Old Butt Knob Trail (Upper Ledge Overlook) -- 5,440'

Shining Creek-Old Butt Knob Loop (4-6-19)

Shining Rock is one of the most unique summits in the North Carolina Mountains. Located in the Great Balsam Range between Waynesville and Brevard, the peak derives its uniqueness not from sweeping views (though it boasts plenty) or precipitous cliffs but rather from giant outcrops of snowy white quartz scattered atop and around its broad summit. Although thickly covered in a dense canopy of mixed fir and hardwoods, these 'shining' rocks can be seen clearly from great distances away. The summit draws a decent number of visitors over the course of a year but not nearly so many as nearby Black Balsam Knob and Tennent Mountain, just to the south. The easiest route to Shining Rock is via the Art Loeb Trail from the parking lot at the end of Black Balsam Road. This 9.5-mile out-and-back hike had, up to this day, been the only way I had made the trek to Shining Rock in the past. There is another way to visit the peak, however, and that would be via the loop I’d be following on this hike utilizing the Shining Creek and Old Butt Knob Trails. It’s a bit shorter than the Art Loeb route, but is unquestionably more difficult due to the nearly 3,000-feet of vertical you need to climb to complete it. The reward for taking this harder route is a greater sense of solitude, as far fewer hikers ascend Shining Rock this way, and the opportunity to explore the rugged interior of the Shining Rock Wilderness. There’s also the inherent sense of accomplishment achieved in climbing a peak from its base as well. That said this isn’t a hike for just anyone. The vertical challenge alone means you’ll want to take serious stock of your abilities before setting out. Also, this is a wilderness area which means that blazes and trail signs are far and few between. Study the route before you head out and take a good map along. Finally, I’d highly recommend following the loop in the direction I did…making an ascent of the Shining Creek Trail and using the Old Butt Knob Trail for the return. The reason for this is a huge difference in grade. The Shining Creek Trail climbs around 2,000-feet in its final 3 miles, whereas the Old Butt Knob Trail climbs nearly the same in half that distance. So, unless subjecting yourself to the insane climb of the latter trail sounds appealing I’d strongly suggest saving it for your descent. That said, let’s get to the hike shall we?

I’d be utilizing the Shining Creek Trailhead for this hike, which is located off U.S. 276 just north of where it crosses the East Fork Pigeon River (about three miles north of the Blue Ridge Parkway). Beyond the kiosk at the end of the large parking area the Shining Creek Trail begins its journey into the Shining Rock Wilderness with a gradual climb high above the rushing waters of the East Fork. There are a number of large riverside campsites along this stretch which are usually filled during the summer. Before long the grade begins to pick up as the trail leaves the river and begins a winding climb to Shining Creek Gap. Reached at about the ¾-mile mark, Shining Creek Gap is the start of the loop. Here the Old Butt Knob Trail arrives from the north. If you’ve decided to climb via the Old Butt Knob lace your boots tight here…you’ve got over 1,300 feet of climbing to do in the next ¾-mile. If you’re looking to maintain your sanity a bit longer, however, do as I did and just keep heading straight on the Shining Creek Trail. Departing Shining Creek Gap the path dips briefly then begins the long steady climb. Over the next two miles the trail clings to the steep slopes bordering the north side of Shining Creek, which is visible over pretty much the entirety of this stretch of the hike. The higher you get the more the valley narrows and the rockier and wilder your surroundings become. The trail is easy to follow along this stretch as well despite there being no blazes to guide you. Also take note of how the forest gradually transitions along this stretch of the hike. Rhododendron thickets give way to pure stands of hardwood which slowly begin to include an increasing number of conifers the higher you climb. The final mile of the trail is the most difficult, both from the standpoint of effort as well as the necessity to keep a close eye on the correct route. As the trail switches back and forth up the head of the valley it has a tendency to become ill-defined at times as it crisscrosses the wide rocky creek bed. Around a thousand feet of elevation is also gained in this final mile, by far the steepest stretch of trail on this hike. After passing through increasingly pure stands of spruce and fir the trail soon arrives at the top of the ridge, meeting the Art Loeb Trail just south of Shining Rock Gap.

Turning right on the Art Loeb, Shining Rock Gap is reached within a couple minutes. Shining Rock Gap is a notoriously confusing intersection where three trails meet. To best picture the intersection simply regard it as a large ‘X’. Arriving from the south the Art Loeb Trail crosses the X from the bottom right to the top left. The lower left leg of the X is the Ivestor Gap Trail, also arriving form the south. To reach Shining Rock and continue on the loop I’d head up the upper right side of the X, onto the unsigned and unblazed Old Butt Knob Trail. The OBKT immediately begins a moderate climb through a beautiful forest of red spruce. Soon the first ledges of white quartz can be seen rising through the trees to the left. As the trail pulls steeply alongside these ledges keep an eye out for scramble paths to the left. These lead to the top of the awesome western quartz cliffs of Shining Rock. From the top of these huge outcrops of pure white quartz are wonderful, though somewhat limited, views of the high peaks to the south and west. It’s a wonderfully unique setting quite unlike any other I’ve visited in the southern mountains. After the western cliffs scramble back down to the main trail and keep following it upward a short distance farther to where it emerges atop the thickly heath-covered summit ridge of Shining Rock. A well-worn spur trail splits left here, the access trail to the summit itself. The summit spur is about a quarter-mile long, passing a large grassy campsite at its halfway point, and has few views due to the thick shrubs surrounding it. The summit area is marked by a cluster of tall spruce, standing atop a collection of large quartz boulders. Standing atop the summit the full stunning panorama opens fully. Looking across the broad heath-covered summit countless peaks stretch out to the horizon. In the foreground is the broad ridge connecting Shining Rock to Old Butt Knob, covered in low brush and dotted with scattered spruce trees. Just west of the summit is another collection of large white quartz boulders, offering views in the opposite direction of the Great Balsam Range rising beyond the trees. Needless to say, Shining Rock is a place you’ll have a hard time forcing yourself to leave.

Returning to the Old Butt Knob Trail from the summit the route now follows the crest of the high ridge to the east. Dropping from Shining Rock the surroundings transition from thick heath back to mixed hardwood forest at Beech Spring Gap where trail once again starts to climb towards the oddly-named Dog Loser Knob. Thickly covered in a high-elevation spruce-fir forest there are no views to be had from the top of Dog Loser, though there are some nice views behind you as you climb of Shining Rock. After the brief climb of Dog Loser the trail dips once again, this time to a spot known as Spanish Oak Gap before beginning another brief climb of Old Butt Knob itself. Once again there are no views to be had at the summit. Beyond the summit of Old Butt Knob things start to get serious again. The descent you’re about to make down Chestnut Ridge is one of the steepest stretches of trail in Pisgah National Forest. At first it doesn’t seem too bad. The first ¾-mile beyond Old Butt Knob only drops about 500 feet. That, and there’s an awesome overlook to stop at along the way offering dizzying views down into the valley of Shining Creek. The second ¾-mile is a different animal altogether. This stretch of trail drops you (almost literally at times) another 1,300-feet! No doubt by the time you once again arrive at the Shining Creek Trail your legs will be quivering from the work out. Luckily, about halfway down this stretch, is another ledge overlook from where to rest your muscles. This spot offers another spectacular view looking back up the valley of Shining Creek and across to the rugged promontory of Raven Cliff Ridge. The loop is completed upon making a left turn back onto the Shining Creek Trail. Though there’s still a bit of a descent to be made from here it will almost seem flat compared to what came just before. Retracing your steps for the next ¾-mile you’ll soon arrive back at the Shining Creek Trailhead, greeted by a sense of accomplishment of what you’ve just completed.

This is unquestionably one of the most spectacular hikes I’ve ever embarked on in the Pisgah Ranger District. The scenery is incredible, Shining Rock is uniquely wonderful as always, and the sense of wilderness experienced is remarkable. Though this is a tough hike, to be sure, the extra effort required to complete it only adds to the experience in my opinion. The most rewarding experiences in nature, I feel, are the experiences which make you earn them. This is certainly the case with the Shining Creek-Old Butt Knob Loop. With that said, it’s now my pleasure to invite you along on this incredible hike. This is a good one…as always, I hope you ENJOY!!


Trailhead GPS Coordinates:  35.365758, -82.817716


Route Type:  Lollipop                  Difficulty:  EXTREME  (Petzoldt Rating:  14.80 )

Hike Length:  8.9 miles                Hike Duration:  5:15

Trailhead Temp:  55'F                 Trail Traffic:  10-25 people

Min. Elevation:  3,380'                  Max. Elevation:  6,040'

Total Vertical Gain:  2,950'          Avg. Elevation Gain / Mile:  332'


Trails Used (blaze color):  Art Loeb (unblazed), Old Butt Knob (unblazed), Shining Creek (unblazed)


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