One of my favorite parts of the miles of trails surrounding Flat Top Manor in the Moses Cone Memorial Park off the Blue Ridge Parkway is the trail up to the old fire tower. The trail from the manor house is about 2.8 miles one way, and is fairly easy with a few steeper switchbacks as you climb the mountain. In decades past, this tower was used to keep an eye out for fires in the surrounding valleys. Nowadays, the tower provides a terrific view of Grandfather and Sugar Mountains, Blowing Rock, and Boone in a 360° panoramic view.
This trail is the trail that awakened my love for hiking. I’d never really been out wandering in the woods until a friend asked if I’d like to go, and told me to meet up at the manor for this hike. That was a few years ago, and I haven’t had a chance to revisit it before one evening this week when I decided to run up there after work to catch the sunset. It was 7pm when I left my house, so I knew I’d have to book it.
The trail is pretty wide, having once been used as a carriage path and has since been maintained well by the NFS. It leads under the Parkway and up the hill beside a privately owned cow pasture, and plunges you into the woods. About a mile up the trail is a short spur trail to the left to the site of Moses & Bertha Cone’s graves. Since I was trying to catch the sunset, I didn’t go visit the graves.
Just a few hundred feet up past the spur trail, I caught sight of a doe staring at me, determining if I was a threat or not. I very slowly pulled out my camera and focused on her, hoping she didn’t bolt off.
She stayed still long enough for me to snap off a few shots, but as soon as I took a step closer she ran off.
On up the trail were a few boulders with views of the town of Blowing Rock below. After that, you’ll start switching back and forth up the mountain as you climb ever higher. The climb is not a horribly steep one, and I was going at a pretty good rate and did not get overly winded. Of course, as a sunset chaser, I kept myself moving even when I wanted to dilly dally and take pictures of everything I saw.
Before I knew it, I’d climbed the entire trail and opened into the clearing housing the old tower.
The trees have grown up at the bottom, so if you expect to get any kind of view, you gotta go up. (Side note: It’s the only fire tower in the area that you can still climb, according to this website listing all of the known fire towers in NC. Howard’s Knob has the other area fire tower, but I’ve been told you can no longer climb it, which is a crying shame considering the views from that point.) People who are afraid of heights and/or open stairs won’t be enthusiastic about this climb, but it’s absolutely worth it, especially at sunset.
As I said earlier, the view is just spectacular. I was the only person up there- which is perfectly fine with me- and sat on the platform for a while snapping off shots with both of my cameras. I actually had cell signal on top of the tower, so I had to give in to my goofy side and call a couple friends with the “You’re not gonna believe where I am!” line.
Eventually I looked at the sinking sun and realized that if I expected to get back to my car before dark totally consumed the trail, I’d better get going. I again swallowed my fears of open stairs and heights, and climbed down the steps with a white-knuckle grip on the rails.
The trip back to the car didn’t take as long, since it was all downhill, but I didn’t beat the darkness. I did get a somewhat decent shot of Blowing Rock at night.
I know that’s not up to my usual standards, simply because I did not have the tripod with me. It’s a little impractical to bring a tripod on a 5.5 mile hike when the main focus is getting there quickly. As it is, I quickly found myself wishing I’d thought to bring my flashlight, but all I’d grabbed before zipping up the trail was my water bottle and two cameras. Guess we all know now where my heart truly lies when I’m outside! My hiking stick was in the hatchback, too- smart, I know. I’m very glad I have a mini flashlight on my keys; it was the only way I was able to navigate the last mile in the black woods. Thank God there were no bears around- all I saw was a herd of deer, more scared of me than I was of them.
I made it back to my car around 9:45pm, not too bad considering that I’d set out just after 7pm and stopped to take pictures of everything that caught my eye, plus hung out on the tower for a good 15-20 minutes. A person taking their time could probably do the round trip in about 4-4.5 hours. It’s a great place to catch sunsets- if you have a flashlight- and is also a great afternoon hike.
All ages. The trail is about 2.8 miles one way from the Manor, and is easy/moderate.
Where Is It?
The trailhead is accessed from the Flat Top Manor house off the Blue Ridge Parkway, MP 294. Park at the Manor and walk down to the bathrooms to the left of the manor. Behind the bathroom building is a trail- go to the left under the Parkway bridge, and stay straight up the hill at the fork. (Going to the left will take you down to Trout Lake.)
All text & photos copyright 2011 Cassandra L. Hartley, Blue Ridge NC Guide