Mountains-to-Sea Trail (BRP Visitor Center to Bull Gap) Hike Route Map

MST - Blue Ridge Parkway Visitor Center to Bull Gap

After a relatively easy bypass of Asheville, the Mountains-to-Sea Trail gets serious again. Heading eastbound what lies ahead for hikers is some of the most rugged and THE highest elevations in the eastern United States. Upon crossing the Swannanoa River near the beginning of this section hikers have more than 11,000 feet of vertical to overcome (in a distance of 31-miles) before reaching the top of the Appalachians at the summit of Mount Mitchell. Needless to say most folks, myself included, won’t be interested in making the climb all in one shot. This section hike can be viewed as a warm-up of sorts for the rigors which lie ahead. Hiking from the Blue Ridge Parkway Visitor Center to Bull Gap I’d be handling a much more manageable 11-mile hike sporting 2,000-feet of gain. Needless to say, this section hike is still quite a workout. Unless you’re fairly fit and comfortable with mountain hiking you may want to scale it back to your taste. Luckily the Blue Ridge Parkway is never far off…the MST crosses or bumps up against it numerous times which offers plenty of options for an exit should you choose.

This section hike begins at the far back corner of the large parking lot at the Blue Ridge Parkway Visitor Center. Look for a small sign stating “MST Access”. The access trail leads you down along and under the Blue Ridge Parkway, reaching the Mountains-to-Sea Trail junction in around 4/10-mile. Make a left on the MST here, to head eastbound. Over the next mile the trail weaves in and out of minor drainages, rising and falling as it goes before making one last steep drop to cross Interstate 40. The trail passes underneath the busy highway via a dark, graffiti-covered tunnel. It’s about the sketchiest place the MST passes during its time in the mountains. Beyond the tunnel continue straight ahead to cross the Swannanoa River via a short bridge. After crossing the bridge you’ll see a wooden horse gate which provides access to open fields beyond. With the Blue Ridge Parkway crossing far overhead, follow the rough path across the field to another horse gate where the MST finally returns to a more traditional form. The route now begins a steady climb, briefly merging with the Blue Ridge Parkway to cross US-70 in about ¾-mile. After reentering the woods the next ¾-mile is a fairly easy walk, at which point the trail arrives at the Folk Art Center. The center is a wonderful place to take a break. If you’re so inclined take a peek inside, where an impressive collection of Appalachian art and craftwork can be enjoyed free of charge.

As the Mountains-to-Sea Trail departs north from the Folk Art Center it finally begins to leave the busyness of the Asheville area behind. Though the Blue Ridge Parkway still remains a nearby companion, you’re surroundings begin to feel markedly more natural and wild as you go. The MST departs the Folk Art Center via its small network of nature trails. Intersections can be confusing here so keep a close look out for white blazes. Barely a quarter-mile from the center the Blue Ridge Parkway gives an assist to cross Riceville Road, at which point the trail begins climbing once again as it crosses Bull Mountain. About a mile after leaving the Folk Art Center the MST crosses the Parkway, over to its east side for a change. This is also where the trail gets a bit more serious about its ascent. Over the next 1.5-miles you’ll be gaining over 800-feet…not a tortuous grade, but still one that will get your blood pumping. After bumping up alongside the Parkway again, the trail steepens as it climbs the unnamed knob to the north. About halfway up this climb watch for a well-used side path leading a few dozen yards out to an open ledge know as Lunch Rock. This spot gets its place honestly, it’s a fantastic place to take a break and have a snack. The scenery is pretty great too, with a view looking down the valley of Haw Creek. Far to the southwest the Pisgah Ridge can be seen, the conical summit of Mt. Pisgah always easy to identify.

The steep climb resumes past Lunch Rock, followed by a steep descent. The MST once again pulls up alongside the Blue Ridge Parkway. Over the next mile-and-a-half the two roughly parallel each other, though are rarely within sight as the MST stays a good distance below the roadway. Also, this is a rather flat stretch of trail considering the surrounding terrain. There’s plenty of ups and downs but none last long or are overly difficult. With the Parkway high above this is also the wildest portion of the hike. In the winter the broken views to the east, through the trees, are beautiful as well. A bit over 2.5-miles after leaving Lunch Rock, with one last steep climb, the MST once again makes a crossing of the Blue Ridge Parkway…this time at Craven Gap. Craven Gap is a major intersection. Highway NC-694 joins the Parkway here, after climbing over the ridge from Asheville. Keep a sharp eye (and ear) out for traffic as you cross. From Craven Gap the trail climbs steeply and makes a hard right to continue along the side of the ridge north.

The final 2.5-miles is arguably the toughest of this hike. Though only another 650-feet is gained along this stretch, the increasingly steep slopes which the MST traverses mean that most of the minor ups and downs are steep ones. Through the trees ahead you can also glimpse the high peaks of the Great Craggy Range, which will be the next major obstacle to overcome for those continuing east. The next asphalt encounter comes 1.6-miles past Craven Gap. Here, just above its junction with the Parkway, Ox Creek Road is crossed. Then, after another steep climb (and even steeper descent) the Mountains-to-Sea Trail arrives at Bull Gap ¾-mile later. Section hike complete.

As I mentioned earlier this won’t be a hike for everyone. The length and effort-to- payoff ratio will likely turn most folks off. Even so it’s an enjoyable section of trail…especially once you get past the disagreeable crossing of Interstate 40. A short climb to Lunch Rock is also a nice option, one that could be done with kids so long as you keep them on a short leash atop the cliffs. So, without further ado, it’s my pleasure to invite you along with me on another section hike of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail…as always, ENJOY!

Trailhead GPS Coordinates:  35.565011, -82.487696 (Blue Ridge Parkway Visitor Center)

Trailhead GPS Coordinates:  35.669827, -82.471418 (Bull Gap)

Section Length:  11.1 miles                

Difficulty:  EXTREME  (Petzoldt Rating:  15.10 )

Min. Elevation:  2,000'  (Swannanoa River)                 

Max. Elevation:  3,350'  (near Rice Knob)

Total Vertical Gain:  2,000'            

Avg. Elevation Gain / Mile:  180'

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