It’s 10 p.m., and the already quiet Davidson River Campground has been completely muted by the steady whoosh of rain pelting our tent. Through some on-the-fly engineering, we’ve avoided the potential doom of a couple minor leaks. Settling into a movie in our cozy monoplex (with the help of a laptop), we’re drying out from a day spent exploring the waterlogged trails of the Pisgah National Forest and warming our insides with a flask of bourbon.
Sure, bluebird days make for idyllic lunch spots, and a sun-soaked afternoon landscape is the stuff of photographer’s dreams. But exploring this area of North Carolina’s second largest National Forest in the rain has its own charms. Here are 4 reasons why your long-awaited visit to Pisgah doesn’t have to be a complete washout when wet weather is in the forecast.
1. Experience the Forest Shrouded in Mist
Like a heavy blanket, dense fog tamped down any movement, creating an eerie stillness in the forest. Mountain laurel seemed to edge closer to the trail while towering hardwoods, their tops barely visible through the mist, stood silent guard. Ancient Appalachia is full of secrets, and it’s never more mysterious than when clouds settle low among its peaks.
When visibility sits at around 4 feet, the million-dollar views from legendary destinations like Shining Rock don’t hold quite the same magnificence. But these days are tailor-made for a more intimate exploration of Pisgah’s heavily forested trails.
The easiest to access hike begins right from the campground. Look for the trail kiosk along the main campground road, and just next to it lies the North Slope trailhead. This 3.7-mile loop is, at times, a rugged mountain trail and, at others, a gentle walk along the Davidson River. About halfway around, the North Slope Connector links to the famous Art Loeb Trail. To create a 7-mile loop, walk out on the North Slope and return via the Art Loeb. This is a favorite for area trail runners.
There are 1,600 miles of trails in Pisgah’s half-million acres. You don’t have to go far to find a dozen excellent walks. For a variable-length loop that allows a choice of distances, head a few miles up 276 and park at the Pink Beds lot just past the Cradle of Forestry. Connect the flat and easy Pink Bed trail with the steep Burnett Branch for a real taste of backwoods hiking that’s never more than a few miles from a main road. The parking area has covered benches–a great place to towel-off before getting back in your car. (Note: You’ll have to walk a short distance along 276 to return to your car.)
For a chance to enjoy one of the most popular hikes in the park, sans crowds, talk a stroll through the ominously named Graveyard Fields. The burnt stubs of trees left behind by a devastating fire nearly 100 years ago gave this area its moniker. A wet, gray day puts the green valley in a contemplative mood.
2. Rain-Spiked Waterfalls are Unparalleled
All the water that was collected at the top of Pisgah’s peaks during this shower make a mad dash to lower ground. This mass aquatic exodus creates waterfalls that don’t exist on dry days and turn gently flowing cascades into dramatic, thundering cataracts. Three beautiful examples lie just a few miles up the road from Davidson River Campground.
The broad, 60-foot plunge of Looking Glass Falls is probably the most popular waterfall in the park. The roadside attraction, available for closer inspection via a set of stairs to its base, holds a significant flow year-round. After a good storm, though, the pile-driving force of water can be heard for miles around.
Keep driving up 276 and you’ll soon see the entrance to Sliding Rock. There is a fee to park here during peak season but not in the winter. Those familiar with this 60-foot natural water slide will notice a decidedly different temperament after a significant storm as it morphs from Sliding Rock to “shove you violently down a river” rock. While it’s not safe to slide, it is an amazing transformation to view.
Between Looking Glass and Sliding Rock, the walk to Moore Cove Falls is one of the most pleasant in the park. Spring and summer wildflowers peak though a carpet of fern, all of it shaded by stands of yellow poplar. But that’s nothing compared to what waits at the end of the easy, .75-mile trail. Falling 50 feet over the edge of the broad but shallow cave, Moore Cove Falls completely envelopes the senses. Surrounded by forest in every direction, there is no better immersion into Pisgah than this spot. Trumped up by excess water, the normally gentle, wispy falls only become more dramatic in the rain.
3. You’ll Have Plenty of Space to Yourself
Davidson River Campground is one of the best appointed government-run facilities of its kind in the area. And that’s no secret. It’s typical of fair-weather weekends to see every reservable site booked weeks in advance. The non-crowded bathrooms and extra quiet that follow a dodgy forecast may have you doing a rain dance.
Perhaps the greatest features in the campground, particularly during inclement weather, are the heated bathrooms. The warm showers are operated by timer button and require about 56 pushes to remove 3 pounds of muddy trail that’s stuck to your legs. But after a one-legged “don’t let my clean pants touch the shower floor” dance, slipping into a fresh set of clothes is a comfort beyond compare.
4. Brevard is Always an Option
Lacking pretension and oozing southern mountain-town sensibility, Brevard, North Carolina, has avoided much of the over-done kitsch that sometimes permeates such a well-located tourist town. The restaurants, from gourmet to pub-grub, are cozy and inviting but rarely “fancy.” A 10-minute drive from the campground, Brevard is a quick escape.
Hot java and cool conversation are just down the road at Crank Coffee. Home to both fat tires and skinny lattes, the bike shop/coffee café is as laid back as you can get. Grab a soul-warming mocha and browse the selection of mountain and street bikes. With free Wi-Fi, hot soups, and tasty pastries it’s a great place to ride out the storm when you can’t ride on the trails.
Conversations at Brevard Brewing echo through their large, simply ornamented tasting room on Main Street. The beers aren’t wild or eccentric—you’re not likely to find a stout that tastes like pretzels or salted caramel anything on the menu. But each option is true to style and easy to sip. Best of all, you’re only a few steps from multiple dinner options.
You’ll often be greeted by Big Mike when you pop into his namesake eatery in downtown Brevard. Even on busy nights he’ll stop to chat up the guests and talk his favorite topic—pizza. The brightly lit restaurant serves pies from a stone oven. Crusts are hand-tossed, medium-thick New York style with a decent crunch on the edges. The beer selection isn’t huge, but the list of local and craft brews offers enough variety to please most anyone.
While the rain gushed outside, we decided to delay our return to the campsite with a stop in The Phoenix for a nightcap. Just next door to Big Mike’s, we didn’t even need to put our rain jackets on to get there. The farm-to-table gastropub is a fantastic choice for a meal, but the cozy couch with faux fireplace was also a fine location to warm up with a cocktail.
After a night’s steady deluge, we woke to find that our tent was now on the shores of the newly formed Site 43 Lake. The morning sun dried out our gear while we hiked a quick loop. While we certainly missed the campfire, seeing the forest in a whole different light was a pretty good trade-off.