Blue Ridge Parkway-North Carolina

Rocky Knob's Rock Castle Gorge

May 6, 2010, 8:53 am

It's a mile and a half of pretty steep descending through here. The scenic highlight of the descent is an area of rock chunks, some as big as houses, known as the Bear Rocks. Not far after this, the trail finally bottoms out at Rock Castle Creek, with a resting bench placed with a view over some small waterfalls.

I've always said that the hardest trails aren't those where you start out climbing right out of the trailhead. It's those where you start by going downhill.

If you start the Rock Castle Gorge Trail at the Rocky Knob Recreation Area on the Blue Ridge Parkway, you will find out just how difficult downhill hiking can be. That's because what goes down must come back up on this 10.6-mile loop, and in this case, that means about 1,800 feet.

The Rock Castle Gorge Trail is pretty simple, made up of three roughly equal parts: It's one part folllowing a ridgeline at over 3,000 feet with spectacular views, one part following a gurgling stream through a thickly forested hollow at 1,700 feet, and one part straining knees, ankles or lungs on steep descending or climbing to get between the two.

But the sights make it worth the gasps. Much of trail on the ridge near the Blue Ridge Parkway traverses grassy fields, opening up magnificent vistas west toward the lopsided hump of Buffalo Mountain and east toward the tamer hills and valleys of the Piedmont. The creekside portion in the gorge is an enchanting saunter along a creek that sings a melody as it washes through boulders and rocks.

You can start from any of the Rocky Knob Recreation Area overlooks to the left of the Blue Ridge Parkway, heading south from Roanoke. Starting from the Saddle Overlook is a good choice since you get a short but steep climb to Rocky Knob out of the way first instead of having this be your last stretch after already making a rugged 1,800 feet climb out of the gorge.

The white-blazed Rock Castle Gorge Trail bounces up and down some along the ridgetop for about three miles, reaching Rocky Knob (3,572 feet) and Grassy Knoll (3,480 feet), along the way. From Rocky Knob, be sure and absorb the view from the from small log shelter built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s. If you look downward, way downward, you will see where you will be a few miles later: deep in the Rock Castle Gorge. Grassy Knoll -- not to be confused with the infamous one in Dallas -- offers a view more the other direction across its own rock-strewn, cattle-grazed field (hence the fence-crossings along the way) and other similar ridges rolling toward the horizon. It's a pleasant place to stop. This is how I imagine Scotland looks.