It wasn't long after moving back to southwestern North Carolina five years ago I made the winding drive up US-64 from Lake Toxaway to Cashiers through the beautiful resort community of Sapphire Valley. Along the way I remember many of the sights first seen that day...mountain lakes and numerous rocky peaks could seen as I made the scenic trip. One mountain in particular, however, caught my attention. To the south, as I drove through Sapphire, rose a high pointed pinnacle of rock very unlike the more rounded summits which characterize the area. This was my first look at Chimneytop Mountain, and I decided immediately I had to climb it. Unfortunately, I discovered, it would be a bit more difficult goal to achieve than I anticipated.
The problem arises through accessibility. The mountain itself, and its spectacular neighbor Rocky Mountain (which I didn't discover until later looking at a map of the area), sits on Nantahala National Forest Land and are both climbable via marked and maintained trails. The only trouble is the starting points to these trails begin from the property of the historic and exclusive property of the High Hampton Inn to the south of Cashiers. Not that long ago the Inn welcomed non-guest hikers to their trail system but, for reasons unknown to me, that policy changed a number of years ago. Now, to access the trails which ascend Chimneytop and Rocky Mountains you either have to be a guest of the resort or be a visitor of a guest at the resort. Just being a lowly local, this meant that for years I couldn't get to the summit that so tempted me with each successive drive up US-64. This year, however, my luck changed. On a hike a few days prior I had happened across a pleasant gentleman walking the trails in nearby Panthertown. We got to talking and, long story short, he informed me he was staying at the High Hampton for the week. Gathering my nerves I cautiously asked if he might permit me access as a visitor so I might climb there. Happily he agreed and my hopes to hike Chimneytop looked to finally be realized.
Due to the fact that the trail system at High Hampton isn't open to the public I'm not going to share info on how to reach the trailhead here. Though, as you'll see, these are fantastically beautiful peaks I don't want to be responsible for a rush of trespassing hikers climbing them. That said, if you are able to visit legally, the trails you'll find are wonderfully maintained and well-marked. The first path I'd utilize, known as the Headwaters Trail ascends moderately through a forest of mixed hardwoods and pine gradually climbing over the course of a mile-and-a-half to the narrow gap between the peaks of Rocky Mountain and Chimneytop. At the gap a choice is presented. A left turn begins the 0.6 mile ascent to Rocky while a right turn leads an equal distance to the summit of Chimneytop. You can't go wrong with either choice and, trust me, you really should visit both as I did on my visit. Rocky Mountain is the slightly lower of the two and was the first I visited. A steep, forested, and rocky trail leads pretty much straight up the south side of the summit to an amazing panoramic view from atop its sheer 700' cliffs. A word of caution though...stick to the trails...the thin soils atop the cliffs are easily disturbed so care should be taken if you are prone to wander. Returning to the gap I then turned my attention to the climb of Chimneytop. It's a fairly brutal ascent. The trail gains nearly 1,000-feet in its 0.6-mile length and is narrow, rooty, and ascends a couple of decently steep rock ledges. The reward for the effort though is more than worth it. From the narrow rocky summit the whole of the southwestern North Carolina high country is spread out before you. The peaks of Panthertown Valley lie to the north, the rugged profile of Whiteside Mountain rises to the west, and if the skies are clear enough and free of haze the massive 6,000'+ Plott Balsam and Great Smoky Mountains can be lining the far horizons. Chimneytop is as spectacular a summit as any you can climb in the area.
Overall I felt very extremely fortunate to have had the opportunity to climb these two mountains. After five years of waiting I had pretty much resigned myself to never achieving their summits. In addition to the spectacular scenery offered standing atop them, the waiting and wishing added an extra kick of excitement to my visit. So, without further adieu I invite you to come along with me as I explore two summits that I can say with fair certainty that not many have seen. If you ever have the incredible fortune to climb them...don't hesitate...GO!!
Mileage Hiked: 5.2 miles Hike Duration: 3:00
Trailhead Temp: 60'F Trail Traffic: 5-10 people
Min. Elevation: 3,450' Max. Elevation: 4,618'
Total Vertical Gain: 1,740' Avg. Elevation Gain / Mile: 335'