What is it that draws us, as explorers, so viscerally towards wide open spaces? What do we find so compelling about the cliff’s edge, the endless volume of sky that domes the mountaintop and engulfs the spindly tower? Perhaps it’s the rush of endorphins that our bodies release as we peer over the edge, or the satisfaction that accompanies completing a hard physical challenge. Maybe it’s the long-reaching views that appeal to our primitive desire to be fully aware of our surroundings.
The landscape of the American Southeast is not renown for its bare rock summits, sheer drop-offs or dizzying heights, but that doesn’t mean they do not exist. The rarity and extraordinary nature of these destinations make them ever more rewarding and awe-inspiring. Here are seven hikes in the Southeast that will provide you with the stomach-dropping, heart-racing joy of exposure.
Blue Ridge Parkway, N.C.
What transforms Rough Ridge from a beautiful High-Country ramble to an experience of sublime exposure (and a photographic free-for-all!) are the massive boulders that lie alongside the trail. Scramble to the top of any one of them, and you’ll feel as if you’re standing on the prow of a stone ship, sailing through the sky towards the crooked outline of the Linville Wilderness. The daring can crawl to the edge of any number of granite outcrops, and have the pulse-quickening pleasure of dangling their legs into thin air.
From the Rough Ridge parking area on the Blue Ridge Parkway, the trail climbs for just over a mile through an alpine landscape of rocks and fragile vegetation. However, this section of mountain crest is part of the 13-mile Tanawah Trail, as well as the Mountains to Sea Trail, allowing you to choose your own adventure when it comes to the duration of your hike.
Breathtaking views of Grandfather Mountain and the Linville Gorge are nearly continuous along the trail, but the most expansive vista can be found at the official summit, a fence-lined granite knob that stands 4,733 above sea level.
Pickens County, S.C.
The massive granite dome of Table Rock rises dramatically from the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, in stark contrast to the forested landscape of South Carolina’s Upcountry. One glimpse of the 3,124-foot monolith, and it’s no surprise that the journey up is a relentless, at times grueling climb, but the rewards from the top make every step worth it: soaring views of Ceasar’s Head Lookout, clouds reflected in the Table Rock Reservoir, and the sprawling counties of Greenville and Pickens unfolding in all directions.
The Table Rock National Recreational Trail is 3.6 miles long, beginning with a series of footbridges and a stroll through a boulder field, before the trek begins in earnest.
The true summit of Table Rock, flat topped and dense with forest, may feel surprisingly mundane. But as soon as you emerge from the trees and onto the wide expanse of granite, be prepared for your stomach to drop. The edge of the mountain appears gradually as you step forward, the granite rolling gently into sheer, 350-foot cliffs. Use caution, as this subtly has claimed the lives of a few unfortunate souls who wandered just a few innocent steps too far.
Great Smoky Mountains, Tenn.
Engulfed in forested peaks within the Western Slope of the Great Smoky Mountains, the bare rock summit of Chimney Tops poses an irresistible challenge for any adrenaline-seeking adventurer. The double capstone knobs are composed of folded metamorphic rock, creating a wildly exposed scramble to reach the crown.
The allure of this adventure is not found in its altitude, but in the grit and real danger of the final approach that, it bears mentioning, occurs after the trail has officially ended. At 4,724 feet, the airy pinnacles are effectively walled in by the much taller Mount LeConte and Mt. Kephart. In this manner, Chimney Tops feels like a narrow island, suspended in the middle of a rough sea of mountains.
The Chimney Tops Trail was recently rebuilt, and now features over 700 stone and log steps, climbing 1700 feet in just under two miles. Your legs will be begging you to call it a day when the terrain finally evens out. The views from the ridgeline are noteworthy, but push on. Reaching the gnarled summit is one of the most impressive experiences you’ll find anywhere in the Smokies.
Jefferson National Forest
It’s no secret why McAfee Knob in Roanoke County, Virginia is the most photographed location on the entire Appalachian Trail. The airy overlook on Catawba Mountain provides a brilliant, 270 degree view of the southern Shenandoah Valley. Swaths of pastoral farmland are nestled between the rolling spines of the Ridge-and-Valley Appalachians, while North Mountain is visible to the northwest and Tinker Cliffs are visible to the northeast.
What makes McAfee Knob such a popular destination is a prominent rock overhang, its narrow ledge extending into thin air. Hikers with a strong constitution can stand at its very edge, basking in the thrill of high exposure and the expansive sensation of being surrounded by sky. While clear weather allows for seemingly endless views, a foggy day can be equally enchanting. Suspended in the clouds at an altitude of 3,197 feet, it appears as if you are sitting at the very edge of the world.
Be prepared to earn your epic moment: the route entails 3.9 miles (one way) of steady climbing. By the time you reach the spur to the lookout, you will be more than ready for a rest, and a deep breath at the edge of the precipice.
Red River Gorge, Ky.
Best known for a particularly daunting stretch of exposed scrambling, the Indian Staircase is one of the most captivating hikes within Kentucky’s Red River Gorge Geological Area. The trail draws its name from a 200-foot slab of sandstone that’s pitted with shallow footholds, perhaps carved by the Adena people over 1,000 years ago.
For those who prefer their trails spiked with adrenaline, climbing the staircase will be the most rewarding portion of your day. While the intimidation factor is high, grippy sandstone and precisely placed footholds will boost your confidence as you ascend into the sky. Be sure to pause and revel in the extraordinary landscape of the Red River Gorge.
The staircase is not the only unusual feature of this 3.5 mile hike. Waiting for you on top is an area known as the Council Chamber, a massive rock overhang. Another oddity, the Turtle’s Head, is a protruding stone knob that bears fantastic resemblance to a reptile, although it has succumbed to many would-be sculptors over the years. The Adena Arch, accessible via side-trail, is also well worth a visit. In other words, the Staircase is only the beginning of your adventures in this sandstone playground.
The Endless Wall
New River Gorge, W.Va.
One of the most popular short hikes in the New River Gorge, the Endless Wall Trail is also one of the most dangerous. The trail follows the unbroken cliff line of the New River Gorge, with plenty of rock outcrops and vantage points from which to bask in the glory of the sweeping views of the National River and the pristine wilderness that surrounds it.
The official trail is a three mile loop, with the final third of a mile on a steep gravel road. Many people prefer to hike out and back to the Diamond Point Lookout, one mile from the trailhead. From this outcrop, you can often hear the calls of rafters as they plunge through the rapids below.
Just below the first tier of cliffs that make up the Endless Wall Trail, there is a little known trail known to locals as the “Endless Underworld.” A series of ladders, boulders, and tight squeezes through caves leads to the sandstone cliffs where climbers top out. It takes a healthy spirit of adventure, and some steady footwork to navigate this Cliffside obstacle course, but for the serious adventurer, the underworld is well worth a visit.
Linville Gorge Wilderness, N.C.
The multi-tiered cliffs on the summit of Hawksbill Mountain comprise one of the most iconic landscapes in the Linville Gorge. One particularly prominent rock shelf that, not surprisingly, resembles a hawk’s bill, provides a thrilling perch on which the daredevil hiker can sit, legs swinging, and fully absorb their surroundings. To hover in space above the rugged Linville Gorge Wilderness, surrounded in sky as the river cuts through the canyon floor 2,000 feet below, is an experience nothing short of dazzling.
The 1.5 mile access trail ascends 700 feet through a dense forest of maple, mountain laurel and rhododendron. This is a trail that keeps its cards close: until you emerge onto the granite clearing at the top, there will be little opportunity to preview the soaring views that await.
Located on the East rim of the gorge, Hawksbill’s 4,049-foot summit affords one of the farthest-reaching views in the Southeast. The towering, granite-rippled peak of Grandfather Mountain and the distinct profiles of Table Rock and Shortoff Peak dominate the 360 degree panorama, with the Pisgah National Forest unfurling to the East. On particularly clear evenings, even the lights of Charlotte can be seen glittering in the distance.