Mountains to Sea Trail
from Craggy Gardens
to Balsam Gap
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Craggy Gardens, located along the Blue Ridge Parkway (BRP), is a delightful spring, summertime, and fall destination (this stretch of the BRP is closed during the winter), providing the visitor with a short hike up to the top of a knob (elevation 5660 feet / 1725 meters) which has impressive long range views to the southeast. Most spectacular are the acres and acres of native rhododendron and azalea which put on their showy display in early June.
The Mountains To Sea (MTS) Trail which, when completed, will stretch from Clingman's Dome in the Smokies to the North Carolina sea shore, passes right through this area.
This trip report is from a 7.5 mile shuttle hike along the MTS trail, beginning at Craggy Gardens Picnic area, and ending at the Walker Knob Overlook on the Blue Ridge Parkway.
Elevation Profile of the trail
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GPX data for download (zip file which includes both GPX format, as well as GDB format for Garmin users):
MTS Trail from Craggy Gardens Picnic Area to Balsam Gap (Walker Knob Overlook).
Andy and I did this hike as a shuttle hike, leaving a car at the Walker Knob Overlook on the Blue Ridge Parkway (Milepost 359.8), and then driving to Craggy Gardens Picnic Area to begin our hike.
The turnoff for Craggy Gardens Picnic area is at Milepost 367.5 along the BRP (not to be confused with the Craggy Gardens Visitor Center which is at Milepost 364.6, or Craggy Pinnacle parking area at Milepost 364.1). The parking and picnic area is a 1.2 mile drive up the paved road that turns off the BRP.
Craggy Gardens has a 1.2 mile (one way) hike to an overlook, passing by an old shelter, winding through the acres of rhododendron and azalea bushes. We did this hike in late June of 2013, and the rhodos were really spotty ... some bushes just beginning to bloom, others already past their prime. We actually saw much more showy displays along the MTS trail. Photographer Johnny Corn beautifully captured what this area looks like in peak years!
Shelter along the Craggy Gardens/MTS Trail
We hiked past this shelter to the overlook at the top, which provides some great long range views. One can see the town of Montreat from this point.
The MTS trail is picked up back at the shelter shown above. MTS trail passes right through it.
As you leave Craggy Gardens following the MTS from this shelter, the next mile takes you due north, as the MTS trail winds around the north face of Craggy Pinnacle. The trail then bears southeast, as it climbs up to the Blue Ridge Parkway, coming out at the Graybeard Mountain Overlook located at Milepost 363.5. Along the way, it passes the northern terminus of the trail to Douglas Falls. (The beginning of the Douglas Falls Trail is 1.3 miles down the MTS trail from the BRP. The falls themselves are another 2.3 miles and 1200 feet in elevation down.)
The section of the MTS trail from Craggy Gardens to the Graybeard Overlook was very rocky and slow going, however, it was also the one section that was quite far removed from the BRP, and so made for hiking that was free of any traffic noise. Most of the MTS trail in this area parallels the BRP, sometimes close enough to clearly hear the traffic.
As you climb up to the BRP, you pass a maintenance shed on a side road. The MTS trail follows this road for a short distance, and then climbs up the final ridge to join, and cross, the BRP.
From here, the MTS remains on the south side of the BRP, until it again crosses it at the Walker Knob Overlook (where we ended our hike).
Despite the proximity to the BRP, this section of the hike was by far the nicest, in terms of blooming rhododendrons, mountain laurel, long range views, and wide open forested areas with soft grass covered ground.
MTS Trail Along Bullhead Mountain
Not to be missed is the rocky pinnacle that is just off the trail as it goes along Locust Knob, approximately 1 mile from the Graybeard Overlook. This pinnacle provides a 360 degree view of the area.
Views from Locust Knob
Another rocky overlook comes 0.3 mile further, providing fabulous views of the Asheville Watershed (see photo at top of page), and the ridge beyond marked by Graybeard Mountain's peak.
Panorama of Asheville Watershed
From here, the next stretch of trail continues through patches of blueberry bushes, mountain laurel, open meadows, and some gorgeous open forest.
Grassy Forest Floor
A little over 6 miles into your hike, the MTS trail again joins the BRP at the Glassmine Falls Overlook. This overlook provides a distant view of a periodic waterfall that has a 200 foot vertical drop. Due to the low flow of water, oftentimes there is no water to be seen flowing. However, the day we did our hike was during a very wet summer, and Andy got a great, zoomed in shot of this waterfall.
This section of the MTS trail ends with a tough, but short climb up and over Walker Knob, and then back down to cross the BRP at the Walker Knob Overlook (formerly known as Balsam Gap) where we ended our hike.
More pictures in my SmugMug gallery.