Ascent of Elk Knob on 2011-09-04

Climber: Tom Layton

Date:Sunday, September 4, 2011
Ascent Type:Successful Summit Attained
Peak:Elk Knob
    Location:USA-North Carolina
    Elevation:5520 ft / 1682 m

Ascent Trip Report

Today (Sept 4 2011) was dedication day for the new summit trail. A couple of dozen volunteers and park staff climbed the mountain to put the finishing touches on the trail and celebrate the completion of 5.5 years of work.

This was my 24th ascent of Elk Knob, and I had the honor of dumping the last wheelbarrow of gravel on the end of the trail.

The new trail is 3.8 miles round trip and climbs 985 feet from the parking lot. Most of the hike is under trees, but the views from the summit clearings are well worth the hike.

HUNDRED-MILE VIEWS: On a clear day, five states (NC/SC/TN/VA/KY) are visible from the two overlooks at the summit. This includes 3 state HP's: Mount Mitchell NC, Mount Rogers VA, and Black Mountain KY.

Signs at the overlooks identify a number of recognizable peaks, including Whitetop, Pilot Mtn, Grandfather, and the Roans. If you arrive on a crystal-clear day, you can also look for:
-- Mt Guyot TN/NC (98 miles, 245 degrees W/SW) between Big Bald and Unaka Mtn from the south overlook. Guyot is the second highest peak in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. (Bearings are from true north rather than magnetic north).
-- Black Mtn KY (79 miles, 301 degrees W/NW) beyond the N ridge of Snake Mtn, looking W/NW from the road where it twists to the right below the south overlook. With good binoculars and a steady hand, you may be able to spot the white radar dome on top.
-- Whitaker Mtn SC (83 miles, 173 degrees S/SE from the south overlook) at the W end of the ridge that includes Crowders Mtn, Kings Pinnacle, and Kings Mtn.
-- Charlotte skyline (89 miles, 148 degrees S/SE) on the far left side of the south overlook. The 60-story Bank of America tower is the tallest building between Philadelphia and Atlanta.
-- Winston-Salem skyline (82 miles, 100 degrees E) on the far right side of the north overlook. The highest building is the 34-story Wells Fargo Tower (formerly the Wachovia Tower).

According to, it is possible to see as far as Shepherd Mtn (107 miles ESE), the highest peak in NC's Uwharrie hills; and the Flag Pole/aka Cross Mountain (140 miles west), the highest point in TN's Cumberland Plateau. I've never been able to discern either of them, though.

HOW HIGH?: Elk Knob is the 3rd highest point in Watauga County (after Grandfather Mountain and Snake Mountain) and is one of 95 peaks in NC with prominence of at least 1,000 feet. The state park sign says the elevation is 5,520, which is based on the 40-foot contours on the USGS quad. If you watch your GPS on the hike up, you'll see that you cross the 5,520 contour about the same time you break above the tree line into the heath bald. You'll climb at least 30 feet above that point. Google Earth shows the summit at 5,556. Watauga County GIS (which has 5-foot contours) shows a top contour of 5,550 and prominence of 1,065 above the key col at Pottertown Gap (4,485). The trailhead is at 4,565 feet.

If you're compulsive about touching the exact peak, you'll have to venture into the thicket to the right (east) of the summit sign and tag several outcroppings.

COUNT THE COUNTIES: I know of no peak in America that commands a view of more county high points than Elk Knob. This is one dimension where the western mountains don't stack up--if only because the eastern counties are smaller and closer together! I have been able to identify 35 county high points visible from Elk Knob. There may be as many as 41, according to

Though Elk Knob is not a county highpoint, the state park acreage includes the highest point in two adjacent counties: Johnson TN on Snake Mountain and Ashe NC on The Peak.

AMPHIBOLITES: Elk Knob and adjacent Snake Mtn (el. 5,560) are the HPs in the Amphibolite Range, distinguished by craggy peaks (by southeastern standards, anyway) and "sweet" soil which support several rare species of plants, including Gray's Lily.

THANKS, NC: The state of North Carolina has been proactive about purchasing large tracts of land along the Blue Ridge to protect mountains from development. Elk Knob is one of four relatively new state parks, along with Grandfather Mountain, Chimney Rock, Gorges, and Pisgah View. Facilities at Elk Knob include a picnic area (elev. 4,500) and backcountry camping sites (elev. 4,000).

DRIVING DIRECTIONS: Elk Knob State Park is 10 miles north of Boone NC. From US421/King Street in Boone, take NC194 north for 4.5 miles. Turn left onto Meat Camp Road and go 5.5 miles up to Pottertown Gap, where the park entrance is on the right.

Tom Layton
Boone, NC
Summary Total Data
    Total Elevation Gain:960 ft / 292 m
    Round-Trip Distance:3.6 mi / 5.8 km
    Route:New trail
    Trailhead:State Park trailhead  4560 ft / 1389 m
    Quality:10 (on a subjective 1-10 scale)
    Weather:Drizzle, Hot, Calm, Low Clouds
Ascent Statistics
    Time:1 Hours 
Descent Statistics
    Time:40 Minutes

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