MST - NC 215 to Cherry Cove Overlook
The Mountains-to-Sea Trail is North Carolina’s premier long-distance hiking trail. Stretching 1,175 miles from Clingman’s Dome in the Great Smoky Mountains to Jockey’s Ridge State Park in the Outer Banks. Lovingly known by its abbreviated name, the MST, the footpath crosses the Pisgah Ranger District along roughly the same route as the Blue Ridge Parkway. It enters the District from the west at Haywood Gap on the Parkway and departs it, around 50 trail-miles later, at NC-191 by the French Broad River south of Asheville. This hike, however, explores the 11-mile section which runs from NC-215 just north of Beech Gap to the Cherry Cove Overlook at MP 415.7 on the Parkway. This is the high country of the Pisgah Ranger District. Most of the hike stays well above the 5,000-foot mark and flirts with 6,000-feet between Chestnut and Black Balsam Knobs. The scenery to be enjoyed on this hike is majestic and varied. The first portion offers numerous places to take in the awesome view south from the edge of the precipitous Pisgah Ridge. The middle portion passes around and beneath the towering 6,000+ foot summits of the Shining Rock Ridge before dropping down near the famous Graveyard Fields. The final leg is a bit less dramatic, remaining mostly under cover of forest, but a walk by the unique Skinny Dip Falls is a fantastic highlight. The beauty of this area comes with a price, however…heavy visitation. Luckily the crowds tend to be very much localized…primarily being found in the Black Balsam, Graveyard Fields, and Skinny Dip Falls areas. Thus, while you’ll sure to see plenty of people on this hike, it’ll come in quick doses separated by long stretches of fairly empty trail. If you have the stamina, this is one of the most fantastic sections of trail in the mountains.
As stated my hike would begin from the MST crossing of NC-215 located about a half-mile north of the Blue Ridge Parkway at Beech Gap. There’s not really any parking to speak of right at the crossing but just uphill from it is a large pull-off along 215 that is typically used. Heading eastbound from NC-215 the trail immediately begins to climb. It’s not a punishing grade, but it will warm up the leg muscles in a hurry. The first two miles are rather unremarkable. The trail twists and winds its way up the ridge through forests of mixed hardwoods and spruce, typical for these elevations. There’s no real views to be had along this stretch, save for brief glimpses through the treetops. At two miles the MST makes a hard left at the junction with the connector trail to Devils Courthouse. I’d highly recommend making the quarter-mile side trip, as I did, out to the Courthouse. The views from its rocky summit are incredible and easily worth the tiny bit of extra effort it adds to this hike. Returning to the MST, the route now begins an extended climb around the north and then east side of 6,025’ Chestnut Bald. Upon reaching the east side of Chestnut Bald the trail begins perhaps the prettiest section of the entire hike as it travels along the precipitous, south-facing, edge of the Pisgah Ridge. There are numerous small ledges located along, and just off, the trail on this stretch which provide dizzying and awesome views of the mountains and valleys to the south. A mile-and-a-half past the connector to Devils Courthouse the MST joins with the Art Loeb Trail, arriving from the south. At this point, for the next mile, the two trails coincide with the route first following the edge of the ridge then turning north through the spruce to the Black Balsam Road.
Arriving at the Black Balsam Road might be a bit jarring. Other than at Devils Courthouse, you probably haven’t encountered a whole lot of other people yet on this hike. All of a sudden there’s people and cars everywhere. The good news is 99.9% are headed up to Black Balsam Knob via the Art Loeb Trail, which splits from the MST once again on the north side of the road. The MST, from this split, makes a right and begins a moderate descent along the steep southern slopes of Black Balsam. After crossing the headwaters of Yellowstone Prong the trail begins to climb again, soon reaching a series of rock outcrops with incredible views to the south and east. After the outcrops the trail descends once again, getting steeper as it goes, before reaching the western junction with the Graveyard Ridge Trail about 1.5-miles past Black Balsam Road. This can be bit of a confusing junction but by bearing straight-left (to the left of the large sign) you’ll remain on the MST. The path no makes its way along the northern side of Graveyard Ridge. Though the extremely popular Graveyard Fields area is just south the MST once again maintains a healthy distance from the crowds by traveling the far side of the ridge. Laurels and rhododendron dominate your surroundings as the trail makes an up-and-down journey along the ridge. A mile and a quarter after their western junction the MST and Graveyard Ridge Trails once again intersect at the east end of the ridge. Continue straight-left here and in a half-mile you’ll reach another junction, this time with the connector trail to Graveyard Fields. Make the sharp left downhill to stay on the MST.
The route now begins a long descent, along the north side of the ridge, into the valley of Dark Prong. This is once again a stretch of trail you’re unlikely to see many people on, despite the fact that it connects two wildly popular forest destinations (Graveyard Fields and Skinny Dip Falls). The going gets steeper the farther you go, and spends about equal time tunneling through rhododendron and crossing rock-strewn hillsides covered in hardwoods. The lowest elevation of the day is reached as the MST rounds the east end of the ridge and then begins the first extended climb in a while, up past Skinny Dip Falls. Skinny Dip has long lost the secret status that allowed it to gain its unique name. Any summer visit to the falls nowadays involves huge crowds, and so it was on this hike. Skinny Dip is a favorite in the off-season but, with tourists clambering over (and jumping from) every rock along the river this day, I quickly continued on. The 1/3-mile climb from Skinny Dip up to the Parkway isn’t all that difficult, but by this point you’ll have 10+ miles underfoot so it may seem a bit more bothersome. At the top of the ridge the MST makes a sharp left turn. I’d highly recommend making the quick jaunt over to the Looking Glass Overlook on the Parkway from here, however. As its name implies, it commands one of the finest views found anywhere of its iconic namesake.
At this point there’s only 1.5-miles left on this hike, with the MST first making a winding descent to Bridges Camp Gap and then making the final major climb of the day up and over Chestnut Ridge. The sounds of the nearby Blue Ridge Parkway can be heard along pretty much the entirety of this section but it’s doubtful you’ll encounter much foot traffic. In fact, the portion of the trail between Bridges Camp Gap and the Cherry Cove Overlook can almost be called overgrown in places during the summer. After making the climb of Chestnut Ridge there’s just one final, fairly steep, descent to be made before breaking from the forest once again. A short walk across the Blue Ridge Parkway is the beautiful Cherry Cove Overlook and the end of the hike. As you can tell, this is an incredible hike. It’s also one, however, that requires you to be honest about your abilities. This is a long hike, with a decent amount of elevation change, over frequently rough terrain. With the right amount of planning and determination this can be one of the most enjoyable hikes in the Pisgah Ranger District, I know it was for me. The time spent wandering the high elevation forests interspersed with numerous incredible viewpoints places this hike near the top of my “best hikes” for the area. So, enough with the talking…let’s get to it shall we? I now invite you to join me as I complete the incredible section of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail between NC-215 and the Cherry Cove Overlook on the Blue Ridge Parkway…as always, I hope you ENJOY!!
NC-215 Trailhead GPS Coordinates: 35.303930, -82.909341
Cherry Cove Overlook Trailhead GPS Coordinates: 35.336194, -82.815088
Route Type: Point-to-point + spurs
Difficulty: (very) HARD
Hike Length: 11.6 miles Hike Duration: 5:45
Trailhead Temp: 65'F Trail Traffic: 50-100 people (majority in Black Balsam/Skinny Dip Falls areas)
Min. Elevation: 4,300' Max. Elevation: 5,980'
Total Vertical Gain: 1,600' Avg. Elevation Gain / Mile: 138'
Trails Used (blaze color): Devils Courthouse (unblazed), Devils Courthouse Connector (blue), Looking Glass Overlook/MST Access (blue), Mountains-to-Sea (white), Mountians-to-Sea/Art Loeb (white)