Saturday, December 1, 2012

Elk Knob and Snake Mountain - Plus A Few More

A spectacular overhanging outcrop on Snake Mountain.
I had considered going to Grandfather Mountain on my next hike but quickly changed my mind when I got a text the night before from my peakbagging buddy Peter Barr. He was in the final stages of writing his second book, a guide to the Highest 100 peaks in the Southeast, and needed to get some up to date info on Elk Knob and Snake Mountain in Northwestern North Carolina. He also wanted to try bagging a few new peaks in the area and wondered if I would be interested in joining him. Since we live three hours apart and don't get to hike together very often - and the peaks he mentioned were even closer to me than Grandfather, it was a no-brainer to accept.

I first met +Peter only three years ago, though I knew of him for somewhat longer as being the second person to complete the list of 136 Southern Fivers (the peaks in the Southeast over 5,000' in elevation and having at least 300' of prominence - and he also did the remaining 64 peaks with 200' of prominence that is the standard in the Northeast), and through his first book, Hiking North Carolina's Lookout Towers. That led to some correspondence with him about a couple of the towers, as well as about a couple other peaks I was interested in that I knew he had been up. One thing led to another and we eventually met up for a hike when we realized how much of an obsession with mountains we had in common. Now we share a friendly competition trying to stay ahead of each other in the number of peaks we have visited in our respective states of Virginia and North Carolina, and get together for a hike whenever possible. In fact, we recently spent a week in the Adirondacks of New York and he also completed the Northeastern Fivers on Mount Marcy while we were there.

Three Top Mountain and The Peak.
Back to the hiking now. Before we got to the priorities at hand, we spent a few hours getting to the top of five other peaks first. I'm not going to go into detail about them because of access issues but will simply say that they were all over 4,000', new to both of us, and two of them had great views. One gave us a spectacular early morning scene of ragged Three Top Mountain and The Peak, while the other had amazing close up views of the sharp crest of Snake Mountain looming dauntingly above us. And to get a bit geeky and reveal the depth of our obsession, I should mention that four of the five peaks are among the Highest 500 in North Carolina, while the other one would have been were it not entirely in Tennessee. The lowest one was 4,100' and ranks as only the 413th highest in North Carolina. If it were in Virginia, it would be tied with six other peaks for the Number 61 spot. By the time we finished climbing these peaks, Peter's tally stood at 298 of the North Carolina Highest 500 climbed. For some reason I can't resist getting in a little jab and mentioning that I have been on 307 of Virginia's Highest 500....a lead that probably won't last long after Peter reads this. ;-)

Snake Mountain looming above.
By now, I was beginning to question whether or not we had enough time left for both of the remaining two hikes but we headed for Elk Knob State Park, leaving my vehicle near the north end of Snake Mountain for later. Elk Knob is a hulking, steep-sided dome in the heart of the Amphibolite Mountains, an often spectacularly rugged subrange of the North Carolina Appalachians that also includes Snake Mountain and such other particularly noteworthy mountains as Three Top and The Peak - a name that does not seem at all pretentious when the mountain is viewed from certain angles. In fact, several of these mountains are so impressive that they rate among the most rugged and dramatic in the Southeast, giving such places as Grandfather Mountain and Linville Gorge some serious competition. Yet, with the exception of the two state parks here (the other being Mount Jefferson), they are relatively unknown to most hikers. Most are privately owned but there are also some state game lands and a Nature Conservancy Preserve.

I would have preferred to gone up the old jeep trail that leads to the summit, a steep and direct route that is quite a grind to climb, but there is a new trail that was still under construction the last time either of us was here. Peter needed to be able to describe that trail accurately from the perspective of someone going up it, so that is the way we went. While I thought the old trail was more than adequate and even have a certain affection for it (that whole steep trails thing), I must admit the new trail is very nicely laid out, aesthetically appealing, and has a very moderate grade while still not milling around too much to get to the top - though its two mile length is about twice as long as the old route. But it also is not as much "fun".

Looking north from Elk Knob at The Peak, Three Top, and Bluff Mountain.
The 5,540' summit of Elk Knob is semi-open with only scraggly beech trees and small grassy areas and the views are wonderful. Close by are the rest of the Amphibolites which surround Elk Knob, including Rich Mountain Bald, Snake Mountain, The Peak, Three Top Mountain, Bluff Mountain, Phoenix Mountain, Mount Jefferson, and more. The high elevation Long Hope Valley lies directly below, a hanging valley of sorts, or about as close as the Southern Appalachians have to one. The more distant views include Grandfather Mountain, the Roan Highlands, Mount Rogers - and even the Blacks and Pilot Mountain on very clear days. It's a really great spot but it was getting late in the day so we didn't have time to linger properly.

We hiked back down the short, steep way on the old jeep trail and hopped in Peter's truck to go the last few miles to Rich Mountain Gap. From here it's only about 3/4 of a mile to the 5,580' summit of Snake Mountain and about a 1,160' climb. But it's more interesting than that. There is no trail, at least in the constructed sense. A faint path leads, Northeast style, straight up the fall line of the South Ridge. And 1,000' of that gain takes place in the first half mile. It is steep! And fun! And slow. Near the top of the climb, the route breaks out into the open on a narrow spine of rock that requires some mild scrambling and leads to ever wider views. Rich Mountain Bald is just to the south and Elk Knob is less than two miles to the east.
Elk Knob from the south shoulder of Snake Mountain.
The climb reaches a shoulder and the grade eases off dramatically for the last 1/4 mile to the top, but the views and drama just keep getting better for the next mile and then some. Though there are usually trees around blocking the view to one side or the other, much of the high crest is semi-open with frequent rock outcrops and panoramas. The ridgeline also gets quite narrow in many places, at times being a knife-edge only a couple feet wide with a steep slope on one side and a cliff on the other. While there isn't anything difficult about this section, there are a few spots where you want to pay attention to where you are walking. There is a path on the crest beyond the south shoulder and it occasionally avoids difficult bits of the ridge by dropping down a few yards to one side or the other but always goes back to the scenic top. As far as peakbagging goes, the summit is a P2K with 2,280' of prominence - one of only 25 peaks in the entire Southeast to break this threshold. This highpoint is entirely in North Carolina, but the state line follows the crest just to the north. There is a minor rise along that section to a narrow, pointy summit that is the Johnson County, Tennessee highpoint. The approach to that area,

Narrow ridge on Snake Mountain.

and especially the descent off the other side, is the most spectacular section of the hike and though it may not be quite as gnarly as the best part of Three Top, it is stunningly scenic and certainly one of my favorite places in the Southeast, quite possibly in my Top 10. And something that made it even better this time was the fact that Peter had never been beyond the county highpoint. It was a kick just seeing him be wowed by this section for the first time.

There are some abrupt dropoffs and the trail is forced to skirt around a couple of them, very steeply so at times. It quickly becomes wide open just below the north shoulder and the route moves onto bare rock and grass for the remainder of the descent. There are "wow" views behind at what we just came down and more "wow" views of the route ahead, not to mention great views of The Peak, Three Top, and lots more. It's a trek to savor and we made the final descent to my waiting vehicle in twilight, having made full use of the day.

The north summit of Snake Mountain and it's rocky spine.

The route of this hike. To see a larger map click here.

Hike Stats:

Elk Knob
3 miles
940' elevation gain

Snake Mountain
2.75 miles
1,400' cumulative elevation gain

More pictures from this hike

Pictures from other hikes to Elk Knob and Snake Mountain:
November 2009
February 2009
May 2008

Resources and contacts:
Elk Knob State Park
Elk Knob State Park Map & Directions
Elk Knob SummitPost page
Snake Mountain SummitPost page
gpx file and topo maps

Trailhead Coordinates:

Elk Knob 36.33206,-81.68962

Snake Mountain (North) 36.34283,-81.69667

Snake Mountain (South) 36.32096,-81.71037

Google map for trailheads:

Scan QR code to navigate to trailhead with Google maps on your smartphone:


  1. Do you think this hike would be alright with a dog?

  2. Elk Knob shouldn't be any problem. I guess it would depend on the dog for Snake Mountain because there are a lot of clifftops and rock outcrops.

  3. Thanks for the heads up. Looks like a great hike and great job on the trip report.

  4. You're welcome, and Thank You! Both hikes are very nice, and Snake is downright spectacular. Enjoy!

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  6. I was up here the other day and was wondering if there was a trail that goes up The Peak? Do you know if there is one and if so, how to get there? Thanks!