Western North Carolina is a birding and wildflower paradise, and spring is one of the best times to visit: Petals are unfurling, and migratory birds are passing through on their
Western North Carolina is a birding and wildflower paradise, and spring is one of the best times to visit: Petals are unfurling, and migratory birds are passing through on their way back north. As warmer weather arrives, bringing flawless flowers and feathered friends, check out our list of can’t-miss hikes out west.
Escape to the mountains and get a breath of fresh air. From hiking, biking, canoeing, ziplining, and fishing to wineries, distilleries, general stores, and cabins with amazing views –– we have it all! Visit mid-week and have the mountaintops to yourself.
The views to the north and south at the top of Elk Knob State Park’s 4-mile out-and-back Summit Trail are nearly 360 degrees when taken together. Mountains in Virginia, Tennessee, and North Carolina are all visible from the top, including Pilot, Grandfather, and Sugar mountains. At the summit, flame azaleas blaze to life in mid-June. “They’re absolutely amazing,” says Park Ranger Brandy Belville, who once saw an eastern towhee singing amid the bright orange flowers. The tiny pink and white Spring Beauty flowers can be seen earlier in the spring, in April and May, growing in carpets throughout the deciduous forest leading to the summit. Along the trail, bold dark-eyed junco birds will come right up to hikers and chatter at them, while the shyer veery are seldom seen, but often heard. “It’s got a double larynx,” Belville says of the veery, “so it does two notes at once. It’s really interesting to hear.”
Textile tycoon Moses H. Cone built his estate near Blowing Rock as a summer home at the turn of the century. In 1949, the 3,500-acre estate was donated to the National Park Service. Today, visitors can tour the manor — located at Milepost 294 on the Blue Ridge Parkway — to learn about the Cones, pick up a souvenir from the Southern Highland Craft Guild shop on the bottom floor of the manor, and explore the estate. The grounds of Moses Cone Memorial Park are teeming with rhododendron, mountain laurel, and apple trees, which can be seen along the 25 miles of former carriage trails that are now used for hiking and horseback riding. The easy 1.7-mile Rich Mountain Trail leads to the summit of the mountain, with views of Grandfather Mountain from the top and along the way, and the bright yellow golden groundsel wildflowers can be seen along the trail in the shaded areas. Many species of birds call the park home, including the colorful yellow-rumped warblers and rose-breasted grosbeaks, which both stop in the park on their way back north for the summer.
The moderate Lost Province Trail in Mount Jefferson State Natural Area leads hikers along a three-quarter-mile loop through an old-growth forest. The trees, mostly oaks — white, scarlet, black, chestnut, and northern red — are small because they grow more slowly here than they would in a more protected area. Under the oaks, white mayapple flowers blossom in early spring. Here also, dark red Barksdale trillium and white large-flower trillium bloom in April. Along a ridge line on the trail, rhododendron bloom in spring and summer. “It’s a nice little walk through a tunnel of flowers,” says Park Ranger Emily Bunyea.
Vibrant blue indigo buntings can be seen on the trail in May, along with several species of warblers. Bunyea says that the birds prefer to make an appearance in the early mornings, then retreat in the middle of the day when more people are out on the trail. Young birders can hone their skills on Mount Jefferson through the Kids in Parks program, an initiative to get children to play and explore outdoors. Through this program, youngsters can track the birds they see and earn prizes.
Hiking a portion — or all! — of the moderately challenging 7.5-mile out-and-back Bluff Mountain Trail in Doughton Park Recreation Area on the Blue Ridge Parkway provides great opportunities for spotting birds of the upper escarpment of the Blue Ridge — including black-and-white warblers, scarlet tanagers, blue-headed vireos, red-eyed vireos, rose-breasted grosbeaks, and a variety of other forest species. One of the most productive times to bird here is in mid-May, at the peak of the spring migration.
Wildflowers abound on the trail, which also offers stunning and expansive mountain views. Growing in shady patches of pine forest, you’ll spot Solomon’s Seal — arching stalks heavy with clusters of white, bell-shaped flowers that bloom through May — and trillium flowers. In rolling, grassy meadows, butterflies flutter and bees buzz among the flowers. Come mid-June, flame azaleas and rhododendrons burst into color at the summit, where you can rest on huge rocks and take in the view.
Doughton Park is also one of the best places along the Blue Ridge Parkway to see white-tailed deer, raccoons, red and grey foxes, and bobcats — so keep your eyes peeled.
The Amadahy Waterfalls Trail on Rendezvous Mountain is named for the Cherokee word meaning “forest water.” The strenuous trail takes hikers on a 3.75-mile loop through a hardwood cove forest, past a small cascade where Purlear Creek slides over rocks. Park Superintendent Jeff Matheson recommends starting at the McGee Center or the park office — where an eastern overlook provides views of Pilot Mountain and Hanging Rock — and walking in a counterclockwise direction so that steep sections are taken going downhill.
Along the trail, pileated woodpeckers can be seen pecking at snags while foraging for insects, and cardinals can be spotted flying in the understory, looking for mates. Many species of warblers — including northern parula, common yellowthroat, and black-throated blue — stop over on the mountain in the spring on their way north. Trillium flowers can be seen blooming in April and May throughout the hike.
The easy out-and-back Upper Pond Creek Trail in Beech Mountain follows its namesake creek for a mile, with several wooden footbridges crossing over the creek. Small waterfalls, each between a few inches to two feet tall, cascade off of rocks along the way, and an occasional brook trout can be seen darting under a rock in the creek. “The creek right along the trail is really peaceful, really serene, down in the valley,” says Lauren Lampley, an outdoor recreation technician for the town of Beech Mountain. Golden ragwort, with its tall, bright yellow flowers and green and purple leaves, blooms throughout the trail in late June. Dark-eyed juncos begin nesting here in the spring, often under a rock or the root ball of a fallen tree.
A couple of miles down the road from the Upper Pond Creek trailhead is the Buckeye Lake Recreation Area, recognized by the High Country Audubon Society as a birding hot spot. The lake and surrounding forest provide habitat for more than 100 species of birds, including barn swallows, which fly over the lake and fields. “Their aerial acrobatics are pretty amazing,” Lampley says.
As part of its goals to protect and enhance bird habitats as well as support new birders who are just discovering their love for the hobby, the High Country Audubon Society offers guided birding walks for both experienced and novice birders. “We know which tree the owl might be in, or what particular areas tend to have different species,” says board member Paul Laurent. “That local knowledge can help you see a lot more birds and learn more about birds in the process.”
The Valle Crucis walk takes birders on a flat, easy, guided two-hour hike through Valle Crucis Community Park in Banner Elk — a birding hot spot thanks to the park’s many ecosystems. Yellow warblers nest in wetlands here, and yellow-throated warblers like to perch in pine trees along the Watauga River. Both birds migrate to the area in April and stay through the fall, following chickadees around to learn where to find food in flocks of up to 30 or 40 birds. “If you find a big mixed flock, it’s an incredible experience — birds zipping every which way all around you,” Laurent says.
The guided Brookshire Park bird walk is a more strenuous half-day hike along the South Fork New River near Boone. Thanks to manmade wetlands here, sandpipers call the park home from late April through May, and a resident eastern screech owl lives in a cavity in a snag year-round. Warblers live here in the summer months, and Lincoln’s and vesper sparrows pass through in the spring on their journey north.