I have a feeling Fryingpan Mountain is one of the most overlooked peaks on the Blue Ridge Parkway. Every day hundreds of people hurrying between the more well-known Black Balsam and Mt. Pisgah areas pass right by the non-descript forest service road that leads to one of the best ‘bang for your buck’ peaks in the southern Appalachians. Not that I’m complaining, I like my peaks quiet, but it does surprise me that word hasn’t gotten out yet about this summit.
Fryingpan Mountain (there’s no clear story behind the name, though I’m sure you could make something up) sits along the Blue Ridge only a few miles south of Mt. Pisgah. Its location couldn’t be better as it rises above the East Fork Pigeon River Valley directly across from Cold Mountain and the Shining Rock Ridge. Many have said it owns the finest views of Cold Mountain, and I’m here to tell ya, they’re right! Standing a respectable 5,340’ high, the mountain itself is not a standalone giant but rather a fairly nondescript, tree-covered bump along the Blue Ridge. Something happened though in the 1940’s to make this peak even more interesting...
In the early 20th Century the war against forest fires was being waged, full strength, by the US Forest Service. A wave of construction swept over the North Carolina mountains as fire lookout towers of every shape and description started popping up on, literally, hundreds of peaks large and small. Fryingpan wasn’t one of the early towers, typically built of stone or wood, but rather it was a more modern tower of steel construction. What helps make Fryingpan’s lookout so unique is its impressive height. It rises 70-some feet above the summit making it one of the highest towers in the southern mountains. It’s unclear why the USFS thought they needed such a commanding tower but obviously they wanted to see a long, long way. They succeeded. The tower was manned until the 1990’s at which point it was decommissioned but, thankfully, left standing. Soon thereafter, the tower was placed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Today the tower remains and, as far as I know, is open to the public throughout the year. You can’t get up into the cab, or living quarters, of the tower but the stairs get you plenty high above the trees. Aside from needing a good paint job I was surprised, upon visiting, how sturdy the old lookout was. It was quite a breezy the day I visited and you could hardly feel a movement. Considering it has spent 70 years atop a mountain ridge, 20 of those abandoned, it’s quite a testament to the men who built it.
The view though, oh the view…everywhere you look from the upper landings you’ll see a sea of ridges and valleys stretching off in every direction. The commanding bulk of the Great Balsams dominates the skyline to the west. Across the 3,000’ depth of the East Fork Pigeon River Valley rises the 6,040’ pyramid of Cold Mountain. To the east is the familiar cone of Mt. Pisgah with (on a clear day) the Black Mountains visible beyond. South is the deep green bowl of the South Mills River Valley which is home to the famous Pink Beds and the historic Cradle of Forestry. Your camera is sure to get a workout here…
Hike Length: 1.5 miles Hike Duration: 1:30
Trailhead Temp: 75'F
Min. Elevation: 4,950' Max. Elevation: 5,340'
Total Vertical Gain: 390' Avg. Elevation Gain / Mile: 520'