Road Trip No. 5

Road Trip to the Southern Sixers

This road trip will take you along the Southern Sixers, a collection of mountains above 6,000' elevation in North Carolina and Tennessee.

Written by

Jason Barnette

on

April 4, 2019

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COVID-19 has changed the world. The tourism industry has been one of the hardest hit areas of the global pandemic. Local restaurants, museums, state and national parks have all changed hours of operation, procedures, and some have gone out of business altogether.

Please verify current operations of any places you want to visit mentioned in these articles, and contact me if a business has permanently closed so I can update the article. Thank you and stay safe out there!

The Southern Sixers are a collection of mountain peaks across North Carolina and Tennessee that rise above 6,000 feet in elevation. Some of these peaks require a hefty hike to reach the summit while others are easily accessible from roads and paved trails. This road trip includes where to stay, find great local food, and enjoy the views of the Southern Sixers from the comfort of your car or out on the trails.

What are the Southern Sixers?

There are about 50 peaks of the Appalachian Mountains above 6,000 feet in elevation. Only one of them, Mount Washington in New Hampshire, is not located in the South. The rest are sprinkled throughout the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Cherokee National Forest, and Pisgah National Forest.

Most of the Southern Sixers have hiking trails leading to the summit, but not all. Mount Mitchell, the highest point in North Carolina and the East Coast, includes a 20’ observation deck at the top. Clingman’s Dome, the highest point in Tennessee, has a 54’ observation tower at the summit. Other summits have roads, parking lots, and paved trails either near the summit or leading to the summit.

This makes a road trip to the Southern Sixers enjoyable from the comfort of your own vehicle, along a short and easy hike, or after a rigorous hike on the trails.

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The South Beyond 6000 Challenge

The Carolina Mountain Club hosts the “South Beyond 6000 Challenege” for peak baggers who want to summit the highest peaks of the Appalachian Mountains. Anyone who can verify they have summited all 40 peaks on the Southern Sixers List becomes a lifetime member of the club.

Destination

Johnson City, TN

Located near the intersection of Interstates 26 and 81, Johnson City is the perfect place to spend the night (or a few nights) before beginning this road trip to the Southern Sixers. Surrounded by the mountains this college town is a great place to stay while white water rafting, zip lining, and hiking in the area.

Head downtown to Freiberg’s for some authentic German cuisine like bratwurst and schnitzels. If you want something more akin to mountain food try the barbeque and homemade sauces at Firehouse Restaurant or the burgers and pies at Cootie Brown’s. Finish off the night with some local craft beer from Yee-Haw Brewing.

The Carnegie Hotel is the premiere overnight accommodation in Johnson City. With an on-site restaurant and full day spa you could almost spend an entire day just lounging around the hotel. If this doesn’t fit your budget there are plenty of hotels around the city (benefit of being a college town).

Stop No. 1

Roan High Bluff – 6,267’

Roan High Bluff comes in at #17 on the Southern Sixers List. The bluff has a nice observation deck with a breathtaking view of the local landscape. It’s an easy 1-mile roundtrip hike through a dense rhododendron forest from the parking lot to the observation deck.

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Stop No. 2

Roan High Knob – 6,285’

Speaking of the rhododendrons, both Roan High Bluff and Roan High Knob are part of the Rhododendron Gardens. This area, maintained by the National Forestry Service, features hundreds of Catawba rhododendrons that bloom each year around early June. The paved paths weaving around the gardens make it easy and accessible to explore.

READ MORE: How to See Thousands of Blooms at the Rhododendron Gardens on Roan Mountain, Tennessee

Roan High Knob is #16 on the Southern Sixers List. It’s accessed via the Appalachian Trail either from Carver’s Gap (long, strenuous hike) or a parking lot near the ruins of the Cloudland Hotel in the Rhododendron Gardens. The hike from the gardens is about 1.6-miles roundtrip and fairly easy. A short spur trail leads to the summit at Roan High Knob.

Did You Know?

At 6,285’, the Roan High Knob Shelter is the highest shelter on the entire Appalachian Trail.

Stop No. 3

Grassy Ridge Bald – 6,160’

Grassy Ridge Bald, #26 on the Southern Sixers List, is also accessed via the Appalachian Trail not far from Roan High Knob. The point where TN 143 and NC 261 meet at the base of the Rhododendron Gardens is called Caver’s Gap. There is a small parking lot here along with campsite and privy for Appalachian Trail hikers.

The 4.7-mile roundtrip hike is moderately strenuous with a 1,000’ climb across Round Bald and Jane Bald to reach Grassy Ridge Bald. This is an area known as the Roan Highlands, a long series of bald mountain tops with stunning views in all directions. It’s also a really popular day hiking destination for people wanting to stretch their legs on the AT.

Stop No. 4

Mt. Mitchell – 6,684’

At 6,684 feet above sea level Mt. Mitchell is the highest point in North Carolina as well as east of the Mississippi River. It’s located inside Mt. Mitchell State Park, the only state park exclusively accessible via the Blue Ridge Parkway.

The road through the state park ends just short of the summit at a parking lot at 6,578’. There is a large gift shop, museum, concession stand, and restrooms beside the parking lot.

The trail to the summit is just 0.3-mile roundtrip on a paved path, but it’s steep. At the top is a large round observation deck with uninterrupted views in all directions.

Additional Southern Sixers

Mt. Mitchell is part of the Black Mountains range that includes several other peaks above 6,000’. The Black Mountain Crest Trail begins just below the parking lot at the very top. The trail follows the crest of the mountain range so it’s a pretty easy hike, although you’ll have to hike several miles to reach all the peaks. These peaks include Mount Craig, Balsam Cone, Winter Star Mountain, Gibbs Mountain, and Celo Knob.

Mount Craig, the first of the peaks reached from Mt. Mitchell State Park on the Black Mountain Crest Trail, ranks at #2 on the Southern Sixers List. At 6,647 feet above seal level the mountain peak is 37′ shorter than Mount Mitchell and 4′ taller than Clingman’s Dome.

Mitchell vs. Clingman

In 1835 Elisha Mitchell, a geologist and professor at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, measured the height of a mountain called Black Dome. He determined it was the highest point east of the Mississippi River, estimating it to within 12’ of the official height determined years later by the U.S. Geological Survey.

However, that claim was disputed by a former student, Thomas Clingman. The former United States senator had made a career of measuring mountain peaks and believed the highest point in the east was actually a mountain called Smoky Dome in the Great Smoky Mountains.

In 1857 Mitchell returned to Black Dome to verify his measurements after the challenge made by Clingman. But during that journey, Mitchell fell off a waterfall and drowned in the water at the bottom.

In 1859 Smoky Dome was renamed Clingman’s Dome by Arnold Guyot, a good friend of Thomas Clingman, still claiming it was the tallest peak in the east. But in 1882, the U.S. Geological Survey confirmed Black Dome was the highest peak east of the Mississippi and renamed it Mount Mitchell.

Mount Mitchell is 41’ taller than Clingman’s Dome. Today Elisha Mitchell is buried on the summit of the mountain bearing his name.

Stop No. 5

Craggy Dome – 6,080’

Craggy Gardens is one of my favorite places to visit on the Blue Ridge Parkway. Visitors can enjoy the view from the gift shop and restrooms beside the Parkway, hike the short and easy trail to Craggy Knob, or the slightly more strenuous trail to Craggy Pinnacle. The top of Craggy Pinnacle offers uninterrupted views in all directions including a view of the gentle slope of Craggy Dome, which comes in at #31 on the Southern Sixers List.

To reach the summit Craggy Dome hike a short section of the Mountains to Sea Trail to a short spur that leads to the summit. It is a strenuous 1.5-mile hike to the summit.

READ MORE: 3 Ways to Explore Craggy Gardens on the Blue Ridge Parkway

Destination

Asheville, NC

Asheville is the largest city in the western part of the state, and while it has a certain big city flair, make no mistake about it: Asheville is a friendly southern city in the heart of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

Over the last decade, Asheville has grown a reputation as a craft beer city, touting the fact there are more craft breweries per capita than any other city in the country. That is still true today, but that’s not the only thing the city is known for. In recent years Asheville has grown in leaps and bounds as a food destination with world-class restaurants and mom and pop joints opening throughout the city, all serving some of the best food in the southeast.

Start a day exploring Asheville at the Grove Arcade, an enclosed shopping destination built in 1929 and featuring some of the most gorgeous architecture in the city. At Battery Park Book Exchange and Champagne Bar, you can order a glass of wine, grab a used book off a shelf, and sit in a comfortable leather armchair while savoring both. Located behind the Grove Arcade, Asheville Pinball Museumis a quirky place where a single admission price gets you in the door to play antique pinball machines for as long as you like!

Take a walk along Biltmore Avenue, the main street through downtown Asheville, for all the museums, shopping, and dining you could enjoy. Mast General Storeis an excellent place for outdoor gear and clothing, and right next door Cúrateis one of the top-rated restaurants in the city.

Located just outside of downtown Asheville the Biltmoreis the largest mansion and one of the most popular attractions in the country. The 250-room French Renaissance mansion was built from 1889-1895 for George Vanderbilt. For the admission price, visitors get access to the grounds to explore the formal gardens and a guided tour of the mansion. Additional tours such as the Rooftop Tour can be purchased on arrival.

Explore Asheville 36 Montford Avenue, Asheville, NC | 828-258-6129 | https://www.exploreasheville.com

Where to Stay

There are a lot of hotels, bed and breakfasts, and campgrounds around the Asheville area. Where you stay is entirely dependent on what you want to do. I have listed here four areas I think would be best for an overnight stay while road tripping on the Blue Ridge Parkway.

Tunnel Road – U.S. Highway 70

GLō Best Western is an interesting and charming new type of hotel. With free on-site parking, an indoor swimming pool, and a delicious complimentary breakfast, this would be a great overnight stay. The hotel features King Rooms and Queen Rooms with two queen beds.

Fairfield Inn & Suites is another wonderful place to stay on Tunnel Road. The hotel has a small indoor swimming pool, free on-site parking, and free breakfast in the morning. The hotel features King Rooms, Queen Rooms with two queen beds, and a King Suite with a sleeper sofa for traveling families.

Hampton Inn is always a favorite place to stay in Asheville. They have free on-site parking, an indoor swimming pool for enjoyment, and free breakfast. The hotel features King Rooms and Queen Rooms with two queen beds.

Biltmore Village – U.S. Highway 25

Hampton Innin the Biltmore Village area is another excellent place to stay close to the Blue Ridge Parkway. This hotel includes free on-site parking, an indoor swimming pool, free breakfast, and an on-site bar. The hotel features King Rooms, Queen Rooms with two queen beds, and a King Room with a sleeper sofa.

The Holiday Inn & Suites is a great alternative int he Biltmore Village area. You’ll find an indoor swimming pool, free on-site parking, and an on-site bar. The hotel features Standard Rooms with a full bed, King Rooms, Queen Rooms with two queen beds, and an Executive Suite with a queen bed and sleeper sofa.

The Grand Bohemian Hotel is the height of luxury during your Blue Ridge Parkway road trip. The hotel features King Rooms and Queen Rooms with two queen beds. You’ll also find free on-site parking, an on-site bar, and a spa.

Biltmore Estate

My top recommendation for lodging in Asheville during this road trip is the Village Hotel at Biltmore Estate. With free on-site parking, an outdoor swimming pool, an on-site bar serving local wines and spirits, and a spa, this would be the perfect place to take a day off from driving to enjoy some pampering.

A more secluded alternative would be The Inn at Biltmore Estate. The hotel has an outdoor swimming pool and free on-site parking, but the biggest draw is the Dining Room with regional cuisine for guests only and the Library Lounge with casual fine dining. The hotel features King Rooms with a mountain view and Double Rooms with two double beds.

Downtown Asheville

My top recommendation for lodging in downtown Asheville is the Cambria Hotel. Located across the street from the Grove Arcade, it’s within walking distance of just about everything downtown. The hotel features King Rooms, Queen Rooms with two queen beds, and a luxurious Corner King Suite with sleeper sofa and private deck.

Stop No. 6

Black Balsam Knob – 6,214’

After driving an hour along the Blue Ridge Parkway a short spur road leads to two more of the Southern Sixers. Ranking at #21 on the Southern Sixers List, Black Balsam Knob is accessed via the Art Loeb Trail from a small parking lot.

The hike along the trail is 1.5-miles round trip and moderately easy with a 350’ ascent. The bulk of that ascent happens in the half mile of the hike which means the end of the round trip will be all downhill.

Additional Southern Sixers

There are four additional Southern Sixers located along the Art Loeb Trail beyond Black Balsam Knob: Tennent Mountain, Grassy Cove Top, Shining Rock, and Cold Mountain. The total trek from the parking lot to Cold Mountain and back is about 16 miles with some pretty big ascents.

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Stop No. 7

Sam Knob – 6,050’

Coming in at #33 on the Southern Sixers List, Sam Knob ironically is shorter than Black Balsam Knob but requires a greater ascent. That’s because the first half mile of the Sam Knob Trail dips about 150’ before beginning the long and steady climb to Sam Knob. The trail is 2.5-miles roundtrip and offers some pretty spectacular views from the bald mountain.

Stop No. 8

Richland Balsam – 6,410’

Located at Milepost 431.4 the Richland Balsam Overlook is the highest point on the entire Blue Ridge Parkway at 6,053’. There is a ginormous sign marking the highest point that is just begging for a photo. The view from the large parking lot is pretty nice, but it’s not as nice as the nearby Cowee Mountain Overlook.

READ MORE: 15 Places You Must Visit on the Blue Ridge Parkway

Visitors wanting to reach the summit of Richland Balsam will have to do some strenuous hiking. Ranking at #10 on the Southern Sixers List, the 1.5-mile Richland Balsam Loop Trail ascends 385’ in a very short distance.

Did You Know?

The Richland Balsam Overlook is the highest point on the Parkway, and the lowest point is the bridge across the James River in Virginia at just 670′ above sea level.

Stop No. 9

Waterrock Knob – 6,292’

Waterrock Knob is another of my favorite stops along the Blue Ridge Parkway. Located at Milepost 451.2 the large parking lot features beautiful views in all directions. If you look just close enough you can see the towering Harrah’s Cherokee Casino in nearby Cherokee. There is a visitor center, gift shop, and restrooms here as well.

The summit of Waterrock Knob, ranking #15 on the Southern Sixers List, includes a strenuous hike along the 1.2-mile roundtrip rail with a nearly 400’ ascent. The first quarter mile of the trail is paved and leads to a scenic overlook just above the parking lot.

Additional Southern Sixers

Yellow Face is located near Waterrock Knob on the other side of the Blue Ridge Parkway. You can hike 1.6-miles roundtrip along the Blackrock Mountain Trail to reach Yellow Mountain, including about a 600’ ascent.

Destination

Cherokee, NC

Would it surprise you to learn Cherokee and the surrounding Qualla Boundary is a sovereign nation? The land is home to the Eastern Band of the Cherokee. Take a drive through town, and you’ll see street signs and business names printed in English and Cherokee.

The towering Harrah’s Casino is undoubtedly the most popular attraction in town, but I view Cherokee as the perfect basecamp for days of outdoor fun and cultural exploration. The Museum of the Cherokee Indianwas one of the most moving museums I have ever visited with a chronological depiction of Native American history. Across the street, Qualla Arts and Craftssell the artwork made by Cherokee who still live on the reservation. Unto These Hillsis the official outdoor drama of North Carolina where visitors are treated to incredible performances from moments in Cherokee history.

My favorite place to eat in Cherokee is Granny’s Kitchen. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner revolves around an all-you-can-eat buffet of fantastic southern cooking. Qualla Java Café is my favorite place to get a coffee not only because it’s delicious, but also because of the view while sipping on the drink.

Visit Cherokee, NC 498 Tsali Boulevard, Cherokee, NC | 800-438-1601 | https://visitcherokeenc.com

Where to Stay

Cherokee/Great Smokies KOA is a fantastic riverfront campground just ten minutes from town. The campground includes several variations of cabins, RV sites with full hookups, and tent sites.

Smokemont Campground is located just inside the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, about five minutes from the end of the Blue Ridge Parkway. The campground features 142 sites for RVs and tents but includes no hookups of any kind. There are plenty of bathroom facilities but no showers.

Baymont Inn in Cherokee is a great budget-friendly hotel. The hotel includes King Rooms and Queen Rooms with either one or two queen beds. You’ll also find an outdoor swimming pool and free breakfast.

Holiday Inn Express is located across the street from the casino and is a guarantee for a good night. The hotel includes King Rooms, Queen Rooms with two queen beds, and an Executive King Suite with a sleeper sofa. You’re also treated to a free breakfast each morning.

Stop No. 10

Clingman’s Dome – 6,643’

Ranking #3 on the Southern Sixers List, Clingman’s Dome is the highest point in Tennessee as well as the Great Smoky Mountains. It offers some pretty amazing views and is one of the busiest parts in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Clingman’s Dome Road is about seven miles of scenic highway from Newfound Gap to a large parking lot below the peak. A visitor center and gift shop are located just up the trail from the parking lot and privy restrooms are located at the end of the loop road.

READ MORE: 101 Things to Do in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park

The views from the parking lot are pretty spectacular. On cloudy and foggy days this is sometimes the only view you’ll find since the observation tower at the top will often by obscured.

The Clingman’s Dome Obseration Trail is a 1.2-mile roundtrip hike along a paved path. It’s a strenuous hike with a 330’ ascent from the parking lot, but there are benches along the way. At the very top the observation tower stands 54’ tall with a small roof covering some built-in benches. Visitors at the top of the tower can enjoy uninterrupted views in all directions.

Stop No. 11

Newfound Gap

The long scenic overlook at Newfound Gap is only 5,048 feet above sea level, but it still offers some pretty spectacular views. The large parking lot has plenty of spaces for day visitors or hikers on the Appalachian Trail.

Using the Appalachian Trail you can easily reach five of the Southern Sixers: Mount Kephart, Mount Sequoyah, Mount Chapman, Tricorner Knob, Mount Guyot, and Old Black. The roundtrip hike is around 35 miles so unless you’re a cheetah you’ll probably spend a night or two backcountry camping. There is a shelter on the Appalachian Trail near Tricorner Knob.

Mount Guyot ranks at #4 on the Southern Sixers List.

Stop No. 12

Mount LeConte – 6,593’

Saving the best for last, the hike to Mount LeConte is a humdinger. Ranking #7 on the Southern Sixers List this mountain offers some breathtaking views but you are really, really gonna have to work to see it.

There are a couple of ways to reach Mount LeConte but the most common is the 10.7-mile roundtrip Alum Cave Trail. There is a large parking lot along Newfound Gap Road about 20 minutes from Gatlinburg. This parking lot fills up fast just about any day of the week so you might end up having to park along the highway.

This trail ascends just over 3,000 feet in elevation. This is just one of the reasons I have not yet hiked the trail myself. It’s a long, steady climb but with stunning views along the way. At the very top is LeConte Lodge, the only format lodging inside the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. LeConte Lodge is a collection of primitive cabins that are rentable throughout the “prime” season of the year. There is also a backcountry campsite near the top.

Destination

Gatlinburg

In recent years Gatlinburg has been busting at the seams with tourists, but it’s still entirely possible to find a quiet corner for an exciting evening in the mountains. Take a ride on the chair lift to visit the highest mountain peak with Anakeesta, go for walk on the bridges suspended between trees on the Treetop Skywalk, and have dinner at Clifftop Bar & Grill with the best view in town.

Down on the ground wade through the pedestrians along Parkway to Sugarlands Distillery for one of the most entertaining moonshine experiences in the state. If you want to find some of the most interesting shopping head over to the Village Shops, located beside the best place in town to get breakfast at Pancake Pantry. Take a walk through Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies for a spectacular display of ocean life in the heart of the mountains.

I like to end many days in Gatlinburg at a restaurant with a dual nature. Big Daddy’s Pizzeria and Bennett’s Pit Bar-B-Que have one thing in common: the lobby. Walk inside the front door and choose left for savory barbeque with house made sauces or right for woodfired pizza and mouthwatering garlic bites.

Where to Stay

Remember the old game of pin the tail on the donkey? Stop anywhere on Parkway. Close your eyes. Spin around three times real fast and point your finger. I guarantee when you open your eyes you’ll be pointing at a hotel or resort.

Baymont Gatlinburg on the River is a fantastic hotel on the quiet end of downtown Gatlinburg. The hotel has riverfront rooms with balconies, a rooftop terrace with a narrow view of Mount LeConte, and an indoor swimming pool.

Another budget-friendly option, and one of my personal favorites, is Sidney James Mountain Lodge. Granted, the furnishings in the rooms could use an update. But the bed was comfortable, location fantastic, and the two-story indoor pool is unmatched in Gatlinburg.

Holiday Inn Express Downtown is one of the highest quality hotels in Gatlinburg. Rooms include two double beds, a king bed, or a king suite, making it a great option for solo travelers, couples, or families.

Hampton Inn has one of the best free hot breakfast spreads of any hotel chain I’ve visited. The comfortable and modern rooms are just the start of a great stay here; the indoor swimming pool, outdoor hot tub, and secluded patio finish it off.

Bearskin Lodge on the Riveris located along River Road, my favorite place in Gatlinburg for finding lodging. On this end of town it’s easy to get in and out via the Gatlinburg Bypass, the national park is just minutes away even on the worst of days for traffic, and it’s easy to get anywhere in town along River Road. The hotel has large, beautiful furnished rooms and suites that are perfect for solo travelers, couples, or families alike.

A favorite of mine that I’ve stayed at many times, and through many brand changes, is SureStay Plus Hotel by Best Western. It’s located on the opposite side of the creek from the Bearskin Lodge so it’s still a great location for anything you want to do in town. The Creekside rooms are large and all have a private balcony for enjoying the peacefulness away from the hustle and bustle of Parkway.

Southern Sixers List

This is a list of the 40 peaks you must summit to become a member of the “Southern Sixers Club”. There are about 50 total peaks above 6,000′ in the southern Appalachian Mountains, but these are the most easily accessed for summitting.

  1. Mount Mitchell – 6,684’
  2. Mount Craig – 6,647’
  3. Clingmans Dome – 6,643’
  4. Mount Guyot – 6,621’
  5. Balsam Cone – 6,611’
  6. Cattail Peak – 6,600’
  7. Mount Le Conte – 6,593’
  8. Mount Gibbes – 6,571’
  9. Mount Chapman – 6,417’
  10. Richland Balsam – 6,410’
  11. Old Black – 6,370’
  12. Blackstock Knob – 6,359’
  13. Celo Knob – 6,327’
  14. Hallback Mountain – 6,320’
  15. Waterrock Knob – 6,292’
  16. Roan High Knob – 6,285’
  17. Roan High Bluff – 6,267’
  18. Mount Lyn Lowry – 6,240’
  19. Luftee Knob – 6,234’
  20. Mount Kephart – 6,217’
  21. Black Balsam Knob – 6,214’
  22. Winter Star Mountain – 6,212’
  23. Gibbs Mountain – 6,200’
  24. Mount Collins – 6,188’
  25. Marks Knob – 6,169’
  26. Grassy Ridge Bald – 6,160’
  27. Big Cataloochee Mountain – 6,155’
  28. Mount Hardy – 6,134’
  29. Tricorner Knob – 6,120’
  30. Plott Balsam – 6,088’
  31. Craggy Dome – 6,080’
  32. Reinhart Knob – 6,080’
  33. Sam Knob – 6,050’
  34. Grassy Cove Top – 6,040’
  35. Tennent Mountain – 6,040’
  36. Yellow Face – 6,032’
  37. Cold Mountain – 6,030’
  38. Mount Sequoyah – 6,003’
  39. Shining Rock – 6,000’
  40. Chestnut Bald – 6,000′
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