Road Trip #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


April 4, 2019

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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.

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.

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Begin: 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).

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Visit Johnson City, TN

1. Roan High Bluff – 6,267’

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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.

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.

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.

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.

4. Mt. Mitchell – 6,684’

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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.

Where to Stay

Mount Mitchell State Park has a very small campground with 9 sites for tents. The campground includes restrooms and general potable water access.

Where to Eat

The restaurant inside the park has an amazing view of the mountains through large picture windows. The restaurant is open seven days a week from May through October from 10 am until one hour before the park closes.

Did You Know? In 1835 Elisha Mitchell, a geologist and professor at the University of North Carolina, measured a mountain called Black Dome and determined it was the highest point east of the Mississippi River. But that claim was disputed by Thomas Clingman, a former U.S. senator who had made a career of measuring mountain peaks, who believed the highest peak was actually a mountain called Smoky Dome. In 1857 Mitchell returned to Black Dome to verify his measurements after the challenge from Clingman. During that journey Mitchell fell to his death near a waterfall. In 1859 Smoky Dome was renamed Clingman’s Dome by Arnold Guyot, a good friend of Thomas Clingman. In 1882 the U.S. Geological Survey confirmed Mitchell’s measurements of Black Dome and renamed it Mount Mitchell in his honor. Mount Mitchell is 41’ taller than Clingman’s Dome.
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Mount Mitchell State Park

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.

Asheville, NC

Surrounded by the mountains, headquarters of the Blue Ridge Parkway, and with a vibrant downtown, Asheville is one of the most popular destinations in the country. It’s a great place to spend a night or two along this road trip to the Southern Sixers.

Go all out and splurge for a stay at the historic Biltmore. At the very least you might want to take a tour. I always stay at the Sweat Peas Hostel because it is conveniently located downtown and within walking distance of everything.

Speaking of walking distance to everything, Asheville has more craft breweries per capita than any other city in the country. They have a booming culinary scene, live music literally on every street corner, and lots of quirky things to do like the Asheville Pinball Museum.

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Explore Asheville, NC

Mount Pisgah

Pisgah at Milepost 408.6. This fantastic area of the Parkway includes hiking trails, a picnic area, campground, gift shop and store, and the Pisgah Inn.

The Pisgah Inn has rooms with an unbelievable view of the landscape below the mountain. If you stay here I suggest getting a room on the second floor for a better view from your balcony (all the rooms include either a balcony or patio). Get something to eat at the restaurant, browse the gift shop, or go for a walk along the bluff.

If camping is more your style the nearby Pisgah Campground has 70 tent sites and 67 RV sites. It’s the highest campground on the Blue Ridge Parkway, though it doesn’t break through the 6,000 foot ceiling. The campground has potable water and restrooms, but no hookups.

6. Black Balsam Knob – 6,214’

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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.

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.

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.

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 lowest point on the entire Blue Ridge Parkway is the bridge across the James River at just 670 feet above sea level.

9. Waterrock Knob – 6,292’

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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 Sixer

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.

Cherokee, NC

This small town on the North Carolina side of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is overlooked too often for nearby Gatlinburg, TN or Bryson City, TN. It’s one of my favorite towns in Western North Carolina to spend a few nights.

Explore local history and culture at the Museum of the Cherokee Indian and then do some shopping across the street at Qualla Arts and Crafts. Catch a performance at the outdoor drama Unto These Hills. Granny’s Kitchen serves buffet meals throughout the day and when you need a jolt of caffeine pay a visit to Qualla Java.

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Visit Cherokee, NC

10. Clingman’s Dome – 6,643’

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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.

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.

11. Newfound Gap

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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.

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.

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LeConte Lodge

End: Gatlinburg, TN

Could there be a better place to end a road trip to the Southern Sixers? Gatlinburg is the ultimate mountain town destination in the Southeast at the footsteps of the Great Smoky Mountains.

Finding a great place to stay in Gatlinburg is pretty easy because there are just so many options. Hotels, cabins, resorts, retreats, and campgrounds. Try to find something close to Parkway so you don’t have to drive to enjoy things in town.

When you finally hit Parkway get breakfast at The Pancake Pantry and then do some local shopping next door. Take a ride up to Anakeesta on a nearby mountain top and enjoy the views from the Tree Canopy Walk. Pop inside Sugarlands Distilling Company and enjoy an entertaining night of sampling moonshine.

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′

How Many of These Have You Visited?

How many of the Southern Sixers have you visited? Did you visit by car or hike to the top? Tell me about it! Leave a comment below, tell your story, and help inspire others to do the same!

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