Thanks to the hard work of Conserving Carolina and their ace trailblazer Peter Barr, there's a spectacular new hike to explore in the Upper Hickory Nut Gorge area in 2017. The 3-mile Wildcat Rock Trail climbs about 1,800 feet in elevation, taking you to a 100-foot waterfall, rock climbing area, towering cliffs and a panoramic lookout point from Wildcat Rock (photo above). It ends in a highland grassland atop Little Bearwallow Mountain, elevation 3,980 feet. It opened in April 2017.
The trail took 3 years and $200,000 to build. It was painstakingly designed to be the utmost in sustainability to protect the land, using natural materials to last many generations. This area is home to rare plant communities and a big variety of wildflowers. In fact, more than 100 acres have been designated the Little Bearwallow Mountain Significant Natural Heritage Area for its biodiversity.
Within the next few years, this trail will extend another two miles to the top of Bearwallow Mountain, connecting to another 3.5 miles of trail. This is one of the many trails that will form the much bigger Upper Hickory Nut Gorge Trail (also see Bearwallow Mountain Trail and Trombatore Trail).
The hike begins at a small parking area along US Highway 74A (Drovers Road Scenic Byway) in Gerton, located between Asheville and Chimney Rock. It's about 18 miles from downtown Asheville. It's easy to spot with an old fireplace, sign for "Upper Hickory Nut Gorge Trailhead" and crosswalk.
From the parking area, cross the road to begin the hike. Look for the Wildcat Rock trail marker. The first part of the trail follows a wood fence through an orchard. Follow the Conservancy orange blazes. The trail is broken down into three one-mile unofficial sections.
Cross a small wooden bridge over Hickory Creek and begin your ascent to Little Bearwallow Falls. This section of the trail is about a mile with a 650-foot elevation gain, gradually walking uphill most of the way. This part of hike is classified as "challenging".
The 100-foot waterfall flows down a broad cliff and water flow varies according to recent rain. Normally, find a small flow. But it's a gorgeous and dramatic setting. It's an ice climbing spot during the coldest winter weather - with rock climbing access all year. The next 2 miles of the trail is more strenuous (classified as "hard core") with many stairs and is a steady uphill climb of another 1,200 feet in elevation gain. So many will turn around here. To continue, climb a steep rock staircase (impressive trail engineering!) and continue on the trail past some rock cliffs and overhangs.
In about a mile from the waterfall, find a short but steep side trail on the left that takes you to the top of the Wildcat Rock outcropping with panoramic views at an elevation of 3,600 feet (photo at top of page). It's certainly a great picnic spot. To the northwest, you can spot Craggy Pinnacle and Gardens in the far distance.
Look for the slot canyons under Wildcat Rock - fun to explore. To continue your expedition, return to the trail and turn left to continue an upward trek.
After many switchbacks and rhododendron forest, you'll come out into pasture land at the summit of Little Bearwallow Mountain. The trail officially ends here (for now), but you can walk downhill to your right into a larger pasture area in the swag / gap between the peaks. This is private property, so please respect it and grazing cows. We are delighted that the owners welcome visitors. No camping allowed.
There you will find the natural spring that creates a refreshing pools for bears to wallow and keep cool (hence the name of this area). Looking straight ahead is Bearwallow Mountain. Within the next couple of years, the trail will be extended two miles to reach the top of this grassy summit - connecting to the existing Bearwallow Mountain Trail.
Driving Directions: From Asheville, drive US 74A toward Chimney Rock. The parking area is about 13.5 miles past I-40. The parking area is on the left with a rock wall and chimney. But this hike starts across the road. There's a crosswalk that directs you to the trailhead. The trail is well marked. See it on Google Maps.