It’s not often I find myself standing above birds soaring through the air but that is exactly where I was at the Upper Overlook on Craggy Pinnacle. Standing behind a knee-high stone wall I took in the sweeping panorama view and sighed deeply. This was my favorite overlook on the entire Blue Ridge Parkway.
Craggy Gardens is located at Milepost 364 on the Blue Ridge Parkway about thirty minutes from Asheville, North Carolina. The “gardens” are in fact Catawba rhododendron that bloom a spectacular pink around June each year. Because of Craggy Gardens’ proximity to Asheville it’s a popular and often crowded place to visit, but fortunately there are three different ways to enjoy some time here.
Craggy Gardens Visitor Center
The visitor center is located just off the Parkway in the “middle” of Craggy Gardens. The small one-room building usually has one or two volunteers offering maps and information (during the Parkway’s in-season) and a gift shop with clothing, drinkware, books, and souvenirs.
The restrooms here are located down a flight of stone stairs in the basement of the visitor center and, unfortunately, are not handicap accessible. However the restrooms at the nearby Craggy Gardens Picnic Area are accessible.
One evening in August I rolled into Craggy Gardens too late to hike to Craggy Pinnacle as I had planned so instead I joined several other couples in the parking lot beside the visitor center. On either side of the visitor center a low stone wall provides an excellent place to sit and enjoy the panorama view looking west. In the distance I could see I-26 winding through the mountain pass heading toward Tennessee.
Since I was too late to climb the Pinnacle before sunset I decided to set up my camera gear here. It’s the easiest way to enjoy the views at Craggy Gardens that requires little more than getting out of your car (and really you could enjoy the view from inside your car). No sooner had I set up my cameras on tripods than a couple walked over and plopped down some folding chairs and another couple swung their tailgate down. It was turning into a rather nice sunset viewing party!
From the south end of the parking lot the Craggy Gardens Trail ascends the gentle slope of Craggy Knob through a thick rhododendron forest. The short 0.3-mile hike leads to a large covered shelter. A short spur trail to the left leads to the summit of the mostly-bald Craggy Knob, while continuing straight leads to the picnic area.
I hiked this trail the second time I visited Craggy Gardens. It was just a few days after my first visit in late August; while the rhododendrons were no longer in bloom there were hundreds of wildflowers scattered everywhere. A narrow footpath meandered through knee-high wavy grass and past the occasional tree.
The views were pretty amazing. In all directions I could see mountains trailing off to the horizon. Butterflies fluttered from bloom to bloom. The wide open space meant even a moderate number of hikers would still feel uncrowded. Then I caught sight of Craggy Pinnacle in the distance with tiny dots moving across the exposed outcropping. Next time, I told myself.
Next time came about two years later. While working on driving the entire Blue Ridge Parkway for the second time I was determined to complete my experience at Craggy Gardens. I left the visitor center behind, drove through the Craggy Pinnacle Tunnel, and snagged a space at the parking lot on the other side. Tightening up my shoelaces and cinching down my photography backpack I was ready for the hike.
The 0.7-mile hike ascends about 230′ on a somewhat rocky trail. It’s not exactly strenuous, but I often found myself climbing across large, jagged rocks on the trail. The thick rhododendron provided a comfortable shade even on the sunniest of days. Near the very top the trail split; to the left was the Upper Overlook and the right the Lower Overlook.
The moment I stepped out onto the stone overlook I knew I had found my favorite overlook on the Parkway. The 360-degree views were stunning in every direction. I sighed deeply and realized even the air seemed different up here. At 5,892′ in elevation it’s nearly 800′ shorter than nearby Mt. Mitchell but regardless the views were amazing.
The summit is divided into four different areas, each with a knee-high stone wall that people are supposed to stay behind (no further comment). In one direction I could see the visitor center and Craggy Knob far below, another direction the Asheville Reservoir, turning around I could see Craggy Dome (and realized Mt. Mitchell was hiding directly behind it), and the fourth direction just mountains as far as I could see.
There always comes a moment I put the camera down and just enjoy the view. I can’t live life through a viewfinder. I sat for nearly half an hour, chatted with some fellow hikers, and breathed deeply. The sound of passing traffic on the Parkway below did not reach the summit. It was a type of natural silence that seemed somewhat comfortable.
I finally packed up my camera gear, took in the view one last time, and turned to leave the summit. I scanned the horizon one last time and caught sight of a hawk soaring through the air below me. How about that?