A Year-Round Guide to Franklin and Nantahala

[caption id="attachment_158988" align="aligncenter" width="1140"] In the Opera Box viewing area, hikers on the Exclamation Point Trail can see Hickory Nut Gorge, Chimney Rock, and Lake Lure from beneath a rocky

Rosemary and Goat Cheese Strata

[caption id="attachment_158988" align="aligncenter" width="1140"] In the Opera Box viewing area, hikers on the Exclamation Point Trail can see Hickory Nut Gorge, Chimney Rock, and Lake Lure from beneath a rocky

Photo Essay/

Written in Stone: North Carolina’s Rock Formations

In the Opera Box viewing area, hikers on the Exclamation Point Trail can see Hickory Nut Gorge, Chimney Rock, and Lake Lure from beneath a rocky overhang. photograph by Derek Diluzio

Chimney Rock
Rutherford County

Chimney Rock and the surrounding cliffs were formed more than half a billion years ago, when molten rock cooled and solidified into granite deep beneath the Earth’s surface. The granite was later transformed by heat and pressure into Henderson gneiss — a type of metamorphic rock found only in the Carolinas and named for the North Carolina county where it was first described. Over the course of millions of years, Chimney Rock was exposed as weather eroded the soil and rock around it. The monolith now towers 315 feet above the mountainside and will appear to grow taller as erosion continues. Getting to the top requires climbing up 499 steps — or walking through a nearly 200-foot man-made tunnel, then taking a 26-story elevator followed by 40 steps. Once there, visitors are rewarded with sweeping views of Hickory Nut Gorge and the Rocky Broad River as it flows into Lake Lure.

Chimney Rock State Park

Before it became a state park, Chimney Rock was owned by the Morse family. In the late 1800s, Dr. Lucius B. Morse contracted tuberculosis and moved from Missouri to western North Carolina in search of a better climate. After seeing Chimney Rock, he and his brothers were inspired to purchase the property in 1902. The Morse family owned and operated the attraction for 105 years, until the state bought it in 2007, combining the property with the existing Hickory Nut Gorge State Park and renaming it Chimney Rock State Park.

Rock climbing isn’t allowed on Big Pinnacle (right), but there are about a dozen climbing spots in Pilot Mountain State Park, including the Amphitheater (left) on Ledge Spring Trail. photograph by MICHAEL STEED, GDOLLYHITE/ISTOCK/GETTY IMAGES PLUS

Pilot Mountain
Surry County

Standing alone 1,400 feet above the ground, Pilot Mountain’s Big Pinnacle is one of the most recognizable landmarks in the state. The Saura Indians — the earliest known inhabitants of the Sauratown range in this area — used the mountain as a navigational landmark, calling it Jomeokee, meaning “great guide” or “pilot.” The knob is made of quartzite, or sandstone that’s been fused into rock by heat and pressure. This type of rock is resistant to erosion, so while the Sauratown range — once comparable to the Rockies in height — was worn down by millions of years of wind and rain, Pilot Mountain stood firm.

A sign at Judaculla Rock tells the story of the giant of Cherokee legend and maps some of the rock’s 1,548 carvings — more than any other known petroglyph boulder in the Eastern United States. photograph by Tim Robison

Judaculla Rock
Jackson County

No one knows the origin or meaning of the petroglyphs that cover the face of the soapstone boulder in Jackson County known as Judaculla Rock. The rock itself dates to the late Archaic Period, between 3000 and 1000 B.C., but as for the carvings, theories abound. Cherokee legend says that the markings are the imprint of the hand of Tsul-ka-lu, the “Great Slant-Eyed Giant,” who lived on top of a ridge in the Balsam range and controlled wind, rain, thunder, and lightning. Others believe that they could be a record of a Cherokee peace treaty, or a depiction of a battle. Perhaps so long as the rock remains, so, too, will the mystery.

From the Blowing Rock, 3,000 feet above the Johns River Gorge, Lex Nix of Winston-Salem takes in the spectacular panorama that includes Grandfather Mountain to the west and Mount Mitchell to the southwest. photograph by Douglas Hurdle/douglashurdle.com

The Blowing Rock
Caldwell County

The Blowing Rock is named for the wind, which, channeled through the Johns River Gorge below, blows upward at the site of the gneiss. According to legend, the gusts there are so strong that a Cherokee brave, after leaping from the rock, was blown back into the arms of his Chickasaw lover. But the history of the rock goes back much further: More than a billion years ago, the Blowing Rock gneiss was formed by heat and pressure miles beneath the Earth’s surface. Over millions of years, the rock layers around it eroded away, exposing the promontory.

On the Big Rock Loop Trail in Uwharrie National Forest, hikers Liz Seehr and Nathan Charles check out two of the largest Nifty Rocks. photograph by Andrew Kornylak

Nifty Rocks
Montgomery County

On the western edge of Uwharrie National Forest, near Badin Lake, a collection of boulders known as the Nifty Rocks rises from the surrounding landscape — some as tall as 15 feet. The mountain ridge is composed of silica-rich volcanic rock, but the Nifty Rocks, according to one hypothesis, are composed of greenstone, a different type of rock containing minerals that impart a greenish hue. “They’re not formed by your typical geological process that you would see for the Uwharries, and that makes them pretty unique,” says Nichole Wagner, archaeologist for Uwharrie National Forest. “The size of the boulders is unlike a lot of the other outcrops you’ll see around this area. It’s a beautiful place.”

Photographer Douglas Hurdle and his German shorthaired pointer, Ziggy, pause to take in the view during a hike in Stone Mountain State Park. photograph by Douglas Hurdle/douglashurdle.com

Stone Mountain
Wilkes County

The majestic granite dome at the top of Stone Mountain is thought to exhibit the greatest expanse of bare rock of any mountain in the Carolinas. The peak’s lack of vegetation is due to its steep slope, which prevents soil accumulation, and to the fact that the mountain is not metamorphosed and fractured like most other bedrock in the area. This is because there have been no continental collisions in the Carolinas since the mountain was formed 335 million years ago, when present-day North America joined present-day South America and Africa. Looking at the dome from the valley below, one immediately notices dark striations — stains from rivulets of rainwater running down the rock’s surface.

The mountains and cliffs surrounding Linville Gorge provide ample opportunities for dramatic views, like the rocky outcrop known as The Chimneys. photograph by CONNOR FERNANDES

Linville Gorge
Burke County

At a depth of almost 2,800 feet in some places, Linville Gorge is one of the deepest chasms in the Eastern United States, earning it the nickname “Grand Canyon of the East.” The gorge is formed by Jonas Ridge on one side and Linville Mountain on the other. It was carved by the Linville River — known by the Cherokee as Eeseeoh, or “river of many cliffs” — which enters the gorge at Linville Falls. “The gorge is still being carved,” says Lisa Jennings, recreation manager for the Grandfather Ranger District of Pisgah National Forest. “It’s a living, changing place.”

Hanging Rock looks out across the Dan River valley toward the mountains. photograph by J. SILKSTONE PHOTOGRAPHY

Hanging Rock
Stokes County

Hanging Rock, like Pilot Mountain, is a quartzite remnant of the ancient Sauratown Mountains. Sedimentary rock was formed here when the land was covered by the Iapetus Ocean, and it metamorphosed into quartzite about 500 million years ago during the continental collision between present-day North America and Africa. When these continents pulled apart, the quartzite remained while the surrounding land was worn away by weather and time.

Looking Glass Rock can be seen from overlooks along the Blue Ridge Parkway. photograph by Dave Allen Photography

Looking Glass Rock
Transylvania County

When the sheer face of Looking Glass Rock is covered with ice, it reflects the sun like a mirror. The granite landmark — an isolated mountain rising from Pisgah National Forest to an elevation of 3,969 feet — was formed about 390 million years ago, when molten rock moved toward the Earth’s surface. Because the rock cooled underground, rather than erupting into a volcano, it became a ball of solidified rock called a pluton. Today, nearly 400 climbing routes make the mountain popular among rock climbers.

The Mile-High Swinging Bridge spans an 80-foot chasm between Convention Table Rock and Linville Peak. Photography courtesy of Grandfather Mountain Stewardship Foundation

Grandfather Mountain
Avery County

At 5,946 feet, Grandfather Mountain is the highest spot in the eastern escarpment of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Even more impressive? It contains some of the oldest geological formations on Earth. Some 750 million years ago, much of the rock that composes what is now Grandfather Mountain started out as sediment deposited by streams. Hundreds of millions of years later, one of the continental collisions that created the Appalachian Mountains pushed older rock on top of younger rock. Over time, erosion opened a “window” in the older rock that exposed the conglomerate rock of the mountain. The Cherokee called the mountain Tanawha, meaning “fabulous hawk” or “eagle,” but settlers, upon seeing the profile of an old man’s face in the peaks, rechristened it Grandfather Mountain.

The best place to see the Shadow of the Bear is from the Rhodes Big View Overlook on U.S. Highway 64. The shadow appears at 5:30 p.m., but it’s recommended to get there 45 minutes early, as parking is limited. photograph by Dave Allen Photography

Shadow of the Bear
Jackson County

As the sun sets behind Whiteside Mountain — so named for its sheer white cliffs, some of the tallest on the East Coast — a black shadow appears on the orange-and-gold canopy of autumn leaves at its base. In just a few minutes, the shadow grows from a small dot into the unmistakable shape of a black bear. The phenomenon only lasts for about half an hour — and appears during only a few weeks each spring and fall — but for those lucky enough to see the shadow, it makes a lasting impression.

This story was published on Sep 26, 2022