Southwest North Carolina is a land of plutons. Looking Glass Rock, Whiteside Mountain, Big and Little Green Mountains of Panthertown Valley are all famous examples of this particular type of peak. Characterized by their bare, sheer walls of granite these peaks were formed hundreds of millions of years ago when molten rock welled up from deep within the earth and then cooled before it could erupt. Over the eons the relatively soft rock overlaying these upwellings eroded away leaving the huge, eye-catching balls of rock we see today. Transylvania County sports three major plutons. The most famous is undoubtedly the aforementioned Looking Glass Rock. To the west of Looking Glass is the almost equally popular but slightly smaller John Rock. West of John Rock though is the highest of all three...and it's all but unknown...this would be my destination on this hike, the remote and beautiful Cedar Rock.
The reason for Cedar Rocks relative anonymity most likely is the result of a number of factors. First is that it's relatively remote, though only slightly more so than Looking Glass Rock. Secondly, to reach Cedar Rock one has to navigate a number of different trails making a map a necessity. Thirdly, and most likely the primary reason for its lack of visitation, is that there is no maintained/marked trail running to its summit...or at least that's what one might be led to believe looking at most maps of the mountain. The secret truth is that, while indeed there are no signs or blazes, there is in fact a fairly well-worn and easy to follow path to the top of Cedar Rock and its amazing cliffs. If I have your interest and you want in on this little-known secret, please read on...
My trek would begin from the trailhead at the Pisgah Center for Wildlife Education (also known as the Pisgah Fish Hatchery). The first part of the hike starts by following the popular Cat Gap Loop Trail as it leaves from the eastern end of the parking lot beyond a large kiosk. This is also, you might note, the same jumping-off point for a hike up to John Rock. The trail begins by following the Davidson River on a mostly level grade for about a half mile before turning south to ascend the valley of Horse Cove Creek. Three-quarters of a mile in, after an easy rock-hop of the creek the trail begins its climb...one that really isn't going to let up until you're atop Cedar Rock. As the entire Cat Gap Loop Trail is super popular with dayhikers headed to John Rock, or simply making the loop itself, this is a wide and well-worn path. At about the mile-and-a-quarter mark you'll pass the north end of the John Rock Trail on the right and, after another moderate half-mile of climbing, you reach a shallow gap where the south end of the John Rock Trail drops in again from the right. Also in this unnamed gap the Cat Gap Loop bypass (a trail which offers a slightly shorter option for the Cat Gap Loop) continues straight ahead while the primary Loop turns left uphill. To continue to Cedar Rock take that left. The trail steepens again for a short while as it ascends south towards Cat Gap itself, which it reaches at around the two-and-a-quarter mile mark. At Cat Gap the venerable Art Loeb Trail arrives on the left and coincides with the Cat Gap Loop for a few dozen yards before breaking left on its own again. Turning left on the Art Loeb you're in all likelihood leaving ninety-percent of the dayhikers in this neck of the woods behind. It's instantly a narrower, steeper, and more remote feeling path than what has preceeded it on this hike. Heading south along the Art Loeb you first make a steep climb out of Cat Gap then walk a pleasant half mile along the ridge eventually making a short descent into an obscure but important spot known as Sandy Gap.
Sandy Gap is where the unmaintained trail to the summit of Cedar Rock leaves the Art Loeb. Prior to my visit I assumed this would be a trickier junction to spot than it turned out to be. What I discovered was that the Cedar Rock Trail (as I'm naming it for this album) is fairly obvious if you're looking for it. Just for good measure I've made sure to include a couple pics of the junction in the album for good measure. After making the right onto the Cedar Rock Trail the unmaitained path continued to be easily followed as it started its steep ascent of the plutons north slope. This is no doubt the steepest climb of the hike as the trail gains around 600-feet of vertical in little more than a quarter-mile. As the trail nears the summit it punches its way through a thick grove of laurel and then begins to gradually level out. As is typical of most plutons, views don't come from their summits but from the cliffs that ring them just below so at this point I started keeping an eye out for spur trails. The first I spotted almost immediately after the trail began leveling out on my left. It led to a nice but fairly limited view from the north end of Cedar Rocks south face. Returning to the main trail I ascended the summit ridge a bit further and then noticed a small clearing to my left with what looked to be another spur, back to the south face, beyond it. It turned out this was the nicest viewpoint southward that I found from the summit. The ridges and valleys of southern Transylvania County spread away to the dark wall of the Blue Ridge beyond. It was beautiful. Still, I wanted more so I returned to the main path and started trying spot a spur that might lead to Cedar Rocks northern cliffs. Without too much trouble I located a likely path which took me down into the thick rhododendron grove lining the top of said cliffs.
The point where I descended into the rhododendron presented me with a choice as a faint path led in both directions above the cliffs. Neither direction looked more promising than the other in terms of what views there might be so I simply went one direction and then backtracked to go the other, stopping off wherever the cliffs opened up. The views north were stunning. Recent cold temps had coated the nearby Pisgah Ridge with a beautiful white frosting adding to the scene. I was somewhat limited as to how much exploring of the clifftops I could do, however, as the cold temps had also covered the extremely steep slopes in a covering of ice. I therefore had to stick to the safety of the forst edge to get my shots. Nevertheless it was wonderful. After exploring the northern cliffs I returned to the summit ridge and soon passed the USGS benchmark denoting the true summit of Cedar Rock. Just south of the benchmark is a small campsite and the trail continues beyond to begins its steep descent of the mountains southern ridge. It didn't take long for me to appreciate that I had decided to ascend via the north ridge. A climb from the south would be just as steep and much longer. Just a word of caution. The path was its normal easy-to-follow self as it descended passing yet another small overlook shortly after leaving the summit then one of the finest viewpoints of the whole hike about halfway down. Here I was treated to a look across the cliffs facing north along the length of Cedar Rock. It was a fantastic bonus that I wasn't expecting.
Before long I reached the bottom of the steep ridge as the Cedar Rock Trail reached its southern terminus, once again emerging onto the Art Loeb Trail. This would be the south-point of my hike and I now made a left to follow the Art Loeb back up along the eastern cliffs of Cedar Rock. As the path draws near the cliffs the route gets quite steep again and a handful of short side paths lead towards the base of the cliffs themselves. As beautiful as the views are from the top the views of the steep, weather-worn cliffs from the bottom is equally awesome in a completely different way. If anything it makes you appreciate the scale of what you were standing atop of just a short time before. Passing the cliffs it wasn't that long before the Art Loeb returned me once again to Sandy Gap, where I had begun my loop over Cedar Rock. At that point it was just a matter of retracing my steps back to the Cat Gap Loop and thus back to where I had started.
So there you have it...the secret of Cedar Rock. My overall impression of the hike was one of complete enjoyment. It's a tough hike, I won't sugar coat it...not super long at 8-miles but the 2,000+ feet of vertical to overcome makes it a leg stretcher. The payoff though is incredible. Views that easily compete with its more popular neighbors are only enhanced by something you don't get at Looking Glass or John Rock on most days...SOLITUDE. Cedar Rock is a place I waited far to long to get to and I'm thrilled to finally be able to share a bit of the beauty I finally discovered. So, without further adieu come on along with me to Cedar Rock...a true hidden gem of the Pisgah Ranger District. As always...ENJOY!!!
Trailhead GPS Coordinates: 35.284411, -82.791026
Mileage Hiked: 8.0 miles Hike Duration: 4:00
Trailhead Temp: 35'F Trail Traffic: 10-25 people
Min. Elevation: 2,350' Max. Elevation: 4,056'
Total Vertical Gain: 2,180' Avg. Elevation Gain / Mile: 273'