My day at Devil's Courthouse
My folks and I hiked a section of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail (MST) in the Shining Rock Wilderness area of Pisgah National Forest recently.
A highlight of the trip was the short walk off the MST to Devil's Courthouse, one of the treasures of this area of the parkway. In my experience, the wilderness area is spectacular at any time of year, and this trip did not disappoint us.
If you're unfamiliar with it, the Mountains-to-Sea Trail is considered North Carolina's state trail and was conceived by a small group of interested North Carolinians (including Dr. Doris Hammett of Waynesville) back in the 1970s. The trail departs from Clingman's Dome in Great Smoky Mountains National Park and ends at Jockey's Ridge State Park on the Outer Banks. The complete route, both designated (complete) and planned, is displayed on the Friends of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail website (http://www.ncmst.org/the-trail/interactive-map)
The MST is defined in sections, and the short hike we covered is part of section 6, a 21.2 mile stretch from Beech Gap (NC-215) to Pisgah Inn. Our overall route involved walking a little more than 2 miles along the MST to its intersection with a short trail which connects to the partially-paved (and in places somewhat steep) Devil's Courthouse trail. After visiting the top, we descended the Devil's Courthouse trail and returned to our car by the parkway and NC-215.
Trail information available describes this entire section of the MST as difficult, but other than some roots and a few rocky step-ups to negotiate, we did not find this part unpleasant. In the first mile, there are some great views to the left toward Mount Hardy and the ridge just to its north in the direction of Sunburst.
As you approach the intersection of the Devil's Courthouse access trail, you start to get glimpses of Devil's Courthouse itself off to the south. It really is spectacular. It's easy to understand why native peoples attached significance to it.
Within a half mile or so of the MST-Devil's Courthouse access trail intersection(2), we passed through a beautiful large stand of evergreens. It would be a great place to camp if you wanted to pitch your tent. It's easy to lose track of the trail here, but just look for the white painted circular blazes marking the MST on the trees.
When we finally reached the viewing area on top of Devil's Courthouse, the view, although it wasn't completely clear, was still so worth it (3). There are three mounted park service markers to help observers locate surrounding mountains(4). Caesar's Head of Caesar's Head State Park in South Carolina is to the southeast; Toxaway Mountain and Lake Toxaway to the south; Mount Hardy and peeking through a gap in the ridge line Richland Balsam to the west(5); and Sam's Knob and Little Sam's Knob in the wilderness area to the north across the parkway(6).
Also, of personal note, if you look due south on one of the lower-lying hills, one can see the large, white radio antennas and small observation domes of the Pisgah Astronomical Research Institute. I studied there as a student a few years ago. It's a decommissioned NASA tracking station, and a really neat place.
Our family enjoys watching birds, and we saw some of note on this trip. As we ascended the MST, we saw several Dark-eyed Juncos calling and flitting in the underbrush. But the highlight of the trip in this regard were the birds we saw while on top of Devil's Courthouse itself.
While we were looking around from the viewing area, my dad noticed three birds circling above the parkway road. They flew almost completely without effort, rising and gliding in the breeze. They finally flew over our heads and, although I can't quite say for certain, they appeared to be peregrine falcons. Peregrines are described as preferring high, rocky outcroppings from which they can hunt.
Overall, with a short lunch break and enjoying the view from Devil's Courthouse for 15 or 20 minutes, we were on the trail for about three hours. I would estimate driving time from Main Street, Waynesville to the trailhead via US-276 and NC-215 at about 45 minutes. The parking area and trailhead are about two-tenths of a mile short of the parkway as one approaches the parkway from Canton. The trail (and short, wooden post with white MST marker) will be on your left, and the gravel parking area immediately on your right. I highly recommend it.