In a year that brought in over 14 million visitors to The Blue Ridge Parkway (top of all National Parks), finding a place to hike and explore with little or no visitors has become an almost impossible challenge. One of my favorites, probably because there are little to no trails, is the area of Flat Laurel Creek just below Sam Knob and The Shining Rock Wilderness.
The hike(or scramble) kicks off from HWY215 and the Triple Arch Bridge near the intersection of Flat Laurel Creek and the Upper West Fork of the Pigeon River. The rustic stone bridge was built in 1937 by the National Park Service and the CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps). The bridge is faced with blocks of granite that were cut from the area.
HWY215 leads out of Canton, NC and serves as the dividing boundary of the Middle Prong Wilderness to the west and the Shining Rock Wilderness to the east. The road follows the location of 2 old logging railroads that once serviced the area. After crossing the bridge, the highway continues up the valley where it intersects the Blue Ridge Parkway around Beech Gap at around 5300 feet.
In the area just before crossing the bridge there is a small gravel pull off on the left that will accomodate 2 to 3 cars. Here you will also find a trailhead that heads easterly along the creek. The narrow trail follows the rushing river for a short distance before ending at a clearing with a rock fire pit and a primitive campsite near the waters edge. There are also several short paths that take you down to the base of the bridge for a closer view.
From the area near the campsite you will find an access point that cuts through the brush to Flat Laurel Creek. Here you will get your first up close views of the steep, boulder filled creek bed. The area is densely forested with a mixed canopy of Beech Trees and Evergreens softened by a dense underplanting of Rhododendron thickets and Leucothoe(Dog Hobble). We even saw some native Red Spruce trees that you usually only encounter in the higher mountain areas.
This is where the exploration changes pace, for there are no trails beyond this point. Where you may have encountered a few roadside tourists catching a quick glimpse of the river from the bridge, the adventurous hiker will now find peace and solitude as you make your way easterly up the creek valley. The only sounds you’ll here now are that of the wind rustling the trees, the roar of the water racing over the rocks and the occasional hawk screeching from its roost in a nearby tree.
The next 3/4 mile stretch of Flat Laurel Creek is filled with a near continuous series of cascades, waterfalls and the occasional blue green swimming hole. The area is remote, inaccessible and not for the average day hiker and would be best tackled with a friend. This way, if someone were to get hurt or stranded one of you could hike out to the road for help. The creek is strewn with large boulders and will require some bouldering, scrambling and even the occasional leap of faith.
During the climb up through the various boulder fields you will come across an occasional waterfall. These waterfalls often have deep, crystal clear pools at their bases. These are great spots to stop for a break amid the rocks, soak in the views of the surrounding valley or maybe take a jump into the brisk cold mountain water. Here you will also find it difficult to navigate forward by way of the creek bed. The best way to continue onward and around the pools is get out of the creek and bushwahck around the waterfall towards the next safe clearing.
As you continue the climb, rock hopping your way up the stream you will notice the waterfalls getting bigger, steeper and the scrambles becoming more challenging. At one point the north side of the creek bed becomes impassable, occupied by a tall shear rock wall that requires some more bushwhacking up the right side of the creek to reach a safe spot to continue the accent.
The area is very challenging and took us nearly three hours to go just under two miles. At some point in the hike the creek bed becomes extremely steep and too difficult to navigate safely, so we decide that we’ve had enough and choose to turn back. This area is the headwaters of Flat Laurel Creek and continues up to its origin near the base of Sam Knob. This is also about the time in the adventure when you remember that you have to get yourself back down, so make sure you save enough energy to retrace your steps back to the trailhead. It would be a mighty expensive rescue way up here in these woods.
The hike is rewarding and always proves challenging, leaving you exhausted and sore from all the climbing, but its all worth it to be outside in the wilderness. The biggest reward though, having it all to yourself, well except for the occasional bear. 😜