Elk Knob Trail isn’t quite as well known as some trails in the area. I’m not sure if that’s because it’s relatively new, or because it’s a little ways off the beaten path, or just what gives, but I do know that it’s absolutely worth every second!
Elk Knob became a state park in 2003. A group of local citizens banded together to purchase the land from builders planning to turn it into a luxury housing site, and deeded over the site to the state. It was first a nature preserve, then changed to a state park. There is a ranger station on the road into the parking area, along with a nice picnic area off to the left. Right now there’s no permanent rest facilities, but there is a handicap accessible portajon at the end of the parking area. (I know, ew. But sometimes you gotta do what you gotta do!)
The sign at the bottom of the trail identifies some of the plant life you’ll see as well as telling you a little bit about the mountain ecology. Another wooden sign identifies this as the Summit Trail, 1.8 miles in length, next to a little box with a clipboard inside for you to log in with your name and number in your party.
And you’re off!
The trail is a couple feet wide, edged with larger rocks and boulders and gravel paved for a good part of it, and switches back as you climb the mountain. This is a great improvement to the old logging trail that went straight up the steep mountain! You’ll cross that logging trail a couple times as you wind up the mountain, but the trail is always signed, and it’s also blazed with blue plastic circles.
Did someone say steep mountain? The last 200 yards or so of the trail is not yet redone, as the trail work is done on a volunteer basis, so you do have to tackle the last bit on the old path. 200 yards doesn’t sound like much, but then you actually get on it.
I’ll put it this way- there is NO shame in stopping every 10-15 feet to celebrate how far you’ve come and catch your breath. It’s that steep. The above shot is taken from almost the summit on a mid October day last fall. I was up there on Sunday and it looks exactly the same, less the leaves.
But then you make it up. Flop down, wheeze for a while until you catch your breath, and look up. You’re greeted with this sight.
5520 feet up- over a mile above sea level! There are two lookout points, each with a sign pointing out what mountains you see in the distance. On one side, you can see towards Mount Jefferson, Pilot Mountain (can only be seen on a super clear day), Little Phoenix Mountain, and several others in that vicinity. The other side shows you where Beech Mountain, Sugar Mountain, Grandfather Mountain, Mt. Mitchell, and others that way are located. It’s an incredible experience, being able to see up to 50+ miles for 270°.
View to the southeast. Grandfather Mtn is on the left, and if you blow up this shot, you’ll see a small box on top of Sugar Mountain- don’t even get me started about how hideous Sugartop Condos are. Thank God someone with a brain enacted the Ridge Protection Act after they were erected and everyone saw how awful it looked.
The trip up takes about 40 minutes for a regular person; an hour if you’re me and taking pictures of everything eye-catching. The trip back down is a lot quicker, not just because return trips from anywhere are faster, but because you’re going downhill the entire way. Be careful, it’s easy to get going a little too quickly and wipe out and twist, sprain, or even break something!
In winter, with snow on the ground, adventurous souls like to go snowshoeing and cross country skiing, and the rangers do the best they can to keep the trail and access roads open. Bear in mind, though, because it’s at a higher elevation, there’s going to be more snow than here in town, and in fall, the leaves will disappear from the top before the lower elevations, and it will take longer to bloom back to life in spring. It’s worth the effort in any season though!
Note that no camping or fires are allowed on the trail or summit.
WHERE IS IT?
9 miles north of Boone, off Hwy 194. From the intersection of Highway 194 and Highway 421 at the Hardee’s in Boone, drive about 4.4 miles up Highway 194 (2-lane scenic byway) to the intersection with Meat Camp Road. It’s a left turn, in the middle of a curve, and you’ll see a brown sign pointing to Elk Knob State Park; and there is a small store at the corner called Plan B Corner Store. Drive 5.5 miles up Meat Camp Road, and just as you crest the hill, you’ll see a small wood sign on the left pointing for the right turn into the park, and there’s a flagpole with the US flag and the NC flag. Drive on gravel into the parking area, about .25 miles off the road. All in all it’s about 20 minutes to Boone.
Older kids (I’d say 6-7) and up. Like I said above, most of the trail is moderate with a non-threatening incline, but the last couple hundred yards are much steeper and rockier- I would classify that part as moderate-strenuous.
For more information, check out http://www.ncparks.gov/Visit/parks/elkn/activities.php or call the park at 828-297-7261.