of western North Carolina. The village of Chimney Rock is far below. The Hickory Nut Gorge stretches to the north. To the southeast are the shimmering waters of Lake Lure and then the rolling expanse of the North Carolina Piedmont.
Park literature touts this as a 75-mile view and on a clear, crisp day, I have no doubt that it would be. I have also have no doubt that the Charlotte skyline would also be visible on such a day for even though the day of my visit was quite hazy, I could still pick out the looming shapes of Crowders Mountain and the adjacent Pinnacle.
The new trail
The new 1.1-mile Skyline Trail begins on the rocky bald of Exclamation Point (elevation 2,480 feet) and then climbs into a dense, old-growth forest populated with towering oak, hickory, and hemlock trees. Although the climb is steady, switchbacks are used both to make the walk easier for hikers and to protect the forest’s ecology.
The half-way point of the trail is Peregrine’s Point (elevation 2,640 feet) which looks down on Exclamation Point and then again out across the gorge to Lake Lure.
Leaving Peregrine’s Point, the trail enters the deep woods again and then makes its way toward Falls Creek. The trail ends at a viewing area where it is possible to see Falls Creek begin its plunge over the sheer cliff.
In the construction of this new trail, the park sought to keep it as natural as possible, as environmentally friendly as possible, and as safe as possible. Making the trail sustainable for the long run under the heavy traffic which it is likely to see was also one of the construction goals.
Park officials estimate that, on average, it will take a reasonably fit hiker about two and a half hours to make the trek from the upper parking lot to the end of the Skyline Trail and back.
My brother Johnny and I walked at a very leisurely pace, pulled out our binoculars at every viewing location, enjoyed a snack at Peregrine’s Point, and still made the walk in a little more than three hours.
We had first visited Chimney Rock about 55 years ago on a family outing, I had taken my own children on the old loop trail back in the early 1990s, and my bride and I had hiked it in 2005. That old trail was pretty spectacular, but I think the state made the right choice in opting for safety and sustainability in its replacement.
The new Skyline Trail can now rightfully take its place as one of the most scenic treks in the entire state.
Bill Poteat may be reached at 704-869-1855.