The Swannanoa Valley offers a wide variety of hiking options just a short distance from Asheville. Many of these hikes are not on national forest property and thus a little harder to track down in guide books or online. The YMCA Blue Ridge Assembly in Black Mountain, NC was founded in 1906 by the YMCA as a student conference center and is now listed in the National Register of Historic Places.
In addition to viewing beautiful historic buildings the Blue Ridge Assembly maintains a network of trails through the Swannanoa Mountains. The Swannanoa Mountains are a small east-west range in the Blue Ridge Mountains that separate the Hickory Nut Mountains from the Swannanoa Valley. While not impressive in elevation, these mountains rise nearly 2,000 feet above the valley providing striking views of the surrounding area. This loop hike takes you to the high points of the Swannanoa Mountains including a spectacular vista of the Great Craggy Mountains and Black Mountains.
To get to the YMCA Blue Ridge Assembly, take exit 64 off I-40 to NC-9 south and go right on Blue Ridge Road at as the road splits. Soon you will see signs pointing a left turn on Blue Ridge Assembly Road. Park at the lower lot above the Blue Ridge Center. There are restrooms and two free paper maps of the grounds and hiking trails inside the Blue Ridge Center, both are useful at helping you navigate the grounds. There is also an upper parking lot above Lee Hall for hikers but the distance is minimal.
Mile 0.6 – Four-way intersection with the High Top Trail(no blazes). The alternate start for this hike comes in from the cottage area on the left but it is unclear where the parking and trail begin. The first stretch of the High Top Trail is a very steep ascent up an eroded path.
**Note - The High Top Trail has warning signs at both ends and is advertised as difficult and dangerous. The signs do not lie. The trail to the cliffs climbs approximately 1230 feet in 1 mile. The most difficult sections are the beginning (330 feet in 0.25-mi) and the end (425 feet in 0.3-mi). This is broken up by a moderately steep section on a ridge. The final stretch requires less hiking and more rock scrambling up large rock faces. It might be tempting to do this hike in reverse but the descent down the cliffs would be more difficult than climbing up.
Mile 0.9 – The steep grade lessens as you attain a thin ridgeline with winter views in all directions. The path is not as steep here but keeps climbing. You will notice some very trenched portions of trail. This hike is primarily in deciduous forest. You will notice the west face of High Top rising sharply above.
Mile 1.3 – The final 0.3 mile stretch to the cliffs requires rock scrambling. The dirt trail ends and turns into a broken scramble over many steep rock faces. Hands are required.
Mile 2.7 – The forest road meets the High Windy Trail at the summit of High Windy (4,324 feet). Walk on the right side of the communications tower towards a clearing for the view.
Mile 2.8 – There is an old chimney beside the view. From this clearing you get another good view of the mountains rising above Swannanoa Valley but this vista isn’t as good as the High Top cliffs. Return to the trail intersection and take the High Windy Trail going right.
Mile 3.3 – At a T-junction there will be a white sign and brown metal sign directing you to the right to return to the Blue Ridge Assembly. Go straight on the unmarked forest road to reach the open summit of Black Knob. You should walk under power lines briefly.
Mile 3.4 – At another T-junction take a left on an unmarked forest road away from the power lines. This forest road is obviously less-traveled but not overgrown.
**Note – The next 1.4 miles is optional and for peakbagging purposes only. There are few significant views on this stretch. Turn right on the High Windy Trail descending towards the Blue Ridge Assembly to skip this for a 7.2-mile hike or you can use some of the lower trails to add mileage.
Mile 5.4 – High Ridge Trail ends at T-junction with Catawba Canopy Trail and Graybeard Connector Trail. Go right on the unsigned Graybeard Connector Trail.
Mile 5.6 – Graybeard Connector Trail ends at a clearing with a wide forest road. Bear right taking this forest road uphill curving around the northwest ridge. Soon you will be hiking through chest-high grasses, this trail is rarely used.
Mile 5.8 – Reach the wooded summit of Jesses High Top (4,354 feet). There are winter views here but nothing else of note. Return down the mountain keeping a southeast bearing to reach the forest road. When you reach the forest road go left heading back towards the Graybeard Connector Trail.
Mile 6.0 – Turn left on Graybeard Connector Trail.
Mile 6.5 – Turn left on High Windy Trail which descends Turkey Ridge on a steep forest road grade.
Mile 6.9 – Pass an intersection with an unnamed upper trail that is indicated on the map as trails in gray color. This trail takes you to some views and can be used to connect the Wolfpit Circle or Carolina Loop trails for a longer hike. Stay left on the High Windy Trail.
Mile 7.5 – Intersection with the upper half of the Carolina Loop Trail at the storm shelter. Stay left on the High Windy Trail. The flora changes from rhododendron to mostly large hardwood trees.
Amazing hike!!! I live in town and have been wondering about getting up to the tower and had no idea this trail was there! My local gas station attendant turned me on to the trail as he used to hike it back when the lookout tower was in place, and after searching online I found this map and walkthrough.
Following the above directions, I had zero difficulty locating the High Top trailhead, and felt like I had been adequately warned what to expect concerning the rocky section. Still, it was no joke, and I consider myself in excellent shape and have a wide comfort zone. The rocks were wet today so that was unnerving, but even dry it requires climbing with both hands at some points, and if you donít like the feeling of being on a cliff edge this section may be too much in places.
If you donít mind pushing your boundaries a little though, the difficult part is over very quickly, and the rest of the trail is a cakewalk. There are no blazes on the High Top section, but the trail is so well worn there is absolutely no way to lose it. When you get to the main cliff overlook, the trail is directly above you and you just have to climb up a couple more rocks, but again it is clear as can be, and exactly as described in the original walkthrough.
Once you get to the High Windy tower you will be following the High Windy trail down, which is marked very clearly with red blazes, all the way back down to Blue Ridge Assembly, with no problem. The side trails to avoid (or follow!) are clear and again are exactly as described.
Personally I just did this as a loop, up High Top, to the tower and then down High Windy, taking the Carolina Loop to Wolfpit back to the car for a total of 7.5 miles, 1600ft elevation gain and 1 hour 45 minutes hiking/running time.
I hike here in town every day, usually in Montreat or Ridgecrest, but will definitely be doing this one at least monthly now!
Date of Hike: Sunday, February 12, 2017
Challenging hike, but was blazed terribly. Ended up hiking Wolfpit Circle to High Windy because I missed the spur to High Top Trail (no blazes/direction markers.) Hiked High Windy to what I think was High Ridge (no blazes/markers) and Graybeard (I only found one sign indicating this one.) Made it around to High Top, but missed the trail down the mountain because no sign/blazes/direction markers. Ended up seeing orange and pink flags on tree branches and what appeared to be a trail and followed it for another mile-ish...and then realized I was not on the correct trail, turned around, and found High Top.
The trail was incredible and challenging, but for me anyways was easy to get off trail.
Date of Hike: Tuesday, April 21, 2015
My husband and I hiked this loop today, and because there are no reviews I wanted to make some comments about this trail. We're not residents, we live in Richmond, VA, and we are here for a mini vacation. We wanted a hike close to downtown Asheville, and this hike is a very short drive. We've done other hikes off the BRP and while they were lovely, it did take a long while to get up to them. We got to the parking area around 11am and got done around 3:30. We skipped the second "peak bagging" out and back because we just didn't feel like it. The hike is not well blazed, especially going this direction on the trails. We saw more blazes at the end of the trail, but at that point it was obvious where we going. The beginning of this hike is VERY difficult. The sign warning is 100% true, the trail is very steep, and the rock scramble to the top is not easy. I struggled much more than my husband, but we eventually made it up to the top. There are no blazes, signs or anything guiding you up those rocks either. The rock scramble is not suitable for dogs, small children, or people not wanting to get their hands dirty. The trail after the rock scramble was very moderate and wide. We noticed that the out and back to the first summit area was marked with several no trespassing signs which made us nervous, and we also saw a shotgun shell on that spur trail. My advice is to skip that, not much to see and it was obvious we were not supposed to be on that trail. The trail near the communication tower and chimney was littered with trash and not just water bottles but big pallets and plastic bags full of junk. That was disappointing. Overall difficulty is 5, because the easy part is easy but the difficult part was very difficult.