Rocky Knob Recreation Area
. This is a really great area to see spring wildflowers and I try to makeit out every year in April to see them. The weather forecast suggested a possibility of rain and mostly cloudy skies, but nothing extreme. And it turned out to be pretty nice; although the sky was cloudy and grey, we never got more than a drop a two or rain and the temperature was in the upper 60s - nice for a strenuous hike. We left the carpool location in Chapel Hill right at 7 and made it to the trailhead at 930 - pretty good time considering we stopped for caffeine and gas. Although you can get on the Rock Castle Gorge Trail from parking spots on the Blue Ridge Parkway, I like to start from the bottom. That way, the most strenuous and steep part is the first three miles up to the parkway. After this climb, its only moderate ups and downs making its way back through the gorge. Starting from the parkway, you have to either go down the steep part, which is hard on the knees, or go up the steep part at the end
. I'd rather get it out of the way at the beginning. To get here, we followed NC-86 north into Virginia and took US-58 west to Stuart. In Stuart, we took VA-8 north to CC Camp Road (Road 605) just before the Blue Ridge Parkway to the end at the fire road gate at the trailhead. Even driving in along 605, we started seeing large patches of wild irises, suggesting that the wildflower show would be good. When everyone arrived, we crossed the gate and over the bridge and turned left to follow the trail. It's moderate for the half mile as it follows Little Rock Castle Creek, but then gets steeper and steeper as it gets further from the creek. Luckily, there were plenty of flowers to stop and take photos of, which gave me a much needed break from the climb. Along here were some wild violets, fire pink, and some very pretty yellow flowers that I was unable to identify. After two strenuous miles of climbing, the trail leveled off and we came out to an open area where there were cows grazing. We stopped for a minute or two to watch them and then continued on. It was still uphill as we headed to Rocky Knob, the highest point along our hike, but not nearly as steep. The views from this bald area were great and there were some interesting looking trees, very low in height, that grew here and there amid the field of grass. Their gnarled branches radiated out wildly, looking almost like a medusa head. We stopped for a minute at Saddle Overlook to enjoy the view south past the Blue Ridge Escarpment to the rolling hills of the Piedmont beyond
. And to the north, across the parking lot, we could see deeper into the mountains with the conspicuous Buffalo Mountain rising above the others. A little further on was an old AT shelter. Originally, the famous Appalachian Trail ran through here, but was diverted when the Blue Ridge Parkway was built. Just past the shelter, we found a nice spot on Rocky Knob to stop and eat lunch. Good thing because climbing up all that way and seeing those cows was making me hungry! After lunch, we continued on the trail down from Rocky Knob, stopping at Rock Castle Gorge Overlook. Further on, the trail opens back up on Grassy Knoll, where among the grass are many rocks sticking up out of the ground. They almost look like gravestones. Around Grassy Knoll, we stopped and talked to a guy who was hiking the other way. He had started section-hiking the AT in 1982, heading southward from Maine. He had gotten as far as Georgia and planned to finish up the last section this year. Today, he was just hiking the Rock Castle Gorge loop for conditioning. Past Grassy Knoll, we descended back into the forest to head into the gorge, we started seeing trillium. Mostly the great white trillium (Trillium grandiflorum
) but also some purple trillium (Trillium erectum
). The purple color of these flowers was beautiful, although their flowers were not as large as the white ones. Heading deeper into the gorge, there were literally hillsides of trillium - such a beautiful sight. A little over half way down into the gorge, we passed the "castle"
. I put it in quotes, because the gorge is not named for a castle. Rock Castle Gorge is named for the six-sided quartz crystals found in the gorge that reminded early settlers of castle towers. Thus, there is no castle. However, there is a huge pile of massive boulders that resembles a castle, although its not officially the "rock castle". Arriving at the west end of the loop, the trail crosses Rock Castle Creek and follows the creek downstream along an old fire road. The trail crosses several draws where small streams flow into the creek and one could be considered a waterfall. As the trail levels off, there is an old farmhouse and barn. The farmhouse, Austin House, was built in 1916 and is the only house left in the gorge. It's privately owned and looks like you could move in tomorrow. Past the old farmstead, the trail is pretty flat from here back to the trailhead. The total distance was almost 11 miles with close to 2000 feet of elevation gain. We had worked up an appetite so we stopped in Collinsville for Mexican on the way back.