Three Top Mountain
Three Top Mountain…the place where my love of the Amphibolite Mountains began. A bit over a decade ago, back in 2006, I happened across some pics of a rugged peak hidden in the northwest corner of North Carolina which I knew instantly I had to visit. At the time little to no information existed, online or otherwise, as to how I might access the mountain. I had to get inside info from a friend to successfully make my first visit. The years have fogged the memory of that first hike up Three Top a bit but, I can tell you this, I still remember it as one of the most enjoyable hikes I made back during those years…and it sparked an interest in the rugged and remote Amphibolite Mountains which continues to this day. I swore at the time I’d climb Three Top Mountain again in the near future…life and other adventures had alternate plans for me, however, and it turned out that twelve years would pass before I’d make that anticipated return. Today, at long last, would be that day. Three Top Mountain is no longer nearly as difficult to glean info on as it was back in 2006. Numerous trip reports now can be perused with a quick Google search. This made me a bit nervous that I might discover a peak which was a bit more crowded than it once was. Nevertheless, I was almost giddy at the prospect of finally returning to Three Top Mountain.
One thing that hasn’t changed in the past twelve years is the relatively confusing directions one needs to follow to reach the primary trailhead for Three Top. Here’s a simple step-by-step guide:
Starting from the intersection of Highway NC-88 and Peak Road in the community of Creston…head south on Peak Road, crossing the North Fork New River, driving ¾ mile to Hidden Valley Road on the left. Turn onto Hidden Valley Road, drive another 1 mile to where Beechwood Circle breaks left and Oak Trail is straight ahead. Keep straight on Oak Trail which winds steeply uphill for about 0.5 mile to a T-junction. Turn right onto Poplar Trail, drive about ¼ mile and watch for the small Game Land sign marking the access road which cuts back sharply to the left. Follow the access road to the parking area at its end.
The small parking area marks one of the main access points to the Three Top Mountain Game Lands, a nearly 3,000-acre piece of state-owned property protecting Three Top Mountain for recreational use. As this is Game Land it’s wise to keep informed of hunting seasons in the area and take proper precautions. As I was making this visit in October I made sure to wear blaze orange so I looked as un-deer-like as possible. Just something to keep in mind.
Upon reaching the parking area, the trail begins beyond a low brown metal gate. The first part of the hike is fairly easy as the route follows an old forest road along a level to gradually descending grade. Less than a quarter-mile in a pretty little cascade is passed followed by a couple more drainages which may or may not have running water cascading down them depending on how wet recent weather has been. About a half-mile in the relaxing portion of the hike ends, however. Turning sharply uphill the old road the trail follows becomes steep and rocky as it attacks the ridge above. The first quarter mile of the climb is the worst as the path is frequently cross-cut by wash-outs which combine with the steep grade and loose stones to make for a tiring ascent. About halfway up the trail doglegs right and then, after a welcome but brief downhill walk, cuts left again and resumes the steep climb. Numerous other overgrown forest roads branch off from the main trail from time to time but, from what I saw, if you stay aware the main route isn’t hard to discern. There are also frequently blazes painted on trees at these intersection to keep you headed the right way. The final half of the climb isn’t quite as bad as the first but the grade remains moderately steep as the path ascends the northwestern ridge of Three Top via a series of short switchbacks. Once atop the northwest ridge the grade eases a bit as the trail seeks out the crest of the summit ridge. At the point where the trail reaches the summit ridge it’s time to keep a close eye out on the right if you, like I was on this hike, are interested in making the trek over to Three Top Mountain’s highest peak. Known as Big Rock, there is no official trail over to its summit which lies about a half mile away to the south down the crest of the ridge. When I visited I was lucky enough to find a piece of flagging tape at the beginning of the route. I was warned that the trek over to Big Rock was a quasi-bushwhack but I was pleasantly surprised to discover a faint but quite discernible path leading most of the way.
At first this path descends just below the crest of the ridge but, about ¾ of the way to Big Rock it begins a steep ascent and breaks out onto the first open ledges of the hike. The views here are spectacular and immediately showcase the incredible scenery that will be enjoyed the rest of the hike. From the first ledges the path gets a bit harder to follow as it bounces down, along, and back up to the open summit of Big Rock itself…and what a spot this is!! I had skipped the side-trip over to Three Top’s highest point on my earlier visit due to weather…I had no idea how big a shame that was until now! From the bare summit rocks an almost 360-degree panorama surrounds you with countless rugged peaks and valleys stretching away in every direction. To the north are the Iron Mountains of Virginia, to the south and east the rest of the Amphibolite Range. Grandfather Mountain and the Roan Highlands can even be seen lining the far horizons. Closer up the extremely narrow and serrated ridgeline of Three Top itself shows itself. Open ledges invite exploration below the summit. Back in the direction you arrived from the middle summit of Three Top, known as Huckleberry Rock, can be seen.
After a return to the main trail from Big Rock, this is where this hike is headed next. After hiking the half mile back along the summit ridge to the main trail a right turn begins the final climb of the day. Another tenth-of-a-mile or so of moderate climbing and Huckleberry Knob, Three Top’s second highest summit. Huckleberry Knob is bare but the views, though still wonderful, aren’t quite as open from its summit as those from Big Rock. Not to worry, the prettiest and most fun portion of the hike isn’t far off. A series of sharp, slanted ledges extends north from the summit and offers what I think is the highlight of a visit to Three Top. Scrambling out along the high exposed ridge offers an experience quite unlike anything you’ll find in North Carolina. The panorama equals, if not rivals, what was seen atop Big Rock and if you’re like me you’ll spend no shortage of time simply climbing around in between taking pictures. On a recent hike to nearby Snake Mountain I stated that that peak might be my new favorite North Carolina mountain. I may have to retract that statement now that I finally made it back to Three Top. There’s something about this peak…the ruggedness and beauty to be sure but probably also that it remains a relatively unknown destination. There’s a solitude offered in this amazing place that can’t be found many other places where such beauty exists. That really makes for a special place in my mind. It’s refreshing to know spots like that still exist in my home mountains. The walk back to the car, simply by retracing my steps back down the way I came, was a time of reflection for me as I thought about my two experiences now at Three Top, separated as they were by so many years. Much has changed in that time. Life has moved on and changed in many ways, and countless outdoor wonders and experiences have occurred during the past twelve years for me. Three Top Mountain remains, however…just as wild and rugged and beautiful as I had remembered it. I hope with all my heart it remains so…
Trailhead GPS Coordinates: 36.421892, -81.597727
Route Type: Out-and-back + spur
Hike Length: 4.7 miles Hike Duration: 3:00
Trailhead Temp: 60'F Trail Traffic: 1-5 people
Min. Elevation: 3,840' Max. Elevation: 5,020'
Total Vertical Gain: 1,500' Avg. Elevation Gain / Mile: 319'
Trails Used (blaze color): Big Rock Spur (unblazed/unofficial), Three Top Mountain Trail (unblazed)