Elk Knob State Park, Watauga County (6-30-18) - dwhike
Elk Knob -- 5,520'

Elk Knob State Park (6-30-18)

Elk Knob State Park is a place I’ve wanted to get back to for over a decade. When I first visited the park back in 2006 it was very much a work in progress. In fact, at the time, it wasn’t even a State Park yet but rather a State Natural Area. Created in 2003 due to efforts by local conservationists concerned over the possible development of the mountain there was little more than an access road in existence on my previous hike. The Summit Trail, as it exists today, only extended a few hundred yards from the parking area and the primary route of travel to the summit was via an excruciatingly steep climb up an old service road. The views at the top were extraordinary but the experience of getting there was less than enjoyable. I had for years wanted to return to Elk Knob and see what, if any, improvements had been made to both the property and the trail system. After 12-years, this was finally my opportunity to find out.

Located about 30 minutes north of the college town of Boone, Elk Knob State Park in its present state encompasses some 3,700 acres of land surrounding its namesake peak. Facilities at the park remain limited. Backcountry campsites have been added as well as a small picnic area and a park office but, for the most part, the property has been allowed to remain in a relatively untouched and natural state. The biggest improvement, at least to me on this visit, is the fantastic pathway which now leads to the summit. At 1.9-miles in length, it’s nearly twice the distance to the top now as compared to the old service road route but it’s a much more manageable and pleasant walk. The trail is well-graded, lined with large stones to discourage switchback-cutting, and utilizes natural rock steps when possible. I was continually impressed as I hiked it how much care and effort must have been put into its construction. The Summit Trail, as mentioned earlier, leaves from the large parking area just up from the park office. Beyond a cable gate it immediately breaks right away from the old service road and begins its climb through a beautiful hardwood forest. Numerous switchbacks help make the climb easier though, I will warn you, the hike is still a bit strenuous. Quarter-mile markers help you chart your progress as the path winds its way up Elk Knobs western slopes. Precisely half way up a fantastic overlook to the north is passed giving you a taste of the scenery which lies above at the top. Though much of the trail stays thickly wooded it is still interesting to see the change in the surrounding forest as you climb. Lower elevations are dominated by larger oaks and maples while nearer the top these give way to stunted beech and birch before, at the summit itself, emerging into an extensive heath bald environment.

Just before the summit the trail splits, with a left taking one downhill a few steps to a spot simply known as the ‘South View’. This spot, as its name implies, offers a sweeping panorama of the mountains south of Elk Knob…on the clearest days extending all the way to the Black Mountains some 50-miles distant. The other direction at the split (right) takes you to the summit, where Elk Knob’s finest views are offered. A wooden platform is perched right at the edge of the mountains steep north face and offers a stunning view of the northern North Carolina High Country and the highlands of Virginia beyond. I had visited in the winter before and it was lovely but, let me tell you, seeing the surrounding hills covered in their thick mantle of summer green created a scene of magnificent beauty even more striking than my memory had suggested. After soaking in the all the beauty, and enjoying the fact that I had finally accomplished my long awaited return, I simply turned back the way I came and retraced my steps back to the car. As you can tell, I found Elk Knob wonderfully enjoyable. The park itself has been improved beautifully and the “new-to-me” trail to the summit is a HUGE improvement over the old route to the top. The State Park was everything I hoped it would be after my long absence and I’m anxious to share what I found…so, without further adieu, I present to you a quick walk to the top of beautiful Elk Knob…as always, ENJOY!!


Trailhead GPS Coordinates:   36.331713, -81.689433


Route Type:  Out-and-back

Mileage Hiked:  3.8 miles                     Hike Duration:  1:45

Trailhead Temp:  75'F                          Trail Traffic:  10-25 people

Min. Elevation:  4,600'                          Max. Elevation:  5,520'

Total Vertical Gain:  920'                     Avg. Elevation Gain / Mile:  484'


Trails Used (blaze color/shape):  Summit Trail (blue diamonds)