Rich Mountain Lookout Tower -- 3,670'

Rich Mountain Lookout Tower

In the not-so-distant past North Carolina was once home to over 200 fire lookout towers. These scattered, and mostly remote, outposts provided an essential service to the residents of the state in giving advanced warning against one of mother nature's most fearful and destructive forces. As technology advanced, manned lookouts became less necessary to the point where less than 30 registered fire lookouts remain to this day. Of these a minuscule number currently allow visitors to climb their historic steps and admire the views which forest rangers for so many years observed not for recreation, but for the protection of the people and resources surrounding them. Rich Mountain is one of these rare places. Sitting astride the North Carolina/Tennessee state line and located not far north of the trail town of Hot Springs, Rich Mountain won't win any awards for elevation but, with a short climb up the 30' lookout, the views stretch from the Cumberland Mountains in the west to the Black Mountains in the east and from Unaka in the north to the Great Smokies and Great Balsams in the south. In other words, if you enjoy your high mountain scenery laced with a little bit of history, you could certainly do worse than the lookout atop Rich Mountain.

The hike begins at the Appalachian Trail parking area at Tanyard Gap, about three miles west of Hot Springs via Highway U.S. 2. Watch for signs and/or use the GPS coordinates I included below and you should find it no trouble. The Appalachian Trail departs northbound from the northwest end of the parking area. Take a good look at the steps heading up into the woods at this point. If you don't like what you see, you may want to consider another hike as the trail isn't going to take it much easier between here and the summit. There's 1,600 vertical feet to gain in the next 2.5-miles which isn't terrible but, if you're not used to mountain hiking, also isn't going to be real pleasant on flatland legs. There's not much to mark your progress along the first two miles. The trail is fairly steep, with few exceptions as it winds its way up the western side of the long ridge extending south from the summit. Numerous narrow coves are passed through, some with tiny tributaries which are likely dry in all but the wettest conditions. The first true marker comes when you're only a bit over a half-mile from the summit, where the Roundtop Ridge Trail comes in on the right after a long climb from Hot Springs to the south. After a quick dip to a shallow gap you'll now be climbing the summit cone itself.

The trail doesn't make a bee-line to the top, however. Rather, it winds its way along the steep slopes, seeking out the high ridge extending to the north and east. A half-mile past the Roundtop Ridge Trail keep an eye out for a blue-blazed wooden stake on your left. This is the spur trail to the summit of Rich Mountain and the lookout. It's only just over a tenth-of-a-mile from here but don't think that the work is over. Now the trail gets serious about getting to the top as it only makes a couple curves to ascent the final distance to the top. It won't be until the final few feet that the lookout tower comes into view. Standing 30-feet tall from the ground to the catwalk you can immediately appreciate the care with which this tower is maintained. Its sturdy steel frame and brilliantly whitewashed cab belie the fact that this historic structure is pushing 100-years old. The trap door to the cab is left open year-round for hikers (I can't stress again how rare a treat this is for towers of the region)...and, once you step up onto the catwalk, I assure you all the effort expended to get you here will be forgotten. You're not even 4,000 feet above sea level and, yet, on a clear day the views can stretch 30-50-miles in every direction. The Great Smokies can be seen, the Great Balsams can be seen, the Black and Craggy Mountains can be seen, and even the distant Cumberlands of Tennessee can even be visible. Needless to say, it's a place that you'll want to give yourself a generous amount of time to enjoy. Whenever you manage to pull yourself away, the route back simply retraces your steps to get here.

Rich Mountain exceeds all expectations. Most sub-4,000 foot summits in North Carolina don't even warrant the recognition of a name! Even so, a hike to this mediocre peak will leave you with high country memories which in every way compete with peaks in the region thousands of feet higher. Just don't forget, as you’re picking your jaw off the ground atop the cab, the people who manned these towers so many years ago. The long, lonesome months atop these remote peaks must have tested even the most hardened of rangers...all so that people like us could live, and play, among the forests and valley's we enjoy to this day. It's with great pleasure then that I present to you a hike to one of North Carolina's most fantastically preserved fire towers...that of the Rich Mountain Loookout. As always, I hope you ENJOY!!

Trailhead GPS Coordinates:  35.910430, -82.791032

Route Type: Out-and-back      Difficulty: HARD (Petzoldt Rating: 8.10 )      Hike Length: 5.2 miles      Hike Duration: 2:30      Trailhead Temp: 50'F                             Trail Traffic: NONE!!      Min. Elevation: 2,260'      Max. Elevation: 3,670'      Total Vertical Gain: 1,450'      Avg. Elevation Gain / Mile: 558' (ascent only)

Trails Used (blaze color): Appalachian (white), Rich Mountain Spur (blue)