Coontree Loop & Overlook Rock (11-25-18)
The Coontree Loop Trail is a great example of one of Pisgah National Forests unassuming “walk-in-the-woods” type of trail. Easily accessible and not altogether very difficult the Coontree Loop is a nice place to acquaint oneself with the variety of forest found in this corner of the southern mountains. On its own, therefore, the loop doesn’t offer much in the way of scenery besides that of the woodland variety. There’s a way to spruce things up a bit, however, and that’s by adding a mile and a half side trip over to a pair of spectacular overlooks. Technically there’s no official name for these outcroppings but in a couple places I’ve heard them referred to collectively as “overlook rock” so that’s what I’ve dubbed them here. The side trip out to the overlooks does add a bit of effort to the hike but, as I’m sure you’ll see, the payoff is more than worth the extra energy and it makes an otherwise hum-drum hike one that’s quite a bit more memorable.
The hike begins from the Coontree Picnic Area along U.S. 276 about three-quarters of a mile south of Looking Glass Falls. This is a popular picnic stop in the summer season so expect parking to possibly be problematic if you visit in the afternoon on a warm day. The trail itself begins across the highway from the south entrance to the parking lot. At first the route is all but flat as the path enters the lower drainage of Coontree Creek. Within a minute or two the trail crosses a small footbridge and then, a few feet later, splits. This is the start of the loop. Either direction is acceptable to follow to do the loop. On this day I decided to head right (counter-clockwise) to make the climb to the ridge more gradual and save the highlight of the overlooks for the back half of the hike. The trail climbs moderately as it ascends the slopes alongside the small eastern unnamed tributary of Coontree Creek. The surroundings alternate between thick laurel groves to open mixed hardwood forests. One thing that may strike you along the upper portion of this part of the hike is the openness of the floor of the forest. In North Carolina the understory is typically thickly filled in with laurel or other shrubs. Not so here. You can see incredibly far through the woods which, to me, is a wonderful treat. Perhaps a mile in the Coontree Loop Trail reaches the ridge and its southern junction with the Bennett Gap Trail. At this point the route turns left and the two trails now coincide, for the next mile, as the path continues its climb though now along the crest of the ridge. Through the trees to either side, particularly in the winter, there are some pleasant views of the surrounding hills to be enjoyed as the trail keeps heading upwards in the direction of Coontree Mountain. Just before reaching the summit area the Coontree Loop Trail splits away again downhill to the left. If all you’re interested in doing is the loop portion of this hike this is where you’d turn to head back down. To continue on to the overlooks, three-quarters of a mile distant from this point, you need to continue straight ahead north on the Bennett Gap Trail.
From the northern junction with the Coontree Loop Trail the Bennett Gap Trail completes its short remaining climb of Coontree Mountain through a beautiful forest carpeted by tufts of hill cane. Skirting to the east of the true summit the path then starts a moderate descent through thick groves of rhododendron on the steep northeastern slopes of the mountain. About a half-mile from the Coontree split the trail reaches Saddle Gap where the Perry Cove Trail arrives from the valley to the right. At this point, the final quarter-mile to the overlooks, the route become steeper and rockier than it’s been at any point up to now. The steep climb is brief, however, and soon the trail tops out atop the narrow ridge at a pile of boulders where an obvious side path leads to the lower of the two overlooks. From this outcrop the spectacular view looks towards neighboring Looking Glass Rock and the high Pisgah Ridge beyond. After taking in the view at this lower overlook, which I dubbed ‘the’ Overlook Rock continue up the trail along the narrow ridge another steep tenth of a mile and you’ll reach the upper overlook, which I dubbed here the ‘pluton overlook’ for reasons which are obvious. From this vantage point you’ll enjoy one of the finest views of Transylvania County’s famous trio of plutons seen anywhere. Looking Glass Rock, John Rock, and Cedar Rock Mountain are front and center across the valley to the west. It’s an incredible spot.
After soaking up the views the route backtracks to the northern junction of the Bennett Gap and Coontree Loop Trails and then turns back south to descend the western arm of the Coontree Loop. The descent of the upper valley of Coontree Creek is noticeably steeper than the nearby valley which the other half of the loop used to ascend the ridge. A number of tight switchbacks help make the downhill walk easier and soon the trail begins an extended stretch where it follows the cascading Coontree Creek itself. Aside from the overlooks, this is one of the best parts of the hike. The open woodlands covering the surrounding ridges combined with the ever-present sound of rushing water from the stream below creates a quintessentially Appalachian experience. It’s a very appealing way to wrap up the hike and before long you’ll arrive back at the beginning of the loop and then, soon thereafter, the trailhead once more. As I said earlier this hike isn’t the most stunning that Pisgah has to offer. What it does offer, though, is a pleasant taste of what makes this region so naturally wonderful and it doesn’t require an incredible amount of effort to do so. With that said I present to you a hike of the Coontree Loop and Overlook Rock…as always, ENJOY!!!
Trailhead GPS Coordinates: 35.289614, -82.763200
Route Type: Loop + spur Difficulty: HARD
Hike Length: 5.1 miles Hike Duration: 2:30
Trailhead Temp: 45'F Trail Traffic: 5-10 people
Min. Elevation: 2,250' Max. Elevation: 3,520'
Total Vertical Gain: 1,350' Avg. Elevation Gain / Mile: 265'
Trails Used (blaze color): Bennett Gap (red), Coontree Loop (blue)