Stone Mountain State Park, NC
What could be simpler to grasp than Stone Mountain State Park? It’s a state park with a mountain that has a lot of…well, stone in it. You gotta love simple.
Of course, any mountain by definition has a bunch of stone in it. But rarely is so much of it so prominently on display. There is a lot of exposed rock surface here, and that’s the key to Stone Mountain.
The only other comparable places we can think of in the Carolinas would be Looking Glass Rock and Table Rock, SC. Of the three, Stone Mountain would appear to have the largest accessible square acreage of exposed rock which can be safely hiked on. Plus, almost all these exposed granite slabs have great views.
But there’s more than just stone here. In fact, Stone Mountain, near the town of Roaring Fork NC, is one of the best state parks in North Carolina, and well worth visiting any time of year.
We last visited in April 2010. Little did we know that it would be our last hike for quite some time. Brian seriously injured himself in a household accident just a few months later and was out of action for the rest of the year. He would not hike again until 2011. Brian is for the most part okay now, having recently completed 100+ miles of hiking in the Alps.
We love North Carolina’s excellent (and for the most part, admission-free) State Park system. There are some very fine parks in this state to compliment the one heavy hitter National Park. Some of our favorites are Hanging Rock, The Gorges, Crowders Mountain and Stone Mountain. We also think South Mountain SP has the potential to someday be the best in the system. Stone Mountain, at more than 14,000 acres, is one of the largest and western-most units.
Don’t confuse North Carolina’s Stone Mountain with the somewhat more famous – or infamous – Stone Mountain Park in Georgia, aka the “Mt. Rushmore of the Confederacy.” What’s on display at Stone Mountain SP in NC is 100% authentic natural stone and great scenery, not dead confederates. Who by the way weren’t from Georgia. But we digress…
Stone Mountain, at 2305 feet, is another one of those monadnocks. It is reminiscent of nearby Pilot Mountain. It also reminds us quite a bit of Looking Glass Rock…in fact, viewed from the Blue Ridge Parkway, either could be mistaken for the other. All three of these interesting monadnocks sit in close proximity to the Blue Ridge but are actually geologically distinct from it.
Another monadnock that Stone Mountain very much reminds us of is Enchanted Rock in the Dang Old Texas Hill Country. Enchanted Rock has very much the same shape as Stone Mountain, the major difference being that Enchanted Rock is the largest thing in its proximity and dominates its landscape to a far greater extent than Stone Mountain.
We visited SMSP not long after a set of wooden walkways had been built along the more eroded sections of trail to assist hikers in not falling to their deaths. In years past, many sections of Stone Mountain were very dicey. But most sections are pretty straightforward now, though aerobically challenging. Much of the ‘trail’ is actually a series of easy scrambles across steep rock slabs. As long as one doesn’t do anything stupid here, it’s relatively safe. Note the words “doesn’t” and “stupid” in that sentence. And there’s simply no excuse for venturing out there in icy conditions at all unless you have special training and equipment.
Stone Mountain is not as big as Looking Glass Rock, and it lacks the other’s singular grand viewpoint. But it does have a great many more viewpoints. In fact, you could walk for quite some way on exposed rock ledges here with continual views in all directions.
This also brings up another place Stone Mountain reminds Brian of…that little piece of the Sierra Nevada in the Appalachians, the Welsh-Dickey Loop in New Hampshire’s White Mountains. Most New Englander hikers know about this little gem…for many, it’s one of the hikes that begins a long passion with the outdoors. It was on Welsh-Dickey that Brian came face to face, and eventually to terms, with his fear of steep rock slabs.
The wooden walkways do make for easier walking but also take some of the challenge and natural feel out of the hike. We don’t fault the park administration for installing them…they had good reason for doing so. We just wish there was some other way to do it and maintain the authentic character of the hike. Eventually the stairs will rot away and they’ll get a do over, and maybe the next solution will be better.
You can also walk around the Monadnock for a great view of the 600 foot tall cliffs, and the old restored Hutchinson settlers cabin beneath it. There are often rock…er, stone climbers on this section of the cliff…we saw a team of them.
And if that’s not enough, there also a considerable waterfall here! Stone Mountain falls is reputed to be some 200 feet tall, but like many falls that figure is fraught with caveats. It’s not a straight plunge, it’s more of a cascade along a tilted rock face…but it’s still quite impressive. When Sylvia and I were there it was running pretty good, better than most pictures I have seen of it.
The venerable site NCwatwerfalls.com considers this the closest significant waterfall to the Triangle/Triad area excepting hanging rock state park. We’ll defer to their expertise and take their word for it.
Our usual cautions about waterfalls apply doubly here…because of the precariously slanted rock slabs many will doubtless be tempted to climb up them along the falls. We recommend you don’t. Remember there is no such thing as dry weather around a running waterfall.
After visiting the falls, if you continue on the loop back to the parking lot, there is a gargantuan set of wooden stairs to scale first. This staircase easily dwarfs the one to the south at Whitewater Falls. If you want a calf workout, here’s the place for it. There are several good views of the falls from this walkway, including one right at the point the water goes over the edge.
Sylvia and I very much enjoyed Stone Mountain and we are overdue for a return. It can be a very crowded place, as it has for many years been popular, and not far from the college towns of central and western NC and Virginia. We have found to our dismay that many of the NC State Parks are overrun with rude, noisy and selfish people during the summer months, and often on any weekend when the weather is fair.
The best time to visit would be mid-week of any time of year, but especially fall and spring. Note that there is camping here, and unlike almost all the National Forest campgrounds, this one is open all year long. We’ve never front country camped here but would love to.
There is also a section of the ubiquitous Mountain to Sea Trail than runs through this park and eventually takes you all the to an overlook on the Blue Ridge Parkway. Alas, it’s long, and you can drive to this same overlook (the Devil’s Garden Overlook) for almost no effort. But it would be a fine hike all the same.
You want simple? There’s simply no doubt we’ll be back in Stone Mountain State Park someday. Maybe someday soon!