Mountains-to-Sea Trail -- 5,180'

MST - Docks Gap to Waterrock Knob


After my previous trek along the Mountains-to-Sea Trail, which took me from the Oconaluftee Visitor Center to Docks Gap, I was impatient to get back on a traditional footpath again. In large part it had been a road-walk, which is never ideal, and I needed to get some dirt on my feet again. This section of the MST would certainly cure that desire. Though not the longest segment I’d be tackling, this certainly promised to be a challenging one. Starting at Docks Gap, I’d first have a relatively easy walk as I’d be descending to Soco Gap. Beyond that, however, there’d be a big climb. Nearly 2,000-feet of vertical would be gained between Soco Gap and Waterrock Knob. Granted, it’s spread over five miles, but it’s still a grind a times. The visual reward gained upon reaching Waterrock though…it more than makes up for the effort in getting there.

This segment, as mentioned earlier, begins at Docks Gap just off the Blue Ridge Parkway. The MST doesn’t actually meet the Parkway here, but a short unmarked path leads from the pavement down to the trail and its familiar white blazes. Starting east from Docks the going is at first quite easy. The grade is a gradual, downhill one and the path is smooth and mostly free of obstacles. At about the half-mile mark the descent gets a bit more serious, however, but still nothing crazy. In another half-mile the Blue Ridge Parkway will appear through the trees below which the trail follows from this point to Soco Gap, which is reached in just under two miles from Docks Gap. This entire section is wooded, so there are no views. At least it’s easy. At Soco Gap the MST crosses U.S. Highway 19, which runs between the nearby towns of Maggie Valley and Cherokee. The two-lane road is often busy so take care in crossing over. On the east side of the road the trail heads a few hundred feet up the access road for the Blue Ridge Parkway, then turns right briefly on a smaller paved maintenance drive. Almost immediately the trail then veers left into the rhododendron where it makes a short but steep climb to the Blue Ridge Parkway itself at the Soco Gap Overlook (which, disappointingly, doesn’t overlook anything). To stay on route you’ll now need to follow the Parkway uphill a short distance to a foul-weather gate, where the MST enters the woods again on the far side. This may seem like a confusing stretch but all these turns are well-marked with white blazes and arrows. Upon re-entering the woods above Soco Gap, tighten up your laces…there’s a climb to begin.

The uphill walk is immediately steep as the MST begins its winding journey up the ridge, to the southeast of Soco Gap. In the first ¾-mile you’ll gain around 500-feet of elevation. A reprieve follows, however, as for the next meandering mile the trail circles the head of the Soco Creek drainage at a gentle uphill grade. Soco Creek is crossed 1.5-miles above the gap where a simple wooden footbridge, signed as “Howard’s Bridge”, commemorates one of the Carolina Mountain Clubs most famous volunteers. Another briefly steep climb follows until, at just over 2-miles from Soco Gap, the trail crosses the crest of wooded Cranberry Ridge. Beyond Cranberry Ridge, for the next ¾-mile, the trail again goes easy on the climbing. Though there are still no views this is a fascinating section of the hike as the forest, in just this short distance, almost completely transitions from a hardwood variety to high-elevation spruce-fir. Not long after, the trail gets noticeably steeper…and its dirt surface becomes one of mostly rock. At a sharp switchback about a mile from Waterrock you’ll enjoy your first views, however. A simple log bench faces a narrow break in the trees, providing a taste of the sweeping views you’ll enjoy more frequently from here on. The MST continues to traverse the steep west face of the ridge, climbing ever-upward through the coniferous woodlands. Just before arriving at the junction with the Waterrock Knob Trail a large grassy opening is reached, with a nice bench at its upper edge. The view from this spot is jaw-dropping. The southern Plott Balsam summits of Yellow Face and Blackrock Mountain are nearest with the terrain beyond dropping away nearly a vertical mile toward Cherokee and the Oconaluftee Valley. Beyond are the countless peaks and ridges of Nantahala National Forest, while on the western horizon rises the Great Smoky Mountain Range.

It’s only a couple hundred feet farther to where the MST joins the Waterrock Knob Trail. A left here will take you the half-mile up to the summit of Waterrock Knob. It’s a worthwhile side-trip, just don’t expect to be alone. Most sunny days see a crush of visitors to the peak. The views from the top are incredible though, and more than worth the extra effort and inevitable crowds. Back on the MST, the route now coincides with the paved Waterrock Knob Trail for just over 1/10-mile until, just before arriving at the summit parking area, the MST once again breaks free on its journey east. As you can probably tell, I thoroughly enjoyed this section hike. It involves just enough effort, and presents just enough reward, to make it absolutely worthwhile. There’s not much more to say than that. So, without further ado…I’m happy to present another section hike of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail, from Docks Gap to Waterrock Knob...as always, I hope you ENJOY!!


Trailhead GPS Coordinates:  35.509433, -83.169693 (Dock's Gap Trailhead)

Trailhead GPS Coordinates:  35.460412, -83.140636 (Waterrock Knob Trailhead)


Section Length:  7.3 miles

Difficulty:  VERY HARD (Petzoldt Rating: 11.40 )

Min. Elevation:  4,345' (Soco Gap)

Max. Elevation:  6,292' (Waterrock Knob)

Total Vertical Gain:   2,050' (eastbound)

Avg. Elevation Gain / Mile:  281' (eastbound)