Chimney Rock State Park, NC
*We have added Chimney Rock to our Best Places to Hike in the Southern Appalachians. Though developed already (maybe a little overdeveloped) this is yet another park that could be much better than it already is.
**We last visited Chimney Rock State Park almost nine years ago. Though the photos and account of the trip are accurate up to that time, it is entirely possible things have changed. Check with the State Park Website before visiting.
Located about twenty miles from Asheville deep in a narrow gorge of the Appalachian Range is Chimney Rock State Park. Though the park itself is not one of the more popular in the North Carolina Park system, it does boast a quite notable landmark. Even if you haven’t heard of the park you might have seen, well, this…
That’s Chimney Rock.
This is not an overly visited place because a bit off the beaten path, not close to Charlotte, Raleigh or the Triad areas. It gets about one visitor for every six that Umstead State Park gets. Sylvia and I decided to hit this park in dead of winter, which further reduced the crowds. We probably were present during the lowest ebb of visitation all year.
But oddly, it still felt somewhat crowded. Perhaps the way the park is constructed might have had something to do with that. A word on this is a moment.
Prior to visiting the park, Sylvia and Brian went for a short bit of horseback riding. Generally, whenever Brian hitches up the saddle and makes up his gall durned mind to play cowpoke, something intestin’ happens. This time, the horse ridden by our guide stepped in a hole, collapsed and threw its rider. Both our horses then decided to bolt, and it took a bit of wranglin’ to keep them in check. Ornery creatures them hosses was!
After we left the OK Corral behind it was time to go mosey on to the park. We had picked a day of excellent weather to enter the park’s elaborate gate and drive up to the visitor center.
Chimney Rock has a complex history. It was not always public land; in fact, up until 2007 it was basically a privately owned outdoor theme park. It was once feared that the land might fall into the hands of developers, but the state and various organizations such as the Nature Conservancy got together and purchased not only the nearly thousand-acre park, but thousands more acres of land around it. Today, CRSP is nearly seven thousand acres in size; much of this land is still yet to be developed for recreation.
This being our first trip here, what we visited on this day was exactly what most people visit – the developed part of the park. The fact that this was a privately managed tourist trap for many years shows very clearly in the design and layout. This is a place designed for the comfort and ease of (and to extract dollars from) paying customers who arrive by car – NOT a place designed to preserve the landscape in any condition approximating a natural state.
The park road takes you very close to the attractions, so it’s not a long walk from there. And for those too infirm or simply too plain lazy to do even that small amount of walking, there is an elevator. That’s right…an elevator to transport you to the top. The only other natural State/National Park where I have ever seen an elevator to the attraction is Carlsbad Caverns. Do I even need to mention there’s a gift shop?
Many comfortable and well built viewing platforms with handrails insure that the paying customers get their money’s worth without tumbling over the edge, which of course might result in liability to the owners.
There’s also the matter of admission. NC State Parks as a rule admirably do not charge a fee for entrance. Neither does this one…to the Park. But to explore Chimney Rock, well, you gotta pay a fee.
The State now owns the land but — we assume due to some agreement that was put in place when ownership was transferred — someone is still is collecting money at the top. In fact, the ‘attraction’ fee area is called by the rather pompous name of “Chimney Rock at Chimney Rock State Park.” Sounds like a resort community.
(That someone by the way being the concessionaire Chimney Rock Management LLC. The website assures us that some part of that money goes to land conservation and stewardship.)
Oh, we should point out that parking here is awful…there’s just nowhere near enough. Even in January the lots were crowded, and in summer the situation apparently is dreadful. There is a free reservation system that guests can access and are encouraged to use. But the website appeared to be down at last check
Whatever your thoughts are of the touristy nature of the park, there is no doubting the grand views from here, which are fantastic. Panoramas extend to Lake Lure to the South and the impressive granite walls of Hickory Nut Gorge straight ahead. In fact, the park was named Hickory Nut Gorge State Park when it was opened, until the acquisition of the private land allowed the state to adopt the more popular name of Chimney Rock.
Another of the popular attractions is Hickory Nut Falls, a 400-foot cascades that is one of the half-billion or so claimants to the title “Tallest Waterfall East of the Somethingorother.” Hickory Nut Falls is most famous for being the place where the climactic chase scene from “Last of the Mohicans” was filmed.
The falls seems nice but, as this clip shows, overrun with hostile Huron warriors.
The trail was closed when we visited so we didn’t get to see the falls, which were likely iced over anyway at that time of the year. Probably for the best since we’d left our flintlock muskets and tomahawks at home. We’ll save the falls and the fine loop hike that goes to it for a future Waterfall Week.
We are skeptical in general of private management of natural areas, and places like Chimney rock don’t make us any less skeptical. If the long struggle to conserve public lands in this country has shown nothing else, it is that profit and wilderness seldom are compatible. Perhaps the growth of eco-tourism will make some dent in this but again, but we’re not sure.
Many people will object to the placement of the American Flag in this particular location. While we’re not by any means advocating removing it from here, this location does seem a poor choice. The flag SHOULD be displayed prominently and proudly at every National state and local park in America. But what’s the need to put it way out there on the rock ledges? Do the people in the valley below need a reminder to be patriotic? Is there some dispute that Chimney Rock is American soil?
Surely, we can find a way to honor the flag that doesn’t involve locating it in a place where landscape and national emblem can only distract from one another. We don’t have flags flying from the top of Half Dome, nor have we painted the side of the Grand Canyon red white and blue. Are those places any less patriotic for it?
The best way you can honor the flag is by displaying it in a correct and respectful manner. The best way you can honor the landscape is by keeping it in as natural a state as possible. These goals are not incompatible. But…people hereabouts are used to the flag being there, and when people get used to things, it’s probably a good idea to let things be for a while unless there is an overriding reason not to do so. Perhaps in the future there will be an opportunity to rethink this issue.
We’re not great fans of caves but Gneiss Cave, pictured here, is very Gnice.
The State of North Carolina has ambitious plans for many of the western parks such as Gorges, South Mountain and Elk Knob. We believe that Chimney Rock is another great opportunity…a place where recreation opportunities could be expanded, but in a way that is respectful to the land. It is our hope that additional areas of this tremendous park are opened up for hiking, while the presently developed areas are gradually restructured to make them look more like a real state park and less like a second-rate tourist trap.
We definitely will be back to Chimney Rock State Park, if for no other reason to see Hickory Nut Falls!