Wildcat Rock Trail

Wildcat Rock Trail: Award-Winning 3-Mile R/T Trail in the Upper Hickory Nut Gorge
Local Expert's Rating:
4 / 5
The Bottom Line:

Finished in 2017 and ultimately to be incorporated into a lengthier trail system in the Upper Hickory Nut Gorge, the Wildcat Rock Trail is definitely a bit of a workout but the scenic payoffs—from a 100-foot waterfall to the beautiful views from the namesake rock and the turnaround point of Little Bearwallow Mountain—are major.

- The SmokyMountains.com Local Expert Team

Only about 18 miles down downtown Asheville, the Wildcat Rock Trail is a fantastic route up from the Drovers Road Scenic Byway to the grassy top of Little Bearwallow Mountain, close to 4,000 feet in elevation. The trails coordinator for the local land trust Conserving Carolina, Peter Barr, earned an achievement award from the Coalition of Recreational Trails in 2018 for designing this route.

The trail lies in the upper portion of the impressive Hickory Nut Gorge, a great Blue Ridge canyon that reaches up to 1,800 feet deep and famously features the tall monolith of Chimney Rock. This particular part of the gorge is impressively biodiverse, lying within the Little Bearwallow Mountain Significant Natural Heritage Area.

The three one-way miles of the Wildcat Rock Trail encompass some 1,800 feet of elevation gain, making this a moderately challenging hike. From the Upper Hickory Nut Gorge Trailhead parking area, cross the road to access the well-signed Wildcat Rock Trail, which begins in an old apple orchard and then drops to a bridge crossing of Hickory Creek. Hang a left after the crossing to stay on the route; the rightward way lies on private property.

You’ll soon begin a demanding uphill climb to reach Little Bearwallow Falls at just over a mile from the trailhead. This 100-foot falls normally boasts only a modest flow, but the streaming water down the broad rock face is impressive nonetheless. Little Bearwallow Falls is a popular place for year-round rock-climbing and wintertime ice-climbing, which you may well see in action.

From here, the way steepens via a series of stone stairs past cliffs and outcrops; Conserving Carolina ranks the trail segment up to Little Bearwallow Falls as “strenuous” and the rest of the route beyond as “hardcore.”

At about 1.8 miles, there’s a trail junction, at which you’ll stay left. Just past this, a 0.1-mile spur path—another mighty steep climb—leads you to Wildcat Rock itself, situated at 3,600 feet.

Wildcat Rock provides a fine view of the Upper Hickory Nut Gorge and 4,412-foot Little Pisgah Mountain overlooking it, as well as Hickory Nut Gap and Blue Ridge Pastures. To the north-northwest you can see the Great Craggy Mountains, most notably 5,817-foot Craggy Pinnacle, the third-highest peak in the range. Beneath the outcrop, rock defiles and caves are visible.

From Wildcat Rock, continue on the main trail through rhododendron slicks to reach the ridgetop meadows of Little Bearwallow Mountain. These high pastures are grazed by cattle, which you may see when you gain the crest. To the immediate southwest, Bearwallow Mountain looms above the saddle in between the two peaks.

While the Little Bearwallow meadows currently mark the end of this hike, the near future will see the Wildcat Rock Trail connected along the ridgeline to the Bearwallow Trail and ultimately integrated into the planned 20-mile loop of the Upper Hickory Nut Gorge Trail.

Insider Tips:
– Spring is a great time to tackle the Wildcat Rock Trail. For one thing, Little Bearwallow Falls is typically at its most voluminous in this season, and furthermore there’s quite a wildflower display along the trail—including some eye-catching beds of trillium.
– In mid- to late summer, blueberries ripen around Wildcat Rock: a nice perk for a weary hiker.